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.
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