Benjamin Franklin Autobiography
After years of hard work and innovation,
His work ethic was also outstanding, and this contributed greatly to his success. His value system, which was first developed in Puritan Boston and later expanded through constant study and labor, inevitably gave him an advantage over contemporaries who did not have the opportunity to develop these characteristics. This work ethic is exemplified in
The fact that
That it may be prevented that noe woman here vow chastety in the world, unlesse she marry within seven years after land shall fall to hir, she must either dispose away of hir land, or else she shall forfeite it to the next of kinne, and if she have but one Mannor, whereas she canne not alienate it, it is gone unlesse she git a husband.
This quote shows the opinion of one colonist, who thinks that women who remain unmarried for seven years should be required to forfeit all their land to their nearest male relative. This attitude, which would currently be labeled as chauvinistic, was more accepted and possibly normal during much of the colonial period when women in colonial
Regardless of the many limitations on the freedoms of women in the colonies, some tales of success existed and often resembled
Historians label Eliza Lucas Pinkney as “the best known woman of the era” largely because of her famed contributions to agriculture. Eliza’s experiments growing indigo in
African-Americans were also given somewhat subhuman status throughout the colonial era. Franklin himself eventually supports abolition towards the end of his life, showing that he understands the difficulties of African-Americans in achieving his model of success. At the age of 81 Franklin accepted the presidency of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and at the Constitutional Convention Franklin opposes slavery, yet agrees to compromise so the Constitution passes. Franklin, who at one time in his life owned slaves, realizes in his last years (almost twenty five years after he began writing the partial autobiography) the flaws with slavery and undoubtedly the limits on the success of Africans, which the institution of slavery legalizes. Franklin was not so naïve as to expect that every colonist could expect to succeed in a way similar to his own, when many of these people were facing much greater challenges than Franklin ever experienced.
Blacks in colonial America could largely expect to be denied the opportunities provided to their white contemporaries such as Franklin. For black slaves, buying their freedom was considered success, and as the colonial period progressed, this opportunity for success diminished. This so-called success was a far cry from Franklin’s version in his autobiography. Trying to gain independence through the system was extremely difficult as well when colonial laws such as the Virginia statutes said in 1691 that:
As great inconveniences may happen to this country by the setting of Negroes and mulattoes free, by their entertaining negro slaves from their masters’ service, or receiving stolen good, or being grown old bringing a charge upon the country; for prevention thereof, Be it enacted…That no negro or mulatto be after the end of this present session of assembly set free by any person or persons whatsoever unless such person or persons, their heirs, executors or administrators pay for the transportation of such Negro or Negroes out of the country within six months after such setting them free.
This official statute shows the grim aspects for slaves hoping to earn their freedom, now that owners would have to pay transportation costs for any freed slaves. With these kinds of laws its not surprising that stories of abuse and oppression are much more common for slaves than stories of success and independence. In fact if these slaves were found entertaining Franklin’s ideas of independence and even reading tales such as his, its probable that punishment would have resulted as the “modern concept of individual human rights did not exist, and the concept of exploitation was not recognized.” Clearly African-Americans were at a severe disadvantage to whites in achieving any kind of success as Franklin defines it. African-Americans and women were not the only groups largely denied Franklin’s kind of success.
Native Americans were also deprived of many of the opportunities for a colonial version of success. Franklin does not appear to sympathize with the difficulties facing Native Americans in the same way that he does with women and later blacks. At one point in his life Franklin leads a local militia excursion to build a fort to defend the western frontier from Indian attack. At another point in the Autobiography, Franklin describes Indians as:
All drunk, Men and Women, quarrelling and fighting. Their dark color’d Bodies, half naked, seen only by the gloomy Light of the Bonfire, running after and beating one another with Firebrands…and indeed if it be the Desire of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for Cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbably that Rum may be the appointed Means.
From this quote, Franklin’s feelings of his own superiority and divine blessing can be observed as he interprets these Indians as drunken savages. Later in life Franklin even tries to get a land grant in the Ohio Valley on land presumably just inhabited by Native Americans. If anything, the usually liberal minded Franklin seems to believe that Native Americans should be denied an equal opportunity to succeed.
Native Americans were indeed largely deprived of this opportunity to follow Franklin’s description of success and come up with similar results. One historian, Alan Taylor, describes Indians in New England as “assigned to the lowest rungs of colonial society, the natives labored for small wages on farms and sailing ships.” Indians had a very limited scope as to social mobility, and many Native Americans faced a similar outlook as slaves, with general oppression and brutality being fairly common against them in the colonial period. One account of Indian tribes in New England exemplifies this despair, where most Indians “did not survive the…diseases and battle wounds further depressing the native population” and “colonial neighbors also cheated the survivors out of most of their lands.” This quote shows the severe hardships facing many of the Indians near the British colonies. Generally the best that these groups could hope for was limited violence against them, a far cry from Franklin’s definition of success in colonial America.
Regardless of how inspirational Franklin’s autobiography is, it should not be overlooked that his form of success was extremely rare. Although many people in British colonial America did experience success, it was generally of a lesser magnitude and, for the majority of inhabitants, this kind of success was nearly impossible. A great part of Benjamin Franklin’s opportunity to succeed resulted from factors beyond his control such as race, intelligence, gender, and work ethic. Considering the great number of self employed colonists in America, its not surprising that occasionally a Franklin-like success story occurs, and although the narratives of colonial celebrities such Franklin may be amongst the most well known, they are by no means the most common. Regardless of the small number of grand successes, undoubtedly people continue to be fascinated with these sensations largely because of a similar desire for upward social mobility. It is not a shock to find such a desire in country stereotyped by some as the quintessential location for individual, success.
Brands, H.W., The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Random House Inc., 2000.
Franklin, Benjamin, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Eds. J.A. Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall. New York: W.W. Norton &Company Inc., 1986.
Jaycox, Faith. The Colonial Era: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts On File Inc., 2002.
Lawrence, D.H., Studies in Classic American Literature. London: Martin Secker, 1924.
Taylor, Alan, American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.
 Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. (New York: Penguin Books, 2001) 162.
 Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Eds. J.A. Leo Lemay and P.M. Zall. (New York: W.W. Norton & company Inc. 1986) 5-6.
 H.W.Brands. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. (New York: Random House Inc., 2000) 44.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 44.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 59.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 93-113
 Brands. First, 188-210.
. Franklin. Autobiography, 66.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 73.
 Brands. The First, 8.
 Franklin. Autobiography, xiii.
 Taylor. American , 162.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 67.
 Brands. First, 91.
 Brands. First, 44.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 1.
 Taylor. American,173.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 11.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 81.
 Jaycox. Colonial, 143.
 Jaycox. Colonial, 313.
 Jaycox. Colonial, 312
 Jaycox. Colonial, 312.
 Jaycox. Colonial, 313.
 Brands. First 703.
 Jaycox. Colonial, 284.
 Jaycox. Colonial, 272.
 Franklin. Autobiography, 102.
 D.H. Lawrence. Studies in Classic American Literature. (London: Martin Secker, 1924) 15-27.
 Taylor. American, 203.
 Taylor. American, 203.
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