Title: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Author: Benjamin Franklin
Challenges: The Well-Educated Mind (biographies), and The Classics Club
When I committed myself to read the books from The Well-Educated Mind reading list, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin was one of the more intimidating books I could think of - that, and Mein Kampf, by Hitler. For some reason I had an image of a Bible-sized book of Benjamin Franklin's life; but what I had mistaken it for was the Library of America collection of Benjamin Franklin's writings, which amounted to 1,632 pages. In truth, his Autobiography is only about 170 pages, and now I wish it was longer.
|Benjamin Franklin in France|
Benjamin Franklin was one of America's great thinkers. And what do all great thinkers have in common? A love and appreciation for reading and studying great books, of course! He was a self-educated man who wore many hats. All of the inventions and ideas by Benjamin Franklin I had learned about were right here in his autobiography: the Franklin stove, the lending library, the mail service, the fire department, free schools for poor children, his electricity experiments that almost killed him, and more. Some contributions new to my knowledge included his responsibility of a military regiment during the French and Indian War, of which he did not consider himself to be qualified; however, the colonies relied heavily on him for perspective and leadership, as he was a man of upstanding character.
For example, as I read, I made a list of all the adjectives I could think of illustrating Mr. Franklin's qualities, and this was my short list:
You get the idea.
One area I found of interest was his view on spiritual matters. He was brought up in a Christian home and went to church, but when he became an adult, he developed his own personal opinions about religion.
He believed in one God, who created everything.
That He governs the world by His providence.
That He ought to be worshiped by adoration, prayer, and thanksgiving.
That the soul is immortal.
The most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.
And that God will reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter.
He was skeptical about church and preferred pastors who preached morality, virtues, and good deeds; he was not concerned with theology much, if at all. At one time he developed a method for achieving "moral perfection." He "wished to live without committing any fault at any time." He made a list of common virtues he planned to follow, and he even made a chart to record his progress. "Order" gave him the most trouble, but once a Quaker friend shared with him that "his pride showed itself frequently in conversation," therefore, Franklin added humility to his list of virtues to work on.
While there is never anything wrong with finding ways to improve character, I fear Franklin was obsessed by it, as most great thinkers usually are consumed by something to perfect or conquer.
He had the honor of meeting the great preacher, George Whitefield, who came all the way from Ireland to preach throughout the colonies in America, in 1739. He told Franklin that he prayed for his conversion "but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard."
|The Declaration of Independence - Thrumbull|
What is regretfully missing from this autobiography is Franklin's personal, first-hand, inside-look at what went on during the summer of 1776, in the Continental Congress, and the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Benjamin Franklin was chosen as one of the five men to write the distinguished letter to King George - and the world - declaring the colonies' independence from Britain (even though Thomas Jefferson wrote most of it), and he was also one of only five men who signed both The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States.
|A Scene at the Signing of the U.S. Constitution - Howard Chandler Christy|
What exciting and daunting times he lived through, and maybe if I dig into Franklin's other works, I will find what I said was missing; but concerning this particular autobiography, the specifics end before the Revolutionary War. He said a lot of his personal papers were lost during the War; and therefore, his re-writings had to come from memory. Later, I learned that he died before he was able to complete his autobiography, so now it all makes sense.
I wonder how Franklin would feel if he knew that his Autobiography was still read and esteemed today, as he had hoped it would be read for years to come. I think he would be humbled. I think. That is...assuming he had perfected his virtue, humility.