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Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography


**“Nothing was useful which was not honest”
-Benjamin Franklin
(Autobiography, 7)

**Technique: “put on the humble Enquirer and Doubter” (p. 13)
–Went in, not determined to prove the other wrong, but rather as someone with a few facts, but unsure and undecided—looking for dialogue and exploration more than anything else.

**“The chief Ends of Conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning sensible Men would not lessen their Power of doing Good by a Positive assuming Manner that seldom fails disgust, tends tends to create Opposition, and to defeat every one of those Purposes for which Speech was given us”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 7)

**“want of Modesty is want of Sense”
-Benjamin Franklin, quoting Alexander Pope
WoW: “the WaterAmerican as they call’d me was stronger than themselves who drunk strong Beer.”
(see p.36-7)
*p.52 never forgot a small kindness done to him (two friends rescued him from a financial trouble)
-made agreements with people in writing.
“It is in youth that we plant our chief habits and prejudices; it is in youth that we take our party as to profession, pursuits, and matrimony . . . in youth the private and public character is determined”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 59)
“the wisest man will receive lights and improve his progress, by seeing detailed the conduct of another wise man.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 59-60)
*“how little necessary all origin [one’s birth/social standing] is to happiness, virtue, or greatness.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 60-61)
“there are fair characters existing among the individuals of the race; for the moment all men, without exception, shall be conceived abandoned, good people will cease efforts deemed to be hopeless, least of making it comfortable principally for themselves.
Take then, my dear Sir, this work most speedily into hand: show yourself good as you are good, temperate as you are temperate; and above all things, prove yourself as one who from you infancy have loved justice, liberty, and concord, in a way that has made it natural and consistent for you to have acted, as we have seen you act in the last seventeen years of your life.  Let Englishmen be made not only to respect, but even to love you.  When they think well of individuals in your native country, they will go nearer to thinking well of your country; and when your countrymen see themselves well thought of by Englishmen, they will go nearer to thinking well of England.  Extend your views even further; do not stop at those who speak the English tongue, but after having settled so many points in nature and politics, think of bettering the whole race of men.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 61-62)
Afforded two hours a day to “constant study” p.64

***Religious views, p. 65: religiously educated as a Presbyterian but felt some of their doctrines unintelligible—frustrated that they ‘aimed to make us presbyterian rather than good citizens’ ; never doubted existence of God, thought souls to be immortal, that crime was punished and virtue rewarded either in this life or in the hereafter.  thought that best service to God was doing good to man.  Avoided “all discourse that might tend to lessen the good Opinion another might have of his own Religion.”

* “Habit [takes] advantage of inattention.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 66)
**“As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.  But I soon found I had undertaken a Task of more Difficulty than I had imagined: While my Care was employ’d in guarding against one Fault, I was often surpris’d by another.  Habit took the Advantage of Inattention.  Inclination was sometimes too strong for Reason.  I concluded at length, that the mere speculative Conviction that it was our Interest to be completely virtuous, was not sufficient to prevent our Slipping, and that the contrary Habits must be broken and good Ones acquired and established, before we can have any Dependence on a steady uniform Rectitude of Conduct”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 66)
“On the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavor made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 73)
The Virtues:
1. Temperance.
Eat not to Dulness.  Drink not to Elevation.
2. Silence
Speak not but what may benefit others or your self
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 67)
3. Order
Let all your Things have their Places.  Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
4. Resolution
Resolve to perform what you ought.  Perform without fail what you resolve.
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 67)
5. Frugality
“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 67) 
6. Industry
Lose no Time.  Be always employ’d in something useful.  Cut off all unnecessary Actions. 
7. Sincerity
“Use no hurtful Deceit.  Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak; speak accordingly.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 67)
8. Justice
Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation
“Avoid extremes.  Forbear resenting so much as you think they deserve.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 67)
10. Cleanliness
Tolerate no Uncleanliness in Body, Clothes or Habitation. 
11. Tranquility
“Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 68)
12. Chastity
Rarely use Venery, but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dulness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
13. Humility
Imitate Jesus and Socrates
Aimed for developing the ‘Habitude’ of virtue. p.68

*Had a PLAN for Self-examination. p.70-71  “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of Faults then I had imagined, but I had the Satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
“The Morning Question, ‘What Good shall I do this day?’”
“Evening Question, What Good have I done to day?”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 72)

*“My List of Virtues contain’d at first but twelve: But a Quaker Friend having kindly inform’d me that I was generally thought proud; that my Pride show’d itself frequently in Conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any Point, but was overbearing and rather insolent; of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several Instances; I determined endeavouring to cure myself if I could of this Vice or Folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my List, giving an extensive Meaning to the Word.  I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 75)
*****“I made it a Rule to forbear all direct Contradiction to the Sentiments of others, and all positive Assertion of my own.  I even forbid myself, agreeable to the old Laws of our Junto, the Use of every Word or Expression in the Language that imported a fix’d Opinion; such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc. and I adopted instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so, or it appears to me at present.  When another asserted something that I thought an Error, I denied myself the Pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some Absurdity in his Proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain Cases or Circumstances his Opinion would be right, but that in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some Difference, etc.  I soon found the Advantage of this Change in my Manners.  The Conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly.  The modest way in which I propos’d my Opinions, procur’d them a readier Reception and less Contradition; I had less Mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their Mistakes and join with me when I happene’d to be in the right.  And this Mode, which I at first put on, with some violence to natural Inclination, became at length . . . easy and . . . habitual to me.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 75)

**“ . . . and to this Habit I think it principally owing, that I had early so much Weight with my fellow Citizens, when I proposed new Institutions, or Alterations in the old; and so much Influence in public Councils when I became a Member.  For I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much Hesitation in my choice of Words, hardly correct in Language, and yet I generally carried my points.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 76)
***“There is perhaps no one of our natural Passions so hard to subdue as Pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.  You will see it perhaps often in this History.  For even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my Humility.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 76)
***Collected wisdom, quotes, and counsels and ‘put them into focus’ which ‘enabled them to make greater impression’.  P. 79
Refused to print libelous material.  In response to the argument “that a Newspaper was like a Stage Coach in which any one who would pay had a Right to a Place, my Answer was, that I would print the Piece separately if desired, and the Author might have as many Copies as he pleased to distribute himself.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 80)

Said that other publishers, if they refused such materials as well, that “such a Course of Conduct will not on the whole be injurious to their Interests.” P.80

“He that has once done you a Kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 85 [Similar found by Lord Kames in Introduction to the Art of Thinking])
We should always “render Accounts and make Remittances with great Clearness and Punctuality.  The Character of observing Such a Conduct is the most powerful of all Recommendations to new Employments and Increase of Business.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 85)
In talking of the presentation of a preacher, by which I gleaned a secret to any type of presentation in front of people, “By hearing him often I cam to distinguish easily between Sermons newly compos’d, and those which he had often preach’d in the Course of his Travels.  His Delivery of the latter was so improv’d by frequent Repetitions, that every Accent, every Emphasis, every Modulation of Voice, was so perfectly well turn’d and well plac’d, that without being interested in the Subject, one could not help being pleas’d with the Discourse.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 90)
“After getting the first hundred pound, it is more easy to get the second.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 91)
Avoided a lot of heartache in business for always writing up very detailed articles about exactly what was expected from each side. p. 91
“I shall never ask, never refuse, nor ever resign an Office.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 94)
Thought “the practice of dispute” “was not wise” p.111
**“They get Victory sometimes, but they never get Good Will, which would be of more use to them.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 111)
“When Men are employ’d they are best contented.”
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 126)

“I read a great deal, ride a little, do a little Business for my self, more for others; retire when I can, and go [into] Company when I please; so the Years roll round, and the last will come; when I would rather have it said, He lived usefully than he died rich.”
(Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Abiah Franklin, Philadelphia, April 12, 1750, Included in the Norton edition of the Autobiography, 214)
“He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.”
(Benjamin Franklin, to Robert Morris, December 25, 1783, Included in the Norton edition of the Autobiography, 220)
“A trick of mine [is] doing a deal of good with a little money.”
(Benjamin Franklin, to Benjamin Webb, April 22, 1784, Autobiography, 220)
“Many People lead bad Lives that would gladly lead good ones, but know not how to make the Change.  They have frequently resolv’d and endeavour’d it; but in vain, because their Endeavours have not been properly conducted.  To exhort People to be good, to be just to be temperate, [etc . . .] without shewing them how they shall become so, seems like the ineffectual Charity mention’d by the Apostle, which consisted in saying to the Hungry, the Cold and the Naked, be ye fed, be ye warmed, be ye clothed, without shewing them how they should get Food, Fire or Clothing. . . .  If a Man would become a Painter, Navigator, or Architect, it is not enough that he is advised to be one, that he is convinc’d by the Arguments of his Adviser that it would be for his Advantage to be one, and that he resolves to be one, but he must also be taught the Principles of the Art, be shewn all the Methods of Working, and how to acquire the Habits of using properly all the Instruments; and thus regularly and gradually he arrives by Practice at some Perfection of the Art. ”
(Benjamin Franklin, to Lord Kames, May 3, 1760, Included in the Norton edition of the Autobiography, 224)
***“It is . . . necessary for every Person who desires to be a wise Man, to take particular Notice of his own Actions, and of his own Thoughts and Intentions which are the Original of his actions; with great Care and Circumspection; otherwise he can never arrive to that Degree of Perfection which constitutes the amiable Character he aspires after.”
(Benjamin Franklin, an early version of the Art of Virtue, Included in the Norton edition of the Autobiography, 227)

“A third aspect of the American Dream as it appears in Franklin’s Autobiography is a philosophy of individualism: it holds that the world can be affected and changed by individuals.  The American Dream is a dream of possibility—not just of wealth or of prestige or of power but of the manifold possibilities that human existence can hold for the incredible variety of people of the most assorted talents and drives.  Generalized, the American Dream is the hope for a better world, a new world, free of the ills of the old, existing world.  And for the individual, it is the hope for a new beginning”

(J.A. Leo Lemay, “The Autobiography and the American Dream,” excerpt as found in the Norton edition of the Autobiography, 353)


“Since a dominant theme of the Autobiography is the American Dream, and since this theme holds that it is desirable and beneficial to have hope, even optimism, Franklin’s Autobiography is an optimistic work.”

(J.A. Leo Lemay, “The Autobiography and the American Dream,” excerpt as found in the Norton edition of the Autobiography, 358)