The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Franklin lived an amazing life, and wrote about it with wit and style in this autobiography. Born to a large Protestant family, he focuses on virtue in the first part of his book. Setting himself up as a printer, it's industry over idleness, arbitration over contention, temperance and frugality over indulgence and drink. He rejects Christian doctrine overtly while still believing in God, which leads him directly into moralism. With youthful zeal he sets the goal of becoming morally perfect, admitting he never reached it, but claiming he was better for the attempt. When he pursues humility the best he can do is the appearance of it, making him more persuasive in debates with others. This is very good advice, as it applies to rhetoric, but doesn't touch the heart of pride, which he sees everywhere including in himself.
He encouraged non-sectarian behavior, wanting to unite the public instead of let religious doctrine divide. He enjoyed George Whitefield's speaking ability but disagreed with his Christianity.
I was surprised at how little there was about the Revolutionary War in it. Franklin was in Paris for most of it, the American face appealing to the French for help. His rude reception in London after the Stamp Act was fun to read.
I learned a lot in his longer account of disputes between colonial assemblies, the Crown and Parliament over how to fund the French-Indian War. His satire about the King of Prussia claiming Britain for his own was delightful - his point being to refute the idea that the Stamp Act and other taxes were justified to pay for the war. His critique of Britain's many trade restrictions for the colonies was piercing. He noticed the incompetence of the British army in some respects during this war, which likely gave confidence that they could win in a confrontation.
When he came back to Philadelphia in 1776, just in time for the Constitutional
Convention, his account of London's posture toward the colonies was heavily relied upon in their deliberations.
Franklin seems to have started everything in Philadelphia: the library, the fire department, etc. He rejected slanderous journalism, refusing to print it. Later he moved in the highest circles of London and Paris society, with the like of Adam Smith and pretty French salon ladies.
On his return to America after serving as diplomat after the war, he served as governor of Pennsylvania for a few years, before retiring.
I'll end with a brief excerpt:
"As the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner [pushy, cocky, self-assurance they are right], that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure" (page 26).
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