*Franklin, Benjamin

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin



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Franklin, Benjamin

American, 1706–1790
Benjamin Franklin was undoubtedly a living symbol of the Age of Reason; his essays, among the great of that genre, reflect a practical rationalism that goes far beyond a simple record of his life. If Henry David Thoreau was born, as he said, in “the nick of time,” so too was Franklin; if Thoreau revolted against materialism, so too did Franklin revolt against the speculative and introspective reasoning of the Puritans. A materialist and pragmatist, he wanted to be directly involved in the world.
To understand Franklin and his idea of involvement, one must start with his Autobiography (1791). Arguably the first great work in American literature, it presents a guide for living in a world that was vastly different from that of England or Europe.
While some have criticized Franklin for a faulty style and a lack of imagination, not to mention a soulless philosophy of life, the Autobiography is clearly a rags-to-riches success story of considerable proportion; moreover, any examination of Franklin’s career will reveal him as a man who could get things done, from starting a lending library in Philadelphia to achieving a treaty with France.
Addressed to his son, the Autobiography has as its central theme Franklin’s rise from poverty and obscurity, as he puts it, “to a state of affluence and some degree of celebrity in the world.” Utilizing a personal, almost folksy, style, he works his way from his infancy to his 51st year in an attempt to create a guide to the achievement of what has come to be called the American Dream. He was mapping new ground, for the New World demanded adaptation to new conditions and a new reality. For Franklin the key was experience and reason. By applying the latter to the former, one could win in the game of life. In a very real sense life was a game to Franklin, one he enjoyed playing, just as he enjoyed the knowledge that he was a symbol of an age. It is the fact of this knowledge that gave Franklin an ironic way of seeing and presenting himself in the Autobiography.
At first the Autobiography appears to be a loosely structured reminiscence expressed in a conversational style. However, there is a method and order to the work, just as there was to Franklin’s everyday life. More important, however, is the tone of the Autobiography, which might best be described as refreshing, not only for the times in which it was written, but also for today. Combining humor with selfexaggeration, Franklin exhibits himself to the reader as a cross between a naive bumpkin and an insightful man of the world. Ever ready to admit to errors in his career, he never lets the reader lose sight of the basis of his success: a pragmatic activism marked by optimism and the desire to make both himself and the world around him better. It may take some stretch of the imagination to agree with Franklin that virtue may be achieved by a specific set of steps or rules, yet in his view becoming virtuous was like the learning of any art.
As he wrote to Lord Kanes in 1760, to acquire those virtues that are wanting “is the subject of an art.” As the Autobiography and Franklin’s other writings show, for him there was no such thing as abstract reality.
What the Autobiography lays out in a discursive prose style, Poor Richard’s Almanack (begun in 1732) presents in the staccato style of axioms. The fact that Franklin’s work sold out in one month attests to the popularity of almanacs at the time. For Franklin, it was the ideal medium in which to present his rules for living the successful life. Along with the sayings of Poor Richard, Franklin’s personal essays, the Silence Dogood Papers (1721–23), the Busy-Body Papers (1728), and the Bagatelles (1776–85) illustrate the versatility of his creative talents. These essays cover a wide range of topics, reflecting his seemingly endless interests in the world around him. He is at his best in the Bagatelles, most of which were letters written to Mmes. Brillon and Helvetius while he was in Paris from 1776 to 1785. The bagatelle, as Franklin conceived of it, was a lighthearted essay or letter in which he could make good use of his charm and wit, as well as his broad knowledge and his consummate skill in the essay form.
As he did in so many areas, Franklin left an indelible mark on the essay in America.
Perhaps he sums himself up best:

Born 17 January 1706 in Boston. Studied at Boston Grammar School, 1714; George Brownell’s School, Boston. Apprenticed to half-brother James’ printer business, from 1718; contributor of the “Silence Dogood” articles, New-England Courant, 1721–23; worked for printers in Philadelphia, 1723–24, 1728, and London, 1724–25; clerk for Denham merchant, Philadelphia, 1726–27; established his own printing business, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette, 1728, 1729–66 (copublisher, from 1748), Philadelphische Zeitung (Philadelphia news), 1732, and Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1732–57. Married Deborah Read, 1730 (died, 1774): one son and one daughter; also had a son and daughter with another woman. Served in the Pennsylvania Assembly, 1736–64: London agent for the Assembly, 1757–62, 1764–75; also colonial agent for Georgia, 1768, New Jersey, 1769, and Massachusetts, 1770; deputy postmaster, Philadelphia, 1737–53, and joint deputy postmaster of the colonies, 1753–74; publisher and editor, General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, 1741; delegate to the Second Continental Congress, 1775–76; member of the drafting committee and signatory of the Declaration of Independence, 1776; sent to France as commissioner to negotiate with the French, 1776; lived at Passy, near Paris, establishing a press, 1776–85; member of commission to
negotiate peace with Britain, from 1781 (treaty signed, 1783); returned to Philadelphia, 1785. Also inventor of the Franklin Stove, 1739; studied electricity and performed the If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading
Or do things worth the writing.
famous kite, key, and lightning experiment, 1752. Awards: Royal Society Copley Medal, 1753; honorary degrees from five colleges and universities. Fellow, Royal Society (London), 1756; Member, French Academy of Sciences, 1772. Died in Philadelphia, 17 April 1790.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
The Silence Dogood Papers, in New-England Courant, 1721–23
The Busy-Body Papers, in American Weekly Mercury, 1728
Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces, edited by Benjamin Vaughan, 1779
Philosophical and Miscellaneous Papers, edited by Edward Bancroft, 1787
Autobiography, 1791; first complete edition edited by John Bigelow, 1868; edited by J.A. Leo Lemay and P.M.Zall, 1986, and Louis P.Masur, 1993
Satires and Bagatelles, edited by Paul McPharlin, 1937
Autobiographical Writings, edited by Carl Van Doren, 1945
Franklin’s Wit and Folly: The Bagatelles, edited by Richard E. Amacher, 1953
The Political Thought, edited by Ralph L.Ketcham, 1965
The Autobiography and Other Writings, edited by Peter Shaw, 1982, Kenneth Silverman, 1986, and Ormond Seavey, 1993
Other writings: works on science, history, and politics.
Collected works editions: Writings, edited by Albert Henry Smyth, 10 vols., 1905–07;
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (Yale Edition), edited by Leonard W.Labree, Whitfield J.Bell, Jr., and others, 31 vols., 1959–95 (in progress); Writings (Library of America Edition), edited by J.A.Leo Lemay, 1987.
Buxbaum, Melvin H., Benjamin Franklin, 1721–1906: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1983
Ford, Paul Leicester, Benjamin Franklin Bibliography: A List of Books Written by, or Relating to, Benjamin Franklin, Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1889
Further Reading
Aldridge, A.O., Benjamin Franklin and Nature’s God, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1967
Amacher, Richard, Benjamin Franklin, New York: Twayne, 1962
Conner, Paul W., Poor Richard’s Politicks: Benjamin Franklin and His New American Order, New York: Oxford University Press, 1965
Crane, Verner, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People, Boston: Little Brown, 1954
Fay, Bernard, Bernard Fay’s Franklin, the Apostle of Modern Times, Boston: Little Brown, 1929
Lingelbach, William, “Studies on Benjamin Franklin,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 99, no. 6 {December 1955):359–73
Nolan, J.Bennett, Benjamin Franklin in Scotland and Ireland, 1759 and 1771, Phiiadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1956
Parton, James, The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, New York: De Capo, 1971 (original edition, 1864)
Sanford, Charles L., editor, Benjamin Franklin and the American Character, Boston: Heath, 1955
Sellers, Charles Coleman, editor, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1962
Tourtellot, Arthur Bernon, Benjamin Franklin: The Shaping of Genius: The Boston Years, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977
Van Doren, Carl, Benjamin Franklin, New York: Viking Press, 1938; London: Putnam, 1939
Wright, Esmond, Franklin of Phtladelphia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986

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