Perhaps it wasn’t Franklin's intention to write a self-help book, per se, as he does not profess any real intention of doing so. However, as he is very descriptive of the way he tried his best to live, it would seem as if he expects those people who read his Autobiography to try to emulate him in some ways. In his book, he shows how staying busy, constantly challenging your intellect, and being frugal can help you to become a very successful person. He also preaches in his book that constantly expanding your knowledge, being well-informed, staying involved with public matters, and doing your best to help out the community are also fine ways to make your time well-spent and to feel yourself useful. Franklin did all of these things and his way of living brought him great fame, status, and most importantly prestige. His “self-help” book is not an instruction manual as we may think of some today, but rather it sets an example to be followed.
Franklin begins his Autobiography by saying that he is quite content with the life he has lived. However, though, he reveals how he would love to have the chance to go back and fix a few things, just as anyone would. He says, “I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accident and events of it for others more favorable.”
Of course, since such repetitions are quite impossible, Franklin believes that the thing most similar to living life over again is to make a recollection of your own life and to put it into writing so that it may be reflected upon by others. Franklin doesn’t pretend to hide his own vanity; he gives you the story straight as he feels it. Being as successful a man as he was, a little such arrogance can be permitted. Vanity, he feels, is usually a good thing to have. While some people may be taken aback by how great a man Franklin professes himself to be, it’s true that his example is a good one to follow considering how successful the man became.
As many biographies invariably do, Franklin starts with his family background and the setting into which he was born. Ben’s father, Isaiah, was a dyer by trade, but expanded into the business of candle making upon coming to New England. Apparently, Isaiah had quite a positive influence on him. His father, though not overly rich by any means, was a very well-respected working-class man in Boston, Massachusetts. Many of the local leaders came to him for his advice in both private and public matters. He was even asked to be an arbitrator in some cases.
Franklin speaks highly of nights around the dinner table when he was younger. His father would always try to start some edifying conversation. Ben got so interested in the conversations that he would most often forget what he was actually eating. This forgetfulness of what he was eating he says would help him later on in life, because his tastes weren’t as well “instructed” as they were for most other people. Dinner became for him more of an educational time than a dining time. His childhood prepared him well for later in life, as his father was very concerned about his children’s intellectual growth.
Despite Isaiah Franklin’s concern, Ben turned out not to have much at all of a formal education. He had only one year at grammar school, at which he did rather well, and one year at a school for writing and math. Writing-wise, he learned a little to “scribble” as he liked to say. Having read so many books, it’s unsurprising, as reading invariably improves writing skill. Mathematically, however, he struggled mightily.
His father decided to take him out of school, perhaps because of his failing in math, and brought him home to work in his own trade. Ben found no real interest in the trade, however. Eventually, his father would turn him over to his brother as apprentice to his printing shop. It worked out well for Ben, especially with his love of books. In fact, printing would become his career.
Lacking a formal education, Ben became primarily self-educated through the many books he read. He had an incredible fondness for books from an early age. Whenever he had any spare change, he would only buy books. Reading came somehow naturally to him. Franklin was an incredibly well-read man. He seemed to learn best through books. Though he struggled mightily with math in school, he later taught himself it through a book and mastered it. This thirst for knowledge would continue throughout his life.
While he does not directly say so, he suggests that to follow his example of self-education would be a good one. It is important that people inform themselves about everything that they possibly can, so that folks can make better informed decisions. Especially in today’s so-called “information” age, this is a particularly good act to follow.
Franklin also became a pretty good writer at a young age. At the beginning, since Ben expected his older brother to reject anything he would write for the newspaper, he disguised his writing under an assumed name. For quite some time, his brother and partners didn’t realize who it was slipping these pieces of paper with such interesting writing under the door. They found them good and just printed them.
Ben did happen to write a particularly controversial piece. It brought his brother’s print shop into question, and though Ben was called up as a witness, no one suspected him of writing the piece. No one was found responsible. It proved that Franklin was not afraid to voice his opinions at all and was able to voice them quite effectively. Later, Franklin would open up and, indeed, write many articles for that newspaper, and later many for his own. Ben’s well-informed mind and above-average writing skills no doubt made him very edifying and enjoyable to read.
One of Ben Franklin’s greatest printing contributions was, of course, the famous Poor Richard’s Almanac, which Franklin published from 1732 to 1757. It was not like most almanacs, and it was especially unlike those of his time. A passage from the textbook Out of Many, A History of the American People sums it up well by saying, “What was so innovative about Franklin’s almanac, and what made it so important, was the manner in which the author used this traditional literary form to promote the new Enlightenment emphasis on useful and practical knowledge.”
Franklin was a very wise man, and was more than happy to share his thoughtfulness with everyone. He is the prototypical American intellectual. Franklin was the founder of Junto, “a club of mutual improvement,” which was, in other words, an intellectual self-help club. People were required to come into each Junto meeting with some theme to discuss that evening. Members were also required to write an essay every three weeks on any topic they chose. Junto served as an excellent discussion forum, and quickly grew in membership over just a few years with Franklin’s guidance.
Later, in 1743, Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, which would include poignant members such as Thomas Jefferson. Through these forums, Franklin would make many of his numerous intellectual contributions to American society. He came up with the idea of a public library, which, of course, flourished. He also acted as the United States’ first postmaster, the same postal service America has today.
Later in life, he would conceive of the institution of firefighters, to prevent the spread of fires that could be stopped. Obviously, firefighters are now a worldwide public service. He also, of course, invented the Franklin stove. Also, while not necessarily an intellectual contribution, Franklin was among the first to lay out a detailed daily agenda, with time sectioned out for work, dining, sleep, and time set aside later in the evening for the examination of the day. This concept of examination, in various permutations, is still used today. Franklin found moderation extremely important, as excess of one thing or another can be detrimental to other aspects of life.
Franklin is full of good advice and was very good at constructive criticism. He used phrases such as “it appears this is wrong,” rather than saying “you’re wrong.” There are people who seem to always try and prove others wrong. When you find yourself in the wrong, you often end up feeling mortified. Franklin avoided this by being somewhat less assertive, and left his mind just a little more open than most. To feel mortified after being proved wrong is not particularly conducive to learning. Having your mind just a little more open will make learning much easier to absorb and enjoy.
Ben was also adamant about steering clear of personal abuse and libeling. We have much of this still in our own society, unfortunately. Franklin found personal attacks to be beneath him, and rightfully so. Fewer people will be as willing to hear the arguments of those who resort to personal attacks against people and their reputations. He felt that “truth, sincerity, and integrity” are the key words to keep in mind in dealings with people. Those ideals are still with us today, and it is a shame that more people don’t hold them dear to them. His thirteen Virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility are all good ones to live by.
Throughout the course of his story, Franklin shows us how he became a very clear-minded, methodical, industrious and frugal person. Frugality was extremely important to him, and it was this frugality that allowed him to pay off his debts in his forties, something unheard of in his profession. He was in the printing business, at the time not at all considered to be a lucrative business. Many before him had failed, and over the years he saw his competition flop to the point that he was eventually the premier, if not the only competent, printer in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Today, we would consider Ben Franklin a “hardcore” entrepreneur. Not only was he industrious and frugal, but he also avoided “all appearances to the contrary.” He never took part in what he considered as “idle diversions.” Books were about the only things that took him away from his work. Franklin essentially lived as you saw him, a man married to his work; he would actually later get married, but still he was very much living to work. He put on no facades. He worked hard, and reflected that image daily.
Franklin lived by the Protestant work ethic. He worked his tail off, remained very frugal, and found that slowly things became progressively easier. Even after his printing business paid off all of its debts and he was able to retire comfortably, he continued working hard by devoting himself to public works. Work as hard as you can when you’re younger, and you’ll reap the fruits and benefits later on in life. That’s exactly how it worked out for Ben Franklin; he was be able to do all the useful things that work earlier on in life prevented him from doing.
The most important thing to remember about Ben Franklin is that having plenty of vanity is not always a bad thing. It can, in fact, be healthy. No matter how successful a person is, however, he or she must not let their vanity carry them away. As a younger man, Franklin was a man striving toward perfection. However, as perfectly as he was trying to live, when he examined his days, he found more faults than he would have liked. Realistically, he then understood that perfection is not something that can be humanly attained, but can always be worked towards to make you a better person. He also came to realize “that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance.”1 Reasonably, it’s no use to obsess over trying to be perfect. No matter how perfect you try to be, you will always have flaws; those flaws are just a part of being human.
Ben Franklin was no doubt an extraordinary human being, but he was still just a man. Franklin’s life story is a living example that shows us that through hard work, intellectual challenge, frugality, and most importantly humility, we can all be extraordinary human beings.
Marian J. Morton and Russell Duncan, First Person Past: American Autobiographies, 2nd ed. (Brandywine Press, 2004), 39-62.
John Mack Faragher, Mari Jo Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan H. Armitage, Out of Many, A History of the American People, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2004), 87.