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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

Summary and Analysis Part 2: Section 8 - Continuation of the Account. . . . Begun at Passy 1784""


Franklin includes a memo at this point stating that the account he first wrote, of family anecdotes with little public interest, had been interrupted by the American Revolution. What follows was written to comply with advice in two appended letters, and is intended for the public. The letters from Abel James and Benjamin Vaughan urge Franklin to continue his memoirs, primarily because his life will provide a good example for others, especially young people. Vaughan gives many more arguments, emphasizing that Franklin's story should be one of the age's worthiest.

Franklin wrote the second part of his memoirs without having a copy of his first part (though James had sent him his outline), so he begins by repeating his account of the Pennsylvania Public Library. At the time of its founding, he says, this institution was needed because there were no good booksellers south of Boston, and all books had to be ordered from England. But organizing the library taught him a lesson about neighbors: they automatically resist any project that might give one man a slightly better reputation than theirs. So Franklin learned to identify himself only as a representative of "a Number of Friends," and approach others as "Lovers of Reading." He recommends such self-effacement to others working on public proposals; for "the present little Sacrifice of your Vanity will afterwards be amply repaid." If anyone claimed credit unjustly, it would soon be properly replaced. Franklin felt that the library helped further his own education, and he used one or two hours each day for reading. In fact, he reported, "Reading was the only Amusement I allow'd myself." With a growing family, "My Industry in my Business continu'd as indefatigable as it was necessary.

Franklin considered industry "a Means of obtaining Wealth and Distinction." Luckily his wife was "as much dispos'd to Industry and Frugality as myself," and cheerfully assisted him in many ways around his stationer's shop. In spite of their principles, however, she one day presented him his breakfast bread and milk in a china bowl with a silver spoon, insisting that her husband deserved such comforts "as well as any of his Neighbours."

Though Franklin found some dogmas of the Presbyterian church in which he was reared "unintelligible," he states, "I never was without some religious Principles; I never doubted, for instance, the Existence of the Deity, that he made the World, and govern'd it by his Providence; that the most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man; that our Souls are immortal; and that all Crime will be punished, and Virtue rewarded either here or hereafter." He felt these beliefs represented "the Essentials of every Religion," so he respected every religion, and contributed to the building funds of all Philadelphia sects. He felt public worship was proper and useful, and therefore helped pay the salary of the Presbyterian minister. But he refused to attend the sermons because he felt the clergyman tried "rather to make us Presbyterians than good Citizens." For his own worship, he used a prayer lie composed for himself.


Most commentators have felt that the style of the Autobiography changes for the worse at this point, partially because its writer was 14 years older and partially because of Franklin's changed purpose. For now, instead of amusing his son and himself with an account of youthful trials and foibles, he was writing to instruct the public. His tone is therefore perceptibly more moralistic than it had been earlier.

In both parts, however, Franklin stresses the value of industry, because he believed that hard work always led to wealth. He realistically saw that scientific experiments and public service required leisure, that leisure required financial security, and that financial security should be acquired as fast as possible, if one were to engage in either scientific or political pursuits. Since Franklin had the wisdom to recognize when his fortune was large enough for his own purposes, he was able to quit working actively when he was only 42 years old. He thereafter fashioned a career of such remarkable distinction that most contemporaries must have felt his ideas about industry were self-evident truths. Franklin was always willing to achieve the public goals he aimed for at the expense of his personal aggrandizement, so he should be excused any apparent vanity at recommending his methods to others. He had the rare capacity to starve his vanity for the moment, being confident that it would enjoy a future feast. In this ability, as in others, he proved how exceptional he was.