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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary


Here you will find a The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin summary (Benjamin Franklin's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Summary Overview

In 1706, a young boy born in Boston, destined to make history, was one of 17 siblings and was expected to become a minister by his father, Josiah. Yet, his passion for reading and writing led him down a different path. He left his apprenticeship with his brother, James, due to a dispute, and relocated to Philadelphia. There, he found employment with Samuel Keimer, made connections with influential political figures, and subsequently traveled to England. He spent a year and a half working for a printer beside his friend, James Ralph, from whom he would later distance himself. Upon returning to America in 1726, he established a debating group known as the Junto. Just two years later, he gained control of The Pennsylvania Gazette from Keimer, transforming it into a thriving paper with resources gathered from London. He married his childhood love, Deborah Read, in 1730 and they had two kids. The eldest, William, was born around a year later and plays a significant role in the first part of his narrative. During the 1730s, he took on several minor roles performing printing services for the government. This period witnessed the inception of Poor Richard's Almanac and his appointment as Philadelphia's postmaster. Additionally, he invented the Franklin stove and contributed to numerous public works projects including the founding of the University of Pennsylvania. He retired from printing in 1748, shifting his focus to scientific experiments involving lightning. By 1753, he had received honorary degrees from prestigious universities and was appointed Postmaster General of America. When war erupted between England and France, he was instrumental in organizing the war effort and proposing how to raise funds for colonial defense. His narrative abruptly ends in 1757, leaving it incomplete. He made attempts to finish it at three different points in his life - 1771, 1783-83, and 1788 - but his death prevented him from doing so.

part 1 section 1

The memoir begins with Benjamin Franklin penning a letter to his son, William Franklin, then the royal governor of New Jersey, during his vacation in a small town about 50 miles south of London in 1771. He decides to chronicle his life story for his son, reflecting that although his life has been enjoyable, he wishes he could correct some minor mistakes. However, since life cannot be repeated, he resolves to remember it and thanks God for living a satisfying life. Franklin delves into his family history, revealing that he is the latest in a line of five youngest sons, despite having two younger sisters. He talks about his forefathers and shares some verses from his respected uncle Benjamin, his namesake. The Franklins, he shares, have always been a dynamic family, involved in the Reformation in Europe. He then introduces his parents. His father, Josiah Franklin, moved to America from England in 1682 with his wife and three kids. He fathered four more kids with his first wife and ten more with his second wife, Abiah, after the first wife's death. Benjamin, the fifteenth of Josiah's seventeen children, was born in Boston on January 17, 1706. Benjamin's brothers were apprenticed to various professions, but he was sent to grammar school with plans to join the clergy. He eventually switched schools to improve his writing and mathematics. Despite his struggle with math, he excelled in writing. However, at ten years old, he left school to work with his father in the soap and candle-making business. Around this time, he attempted to build a wharf with stolen quarry stones, but was caught and punished, learning the lesson that dishonesty is futile. Franklin admired his father, describing him as a man of "sound understanding and solid judgment," and well-regarded in their community. He learned the art of debate from Josiah—a skill he would find invaluable in the future. In honor of his parents, Franklin had them interred in a notable Boston graveyard near Boston Common, where he also erected a monument in their memory. However, Benjamin was not fond of his father's trade and was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer, when he was twelve. This career allowed him to indulge his love for reading, particularly enjoying works by John Bunyan, Cotton Mather, and Daniel Defoe. He borrowed many books from a local bookseller, improving his writing by emulating the styles of professional authors. He also befriended a "bookish lad" named John Collins, and they nurtured their debate skills through written correspondence. Meanwhile, Josiah helped refine Benjamin's writing, leading to his acquisition of a copy of the British newspaper The Spectator which helped him learn "method in the arrangement of thoughts."

part 1 section 2

During his adolescence, Franklin embraced innovative ideas including a temporary commitment to vegetarianism and a growing skepticism towards religion. He made efforts to be less arrogant after receiving criticism, aiming to converse "with seeming diffidence." In 1720, Franklin's brother James launched the New England Courant, the second American newspaper. Franklin, who delivered papers for the Courant, took over the operations when James was imprisoned. However, after a disagreement, Franklin decided to quit, leading James to warn other printers in Boston against hiring him. This forced Franklin to consider relocating for work. At 17, Franklin secretly left for New York City, but finding no job there, headed to Philadelphia for possible employment with a printer named Andrew Bradford. His journey was marked by a storm where he saved a drunk man from drowning. He finally reached Philadelphia on October 6, 1723. There, Franklin found accommodation through a Quaker meeting but was disappointed when Bradford couldn't offer him work. Instead, Bradford introduced him to Keimer, another printer in town. He eventually moved in with John Read, who's daughter Deborah he would later marry. Franklin began to socialize with Philadelphia's youth and maintained correspondence with his friend Collins. After receiving a persuasive letter from Franklin, Pennsylvania Governor William Keith was impressed and decided to help Franklin start a printing house. However, Franklin's father refused to provide financial support during a seven-month return trip to Boston. Franklin chose to return to Philadelphia, with Collins accompanying him. On the way, he faced some challenging incidents, met New York Governor Burnet, and discovered Collins' alcoholism. A disagreement led to Franklin pushing Collins overboard, after which Collins chose to head to Barbados, never repaying Franklin the money he owed him. Back in Philadelphia, Franklin informed Keith about his father's decision, and Keith decided to financially support Franklin. Franklin then planned a trip to England to make connections in the book and stationery industry. He continued working for Keimer, practiced debating and vegetarianism, and began developing a relationship with Miss Read. He also befriended Charles Osborne, Joseph Watson, and James Ralph, forming a small group that enjoyed reading, writing, and debating. Franklin decided to bring Ralph along on his trip to England.

part 1 section 3

While traveling to England with James Ralph, Benjamin Franklin befriends a Quaker named Mr. Denham. Upon reaching London on December 24, 1724, Franklin realizes that he has been deceived by Keith who had not provided him with the promised letter of recommendation. Franklin finds employment at Palmer's printing house on Mr. Denham's advice where he spends the next year. During this time, both Ralph and Franklin lose touch with their families and engage in a reckless lifestyle. Franklin strikes a friendship with Wilcox and they plan for a small lending library. He also prints a pamphlet that gets noticed by a renowned surgeon who introduces Franklin to prominent figures in London. Ralph, on the other hand, falls in love, moves to the countryside, and takes up teaching. His poetical endeavors and his girlfriend's misunderstanding strain his friendship with Franklin. Franklin's skills earn him a promotion and a raise. He moves into a new place and enjoys the company of his landlady. He even contemplates opening a swimming school. After 18 months in London, he returns to Philadelphia on Mr. Denham's persuasion. Back home, he finds that Keith has been demoted to a commoner while Keimer offers Franklin a managerial role. Initially refusing, he takes up the job after Mr. Denham's death. Even though workers leave, he manages to maintain a good rapport with the remaining ones. When Keimer tries to reduce his salary, Franklin quits and decides to take over Keimer's failing printing house with his friend Meredith. Meanwhile, Keimer moves to New Jersey offering Franklin a chance to expand his network. In between his work commitments, Franklin embraces Deism and forms a group called Junto for philosophical and moral discussions. Franklin's hard work saves his paper from bankruptcy and he eventually takes over Keimer's struggling paper. He becomes the official printer for the Pennsylvania Assembly and uses his earnings to clear his debts. Meredith departs and Franklin expands his operation by hiring Coleman and Grace. A governmental discussion on paper currency leads Franklin to print a relevant pamphlet. His services are further utilized to print more government documents after the House supports paper currency. He also contemplates marriage and marries his old love, Miss Read, despite facing societal judgments. They jointly initiate the first subscription library in America. Franklin then pauses his autobiography to focus on the unfolding American Revolution.

part 2

Part Two commences with a pair of letters addressed to Franklin. The initial letter is from Mr. Abel James, offering commentary on Part One of the Autobiography and the proposed outline for the remainder of the work, which Franklin had previously shown him for feedback. Dated 1782, James urges Franklin to finish his work. The second letter, penned by Benjamin Vaughn in January 1783, also encourages Franklin to persist with his book, suggesting that it could serve as an inspiration to others looking to improve their lives once published. Vaughn further contends that the Autobiography's publication could demonstrate the virtue and industriousness of the American people to the English, emphasizing America's economic potential. At this stage, Franklin is writing from France, where he was a diplomat post-Revolution. He revisits some of his past achievements, particularly the successful library he established in 1730. He recalls sourcing books from England due to the lack of quality bookstores in Philadelphia, and notes that his library contributed to popularizing reading and familiarizing people with books. Despite these achievements, Franklin modestly downplays his role in the library's initial success to avoid potential resentment. Around the same time as the library's inception, Franklin is building a family with his wife, the former Miss Read. He leverages the library for his own intellectual growth, all while supporting his family through "industry and frugality." A staunch Deist, Franklin expresses respect for all faiths and a distaste for religious conflict. He refrains from "public worship" and takes issue with certain Christian interpretations of morality. Driven by an ongoing pursuit of self-improvement, Franklin embarks on the ambitious endeavor of achieving "Moral Perfection," drafting a list of 13 virtues to cultivate in sequence: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. He devises a weekly program to master each virtue, tracking his progress and missteps in a small notebook, and formulates a daily schedule to instill Order. Despite initial struggles, Franklin gradually rectifies most flaws, though Order proves particularly challenging to master due to his strong memory. He ultimately accepts his inability to flawlessly embody all virtues, concluding that "a speckled axe is best....A benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance." He reports that while perfection eluded him, his pursuit of these virtues increased his happiness. Franklin asserts that his virtues should resonate with individuals across religious backgrounds as they emphasize practical, not moral, benefits. He reveals that Humility was the last addition after friends criticized his arrogance. To portray humility, he adopted less assertive phrases in his conversation, which he found improved his conversational experiences. Yet, he acknowledges his inability to fully suppress his pride, humorously claiming that he became proud of his humility. In 1784, Franklin temporarily ceased writing his Autobiography, resuming in America four years later in August 1788.

part 3 section 1

Franklin takes up his pen again in August 1788, after a four-year hiatus from work on Part Two, and 17 years since finishing Part One. Writing from his home in America, in 1731 he envisages a unique international political party dedicated to Virtue, open solely to the wise. He drafts the party's tenets, including a concise summary of all major religions' key principles, like belief in God's existence, power, and immortality. Members would comply with the thirteen virtues from Part Two and the religious stipulations, along with committing to contribute to humanity. However, time constraints and other priorities lead him to discard the plan. In 1732, Franklin sets up Poor Richard's Almanac, an instructive yet entertaining 25-year publication aimed for the masses. It yields popular aphorisms like "It's hard for an empty sack to stand upright." His newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, sharing over 50% of his income, serves a similar educational intent. He rigorously maintains the paper's integrity, excluding private disputes and harmful content. As he matures, Franklin delves into varied political matters, endorsing women's education, especially in accounting. An avid learner, he masters French, Italian, Spanish, and Latin, suggesting Latin be taught last, instead of directly after English. He is a regular at chess and initially supports his local Presbyterian church, but retracts his support upon discovering the preacher's plagiarized sermons. Franklin's life is interspersed with hardship, like the passing of his four-year-old son. Despite challenges, he revisits Boston to reunite with family and reconcile with his brother, James, assisting him with printing. Back in Philadelphia, Franklin's debating society, the Junto, extends into different locations nationwide. He continues his printing job, serving as the Clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania in 1736. By 1737, he becomes the Deputy Postmaster of Philadelphia, ensuring his Gazette is mailed. In 1753, he ascends to Postmaster General. Franklin gradually redirects his focus towards societal improvement and public affairs. He proposes a property tax to finance the police better, publishes a fire causation pamphlet, and aids in establishing America's first modern fire department, the Union Fire Company. Growing in reputation in the 1730s, Franklin closely observes the Great Awakening, a religious revival emphasizing emotional involvement, led by charismatic preachers like Jonathan Edwards. In 1739, meeting the influential English preacher, Rev. Whitefield, Franklin notes people's transformation from religious indifference to fanaticism. Inspired by Whitefield's persuasive speeches, Franklin donates generously to an orphanage in Georgia, despite preferring its location in Philadelphia. However, he critiques Whitefield's writing style.

part 3 section 2

As the years progress, Franklin's success grows. His newspaper thrives and his print shop in the Carolinas flourishes. Despite an initial failure, Franklin, with the assistance of the Junto, eventually establishes the "Academy" which later becomes the University of Pennsylvania in 1755. Concurrently, Franklin constructs a pamphlet, Plain Truth, highlighting the colonies' lackluster defense and the necessity for unity. A lottery system is created to amass funds for defense, though raising money proves challenging due to the pacifist Quaker population. Franklin's inventiveness leads to the creation of the stove in 1742, which he generously declines to patent. He subsequently becomes Commissioner of the Peace, then a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. His responsibilities include drafting treaties with the American Indians and he laments the destructive impact of alcohol on some tribes. Alongside his friend Thomas Bond, Franklin conceives the idea for a hospital and drafts the bill for its funding. He also advises on the construction of a new Presbyterian meeting house. His public service continues with the establishment of a street sweeping service and a bill for city paving and lighting. Franklin's contributions to society earn him honorary degrees from prestigious universities such as Harvard and Yale. In 1754, with the looming war between England and France, Franklin presents plans for colonial defense and government structure during war. His initiatives worry the English government about possible colonial self-sufficiency, prompting them to dispatch reserve forces to America. Franklin's responsibilities extend to collecting wagons for the war, amassing 150 in two weeks. He then concentrates on boosting troop morale through care packages. Despite admiring British Generals, he criticizes their harsh treatment of American troops. Franklin also expresses frustration at the challenges of receiving repayment from the military bureaucracy, but he continues to contribute as a financial commissioner for military funding, organizing militia and fort construction. Franklin's services earn him the rank of Colonel, which is later revoked by the British. His focus then shifts to supplying and maintaining army provisions.

part 3 section 3

Franklin transitions from recounting his military adventures to describing his scientific pursuits. In 1746, he begins conducting scientific experiments, gradually formulating the then-ridiculed theory that lightning and electricity are identical. His published papers, including his famous kite experiment, are translated into multiple languages, catapulting him to international fame and earning him a medal from the esteemed Royal Society. During this period, he also befriends Pennsylvania’s new governor, Capt. Denny. In 1756, the Pennsylvania Assembly appoints Franklin as the Commissioner to England, a role he secures primarily due to his global scientific reputation. His task is to advocate for colonial rights with the Crown, following an Assembly petition. Concurrently, he strives to enhance the colonies' defense system while keeping tabs on the war, which ultimately favors the British. He also shares his views on various military leaders. After several delays and added expenses in New York, Franklin finally departs America. On the voyage, he notes his observations on shipbuilding and recounts a chase by French warships. After briefly exploring the English countryside, he reaches London on July 27, 1757.

part 4

Part Four succinctly recounts Franklin's 1757 visit to London and significant events that occurred then. He briefly encounters his old English acquaintances, but his diplomatic efforts aren't entirely successful. The King's Privy Council President informs him, "The King is the legislator of the colonies," dismissing Franklin's pursuit of colonial legislative rights. Franklin argues for the relevance of colonial Assemblies and their legislative powers, but his words fall on deaf ears. He perceives his treatment in meetings as rude, harboring resentment against the British diplomats. He finds himself defending American taxation laws in British court, nearly reaching a compromise. His return to Philadelphia in 1762 was marked by the Assembly thanking him for advocating colonial interests in Britain. The writing of the Autobiography then stops, and Franklin passes away two years later without finishing it.

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