HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Author: Benjamin Franklin
Publisher: Dover Publications, republished 1996
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Recommended reading level: Teens and adults
Rating: ***** 5 stars
(5 stars=EXCELLENT; 4 stars=GOOD; 3 stars=FAIR; 2 stars=POOR; 1 star=VERY POOR; no stars=NOT RECOMMENDED)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (first published in French in 1791, then in English in 1793; republished in 1907 by American Book Company, New York City, NY). Everyone who is even remotely acquainted with American history, especially during the colonial and revolutionary eras, is familiar with Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). He was a statesman who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and later was involved in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain that ended the Revolutionary War; an author; an inventor of bifocals, a stove that is still manufactured, a water-harmonica, and the lightning rod; a printer; and a scientist… Covering his life up to his prewar stay in London as representative of the Pennsylvania Assembly in the year 1757 where it ends uncompleted, this charming self-portrait recalls Franklin’s boyhood, his determination to achieve high moral standards, his work as a printer, experiments with electricity, political career, and experiences during the French and Indian War. Blessed with enormous talents and the energy and ambition to go with them, Franklin was one of the most important figures in American history. Related in an honest, open, unaffected style, this highly readable account offers a wonderfully intimate glimpse of the Founding Father sometimes called “the wisest American.” The work begins by detailing many of the personal aspects of his childhood at Boston, MA, including his contentious relationship with his brother James, from whom he would learn the printing business as an apprentice, and continues with his setting out on his own to Philadelphia, PA, where he ultimately would find great financial success in publishing the “Philadelphia Gazette” and “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
Largely absent from the work is much discussion regarding his role in the American Revolution and the founding of the United States. Franklin wrote the book in three different settings from 1771 to 1790. It is divided into four parts, reflecting the different periods at which he wrote them. There are actual breaks in the narrative between the first three parts, but Part Three’s narrative continues into Part Four without an authorial break, only an editorial one. Part One of the Autobiography is addressed to Franklin’s son William, at that time (1771) Royal Governor of New Jersey. The second part begins with two letters Franklin received in the early 1780s while in Paris, encouraging him to continue the Autobiography, of which both correspondents have read Part One. At Passy, a suburb of Paris, Franklin begins Part Two in 1784. Beginning in August 1788 when Franklin has returned to Philadelphia, the author writes Part Three. Written sometime between November 1789 and Franklin’s death on April 17, 1790, Part Four is very brief. The Autobiography remained unpublished during Franklin’s lifetime. In 1791, the first edition appeared, in French rather than English, as Franklin’s Mémoires published at Paris and containing only part one. This French translation was then retranslated into English at London in 1793. The first three parts of the Autobiography were first published together in English by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, at London in 1818. John Bigelow purchased the original manuscript in France and in 1868 published the most reliable text that had yet appeared. Other than some references to drinking wine, from which Franklin usually abstained, there is nothing objectionable.
Franklin is sometimes held up by militant atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other disbelievers as an example of how one of our Founding Fathers could be a good moral person and a productive citizen without identifying as a Christian. It is true that Franklin probably was not a “Christian,” at least an orthodox one, as that term is commonly used. However, consider these quotes from his Autobiography. Concerning belief in God, he wrote, “And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past life to His kind providence, which led me to the means I used and gave them success” (p. 46). After describing his acceptance of Deism at age fifteen and the ill effects that it had on his behavior, he said of his further consideration on the attributes of God, “And this persuasion, with the kind hand of Providence, or some guardian angel, or accidental favorable circumstances and situations, or all together, preserved me through this dangerous time of youth, and the hazardous situations I was sometimes in among strangers, remote from the eye and advice of my father, without any wilful gross immorality or injustice, that might have been expected from my want of religion” (p. 118). And about religion in general, he noted, “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and though some of the dogmas of that persuasion, such as the eternal decrees of God, election, reprobation, etc., appeared to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that He made the world, and governed 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….Though I seldom attended any public worship, I had still an opinion of its propriety, and of its utility when rightly conducted, and I regularly paid my annual subscription for the support of the only Presbyterian minister or meeting we had in Philadelphia” (pp. 149-150). To call Franklin an “unbeliever” is simply wrong.