On learning of Benjamin Franklin?s death in the spring of 1790, the French National Assembly, the ?temporary? French government established after the initial stages of the French Revolution, decreed three days of mourning, a fitting tribute for the man who was for most eighteenth-century European intellectuals the quintessential American. At his death Franklin ranked with Voltaire and Rousseau as a philosophe, one of those multifaceted geniuses whose writings helped inspire the wave of intellectual and political freedom which swept Western Europe in the closing years of the eighteenth century. Unlike most philosophers, however, Franklin had the chance to put his ideas into practice in the founding of a new nation: ? He seized the lightening from the sky and the scepter from the hand of tyrants,? proclaimed the philosopher-scientist Turgot.
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Franklin?s life has become so much the stuff of legend that it is necessary to try to separate fact from myth. The youngest son in a family of eleven living children, Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. After one year of education at the Boston Grammar School and one year at George Brownell?s English school, he was apprenticed at age twelve to his brother James, a printer. The precocious and rebellious Franklin rejected his parents? pious congregationalism in favor of free-thinking deism before he turned sixteen. He reluctantly settled to a trade, threatening his parents with his desire to run off to sea, and his adolescent satire of Harvard College suggests that he resented those whose wealth enabled them to escape the drudgery of a tradesman?s life despite their inferior intellectual talents. Franklin also joined vigorously in his brother?s attacks on Massachusetts worthies such as Increase and Cotton Mather and Samuel Sewall, but after quarreling with his brother he broke his indenture at age seventeen and sailed secretly for New York and then Philadelphia.
Franklin?s start in Philadelphia was uncertain, but gradually his hard work, business sense, social talents, community service, political abilities, and literary skill gained him prosperity and public favor. With the free time provided by his growing wealth, Franklin experimented with electricity, making discoveries which earned him international acclaim. His reputation in Philadelphia as a philanthropic leader prompted his entrance into politics, and his local political success led to his appointment as agent for Pennsylvania in England. As dissatisfaction with Britain spread in the colonies, Franklin?s growing international reputation led to his appointment as agent for other colonies with grievances against England.
Franklin?s achievements in politics and diplomacy during his middle and old age distinguish him as a founder of the new American republic. He served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, as American minister to France (America?s major ally during the Revolutionary War), as one of the negotiators of the Peace Treaty which ended the Revolutionary War, and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. To the chagrin of such ambitious younger rivals as John Adams, Franklin?s reputation as a leader of the Revolution was rivaled in his own time only by that of George Washington.
Franklin?s talent as a writer served as the foundation for much of his success in philanthropy, politics, and diplomacy. Franklin?s literary career began at age sixteen with a series of pseudonymous essays for his brother?s newspaper, The New England Courant. Known as the ?Silence Dogood? papers (1722), after the name of the persona or invented spokesperson Franklin employed, these essays display Franklin?s precocious mastery of the conventions of the eighteenth-century periodical essay and his adaptation of them to satirize the follies and vices of Boston, attacking everything from bad poetry to prostitution. To Franklin?s delight, his anonymous first attempt at satire was attributed by his brother and his friends to the wittiest young men of Boston.
In Philadelphia (1724?1757), Franklin further honed his literary skills during his struggles to succeed in business, to advance philanthropic projects, and to forward his views on political and controversial issues. In his most popular work, Poor Richard?s Almanac (1733?1738), Franklin created the persona of Richard Saunders, a star-gazer driven by poverty and a shrewish wife to compose almanacs. His almanacs became the most popular in the colonies, helping to spread his fame as a printer and to develop the pithy wit which became a hallmark of Franklin?s writing.
Equally important in developing Franklin?s mastery of English prose were the pamphlets he wrote in Philadelphia to further philanthropic and political projects. In the philanthropic pieces, Franklin developed his characteristic public persona, ?the friend of all good men,? and usually spoke as the voice of reason and tolerance. In situations which demanded passion, however, Franklin transformed his persona from the fair-minded lover of humanity into an outraged citizen who demanded justice and compassion.
Still more sophisticated are the occasional satires that Franklin wrote in Philadelphia. For example, in ?A Witch Trial at Mount Holly,? he posed as a reporter and used the contrast between reportorial style and sensational content to satirize superstition and uncover the sexual hypocrisy underlying popular tests for witchcraft. In ?The Speech of Miss Polly Baker? he created a woman whose speech of self-vindication so subtly blends reason and rationalization that many contemporary reformers were taken in, and Polly Baker?s speech was praised by the Abbe Raynal as a proof of the power of uneducated reason to distinguish natural truth from artificial law.
During his almost twenty years as a colonial agent in London, Franklin used his persuasive and satiric talents to fight English prejudice against colonists and to defend colonial rights. In ?An Edict By the King of Prussia? Franklin used an elaborate hoax to place his British readers in the situation of the American colonists, thus making them feel the injustice of British treatment of America.
Although Franklin served as minister to France during the American Revolution and was enmeshed in diplomatic intrigue and consular duties, he found time to write a few pieces, such as ?The Sale of the Hessians,? in response to the suffering caused by the war. In this work Franklin unleashed a Swiftian fury in the face of human baseness.
The tone of his satires contrasts sharply with that of the sophisticated short pieces, known as ?bagatelles,? written during the same years. In the bagatelles such as ?The Ephemera? Franklin used delicate irony to expose his and humanity?s pretenses and self-deception, but because Franklin?s wisely tolerant persona accepts even as he laughs at human imperfection, the final effect is humorous rather than bitter. To remove misconceptions about America, Franklin also wrote informative essays such as ?Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America? (1783) designed to counter wild tales floating about Europe.
After his return to America (1785) and until his death in 1790 Franklin remained as active as his health allowed. In his most famous speech, delivered by proxy on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787, he employed all of his rhetorical skills in an effort to unite the delegates, candidly admitting that he had expressed reservations about the Constitution and then suggesting that if he could doubt his infallibility and support the Constitution, so should others.
The capstone of Franklin?s achievement as a writer is his Autobiography. Although Franklin worked on the Autobiography at four different times (1771, 1784, 1788, and 1788?1789) and revised the completed portions extensively, it remained unfinished at his death. Still, Franklin gave the work a rough structural unity, dividing it into three sections. The first section tells the story of Franklin?s youth and young manhood in Boston and Philadelphia, viewing the protagonist, the young Franklin, as though he were a character in a novel. Through the eyes of a tolerant elderly narrator, the reader watches the young Franklin learn through experience the necessity of virtue, work, and shrewdness in dealing with the world. The second section of the Autobiography, the controversial ?art of virtue? section, recounts Franklin?s youthful attempt to achieve moral perfection. The ambiguous irony here creates uncertainty about its targets, but the structural significance of the section as a bridge between Franklin?s youth and his adulthood is clear. The third and last section portrays the adult Franklin?s use of the principles of conduct that he discovered in the first section and enumerated in the second. Franklin focuses on his rise to prosperity, his scientific studies, and especially his work as philanthropist and politician. Franklin occasionally steps back to view his behavior with an ironic eye, reminding his reader that human folly is never eradicated, but for the most part the gap between the narrator and protagonist has vanished; the naive protagonist has become the experienced narrator.
Benjamin Franklin?s Autobiography is the most frequently translated literary work of nonfiction that has come from the United States. Franklin?s rise from obscurity to international fame, his transcendence of the bounds of class and rank, represented for Europe the promise and the threat of the newly formed United States. For readers of many nations the Autobiography defines the American self and culture. For those who live in the nation that its author helped create and in the culture that his writings helped shape, it is an inescapable text.