Review: Autobiography of Ben Franklin

My wife recommended this one to me, and she was absolutely right to. I loved it. Ben Franklin is probably my favorite figure from that period in American history, not just for what he did but for his character, wit, and humility. All of those shine through in this book.

His autobiography covers his life from his birth in 1706 through the mid-1760’s. It was written in four sections. The first was written as a letter to his son William in 1771, and it reads very much like one with personal asides and mention of family. The next was written in Paris in the early 1780s while acting as ambassador, and it was more formal, aimed at someone who at read that earlier letter to his son and encouraged him to continue the record. The third section was written after he had returned to Philadelphia after the Revolutionary War, and the fourth was a very short section that appeared to be an attempt to continue it towards the war.

I detailed the sources of the writing because it impacts how it is read. The early section (perhaps the first half of the book) reads as an Englishman speaking to his son, both to fill him in on the family history as well as to remind him of some of their joint experiences. It reads fairly sweetly and humorously. The Revolutionary War is not yet on his horizon. At best, he expresses occasional distress as the some of the decisions by the crown and the decisions by the William Penn’s heirs back in England over the management of the Pennsylvania colony.

The later sections were written during or after the war, and hints of family are gone. He does not say so explicitly, but it is known that he and his son took different sides in the war, and neither forgave the other. He makes occasional mentions of his son, as they actually took some joint actions during the French/Indian war in the 1760’s, but gone is that sense of affection. It’s noticeable in the language, but that much more striking when you know what happened between them.

Also at this point, the war is behind him, and his frustration with England’s management of the colonies shows strongly. It is not merely that he feels they were wrong or greedy but that they were predisposed to act unethically or to at least act so as to protect themselves from the assumption that the colonists would act unethically. This was especially offensive to him as he had taken great pains over his life (as outlined in some of the text) to develop a strong ethical code.

Obviously, he writes about the many of the projects he undertook in life, the accomplishments he made, and the relationships he forged, but rather that hoist them up to brag, he details his decisions around them and how he was able to succeed. It seems as though his main goal in this is not to preen but to instruct, as though he wants his audience to learn from his mistakes and methods to go forth and do even greater things.

Towards that point, I think he nailed a good policy on debate, which will likely form a future essay I write on netiquette. After detailing a method of debate that won him many victories, some of which he felt were undeserved, he altered his strategy:

I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.

This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion in inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, 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, 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.

For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent candid attention.

If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions, modest sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error.

And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

He hits on similar themes elsewhere on everything from telling someone they are mistaken to convincing a large group to support a position. It’s as much history as it is instruction on the art of polite debate. As such, I think this is a book that every American should read, less for its factual content than for its lessons on how to behave in a political society. As for the rest of you, it’s actually quite a bit of fun, so give that poor Yank a read anyway.