The Legendary Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most famous books ever written, by one of the most famous men who ever lived. Its author began life as one of seventeen children of a Boston candlemaker and had scarcely two years of formal schooling, but was eventually received by five kings and awarded honorary degrees by six universities. In his time, an Italian academy hailed him as the “greatest Philosopher of the Century.” The French honored him with a craze, stamping his portrait on so many prints, plates, snuffboxes, and medallions that in Paris his face became, he said, “as well known as that of the moon.” And Americans for two centuries have endowed with his name their schools, their streets, their counties, their banks, and their children.

Franklin gained his worldwide esteem for achievements not only individually impressive but also so numerous that accounts of them traditionally take the form of catalogs. His lucrative business career as a Philadelphia printer and tradesman enabled him to retire at the age of forty-two, but he also acted as alderman, councilman, burgess, and justice of the peace, and helped to found many of the city’s main public institutions, including its watch, fire company, militia, college, and hospital. His experiments with electricity transformed existing, miscellaneous knowledge about the subject into a coherent discipline, but his scientific speculations also touched on yellow fever, cancer, the origin of springs, astronomy, the formation of raindrops, hot-air balloons, the Gulf Stream, magnetism, sleep, surface tension, demography, and heat absorption. One of his celebrated lightning rods was set on St. Mark’s basilica in Venice by 1777, but he also invented a simplified clock, a tool for retrieving books from high shelves, a machine for duplicating handwritten documents, the Franklin stove, and the Armonica, a warbly-sounding instrument for which music was composed by Mozart.

And of course much more. Franklin wrote at length or in passing on agriculture, chess, military strategy, literary style, silkworms, pickled sturgeon, ice boats, mastodon teeth, garters, and the balance of trade. He drew an influential political cartoon. He may have written a string quartet. He became postmaster general. He considered opening a swimming school.

Franklin’s fame has depended not only on his achievements but also on his personality and character. His geniality and wit made others long for his company. And to his more than fifty years of public service—crowned by his part in writing the Declaration of Independence, his role as American minister plenipotentiary to France, and his attendance at the convention that devised the Constitution of the United States—he brought a sensitive understanding of human nature and a realistic view of the possibilities for human happiness, together with enormous self-confidence, shrewdness, and tact. Gifted with foresight—indeed a kind of seer—he made remarkably few bad decisions, although often faced with momentous choices.

The Autobiography and American Ideals

The Autobiography does not record this legendary existence fully. It is a short, quiet book, written in a neoclassical version of the Puritan plain style, without formal beauty or pretensions to emotional force. Franklin completed the first section in England in 1771, when he was sixty-five, the second in France some thirteen years later, the third in Philadelphia four years after that. When he began the fourth (and last) section, also in Philadelphia, he was eighty-four years old and tormented with the stone, his appetite and digestion so much destroyed by the opium he took to subdue his pain that “little remains of me,” he wrote, “but a Skeleton covered with a Skin.” Never completed, his book breaks off before the time of the American Revolution, previous, that is, to his major political feats. Given also his customary pose of authorial modesty, readers may find his self-portrait muted and lacking in glamour. But even when he began the book, knowledge of his accomplishments was so widespread that he could take it for granted. He therefore wrote from the point of view of his own legend. He would show his readers how he became what he knew he had in their minds become.

The Autobiography owes much of its vast fame to the fact that in tracing his development Franklin gave classic expression to three powerful ingredients of the American Dream: the ideals of material success,

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