The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin By Benjamin Franklin Summary and Analysis Part 1: Section 1 - Franklin's Family Background

Summary

Franklin begins by stating five reasons for writing his Autobiography. First, since he has always enjoyed anecdotes about his ancestors, he hopes his own life story will interest his son. Second, since he was a poor boy who found fame and fortune, he hopes his story will provide others with a good model to imitate. Third, since he can't relive his life as he would like to do, he will relive it through memories, and by recording the memories, make his life durable. Fourth, his writing will allow him to reminisce without boring any listeners. And fifth, his account will gratify his vanity.

He first sketches a brief family history. The English Franklins lived for as far back as records went in the same Northamptonshire village, on their 30-acre property. Benjamin's grandfather Thomas had four sons, the eldest of whom, also named Thomas, followed the family trade as a blacksmith, and was also a scrivener (a scribe and notary), and a public leader. John and Benjamin, the two middle sons, were trained as dyers, though Benjamin, his namesake records, was also a poet, politician, and inventor of a shorthand system. Josiah, the youngest of these four brothers, immigrated to Boston with a group seeking greater religious freedom. Josiah had 17 children by two wives, and named his youngest son Benjamin, after his brother.

Young Benjamin's parents were both religious. His mother, Abiah Folger, came from a devout family of early New England settlers, while the Franklins had been known in England for their Protestant steadfastness. Josiah Franklin planned that Benjamin should be a clergyman, the "tithe" of his sons. To prepare him for this vocation, Josiah sent Benjamin to grammar school for a year, but withdrew him after deciding that a clergyman's training was too expensive, especially since ministers were often so poorly paid. Instead, Benjamin was sent to a writing and arithmetic school where he failed arithmetic twice (though he later learned it on his own). But after two years of formal schooling, 10-year-old Benjamin was brought home to help in the family business of making candles and soap.

Young Franklin disliked the chandler's trade and longed to go to sea. He excelled in water sports, but once led several playmates into trouble because of such pastimes. He persuaded the boys to steal some large stones amassed to build a new house, and use them instead for a fishing wharf. When reprimanded by his father, young Ben defended himself by pleading that he had made something practical. But his father convinced him that nothing was useful which was not honest."

Ben's father, Josiah Franklin, who lived to the age of 89, was talented at drawing, music, and mechanical tasks, and was publicly recognized for his excellent judgment. At mealtime, for example, he provided conversation to instruct his children. The family paid little attention to food, a habit Franklin found advantageous when he later traveled extensively without ever feeling inconvenienced by poor fare.

Since Josiah feared young Benjamin would run away to sea if made to continue in the family trade, the father and son walked together around Boston to see "Joiners, Bricklayers, Turners, Braziers" at work and to observe what kind of task most appealed to the boy. Franklin felt this experience was most useful to him later, since it taught him how to do little jobs for himself, how to construct the machines he would later use for his experiments, and how to admire a workman doing his job well. Finally, because of Benjamin's love of reading, Josiah apprenticed him to his brother James, a printer.

Analysis

From the first line, Franklin's Autobiography illustrates the complex character of the man who wrote it, not only through the facts it states but also through the attitudes it reveals. The productive tension in Franklin's nature between the lighthearted and the earnest is evident by the end of the first paragraph. While Franklin starts his account as a paternal (and presumably chatty) letter to his son, he soon begins the formal statement about his worthy purposes — the rationalizations for the work to follow — which one expects of highly serious eighteenth-century treatises. But after presenting three respectable reasons for writing, Franklin appends two frivolous ones, and by doing so gently mocks the literary conventions he follows. Thus from the beginning we glimpse a man who accepts reasonable and recognized rules, but keeps a playful spirit alive while doing so.

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