Mike W's Reviews > The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
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's review
Jun 27, 2012

really liked it
Read in June, 2012

Franklin's autobiography is a delight to read. The great man seems well aware of, and freely admits, both his virtues and his vices. He frequently emphasizes his own industriousness and integrity, but also concedes some failings, as for example his disputatious nature, which others found irritating, and his sometimes dishonorable conduct with women.

He tells us how, early on, he went to Philadelphia from Boston with little money, and spent what he had on "three great puffy rolls" of bread, ate one and gave the other two away to a needy woman and her child. But he also relates how he gave a woman in Philadelphia cause to believe he would marry her, and then more or less forgot her while overseas. "This was another of the great errata of my life" he sadly observes. Meanwhile, he took advantage of a friend's absence to make a play for his girlfriend, only to be rebuffed by the girl and despised by his friend--"another erratum" he writes.

And he sometimes consorted with prostitutes and tramps in his youth: that hard to be governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell in my way," noting that these encounters often entailed "great expense" and brought "great inconvenience."

In the book, Franklin frequently shows his wit and wisdom, as when he observed "I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory words `without vanity I may say,' etc... but some vain thing immediately followed." And he recalls how he was tempted away from vegetarianism, though fishing had at one time seemed to him like murder: I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and when this (one) came out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between principle and inclination till I recollected that, when the fish were opened, I saw smaller fish taken out of their stomachs; then, thought I, 'if you eat another, i don't see why we mayn't eat you.'"

Franklin was not religious, in a conventional sense, but he evidently did believe in certain fundamental religious principles, which he considered the kernel of truth in all popular religions, including the existence of a wise and powerful creator and the immortality of the soul. Yet he lamented the tendency of each religion to believe it alone had the whole truth, and to dismiss others as heretical, even to the point of ignoring a profound underlying agreement. And he smiles at the hypocrisy their orthodoxy forces on religious folk, as when the Quakers had continually to find pretexts to fund the military to provide for the defense of Pennsylvania, despite their own pacifism.

In all, Franklin had a spectacularly successful and satisfying life, with great accomplishments as a printer, legislator, diplomat and scientist. Reflecting on it all, he writes: "I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages some authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first."

In the book he comes across as eminently tolerant, curious, frugal, hard-working, sensible and honest. But, for all his seeming candor, I cannot help but feel that there was a deep passion and ambition there, for business and political success and for knowledge, that Franklin wishes to hide. I intend to read Isaacson's biography, which might shed light on aspects of Franklin's character the man himself did not want to reveal. That aside, the main flaw in the book is that he never finished it. And so the most fascinating part of his life--which included his vital role in the revolution and the creation of a new country--if omitted. This is bound to disappoint any reader.

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