Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (The)


Over eighteen years, from 1771 until his death, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) composed an unfinished record of his life’s tribulations and successes. Written in simple, often humorous language, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin offered readers in the new United States an accessible, exemplary narrative of American upward mobility. An integral thread in the fabric of Franklin’s history, Philadelphia is the setting for much of the autobiography and the site where Franklin composed portions of the work.

The Autobiography is arranged in four parts, each with a distinct purpose and tone, though Franklin intended for the work to be read fluidly as a whole. He began writing The Autobiography in 1771, during a stay in London of more than ten years as a mediator between England and the American colonies. Although Philadelphia was Franklin’s home, this trip marked his third sojourn to England. As a young man, Franklin traveled to England in 1724-26 to expand his knowledge of the printing trade and then returned to Philadelphia where he would seize production of The Pennsylvania Gazette from Samuel Keimer (c. 1688-1742) and begin Poor Richard’s Almanack. After thirty years of building his reputation as a printer and civic leader, Franklin also spent five years in England as a diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly beginning in 1757.

Written during the era of tension between the British and the colonies caused by seemingly arbitrary taxation, Part One of The Autobiography takes the form of a letter addressed to Franklin’s son William (1731-1814), then serving as royal governor of New Jersey. Franklin documents his childhood and adolescence, including his arrival in Philadelphia and his achievements in the printing business. He recounts his lineage, depicts his early life in Boston, and documents his apprenticeship with his brother James (1697-1735), a printer. After a dispute with his brother, at the young age of seventeen Franklin leaves his apprenticeship and resolves to move secretly to New York. There, he has trouble finding work and thus moves to Philadelphia.

This photo depicts a grid-like map of the city of Philadelphia.
Upon his arrival to Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin walked on High Street (later Market Street), which can be seen in this 1682 map of the city grid by cartographer Thomas Holme (1624-95). This photograph displays a copy of Holme’s map that belonged to Benjamin Chew (1722-1810), head of the Pennsylvania judiciary system. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

Part One chronicles Franklin’s eventful journey to Philadelphia, including his arrival by boat on October 6, 1723, after first docking in Burlington, New Jersey. Franklin calls attention to the contrast between his humble beginnings and entrance into Philadelphia and his eventual status as a businessman, civic leader, and public servant, addressing the reader directly: “You may in your Mind compare such unlikely Beginning with the Figure I have since made there.” Recalling the experience of arriving in his new city, he writes, “I knew no Soul, nor where to look for Lodging,” and then describes his first day in Philadelphia: “I walk’d up [Market] Street, gazing about, till near the Market House I met a Boy with Bread. I had many a Meal on Bread and inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the Baker’s he directed me to in Second Street; and ask’d for Biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston, but they it seems were not made in Philadelphia.” Franklin’s first walk through the city took him west on Market Street to Fourth Street, then to Chestnut Street and Walnut Street, and “coming round found [himself] again at Market Street Wharf,” near where his boat was docked. At the end of his walk, Franklin entered “the Great meeting house of the Quakers near the market.” Although Franklin himself was not a Quaker, in The Autobiography he recounts the courtesy shown him by the Society of Friends: “I sat down among them, and, after looking round awhile and hearing nothing said, being very drowsy thro’ labour and want of rest the preceding night, I fell fast asleep, and continu’d so till the meeting broke up, when one was kind enough to rouse me. This was, therefore, the first house I was in, or slept in, in Philadelphia.”

Early Years in Philadelphia

In Philadelphia, Franklin creates a life for himself. He attempts to find work as a printer and struggles with financial burdens. Eventually he finds lodging with John Read (1677-1724), a carpenter and building contractor, and begins to court Read’s daughter, Deborah (1707-74). Throughout his young adulthood, Franklin spends time in London studying the printing trade (1724-26). In Philadelphia Franklin establishes “The Junto,” an intellectual and philosophical conversation group, where he first introduces the concept of the lending library. Franklin finds work as a printer with Samuel Keimer and in 1729 buys his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, and eventually becomes the official printer for the Pennsylvania Assembly.

This is a painting of Benjamin Franklin, gesturing towards a piece of paper sitting on a desk next to a pair of bifocals. He is wearing a green, fur-lined jacket.
French painter Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul (1752-94) and her husband were friendly with Benjamin Franklin at the time when she painted this portrait. The painting, oil on canvas, depicts Franklin in his early seventies, gesturing toward a piece of paper on a table and accompanied by a pair of bifocals, which Franklin has been credited with inventing. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Franklin’s writings became associated with American mythologies of success early on. A contemporary of Franklin, his friend and fellow diplomat Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), read Part One of the memoir-in-progress in 1783 and noted that it exemplified the American ideal of upward social mobility: “All that has happened to you, is connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people.” Vaughan’s statement, written in the aftermath of the American Revolution, speaks not only to Franklin’s achievement as an individual but also to the milieu in which he was writing and his audience of Americans in search of national and individual identities.

Franklin began writing Part Two of his autobiography in 1784 while serving as the United States minister plenipotentiary to France. This section is perhaps the best known of The Autobiography because it includes Franklin’s list of thirteen virtues for self-improvement: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity, and Humility. Franklin puts forth a plan to develop one virtue per week, intending to eventually perfect all thirteen virtues. Franklin’s virtues are meant to appeal to people of all religions, making his tenets for moral perfection a viable option for all people. Franklin’s emphasis on these thirteen virtues in The Autobiography has been cited as the impetus for self-help literature. Although inspirational for many, the message of self-improvement also drew negative criticism from such notable and varied figures as John Adams (1735-1826) and Abigail Adams (1744-1818), Mark Twain (1835-1910), and D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), who found Franklin’s Puritan-like self-criticism to be inaccessible and improbable. Nevertheless, Franklin developed Puritan and Quaker influences into a message that mass audiences found instructive.

This is a painting of Benjamin Franklin arriving home in Philadelphia. Franklin stands proudly in front of a grand wooden ship, surrounded my citizens welcoming him home.
Franklin’s Return to Philadelphia, 1785, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930) and published in 1932, depicts Benjamin Franklin at dockside with his daughter Sarah (1743-1808), his son-in-law Richard Bache (1737-1811), and his grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache (1769-98). Franklin is greeted by Judge Thomas McKean (1734-1817), standing at the right, and two African American porters wait with a sedan chair. (Library of Congress)

Franklin returned to writing his autobiography from 1788 to 1789, following his return from France in 1785 and his participation in the Constitutional Convention (May 25-September 17, 1787). Now in his eighties, Franklin in Part Three reflects on his life from 1730 through the late 1750s and highlights his involvement in politics, science, and publishing. At this time, Franklin also began to revise the already completed parts of The Autobiography manuscript.

Franklin as Publisher

In Part Three, Franklin describes his continuing involvement in the publishing industry with Poor Richard’s Almanack, first published in 1732 and subsequently for the next twenty-five years. Franklin uses the almanac and his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, to achieve his goal of educating common people. Franklin becomes clerk of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania and then deputy postmaster of Philadelphia, which allows him to distribute his Gazette by mail. In 1753, Franklin is appointed postmaster general of America. Franklin also publishes influential pamphlets, such as Plain Truth (1747), which outlines the need for colonial unity, and Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Philadelphia (1749), which leads to the creation of the Academy of Philadelphia in 1751 (in 1791, renamed the University of Pennsylvania). Franklin’s political agenda also includes advocating for the education of women. In Part Three, Franklin speculates on creating a political “Party of Virtue,” whose members would subscribe to his thirteen virtues as well as a compilation of virtues distilled from various religions. He also recounts his activities in science and invention, including the invention of the stove in 1742 and the notable 1752 kite experiment, which concluded that lightning and electricity are, in fact, one and the same. Culminating two decades of publishing, political, and scientific, advancements, the Pennsylvania Assembly appoints Franklin to the role of commissioner to England in 1756.

This photo depicts a steel ghost structure of Benjamin Franklin's former home.
The “Ghost Structure” in Franklin Court, part of the Independence National Historic Park, indicates the site and scale of Benjamin Franklin’s home. (Visit Philadelphia)

Part Four, written between November 1789 and his death on April 17, 1790, briefly documents Franklin’s journey to London from 1757 to 1762, where he petitions the Penn family for financial assistance on behalf of the Pennsylvania Assembly. In 1762, after the Penn family agreed to provide financial assistance to Pennsylvania for events transpiring in the colony, such as the French and Indian War (1754-63), Franklin returns to Philadelphia. The brevity of Part Four reflects Franklin’s declining health.

Franklin’s autobiography has a complex publication history. After Franklin’s death in 1790, his grandson William Temple Franklin (1762-1823) served as his literary executor. However, without his approval, unauthorized excerpts of The Autobiography appeared in Philadelphia magazines, Universal Asylum and Columbian Magazine (May 1790-June 1791), and American Museum (July and November 1790). The text made its debut as a book in Paris in 1791 as a French translation of Franklin’s manuscript of Part One, subsequently translated into German and Swedish. An English translation of the French edition, titled The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, was published in London in 1793. By the next year, American editions based on the retranslated edition circulated in New York and Philadelphia. More than two decades passed before William Temple Franklin released his own edition, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, in 1818. Although this edition became viewed as the standard version, it remained flawed; based on an unrevised manuscript, it did not include Franklin’s revisions of the text or Franklin’s Part Four. In 1828 Part Four made its debut in Mémoires Sur La Vie De Benjamin Franklin, a Paris edition written in French.

A Resurgence in Popularity

Finally, in 1868, seventy-eight years after Franklin’s death, all four parts of Franklin’s Autobiography appeared in an edition produced by John Bigelow (1817-1911), an American author, journalist, and diplomat. This edition, titled Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin used Franklin’s final manuscript. The autobiography’s resurgence in the late nineteenth century mirrored the publication of “rags-to-riches” young adult novels by Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-99), in which impoverished boys rise through hard work and determination to lives of middle-class security and comfort. The life of Benjamin Franklin fits into this schema that became known as the “Horatio Alger Myth.”

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin has served as source material for Franklin’s many biographers and continues to be republished in various forms, including digital e-books and audiobooks. The manuscript of Franklin’s autobiography was made available digitally through the Huntington Digital Library. An accessible text, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin continues to be read widely by students and scholars in the twenty-first century.

Rachel Lewis is enrolled in the Rutgers University-Camden Graduate School, where she is pursuing her master’s degree in English and New Jersey Teacher Certification in secondary education of English. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2018, Rutgers University


Thomas Holme’s A Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia, 1683

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

On the 1683 map pictured here, High Street, or Market Street, runs horizontally through the center square of the Philadelphia grid and is denoted in fine script handwriting. In his Autobiography, Franklin recounted his first day in Philadelphia: “I walk’d up [Market] Street, gazing about, till near the Market House I met a Boy with Bread. I had many a Meal on Bread and inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the Baker’s he directed me to in Second Street; and ask’d for Biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston, but they it seems were not made in Philadelphia.” Franklin’s first walk through the city took him west on Market Street to Fourth Street, then to Chestnut Street and Walnut Street, and “coming round found [himself] again at Market Street Wharf,” where his boat was docked.

Poor Richard's Almanack, 1733

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

In December 1732, under the pseudonym Richard Saunders or “Poor Richard,” Benjamin Franklin published the first installment of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Each edition of Poor Richard typically included information regarding the calendar, the weather, local court dates, and astrological movements, in addition to Poor Richard’s “witticisms.” This photograph depicts the “Third Impression” of Poor Richard’s, the January 1733 edition in which Franklin first published the saying, “He that lies down with Dogs, shall rise up with fleas.” Poor Richard’s became a very profitable enterprise for Franklin and continued to be published continuously for twenty-five years, selling an average of 10,000 copies annually. Franklin used the almanac and his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, to achieve his goal of educating common people.

Various Notes Printed by Benjamin Franklin, 1760

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania first began using paper currency in 1723, after two acts approved in 1723 and 1726 by the Pennsylvania governor, Sir William Keith (1669-1749). As a contentious issue, concern about paper currency circulated among members of Benjamin Franklin’s conversation group, the Junto. On April 3, 1729, Franklin anonymously published a pamphlet titled “A Modest Inquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency,” arguing in favor of paper currency as a mode to successfully conduct business and trade. Franklin’s support of paper currency also permeated his work as a printer: in 1731 he printed money for the Pennsylvania Assembly, and he did the same for other colonies, including Delaware and New Jersey. Franklin also pioneered anti-counterfeiting techniques by printing images of leaves onto paper money, making it difficult to replicate. Pictured here is an example of Franklin’s technique on notes printed in 1760.

Franklin continued to have a presence on American currency in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His portrait has been on $100 Federal Reserve notes since they were first issued in 1914. Most United States currency features portraits of former United States presidents, but Franklin’s $100 note and the $10 bill featuring Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) are exceptions. The back of Franklin’s $100 bill portrays Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1778-79

Philadelphia Museum of Art

While Franklin lived in France, the artist Anne-Rosalie Bocquet Filleul (1752-94) painted this portrait depicting Franklin in his early seventies, gesturing toward a piece of paper accompanied by a pair of bifocals. In 1779 Louis Jacques Cathelin (1738-1804) made an engraving of Filleul’s painting and labeled the map on the table “Philadelphia.”

Franklin's Return to Philadelphia, 1785

Library of Congress

Benjamin Franklin began writing Part Two of his Autobiography in 1784 while living abroad in France. After the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress sent Franklin to join Silas Deane (1738-89) to seek political and financial support from France for the American struggle for independence. Later Franklin and Deane, joined by Arthur Lee (1740-92), a lawyer in London and American diplomat, negotiated the Treaty of Alliance and Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France, which were signed on February 6, 1778. Franklin was then elected minister plenipotentiary to France and the sole representative of America in France. Franklin lived in Passy, France, for nine years and returned to America in 1785, as depicted in this 1932 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930).

Following his return to Philadelphia from France, Franklin composed Part Three of the Autobiography during 1788-89, after he participated in the drafting and signing of the new U.S. Constitution. Franklin died April 17, 1790, five years after his return to Philadelphia.

Horatio Alger Jr.

Library of Congress

The resurgence of Franklin’s Autobiography in the late nineteenth century with the publication of the 1868 edition of Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by John Bigelow (1817-1911) mirrored the popularity of the “rags to riches” young adult novels by Horatio Alger Jr. (1832-99). Alger told stories of the rise of impoverished boys to lives of middle-class security and comfort through hard work and determination. Ben the Luggage Boy, shown here, was published in 1867 as the fifth installment in the Ragged Dick Series. The book follows the story of Ben as he runs away from home and lives on the streets of New York City, where he finds work as a newsboy and as a “luggage boy.” Alger's young adult novels fed the "Horatio Alger Myth": a teenage boy works hard to escape poverty. The life of Benjamin Franklin fits into the schema of the Horatio Alger Myth.

The American ideal of upward mobility in Franklin’s autobiography was noted as early as 1783, when Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), a diplomat instrumental in the creation of the Treaty of Paris and a friend to Franklin, wrote to the author: “All that has happened to you, is connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people.” Vaughan’s statement spoke not only to Franklin’s achievement as an individual but also to the milieu in which he wrote and his audience: people of a new nation searching for American identity and individual identities. Franklin has been dubbed the “first American” for his social mobility, and his ability to depict this ascension in his Autobiography made the rags-to-riches narrative widely accessible. Written in simple, often humorous language, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin became an exemplar of the “American Dream.”

The Benjamin Franklin National Memorial

Visit Philadelphia

Between 1906 and 1911 American sculptor James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) created the monumental sculpture of Benjamin Franklin that later became featured in the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial. The sculpture and the Franklin Institute’s Memorial Hall, designed by John Windrim (1866-1934), were designated as a national memorial by Congress on October 25, 1972. The 20-feet-tall sculpture weighs 30 tons and sits upon a pedestal of white Seravezza marble weighing 92 tons. Unlike other national memorials, the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial is not included in the National Register of Historic Places. Instead, it is administered by the National Park Service.

Samuel Vaughan Merrick (1801-70) and William H. Keating (1799-1844) founded the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts on February 5, 1824. At its inception, the Franklin Institute offered science and technology classes as well as significant K-12 child outreach to Philadelphians. The institute was so popular that a little over a year after its founding it needed a new home. Architect John Haviland (1792-1852) designed the building, and construction began in June 1825 on Seventh Street (later the site of the Phildelphia History Museum). In 1932, during the Great Depression, the Franklin Institute built a new building at Twentieth Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The reimagined Franklin Institute opened to the public on January 1, 1934, as one of the first museums in the country to offer a hands-on approach to the understanding of science and technology. The Franklin Institute charges an admission fee, but entrance to Memorial Hall is free for community members and tourists who wish to gaze upon the prodigious sculpture of Benjamin Franklin.

The Ghost House of Benjamin Franklin

Visit Philadelphia

Franklin lived in the home represented in this photograph throughout his time as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention until his death in 1790. Earlier, Franklin’s family, including his wife, Deborah (1708-74), and their daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache (l1743-1808) and her family, lived in the home beginning in 1763 while Franklin was in London. Sally and her family continued to live in the home after Deborah’s death in 1774.

Following Franklin’s death, Sarah and her family inherited the Franklin home, and beginning in 1794 they rented it to tenants. Then, the home became a boarding house, an academy, a coffee house, and a hotel. By 1812, the land had increased in value and the Bache heirs decided to tear down the house and rebuild the land with rental row houses. In 1948, Congress created Independence National Historical Park, which included the Franklin Court site. The complex including a “ghost structure,” designed by the firm Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, opened in 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial celebration.

The ghost structure of steel beams traces the outline of Franklin’s home and print shop, as shown in this photograph. The structure is located adjacent to the Benjamin Franklin Museum, which opened on September 20, 2013, and has continued to teach visitors about the various roles Franklin played throughout his lifetime as a printer, scientist, and civic leader.

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Related Reading

Baker, Jennifer Jordan. “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the Credibility of Personality.” Early American Literature, no. 3 (2000): 274-93.

Bobker, Danielle. “Intimate points: The Dash in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Papers On Language & Literature, no. 4 (2013): 415-43.

Effing, Mercé Mur. “The Origin and Development of Self-Help Literature in the United States: The Concept of Success and Happiness, an Overview.” Atlantis: Revista De La Asociación Española De Estudios Ingleses Y Norteamericanos 31, no. 2 (December 2009): 125-41.

Fichtelberg, Joseph. “The Complex Image: Text and Reader in the ‘Autobiography’ of Benjamin Franklin.” Early American Literature, no. 2 (1988): 202-16.

Forde, Steven. “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the Education of America.” The American Political Science Review, no. 2 (1992): 357-68.

Franklin, Benjamin, and Joyce E. Chaplin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012.

Franklin, Benjamin, and Paul M. Zall. Franklin On Franklin. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

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