Benjamin Franklin is one of the leading personalities in United States history. He is the only Founding Father who signed all four major documents that gave birth to this country (Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Alliance with France, Treaty of Paris and the United States Constitution).
This is the review of “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”. You can buy the book from Amazon here:
Since Franklin is a figure of such historical significance, I have also included links to some of the books he read and articles he wrote throughout the text.
I have mostly focused on his personal life and habits, development of his social skills and starting his newspaper. The way Franklin went about these items can still teach us something today. I will explain his political career and scientific findings in a later article.
Franklin’s autobiography includes the years from 1706 to 1757. We learn about a man who approaches life from a “can-do” spirit, who takes it on with wonder and curiosity and as someone who genuinely likes people.
He is a leader, but early on, his peers do not always take kindly to him taking the spotlight. He learns from his mistakes though and molds himself into a beloved statesman highly regarded for his diplomacy, pragmatism and capability of “getting things done”.
Franklin was not born privileged. He had to earn his position in life, which he did with great pragmatism, flexibility and – arguably – success. His attitude to always strive to improve himself shines through in a lot of the decisions he made in his life.
From an early age on, at the dinner table, discussing and sharing thoughts on public and private matters were always more important to his parents than the actual food on the table. This helped Franklin in his later endeavours in life.
He had learnt to not pay attention to any material possessions. He did not need to ‘feel comfortable’ with the type of food that he was eating or the environment he was in. He simply focused on the items that he discussed and the people with whom he was talking. This probably made him a very ‘easy-going’ person to talk to.
There is one ‘special’ trait which he openly admits to – vanity. He says right at the very beginning that he appreciates the opportunity to live his life again through his biography, and he enjoys showing his achievements to other people. While that may be a sign of pride, I believe he has a lot he can indeed be proud of, and confessing to the weakness of wanting to ‘show off’ just makes him human.
From an early age, Franklin read a lot. He constantly sought to acquire new books to read. Back in the 18th century, books – and the ability to read – were still a rarity, such that his dedication to books must have been outstanding.
His father, seeing his son’s fascination with books, decided to sign him up in his brother’s printing business. This, in turn, gave him access to more books: Whatever they had to print, he read it, often through the night.
I have attached a list with books Franklin read at the end of this article.
Living as a minimalist
After reading a book on vegetarian diet, Franklin decided to try it out. He was chided by his peers for not eating meat, but went ahead anyway. In addition, he moved into much cheaper housing. This had a two-fold effect: (1.) He had extra money that he now invested into books. (2.) He had extra time, since he did not join his colleagues for lunch anymore. Instead, he stayed at the printing shop, ate a slice of bread with some raisins every day and read. All of a sudden, he had free time, a free mind and a free space for undisturbed learning.
In other words, he abandoned the luxuries and habits that were not really important to him and went his own way – even though his colleagues pressured him to “join the team”. By standing up for what was really important to him, he gained resources – money and time – to invest in himself.
However, the habit of “going his own way” was not always well received by his peers, and he had to adapt later on, which taught him another lesson in social interactions. More about that below.
Franklin wrote a lot – and he actively worked on improving his writing, possibly encouraged by his father. When he found some of his son’s arguments in letters to a friend, he convinced his son that he had to write better. While nowadays many parents would probably be proud of their children no matter what they wrote and be convinced their kids were aspiring world-class novelists – Franklin’s father still demanded more.
How did Franklin teach himself a better writing style?
- He took one of the few newspapers at that time, the “Spectator”, and noted down a few keywords.
- He then wrote about them and compared his text with the original article, to see how close he could come to the same power of expression and style. Victor Pride has actually recently advocated that technique to writing better headlines in the Blog Artist’s Handbook.
- Franklin also took some stories and turned them into verse – then let some time pass and turn them into prose again. Similarly, he “jumbled” some phrases and tried to put them back into a meaningful order. As a result, he constantly improved his style.
GHOSTWRITING PRANKS AND THE NEW ENGLAND COURANT
When his brother published the New England Courant – an independent, satirical newspaper – Franklin wanted to submit articles, but sensed that, being himself only 17 years old, his brother would not let him. Therefore he wrote under the nom de plume Silence Dogood and slipped his articles under the door of the printing-house.
This resource has links to the original articles.
The articles touch upon topics such as Women’s rights, the sensibility of a college education, religious folly, freedom of speech etc. You can have a good laugh when reading them.
Other contributing authors for the Courant welcomed the letters and praise them. Unfortunately, Franklin decided to reveal Silence Dogood’s identity – a move that his brother disliked, because it made Benjamin appear vain.
Its satirical nature brought the Courant often into conflict with the colonial government. As a result, Benjamin’s brother James – as the editor of the newspaper – was put in jail for a month, and he was forbidden to publish without agreeing to censorship. Therefore, they officially published the Courant under Benjamin Franklin’s name, released him officially from his apprenticeship but kept him privately under contract.
After a dispute with his brother, he broke the contract later on and left Boston, eventually ending up in Philadelphia (see below).
Franklin talks about another occasion where he switched his identity as a writer. When one of his friends, James Ralph, wanted to become a poet, he was dissuaded by his other friends, Osborne and Watson – out of jealousy, as he thought. Therefore, Ralph wrote a poem and let Franklin pretend to be the author. All of a sudden, Osborne, Ralph’s most vocal critic, had nothing but praise for “Franklin’s” poem (and was actually quite embarrassed when they revealed the truth).
DEVELOPING SOCIAL SKILLS
In the beginning, Franklin was often naïve and trusting.
Franklin’s brother in law and captain of a sloop between Newcastle and Boston, Holmes, told Franklin his family was worried about his departure from Boston to Philadelphia. Franklin wrote back and friendly but firmly explained his reasons for leaving.
Holmes showed this letter to Pennsylvania Governor Keith, who became impressed with Franklin. Franklin seemed to be the up- and comer in this relatively new business of printing and publishing newspapers, and Keith, intimidated by Franklin’s talent, feared him as a rival. He encouraged Franklin to start his own newspaper business and sent him to London to pick up printing equipment. Yet once arrived, nothing was arranged, and it became clear that Keith had just tried to get rid of him. Franklin, however, had simply believed Keith without second thought, just based on his friendly demeanor. He did not read people very well.
Being in “people’s face”
Nevertheless, Franklin looked for employment and soon found a printing shop that hired him. His new colleagues were drinking a lot of beer, however – and Franklin, having been used to minimalism, found that habit reduced their productivity and wasted a lot of money. As a result, he avoided his colleagues and continued with his ascetic lifestyle. With this choice, however, he alienated them, and they soon mocked him as the “Water American” – because he drank water instead of beer – and further sabotaged his work and blamed it on a “ghost”.
Finally, he understood and went out with his colleagues. That, in turn, gave him the possibility to talk with them and convince them to reduce their beer-drinking, which in turn left them happier and with more money for themselves.
You cannot always completely go your “own way”, even if you feel you are in the moral superior position. You need to build up trust through “playing by the rules” of the established group first and earn the right to advocate for change.
Franklin amassed a small amount of wealth in London, and when he returned to his brother in America, he made the mistake of showing off by wearing his best suit and an expensive watch. His brother did not approve. For one, he was disappointed by Franklin’s departure a few years before; secondly, this just confirmed to him that his brother was a vain person, which he disliked. The relationship with his brother only became better later in life.
Leveraging your position
Franklin went back to printing with his old boss in Philadelphia, Keimer, and realized right away that Keimer had only hired him to teach his apprentices, so he could continue to pay them low wages. Franklin, however, went along with it, knowing that Keimer would probably need him at one point. This turned out to be true, as they were ordered by the government to print money – a demand for which only Franklin had the right printing types. While he was printing money, he made a number of further acquaintances and friends that helped him many more years down the line.
Sometimes it is wise to go along with conditions that leave you momentarily worse off and may even hurt your pride – if you can secure more benefits down the line.
Appear as humble servant
In 1731, Franklin founded the Philadelphia library, and when he solicited funds, he always made it appear he was asking a favor for a friend who was already member of that library, putting himself out of the picture as much as possible.
That way, people had an easier time donating, because Franklin only acted as the intermediary.
Franklin was elected to the assembly in 1737. At one time, when a politician opposed him and wanted to compete with him, Franklin charmed him by admiring one important book that politician had. He asked to borrow it, then gave it back as soon as he could.
So what could have been his arch-enemy had now already done him a favor. Since Franklin kept his word and gave the book back as soon as he could, he won his new friend over to “his side”.
If you openly acknowledge someones value and get him to do you a favor, he will be much more inclined to help you further down the line.
Franklin therefore used several different strategies to connect to people and form sometimes lifelong friendships.
He said himself that the keys to fruitful relationships with his peers are reliability (show up regularly), greatness (make sure that your work is good or better) and accessibility (be there for others).
As for his success with people, these seem to be the points that brought Franklin ahead:
#1 – Read people and their possible motives
He distrusted Keimer’s charm when he returned to Philadelphia, but still went along with it and started working for him – knowing it would benefit him in the long run.
#2 – Leave your ego out of the equation
Whenever he gave in to the temptation of showing off and letting his vanity take over, people would grow apprehensive or annoyed. Instead, he learnt to be more indirect and serve as a facilitator of connections. Procuring funds for the Philadelphia library is a great example – he invited people to donate by doing an existing library member a favor.
#3 – Acquire small favors first
As in the example with its potential political rival, he would ask them for a small favor, so the other person would realize he was in a stronger position by being able to help him. Then, once he got the favor, the other person was much more likely to further commit.
Franklin was also a very generous man, even though he remarked once – not without irony – that poor people can sometimes be more generous than rich people, because they don’t want to appear poor.
There are several examples for Franklin’s generosity:
#1 – Even though he was more or less the main person that did the rowing, he gave a whole dollar to the crew of the small boat that brought him to Philadelphia.
#2 – Upon his arrival there, he bought three bread rolls and gave two of them to a mother and her child.
#3 – When his friend Collins was in need, he lent him money, even though Franklin needed the money himself and Collins promptly lost everything to drinking and gambling.
Losing a “friend” ain’t always bad
At one point, Franklin pursued a woman who his friend Ralph was fond off, causing a rift in their friendship. As a result, Ralph told him he wouldn’t repay his debts. Franklin realized that (a) Ralph would have never been able to repay anyway and (b) Ralph’s departure was thus not a loss, but more likely a burden relieved. This reminds me of this movie snippet from “A Bronx Tale”:
See also this post.
Franklin actually tried out a lot of different regimen to become a moral and virtuous person.
A lot of his points are actually reflected in today’s self-improvement community.
Franklin sought moral guidance to live a life of virtue, yet when he went to church, he found empty dogmatism instead. He therefore built his own rules of conduct:
- Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
- Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
- Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
- Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
- Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
- Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
- Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
- Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
- Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
- Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
- Tranquility. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
- Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
- Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
He tried to install these rules as habit one by one. The first week, he would only pay attention to one habit, e.g. temperance. He drew a table into his diary where he would mark every day that he failed with a spot. Once he had a “spotless” week, he would move on to the next virtue.
He found that he had a lot of difficulties training himself to be more orderly (#3) and also realized that point was offering him little personal benefit, so he made the decision that he did not need it to be 100% perfect – most importantly, he did try.
That was his overall approach – you may not become perfect, but the fact that you try already leads to great improvements.
STARTING A NEWSPAPER
After ending his partnership with Keimer (see above), he started his own printing shop with one of the apprentices, Hugh Meredith.
How did he get this endeavour started?
#1 – Social Skills
People trusted him and gave him his first orders.
#2 – Work ethics
He was often the first and last at work. He also dressed in a clean and simple manner, therefore over time people trusted him more. He got the job done and otherwise stayed away from the public spotlight. Indeed, people remarked, for example: “For the industry of that Franklin,” says he, “is superior to any thing I ever saw of the kind; I see him still at work when I go home from club, and he is at work again before his neighbors are out of bed.”
#3 – Weak competition
His old boss, Keimer, was somewhat of a recluse and social weirdling, not taking care of his looks and doing a miserable job in keeping his printing-house in good financial order.
Yet both Franklin and Keimer soon started a newspaper. Franklin, however, wrote guest pieces for a different paper that ridiculed Keimer. Because of Franklin’s higher popularity, this strategy worked. After not even a year, Keimer sold his paper to Franklin, who grew his subscriber list and turned it into profit.
How did Franklin grow his subscriber list?
#1 – Looks
His newspaper had a superior design and letter type.
#2 – Good Content
He provided good and witty articles about current events that people were talking about. “(…) some spirited remarks of my writing, on the dispute then going on between Governor Burnet and the Massachusetts Assembly, struck the principal people, occasioned the paper and the manager of it to be much talk’d of, and in a few weeks brought them all to be our subscribers.”
#3 – Promotion
When another newspaper printed a coarse and blundering piece about current political events, Franklin’s paper reprinted it in a more elegant and better way and sent one copy directly to all politicians of the assembly. As a result, they make him their official printer.
That reminded me of the Audacity Principle.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN READING LIST
These are some of the books and manuscripts Franklin read. Mostly during his teenage years – he founded the Philadelphia library at the age of 25…
I have tried to provide links wherever I could.
Seller and Shermy: Navigation
Mrs. du Port Royal: The Art of Thinking
Greenwood: English Grammar
Xenophon: Memorable things of Socrates
John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress
Richard Burton: Historical collections
Cotton Mather: Essays on good things
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN CV
1706 Born in Boston and baptized in the Old South Church.
1714 At the age of eight, enters Grammar School.
1716 Becomes his father’s assistant in the tallow-chandlery business.
1718 Apprenticed to his brother James, printer.
1721 Writes ballads and peddles them, in printed form, in the streets; contributes, anonymously, to the “New England Courant,” and temporarily edits that paper; becomes a free-thinker, and a vegetarian.
1723 Breaks his indenture and removes to Philadelphia; obtaining employment in Keimer’s printing-office; abandons vegetarianism.
1724 Is persuaded by Governor Keith to establish himself independently, and goes to London to buy type; works at his trade there, and publishes “Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain.”
1726 Returns to Philadelphia; after serving as clerk in a dry goods store, becomes manager of Keimer’s printing-house.
1727 Founds the Junto, or “Leathern Apron” Club.
1728 With Hugh Meredith, opens a printing-office.
1729 Becomes proprietor and editor of the “Pennsylvania Gazette”; prints, anonymously, “Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency”; opens a stationer’s shop.
1730 Marries Rebecca Read.
1731 Founds the Philadelphia Library.
1732 Publishes the first number of “Poor Richard’s Almanac ” under the pseudonym of “Richard Saunders.” The Almanac, which continued for twenty-five years to contain his witty, worldly-wise sayings , played a very large part in bringing together and molding the American character which was at that time made up of so many diverse and scattered types.
1733 Begins to study French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin.
1736 Chosen clerk of the General Assembly; forms the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia.
1737 Elected to the Assembly; appointed Deputy Postmaster-General; plans a city police.
1742 Invents the open, or “Franklin,” stove.
1743 Proposes a plan for an Academy, which is adopted 1749 and develops into the University of Pennsylvania.
1744 Establishes the American Philosophical Society.
1746 Publishes a pamphlet , “Plain Truth,” on the necessity for disciplined defense, and forms a military company; begins electrical experiments.
1748 Sells out his printing business; is appointed on the Commission of the Peace, chosen to the Common Council, and to the Assembly.
1749 Appointed a Commissioner to trade with the Indians.
1751 Aids in founding a hospital.
1752 Experiments with a kite and discovers that lightning is an electrical discharge.
1753 Awarded the Copley medal for this discovery, and elected a member of the Royal Society; receives the degree of M.A. from Yale and Harvard. Appointed joint Postmaster-General.
1754 Appointed one of the Commissioners from Pennsylvania to the Colonial Congress at Albany; proposes a plan for the union of the colonies.
1755 Pledges his personal property in order that supplies may be raised for Braddock’s army; obtains a grant from the Assembly in aid of the Crown Point expedition; carries through a bill establishing a voluntary militia; is appointed Colonel, and takes the field.
1757 Introduces a bill in the Assembly for paving the streets of Philadelphia; publishes his famous “Way to Wealth”; goes to England to plead the cause of the Assembly against the Proprietaries; remains as agent for Pennsylvania; enjoys the friendship of the scientific and literary men of the kingdom.
End of the autobiography.
1760 Secures from the Privy Council, by a compromise, a decision obliging the Proprietary estates to contribute to the public revenue.
1762 Receives the degree of LL.D. from Oxford and Edinburgh; returns to America.
1763 Makes a five months’ tour of the northern colonies for the Purpose of inspecting the post-offices.
1764 Defeated by the Penn faction for reelection to the Assembly; sent to England as agent for Pennsylvania.
1765 Endeavors to prevent the passage of the Stamp Act.
1766 Examined before the House of Commons relative to the passage of the Stamp Act; appointed agent of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia; visits Göttingen University.
1767 Travels in France and is presented at court.
1769 Procures a telescope for Harvard College.
1772 Elected Associe Etranger of the French Academy.
1774 Dismissed from the office of Postmaster-General; influences Thomas Paine to emigrate to America.
1775 Returns to America; chosen a delegate to the Second Continental Congress; placed on the committee of secret correspondence; appointed one of the commissioners to secure the cooperation of Canada.
1776 Placed on the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence; chosen president of the Constitutional Committee of Pennsylvania; sent to France as agent of the colonies.
1778 Concludes treaties of defensive alliance, and of amity and commerce; is received at court.
1779 Appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to France.
1780 Appoints Paul Jones commander of the “Alliance.”
1782 Signs the preliminary articles of peace.
1783 Signs the definite treaty of peace.
1785 Returns to America ; is chosen President of Pennsylvania; reelected 1786.
1787 Reelected President; sent as delegate to the convention for framing a Federal Constitution.
1788 Retires from public life.
1790 April 17, dies. His grave is in the churchyard at Fifth and Arch streets, Philadelphia.
Franklin, Benjamin (2014-08-07). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 2885-2979). Kindle Edition.
You can buy his autobiography here.
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