Franklin’s Autobiography Is A Gem

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A friend gave me The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin for my birthday. I have been reading it slowly, savoring each clever turn of phrase. Franklin has been an object of fascination since I was a child. Decades ago, my mom gave me a decanter that once held McCormick bourbon, which she bought at a garage sale. The decanter is a full-color statue of Franklin, quite nicely done. His head was attached by a removable cork stopper. The decanter was empty, but ol’ Ben has occupied a proud spot in the many houses in which I have lived.

While I have read several biographies over the decades, this is the first time I have read the story of his life in his words. The autobiography, which he began writing in 1771 at age 65, stops in 1757 — well before the Revolutionary War in which he played a key role, especially as a diplomat in France. Thus, more than a third of his life (1706 – 1790) is left out of the autobiography.

No matter. This slim volume is a gem. Franklin maintains a modest tone throughout the book, which announces near the beginning:

Hereby, too, I shall indulge the inclination so natural in old men, to be talking of themselves and their own past actions; and I shall indulge it without being tiresome to others, who, through respect to age, might conceive themselves obliged to give me a hearing, since this may be read or not as any one pleases.

At 12, Franklin was an apprentice in his brother’s printing office. He didn’t get along with James and spent his time writing ballads and selling them on the streets of Boston. By 15 he had declared himself a vegetarian and free thinker, and for a time served as editor of the New England Courant.

Franklin was always a voracious reader: From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.

Franklin broke his apprenticeship and moved to Philadelphia where he went to work in a printing office and gave up vegetarianism, though food was never a high priority:

I was brought up in such a perfect inattention what kind of food was set before me (because his father always had interesting topics for them to discuss over the dinner table) so unobservant of it, that to this day if I am asked I can scarce tell a few hours after dinner what I dined upon.    

Throughout the autobiography, Franklin professes a strong belief in God, though he was never much of a church-goer. When a friend died young, he noted:

He and I had made a serious agreement, that the one who happened first to die should, if possible, make a friendly visit to the other, and acquaint him how he found things in that separate state. But he never fulfilled his promise.

Franklin throughout his life lived modestly, drank little and prided himself as a person of integrity. His work ethic was truly admirable.

Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games or frolics of any kind; and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary.

He helped found the Philadelphia Library, the first lending library in America, in 1731. The next year, he established Poor Richard’s Almanac, under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, to present his witty and wise sayings to a larger public, selling 10,000 copies annually. The almanac was published for 25 years:

I considered it the proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books…

Here’s one proverb: It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.

Writing in 1771, more than 40 years after he had become owner of the Pennsylvania Gazette:

In the conduct of my newspaper, I carefully excluded all libeling and personal abuse, which is of late years become so disgraceful to our country. Newspapers by the late 18th century and well into the next were little more than political organs. Attacks on an editor’s political opponent were often scurrilous and vile.

Franklin also invented bifocals, without which I couldn’t see the computer screen on which I’m typing. (Actually, I wear trifocals now.)

A common parlor game is pick three people from history with whom you would wish to have dinner. Franklin, without doubt, would be one of my choices. But I wouldn’t allow him to choose the menu.

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