Critical Essays Critical Opinions of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin


No man has shed such copious good influence on America; none added so much new truth to the popular knowledge; none has so skillfully organized its ideas into institutions; none has so powerfully and wisely directed the nation's conduct, and advanced its welfare in so many respects. No man now has so strong a hold on the habits and manners of the people. Franklin comes home to the individual business of practical men in their daily life.

Theodore Parker, Historic Americans, (Boston: H. B. Fuller, 1870).

(The Autobiography] is letters in business garb . . . addressing itself to the task, which in this country is every man's, of setting free the processes of growth, giving them facility and speed and efficacy.

Woodrow Wilson, Introduction to the Autobiography (New York: Century, 1901 ).

And now I . . . know why I can't stand Benjamin. He tries to take away my wholeness and my dark forest, my freedom. . . . And why, oh why should the snuff-coloured little trap have wanted to take us all in? Why did he do it?

Out of sheer human cussedness in the first place. We do all like to get things inside a barbed-wire corral. Especially our fellow-men. We love to round them up inside the barbed-wire enclosure of FREEDOM, and make 'em work. Benjamin, I will not work. I do not choose to be a free democrat. I am absolutely a servant of my own Holy Ghost.

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Seltzer, 1923).

In fact, the summum bonum of [Franklin's] ethic, the earning of more and more money. . . . is thought of so purely as an end in itself, that from the point of view of the happiness of, or utility to, the single individual, it appears entirely transcendental and absolutely irrational. Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs. . . . It expresses a type of feeling which is closely connected with certain religious ideas. If we thus ask, why . . . Benjamin Franklin himself answers in his Autobiography with a quotation from the Bible, which his Calvinistic father drummed into him . . . in his youth: 'Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings" (Prov. xxii. 29). The earning of money within the modern economic order is . . . the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling; and this virtue and proficiency are . . . the real Alpha and Omega of Franklin's ethic. . . .

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, (New York: Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1930).

Every sort of natural phenomenon enlisted [Franklin's] interest and called forth some ingenious idea. . . .

It has been said that Franklin was not entrusted with the task of writing the Declaration of Independence for fear he might conceal a joke in the middle of it. The myth holds a profound symbolic truth. In all of Franklin's dealings with men and affairs, genuine, sincere, loyal as he surely was, one feels that he is nevertheless not wholly committed; some thought remains uncommunicated; some penetrating observation is held in reserve.

Carl L. Becker, "Benjamin Franklin," Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1931).

What has puzzled men most about Franklin is that he turned so often and so easily from one career to another, seemingly from no inner compulsion; and that he refused to be completely serious, even about the weightiest of human concerns. Hence the theory that only when he confronted nature as a scientist was he wholly committed. . . . In politics . . . he passed on not a system but the empirical method which American leaders have generally adopted.

Verner W. Crane, "Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People," The Library of American Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954).

The Autobiography is also a uniquely American book. After a life like Franklin's had become possible and could be described matter-of-factly, the Declaration of Independence seems understandable and much less revolutionary. . . . There was in America a society which valued the things Franklin could do well: work hard, write effectively, plan improvements, conciliate differences, and conduct public affairs with popular needs and interests in view. His Autobiography records these achievements and values and habits which made them possible, and tells how a remarkable human being used his heritage and created a life on a new, revolutionary model.

Leonard W. Labaree, Ralph L. Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman, Introduction to the Autobiography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964).

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