Thursday, April 1, 2010

The unfinished Autobiography of… Benjamin Franklin

A review of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1790* original printing) (2004 current printing)

(Rating:4 of 5)

Ben Franklin’s autobiography begins, in 1771, as a letter to his son. That son, William Franklin, was becoming something of a disappointment. He, for someone born a bastard in the 1770s, was becoming something of an aristocrat. William had been climbing the social ladder to the point of kissing the ring of King George III. It was not always that way, once father and son had been extremely close, they were only twenty years a part in age, and they shared many a common interest. William, for example, would often act as an assistant in many of Franklin’s experiments. However, the similarities seem to have ended there. Ben Franklin had always proud to part of he called the ‘middling people,’ what we would call today middle class, while his son wanted to be part of the ruling elite. One the first things Ben Franklin points out to his son in his ‘letter’ is that he (Ben Franklin) is the youngest son of the youngest son for five generations. In a time-period where the old laws of primogeniture** are still the law of the land, this is quite a strong point to make on his son. Franklin tries to forcefully point out to his son that he and his family are of the most humble origins.

In this work, Franklin revels a good deal about his life using the wit in humor that he is famous for. It is very reveling that he sums up his life by stating that if he were offer the chance he would gladly do it all again.

“That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some of the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable. But though this were denied, I should still accept the offer. Since such a repetition is not expected, the next thing most like living one’s over again seems to be a recollection of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.” p.1

Some of the most interesting aspects of this book are the little things that Franklin talks about while going over his past. As someone who knows quite a few vegetarians, I found Franklin explaining his ‘all vegetable diet’ very entertaining. Franklin was apparently an on again, off again vegetarian.

“I believe I have omitted mentioning that, in my first voyage from Boston, being becalm’d off Block Island, our people set about catching cod, and hauled up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my resolution of not eating animal food, and on this occasion I consider’d, with my master Tryon, the taking of every fish as a kind of unprovoked murder, since none of them had, or ever could do us any injury that might justify the slaughter. All of this seemed very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great lover of fish, and, when this came hot out of the frying-pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc’d some time between principal 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 one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t each you.’ So I din’d upon cod very heartily, and continued to eat with other people, returning only now and then to an all vegetable diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” p.28

As Ben Franklin guides of though the journey of his life, engaging us in useful entertaining tales, he then begins to discuss matters that are far more serious. As the book reaches its unintended conclusion, he remembers a conversation that he had with Lord Grandville, the President of the Privy Council, in 1757, on the nature of the relationship between Great Britain and her colonies. This is a conversation that would have a great deal of consequences over a decade later.

“’You Americans have wrong ideas of the nature of your constitution; you contend that the king’s instructions to his governors are not laws, and you think yourselves at liberty to regard or disregard them at you own discretion. But those instructions are not the pocket instructions given to a minister going abroad, for regulating his conduct in some trifling point of ceremony. They are first drawn up by judges learned in the laws; they are then considered, debated, and perhaps amended in the Council, after which they are signed by the king. They are then, so far as they relate to you, the law of the land, for the king is the LEGISLATOR OF THE COLONIES.’ I told his lordship this was new doctrine to me. I had always understood from our charters that our laws were to be make by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the king for his royal assent, but that being once given the king could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent laws without his assent, so neither could he make a law for them without theirs. He assured me I was totally mistaken. I did not think so, however, and his lordship’s conversation having a little alarm’d me as to what might be the sentiments of the court concerning us, I wrote it down as soon as I return’d to my lodgings.” p. 138-9

Reading Benjamin Franklin telling his own life story is a wonderful and fascinating adventure. In this book, the reader gets advice how to live his or her life to fullest by a man who actually did. Ben Franklin is funny, informative, and opens up a great view into the eighteenth century. The only sad part is he was unable to finish the job, a small disappointment in very successful and productive life.

*Since this work was a project that went on and off again from 1771 to 1790 and not published until years after his death, I just put the last year of his life as the books date.
**Primogeniture was an old inheritance law that gave the oldest son all the parents property and gave the other siblings nothing.

{Video clip is from the already classic HBO 'John Adams' series.}

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