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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin

In a fit of patriotic fervor – or maybe the simple realization that my library’s MP3 audio book selection is really, really limited – I thought it would be fun to listen to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. I mean, he’s America’s kindly old great-uncle, a man who managed to snag a spot on the $100 bill despite the fact that he was never president. Also, I was pretty sure he discovered electricity and cribbed his best ideas from a mouse. The point is, it seems like I ought to know something about Ben Franklin, and isn’t it best to hear about his life from the man himself?

So the autobiography begins with an account of Franklin’s lineage – where his family originated in England, brief anecdotes about his father and uncles, and so on – which makes sense, because he’s writing these memoirs for his son, William. Franklin then moves into his childhood and apprenticeship to his brother James, a printer. The siblings don’t get along, so eventually Benjamin runs off to start his own printing business. After several false starts, he creates a successful newspaper and with the lucrative position of printer to the state assembly, Franklin’s doing very well. He’s also very busy man – founding a public library, inventing a new kind of stove, working on the city council, leading a militia unit, and negotiating treaties with Indians. As his business prospers, Franklin also devotes himself to improving his character by striving for moral perfection, the method of which he describes in some detail. Sadly, Franklin died before completing his autobiography, and the story cuts off with Franklin negotiating on behalf of the colonies at the English court, pre-Revolution.

The biggest disappointment by far is the fact that the book ends before the Revolution, so we never hear his own thoughts about his role in the Continental Congress or his ambassadorship in Paris, where he, with John Jay and John Adams, negotiated the Treaty of Paris and officially ended the American Revolutionary War.

But even without his activities during the revolution, Franklin used two or three lifetimes’ worth of energy to fill his days. Reading his autobiography makes me feel like such a slacker! I can’t say I liked that feeling. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best:
His simplest acts, also, were contrived with a view to their being held up for the emulation of boys forever--boys who might otherwise have been happy…With a malevolence which is without parallel in history, he would work all day, and then sit up nights, and let on to be studying algebra by the light of a smoldering fire, so that all other boys might have to do that also, or else have Benjamin Franklin thrown up to them…[an] affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious biography. (From The Late Benjamin Franklin.)

For all that, though, it is an interesting read. Franklin writes in a very easy, conversational style that is very easy to follow. Occasionally, it rings of false modesty and glosses over what I suspect would qualify as very juicy gossip. As he pens his memoirs, Franklin is an old man creating the character he wants to pass down to future generations, and his editorial selections reflect this. But that’s OK. I’m sure the many historians who have written on Franklin have dug up the skeletons in his closet, and in the meantime the reader can learn just as much about Franklin based on what he chose to omit as what he ultimately included in his autobiography.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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