The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Signet classics.

In this volume is the “essence of America.” Franklin is thrifty and hence, successful. Religious but not dogmatic. Concerned with virtue, yet seeing no contradiction in consorting with women of low repute. Throughout this book is practical wisdom–and despite Franklin’s own contradictions, much is worth considering.

On writing

Try not to use the word “seem” in your didactic writing. Say what you mean. Franklin writes, “I wish well-meaning and sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us” (Franklin 31).

On Religion

He became a Deist by reading books against Deism (69ff). He was enthralled with “doing good” and “ethics,” yet this didn’t stop him from consorting with red-light girls. He writes, “In the meantime that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth (note: in the context of delaying marriage) had hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way, which were attended with some expense and great inconvenience, besides a continual risk to my health by a distemper, which of all things I dreaded, though’ by great good luck I escaped it” (80).

For all his Deism, Franklin wasn’t your modern-day ACLU skeptic. While he didn’t believe in a state church, he didn’t believe all religions are equal. Christianity should have pride of place. Further, he didn’t believe in attacking religion.

On Languages

He taught himself French and Italian. He had only one year of Latin as a child and neglected it. He was able to pick it back up later in life. He says it is more useful to begin with something like French than Latin (111).

His life ended with a whimper. He was away for long periods of time from his wife, and was in Europe at the time of her death. He died estranged from his son. While his letters are mute on whether he was indiscreet, he did carry on several (relatively) Platonic dalliances with women young enough to be his daughters.


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