Franklin’s Conflicted Nonconformity: The Effects of Social Prejudice

Benjamin Franklin, America’s proud representative of a self-made man, was truly of a character considered a genius and ahead of his time. His autobiography consists of an array of themes that influence and highlight American culture and identity. While Franklin is most noted for being an individualist, as well as a man of esteemed values and remarkable discipline, Franklin’s autobiography showcases other aspects of his personality, which he describes in accordance to his life story. These aspects make up the various themes in The Autobiography: religion, industriousness, and self-improvement are only to name a few. One of the themes in The Autobiography is social prejudice, where social norms and expectations affect Franklin’s life one way or another. It is discerned in the way the society of his time reacted or behaved towards Franklin for different reasons.

One of the earliest evidence of social prejudice stated in The Autobiography is when Franklin was sixteen and had decided to start a “Vegetable Diet”. This, however, “occasioned an Inconveniency” and he was “frequently chid” for this “singularity”. At the time vegetarianism was not so common, and people around him clearly did not welcome this “singularity”, as it is normal for a community to disapprove of a member of their lot to have some unusual thing about them.

The next part of his life which resulted in more severe criticism from society was when he “had already made [him]self a little obnoxious to the governing Party” due to having written and published pieces in the newspaper on political topics and subsequently offending the Assembly, which therefore made him disliked by the rich and high-standing people in town. Furthermore, Franklin was not a practicing Christian and from indulging in his books had grown to doubt the teachings of the church. He was however not afraid to be truthful about his opinions and was thus “indiscreet” on his “disputations about religion”. This caused him to be “pointed at with Horror by good People, as an Infidel or Atheist”. Naturally most of society condemned him for his differing outlook on religion, and so Franklin was viewed in a negative light.

Although Franklin appears to have had very little care for what others thought of him, he in fact demonstrates his understanding of the importance of how other people perceived him. This was especially so once he established his own Printing-House, for he made a big deal at securing his “Credit and Character as a Tradesman”. He “took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the contrary.” In other words, Franklin knew the significance of appearing well-mannered, amiable and educated. He would dress plainly, ensure not to be seen at “Places of Idle Diversion” and never went out fishing or shooting. Moreover, Franklin would ensure that people witnessed him bring home the paper he bought from stores for the sake of proving that he was not haughty from his business. This all emphasizes his willingness to do things for the sake of profit, for his endeavors certainly resulted in a better business for him. And while the community was happy to accept Franklin for all the appearances he put up, it treated Franklin’s temporary rival, David Harry, differently. It was because Harry was “very proud, dressed like a gentleman, and lived expensively”, thus leaving him bankrupt as a result. From this, people were less genial towards Harry, but were definitely so towards Franklin, proving not only the impact with which being liked by society could have on an individual, but also the social expectations that existed at the time.

One final example which underscores social prejudice as a theme in this piece, is when Franklin was set up with a friend’s relation for marriage, but was rejected due to his career. Franklin states that with his career he was not so desirable a match, as his business was considered “not a profitable one”. The fact that owners of previous printing-houses had failed in their businesses made Franklin one expected to fail as well. With this point of view by the society, Franklin had a difficult time finding a wife.

Benjamin Franklin became successful and emerged as a father-figure of America regardless of social prejudice. He was misunderstood, however, as a result of thinking differently than the norm, but he did not allow the “pointed fingers” and assumptions of others to affect him in achieving success. As Ralph Waldo Emerson states in his work entitled, Self-Reliance, “To be great is to be misunderstood”; and Franklin proves to be a great example of this belief.

Benjamin Franklin: The Man Behind Himself

Benjamin Franklin has a reputation in American – and around the world – as a self-made man for rising from indentured servitude to become a wealthy, independent man. As a founding father of the United States, Franklin’s independence and industry are valued as having helped create the country we know today. However, there is much more to Franklin’s demeanor than many Americans know. Through his Autobiography, one can learn a plethora of information regarding the character of Franklin. His personal values often conflicted with political ideologies and he constantly referred to moral relativism. His self-perception was occasionally skewed, yet sometimes coincided with others’ perceptions of him. As an international celebrity, it seems Benjamin Franklin considered himself a strong, superior leader to whom moral law did not always apply, yet his morality prevails as one of his strongest legacies. It is possible that, simply through working to become the celebrity of (perhaps false) moral perfection America still celebrates, Benjamin Franklin really is a self-made man, actively working to shape his identity in terms of reputation and morality.

Firstly, Franklin’s own moral ambiguity is at times disturbing. While he later preaches to others about moral perfection, he himself is lacking in that area; he has affairs with married women (whose husbands are his friends, no less), he abandons his brother while he is in jail, and he commits plenty of other petty offenses, particularly in his younger years. Franklin is very rarely judged for these offenses, however, because he reworks these events into a justifiable narrative for himself. For example, Franklin abandons a vegetarian diet, which he took up for moral reasons, and defends himself for it.

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 one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. So I din’d upon Cod very heartily and continu’d to eat with other People, returning only now and then occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do. (Franklin 37)

For Franklin, principle tends to shrivel in the face of inclination, because, as he sees it, inclination can be justified with the proper amount of rhetorical work; because Franklin is smart and cunning, he seems to be able to construct an argument in favor of whatever choices he may make. His principles are actually very weak indeed. Franklin tends to argue without having true moral stances. In his Historicus essay, Franklin takes a lenient stance against slavery, but quickly retracts himself from this stance lest he anger anyone; he ends the essay on a whimpering note of neutrality rather than a proud, solid argument in favor of real beliefs – in whichever way he may lean. In his Autobiography, as well, he argues for the sake of women’s education, but not for the reasons one would hope. He does not necessarily support the endeavor; rather, he claims, “I took the contrary Side, perhaps a little for Dispute sake” (Franklin 19). When he does make an argument based on a strong position, it seems it is for himself, such as in his “The Petition of the Letter Z,” in which he criticizes the man attempting to replace him; Franklin’s self-indulgent nature and favor of his own dilemmas over those of society are clear in how he writes about these matters. The man allows himself whatever gratification necessary, then worries about justifying his actions later, uncaring about how he may be affecting the overall society with his moral relativity.

Despite caring only for matters involving himself, Franklin works to ensure others’ adherence to a moral code as well, using himself as an example of sorts, somehow. His created superiority over others may work to shame them, thus creating an externally perceived superiority of Franklin over others as well. Franklin is keen to observe any wrongdoings by his friends and correct them immediately. When he notices Ralph tends to favor Franklin’s writing over Osbourne’s, Franklin devises a scheme to switch his writing with Osbourne’s, thus catching Ralph in the lie he creates (Franklin 39). Ironically, what Ralph does is similar to what Franklin does. Ralph values what seems to be good based on its author, Franklin, or the celebrity and importance placed upon it. Franklin values what seems to be good based on how it will affect him rather than how it actually holds up to a moral code. Franklin’s criticism of others based on this offense and his exemption of himself under the same code proves that either Franklin does not recognize himself as breaking the rules he creates, or he lives by a very loose interpretation of morality. It seems most likely that Franklin simply believes himself above such rules, as his writing often points to his belief that he is superior to others. He mocks the workers in the new printing-house he works in, demonstrating his place above them, saying, “I drank only Water; the other Workmen, near 50 in Number, were great Guzzlers of Beer. On occasion I carried up and down Stairs a large Form of Types in each hand, when others carried but one in both Hands. They wonder’d to see from this and several Instances that the Water-American as they call’d me was stronger than themselves who drunk strong Beer” (Franklin 45). Franklin claims superiority over these new acquaintances not only by strength of body, but also by the value of hard work and sobriety. While Franklin never claims to be sober of alcohol, in this moment he implies it because it benefits his image by the public, placing him in a position reigning over other, less perfect individuals. Perhaps if Franklin emphasizes his perfection enough, it will be believed by the masses.

Franklin directly attempts to shape the minds of others, as well, taking it upon himself to instruct the public and teach them the laws of goodness; he takes up an almost god-like stance in this way, determining the rules of the game himself. Through his career, he claims, “[…] I endeavored to prepare the Minds of the People by writing on the Subject in the Newspapers, which was my usual Custom in such Cases […]” (Franklin 115). His need to change people shows he is unhappy with where society stands in its overall “goodness,” but he only superficially acknowledges that he may be a cause of this.

It was about this time that I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any Fault at anytime; I would conquer all that either Natural Inclination, Custom, or Company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. (Franklin 78).

While Franklin supposedly attempts to live in moral perfection, he still takes a stance as a god-like figure. Firstly, he claims to believe to know right and wrong arbitrarily, something that can rarely be defined in black and white terms. Then, he attempts to reason that he can become entirely mistake-free, something that is commonly acknowledged to be impossible of humans. His guide to moral perfection (Franklin 79) shows a belief that morality can be categorized and quantified, enforcing the idea that Franklin is so superior as to have a grasp on something as complex as moral reason, turning it into something simple.

Franklin’s preoccupation with fixing mistakes and erasing errata shows his inability to deal with imperfection. He worries that whatever view he may take up will be set in place forever; as an intellectual, constantly learning and growing, Franklin may understand that his views might change over time and may not want to be considered hypocritical or contradicting. He scoffs at the Quaker people for holding true to a particular principle that Franklin does not believe in. “These Embarrassments that the Quakers suffer’d from having establish’d and publish’d it as one of their Principles, that no kind of War was lawful, and which being once published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of […]” (Franklin 109). As this belief is not his own, he discredits it primarily, but he also seems to degrade it because it is a strong principle. As a writer, printer, and publisher, Franklin’s worst fear seems to be the permanence of the written, published word. While the publishing of such work helps him to develop celebrity and essentially immortal fame, it also creates a set mind, something that Franklin does not work with well.

While it can easily be argued that Franklin’s values are sometimes skewed in a way that is morally corrupt, Franklin’s intentions seem to be mostly good. While his claims at perfect morality work to advance his literary career, they also work to bring comfort to the general population; in this way, Franklin really is a man of the people, whether or not he believes or practices the information and tidings he publishes. Through his work as an informant, he helped create and advance America’s media and print culture as we know it today. He claims, “I consider’d my Newspaper also as another Means of communicating Instruction, and in that View frequently reprinted in it Extracts from the Spectator and other moral Writers, and sometimes publish’d little Pieces of my own which had been first compos’d for Reading in our Junto” (Franklin 92). He dedicated his life to providing important education to the pubic. While Franklin was not morally perfect, as he aspired to be, he took his duty as a moral instructor seriously, and was perhaps the only man brave enough to take on the task. Through his journey as a literary professional, one can see the real codes Franklin lived by: industry, yes, but also growth, education, and an open mind. Through these values, Franklin was able to mold himself into the role model America still looks up to today, despite the scandals and errata in which he involved himself.

In Search of the American Dream: Early Conceptions

Reasons for seeking out the relative comfort of the United States of America are many; some do so in order to utilize its economic advantages, others yearn to flee oppressive governmental regimes, and so on. However, one overarching motivation encompasses any individuals quest to call America home: The American dream. Just as reasons to establish oneself as a citizen of the United States prove various, concepts of the American dream have been equivalently unique to any individual or group. When the Mayflower, featuring a vigorous William Bradford, set sail in 1620 the large group of Puritans on the ship founded what is commonly thought of as the initial American Dream inspired by freedom from religious persecution. Later, as the colonies shed their British overlord to the tune of musket shots and began to truly materialize as the United States, Benjamin Franklin wrote of an American Dream that propelled the evolution of a sovereign nation and sought to teach its youth in order to ensure that what he had helped to create was left in adept hands. Bradford, throughout his work Of Plymouth Plantation, and Franklin, within his Autobiography, bore critical differences in their respective depictions of the American dream, such as its catalyst and relation to religion. Yet the two proved undeniably similar in their leadership, as well as encompassing message for the American dream. Given the consideration of differences and similarities both Bradford and Franklin prove to be profound and unrivaled in their contributions to the first conceptions of the American dream, paving the way to the melting pot we now know as the United States of America.

It is pertinent to first examine the historical context of William Bradford and Benjamin Franklin. Without such, their American dreams may make little sense. Bradford, a Puritan in the early 1600s, lived under the ever tightening grip of the British Crown and foresaw a looming Spanish takeover. Obviously, neither boded well for his group of ‘saints’. Thus, with the blessing of the crown they fled for Holland, and then America aboard the Mayflower, facing a bevy of obstacles as time drew on. Franklin however, lived and worked in a much different situation. In Part 1 of his Autobiography Franklin was living in an America still under British rule, only beginning to sew the field in order to plant the seeds of revolution. By Parts 2 and 3, the revolution had concluded, and a sovereign nation was in the initial stages of cohesion. While Bradford and Franklin were obviously writing throughout rather differing points of American history, it is clear that they were both facing the development of an infant region and sought to grasp, then move their respective peoples towards the American Dream.

What sparked the American dream for Bradford and his fellow Puritans is no great secret. Rather early in Of Plymouth Plantation (Plymouth) he portrays the Puritan’s value within English society as essentially hopeless, by explaining that they “were hunted and persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them” (123). Thus, religious freedom from the overbearing, Anglican-fueled crown forced the Puritans to seek refuge. First, Bradford and company would travel to Holland only to eventually set their sights towards the “countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for habitation, being devoid of all civil inhabitants” (125), and so the initial American dream, driven by the desire to practice reformed religion without oppression, was born. After approximately a century passed, Franklin found solace in a different catalyst for his conception of the American dream. Franklin gains the confidence to begin delineating the American Dream – in this case Americas future as a sovereign nation – from pleas such as that of Abel James, writing in his letter of, “The Influence Writings under that Class have on the Minds of Youth… It almost insensibly leads the Youth into the Resolution of endeavoring to become as good and as eminent as the Journalist” (527). Being that it was this letter, along with another, that Franklin presents within his Autobiography, it is clear that they launched him to alter the text from writing to his son. Rather, Franklin opted to address the American population, and foremost the youth of the nation, in order to deliver his virtue and industry laden American Dream. Steven Forde further attributes this motivation to Franklin, as he explains “that the Autobiography’s serious mission was nothing less than the education of a new nation, using Franklin’s life and mind as its model” (357). Thus, while Bradford conceives his American dream from religious necessity to establish a place of freedom for the Puritans, Franklin would later expound his version of the concept from the nudging of his counterparts, who convinced him that his work – built from his life and values – would inspire the population, namely the youth, to continually progress the Franklinian American dream.

While what motivated Bradford and Franklin to produce their individual American dreams clearly differed, the substance of said dreams proved akin in their deviation. One major feature stands out unabashedly: religion. As a Puritan, In Bradford’s mind the American dream revolved around religion. Often implicating biblical passages, as well as God specifically throughout Plymouth, Bradford sought to instruct upon, “the lesson that subsequent generations could draw from his account of the Pilgrim’s safe passage to Plymouth. God has assisted the Plymouth congregation… This statement that God works through history to assure the triumph of His people… implies a sense of special destiny” (Daly 558). Religious statements of this sort are wrought within Plymouth, an example of such being when Bradford includes the union that was drawn up aboard the Mayflower prior to landing, featuring statements such as, “having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith… a voyage to plant the first colony” (138). Hence, religion is not only the catalyst that drove Bradford towards the American dream, but is the main component of his American dream itself. Franklin however, proved to be the antithesis of Bradford’s religion-minded American dream. As a Deist, Franklin believed in a divine power but did not call upon said power to stimulate his American Dream, spelling out in Part 2 of his Autobiography that although he lived with a few base religious principles, “some of the Dogmas of that Persuasion, such as the Eternal Decrees of God… appear’d to me unintelligible, others doubtful, and I early absented myself from the Public Assemblies of the Sect” (533). The contrast between the two early American dreams is palpable. While Bradford sought to establish the freedom for his religion to practice sans persecution – leading to his religiously toned American dream – Franklin worked to establish that while important in the daily lives of many, religion was not, and did not need to be a powerful force within the American dream. Rather, since swaths of people from a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds were establishing themselves within the United States, Franklin opted to merely touch on religion, due to the fact that while virtuous in some respects, religion would prove to be a volatile subject that need not encompass the American dream to the extent Bradford’s did.

While much consideration has been given to the contrast between Bradford and Franklin in terms of the American dream, it is vital to recognize their similarities. For one, Bradford and Franklin were both unparalleled leaders of their time, which allowed their versions of the American dream to be widely circulated via their respective texts. Bradford, “Shortly after their arrival… was elected governor. His duties involved more than that title might imply today: he was chief judge and jury, oversaw agriculture and trade, and made allotments of land” (121). Being of such great importance to the first Americans, melded with the fact that he was so deeply committed to the Puritan message Bradford writes from a position of power with a community mindset. Who better, in this era, to delineate the initial American dream than the man who spear headed the Puritan effort for freedom? The simple answer is no one. By being the figure that so greatly aided in establishing the first American colony, Bradford was able to effectively utilize his leadership to advance his American dream. Besides the fact that Franklin was a historically monumental genius, little differs in the sense of leadership. Inserting Franklin into historical context, he proved to be, “an obvious choice in [the] headlong search for icons” (Mulford 419). In other words, Franklin was revered by the masses, in America and Europe, for both his brain and leadership. Returning to the letters Franklin features within Part 2 of his Autobiography, Benjamin Vaughn pleads with Franklin that if he were to continue the work it would, “present a table of the internal circumstances of your country… And considering the eagerness with which such information is sought… and the extent of your reputation, I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your Biography would give” (527). Consequently, not only was Franklin a leader within the era, but furthermore his thoughts on subjects such as the American dream were passionately desired. Corresponding in their roles as leaders, Bradford and Franklin equivalently utilize their status in in order to capture their audiences, leading to effective presentations of their individual American dream.

No similarity between Bradford and Franklin so readily presents itself as the pair’s encompassing message of adversity. In Bradford’s case, Plymouth shows significant adversity throughout the text. This is simple to gather being that the Puritans were seeking to inhabit a place they had rather minimal knowledge about. However, tracing further back in the text Bradford utilizes the Puritans’ time in Holland to show that any successful American dream begins with significant hardship. Starting from when the group had been in Holland for a number of years a, “sundry of them were taken away by death, and many others began to be well stricken in years, the grave mistress Experience having taught them many things” (124). Among sick, dying, and overworked people, Bradford’s American dream was born. In his eyes, all of said hardship came by the grace of God in order to show the group that perseverance was the only means for freedom. If the Puritans were not to face and overcome their obstacles, then Bradford’s American dream would not materialize. In comparison, Franklin’s American dream is realized through the same lens of adversity, but the scope is personal rather than group-oriented. Most prominently in Part 1, which is addressed to his son, Franklin routinely cites his harsh upbringing through statements such as, “Having emerg’d from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to the State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the world” (481). By this Franklin means to instill the sentiment of inspiration throughout the nation, not merely his son, that the American dream does not come easy. One typically starts from a low floor – in Franklins case poverty – and works their way up to realize the American dream, just as he had. While the narratives contrast, Bradford’s being one of group hardship and Franklin’s being one of personal perseverance, the underlying message remains constant between the two figures and across one another’s texts. In essence, to Bradford and Franklin the American dream is not merely handed to a person, rather they must work their way out of obscurity and hurdle a bevy of often excruciating obstacles in order to realize the concepts innate beauty.

Clearly, the American dream is unique to the individual. For William Bradford, through his text Of Plymouth Plantation, the American dream embodied freedom from religious persecution in the form of colonization. To Benjamin Franklin, when examining his Autobiography, the American dream means a virtuous and industrious population that takes the United States further in its strength and legitimacy. Bradford and Franklin differed in regards to what sparked their American dreams, as well as the role and importance of religion in such. Nevertheless, the two were both preeminent figures of their movements, as well as building their American dreams from the idea of adversity. No matter who’s work greater weight should be put upon, without both Bradfords’s Of Plymouth Plantation, and Franklin’s Autobiography the American dream may have never been realized to the extent it was then, and is today.

Works Cited Bradford, William. “Of Plymouth Plantation.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 121-138. Print. Daly, Robert. “William Bradford’s Vision of History.” American Literature 44.4 (1973): 558. JSTOR. Web. 18 Oct. 2016 Forde, Steven. “Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the Education of America.” The American Political Science Review 86.2 (1992): 357. JSTOR. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. Franklin, Benjamin. “Autobiography” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 481-533. Print. Mulford, Carla. “Figuring Benjamin Franklin in American Cultural Memory.” The New England Quarterly 72.3 (1999): 419. JSTOR. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.

Meritocracy in America: Franklin as a Reflection of His Culture

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography has remained an important piece of early American literature not only because it gives the history of one of the founding fathers but also portrays the American ideology of meritocracy. Franklin’s Autobiography is uniquely edited into multiple parts and does not tell Franklin’s life story chronologically, instead it starts as a letter to his son and the public about his personal experience with the meritocracy of America and possibility to raise your status in society. This type of meritocracy was not in England where status came directly from your family many times but as Franklin shares from this personal narrative it is possible to come from humble beginnings and through hard work and self-improvement eventually rise up higher in society than where you started.

Instead of telling the story of his life in chronological order, Franklin sets up the first section of his Autobiography by laying out a few important moments from his younger years about himself to show the meritocracy of America. Franklin knowing his audience at this time knows of the achievements of his life gives a vivid description of how he was vastly different upon his arrival in Philadelphia. “I have been more particular in this description of my journey and shall be so of my first entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginning with the figure I have since made there.” (483). He uses this preface as a way to draw extra attention to the differences between his younger self and the one that is known by now by the general public and the amount of growth he has had in his life. The description that follows is of a clumsily Franklin dirty, tired, wearing all the clothes he has and holding as much food as he can carry in a brand new city. To add on to this image, Franklin adds how it is in this appearance that he awkwardly makes his first impression on his future wife. Franklin continues this self degradation of his younger self when recalling an interaction with the governor, “the Governor treated me with great Civility, show’d me his Library, which was a very large one, and we had a good deal of Conversation about Books and Authors. This was the second Governor who had done me the Honor to take Notice of me, which to a poor Boy like me was very pleasing.” (488). Franklin refers to himself as a poor boy again showing how his younger self had little to no status at this time, but as he will show throughout the other parts of his Autobiography his had work and principles would allow him to move up the social ladder to where he is today.

One of the most important aspects of Franklin’s self improvement is through his educational pursuits. From a young age Franklin had a thirst for knowledge that kept him from not settling into trades that would have been passed down through his family. “From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books” (473). This is a significant connection Franklin makes between money and education that would continue throughout his life. Franklin is willing to spend his sparse resources as an investment for learning, something unique at this time where you took up the trade of your family and rarely furthered your education. This same principle of self education is later in a letter from Benjamin Vaughn,”But your biography will not merely teach self-education, but the education of a wise man; and the wisest manwill receive lights and improve his progress by seeing detailed conduct of another wise man.”(516). This shows the effect that this philosophy has had on not only Franklin but those around him. This philosophy has given Franklin the reputation as a wise man and it is not because of the status he was born into or a wealthy family where a higher education was gifted to him but instead a lifetime of self-education and self-improvement to progress himself to a higher status in society.

Education was not the only aspect in which Franklin practiced this self-improvement but also in his personal habits and philosophies. Franklin was disciplined in his personal life, understanding that his actions and virtues would directly result in rewards or consequences in his life. “In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the contrary.“ Just as Franklin drew the connections between education and success, he also connects character to credit or monetary value. Franklin is sharing with the reader that it order to be successful in any business venture it is not enough to just appear to be virtuous but also to practice these virtues in your life. As someone who was not born into any kind of status Franklin is showing how in this new American culture of meritocracy it is your actions that ultimately determine your success in life. Franklin then continues this philosophy of reaping what you sow and extends it to all Americans, “These Libraries have improv’d the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen and Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in Defense of their Privileges. (514).” After reflecting on his own experience with this meritocracy Franklin also reflects on it’s effect on the young nation, where even the people at the bottom of the social totem pole are able to be equal to higher ranking members of other countries through their hard work and effort alone.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography tells just as much about the American culture as it does about Franklin’s life. Franklin writes his autobiography to be like this because the new culture of meritocracy is the very reason he was able to lead the life he lived. It is through this culture that Franklin is able to pursue his interest and become more successful than the family he came from and through his story he represents himself as the typical American with endless potential.

The Importance of Decisions in Franklin’s Autobiography

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography presents the life of its author from his early years until he worked as an Agent of Pennsylvania in London. The biography starts as he writes to his son about his success, his mistakes, and most of the important events that occurred in his life. However, he constructs the narration of his life not by the situations that he happens to be in, but by the decisions that he makes, showing himself as an example of the “arquitecto de [su] propio destino” that “En paz,” by Amado Nervo, presents.

The importance of decisions can be clearly perceived from the beginning of the text. The word “choice” appears very early in the autobiography (in the second paragraph): “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 to have a second edition to correct some faults of the first” (Franklin 1912, 1). The second paragraph deals with the determination to choose his life again asking only for some changes, or even if no changes were allowed: “though this were denied, I should still accept the offer”(Franklin 1912, 1). Franklin perceives life as something that could offer possibilities for one to take, to ask for a different one, or to accept as they are. He perceives life not by the idea of destiny, but by making decisions, taking chances.

Most of the important events in his life can be traced to his own decisions. He decided to start writing even if he could not use his own name and had to remain anonymous: “writing an anonymous paper […] They read it, commented on it in my hearing, and I had the exquisite pleasure of finding it met with their approbation” (Franklin 1912, 20). He chose to move when he did not agree with his brother even though he was young: “in three days I found myself in New York, near 300 miles from home, a boy of but 17” ( Franklin 1912, 23). He perceived opportunities and made decisions, but even when situations occur out of his control, he immediately mentions what he could have done, the choices that he should have made: “I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation” (Franklin 1912, 109). It is not that he controls everything that happens to him, but that he accepts, and he recognizes the weight of every decision that he makes.

A common topic of discussion is Franklin’s humility. He presents the good deeds that he has done for his country and for its people, but he also states that he did many of these in anonymity and that he did not take as much profit from them as he could have taken; he even states what he did not do but was attributed to him. These revelations, that he was behind the anonymity, and showing what he did not do, appear to argue against his humility. The importance he gives to his choices seems also to be an argument against his humility, but the way in which he presents all these appears fair instead of boasting. However, it is difficult to conceive a biography being far from vanity, as he states: “perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity” (Franklin 1912, 2). If by making decisions and taking chances, if by being “el arquitecto de [su] propio destino” (Nervo, 5) is just how he perceives life, then the biography can be perceived as a humble presentation of this vanity.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography presents its author not as someone who believes in destiny or considers that everything happens for a reason, but, instead, as an example of “el arquitecto de mi propio destino” (Nervo, 5) that the poetic voice of “En Paz,” by Amado Nervo, presents. There is even the clear idea of “vida nada me debes, vida estamos en paz” (Nervo, 15) since he states that he would choose his life again even if he could not make changes in it. Benjamin Franklin not only constructs his life by the decisions and the mistakes he made, but recognizes the importance of these decisions.

Works Cited

Franklin, Benjamin. 1912. Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt and Company

Nervo, Amado. “Vida, Estamos En Paz”: Antología: Los Más Bellos Poemas Del Autor. Rosario, Argentina: Ameghino, 1999.