Benjamin Franklin Autobiography

Hist. 249


Success…Franklin Style

America’s love affair with success stories is nothing new. Entrepreneurs made up a significant portion of the largely agrarian based colonial society, and it is likely that these self-employed individuals may have provided some of the most spectacular examples of upward social mobility for the aspiring affluent.[1] Benjamin Franklin, one of colonial America’s most notable statesmen and businessmen, provides a terrific case of success as he describes his rise from poverty to worldwide repute. Fortunately, Franklin recorded his own inspirational story. In his autobiography, Franklin describes the great success he was able to achieve living in the American colonies. The seeming ease of his rise to wealth and high social status is not, however, indicative of the greater struggle most would have faced on their way to such success. The primary reason for this ascension is the significant number of advantages Franklin held over his contemporaries. These advantages include: fantastic intelligence, a strong work ethic, and his position in society as a white male. This is not to suggest that others, without Franklin’s advantages, could not have succeeded, simply that it would have been a far more difficult journey, and in many cases nearly impossible. I will present this argument by first outlining Franklin’s background and his rise from humble beginnings to success. Then I will explain why this rapid rise was practically impossible for many other groups of people including women, blacks, and Indians because Franklin possessed many advantages over them.

Franklin’s childhood is ideal place to begin giving his background. Franklin starts off his exceptional narrative by stressing his humble beginnings, which contrast greatly with his later success. Franklin began life as the tenth son of an immigrant soap maker in Boston, and he attended school only briefly.[2] Because of this lack of formal education, Franklin takes it upon himself to gain access to books and learn. After spending several years as an apprentice printer for his somewhat vilified older brother, Franklin escapes to Philadelphia where he arrives without any money or friends. The only real assets that Franklin fully controls upon arrival are his knowledge and work ethic.[3] After working for a local printer for some time and going on an ill-advised business excursion to England, Franklin returns to Philadelphia. Upon his return to Philadelphia Franklin again works for a local printer, and then saves up enough money to go into business with a friend.[4] In the autobiography Franklin concentrates on the successes he encounters throughout his life rather than the obstacles. He especially focuses on the fulfilling aspect of the hard work and independence found in his business. Franklin’s drive for success with his printing business lasts well into the middle of his life.

After years of hard work and innovation, Franklin finally began to reap the fruits of his labors. Franklin’s story is truly one of the best examples of an individual rising at least partially due to his own hard work, and its probably largely aimed at inspiring other young white tradesmen to work hard to enter lucrative enterprises as well.[5] Indeed his printing business became extremely profitable because of Franklin’s hard work and connections though various organizations ranging from Junto, a young workingmen’s group, to the Masons.[6] Because of good management Franklin could remove himself from day to day operations. He was now in the unique position of being able to pursue somewhat more leisurely interests, which were more scientific and political in nature, such as experimenting with electricity, founding Pennsylvania’s first college, founding the first hospital, and representing Pennsylvania in various political situations over the next forty years.[7] The fact that Franklin could essentially retire from the business world after building a printing empire and then transform into equally successful scientist and then statesman was indeed an extremely rare scenario.

Franklin places much of the credit for his success on his own efforts at self-improvement, including his “arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.”[8] This program entailed improving within himself the twelve virtues of: temperance, silence, order, frugality, industry, sincerity justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Every week Franklin tried to focus on improving one of the thirteen virtues, and at the end of thirteen weeks, he planned on repeating the cycle. Although, Franklin eventually gives up on the project, he “was by the Endeavor made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it.”[9] Franklin is clearly presenting a model for living which he believes can lead to success if attempted. This dissatisfaction and constant search for ways to improve himself and the world around him inevitably pushed Franklin to succeed in various areas throughout his life.

Although Franklin’s autobiography essentially lays out a plan to succeed, he fails to directly credit many of the exceptional advantages he had including his race and gender. Even though many white men had the opportunity to start their own business, and may have worked to improve themselves in similar way to Franklin, their business lives were largely less successful than Franklin’s for various reasons. Among the top advantages that Franklin fails to mention directly, possibly because he does not want to be seen as a braggart, is his genius.[10] Although, Franklin downplays his natural intelligence, it becomes fairly obvious as he discusses his various accomplishments such as the invention of the lightning rod and Franklin stove. It is true that much of Franklin’s intellectual prowess may have resulted from his extensive reading, yet even his European counterparts with formal educations did not come close to rivaling Franklin’s diverse accomplishments in a plethora of fields ranging from the natural sciences and economics to politics and literature.[11] Apparently Franklin’s revolutionary discoveries, inventions, and undertakings were largely the result of his radical way of analyzing the world around him. Franklin’s accomplishments were not, however, solely the result of his intellect.

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.[12] This work ethic is exemplified in Franklin’s belief that man should “Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.”[13] Franklin appeared to have followed this belief very closely at he spent long days at this printing shop, often starting work before dawn and ending late at night.[14] Apparently Franklin had this drive to succeed from a very early age, based his success as a young man.

Even though Franklin presents his tale in a way, which implies that anyone can succeed in America by his or her own hard work, he helps his own son, William, avoid much of this work.[15] As Pennsylvania’s representative in London, Franklin uses his influence to secure William the governorship of New Jersey while still a young man. The fact that Franklin felt a need to help his son succeed, casts a shadow of doubt on the seeming ease with which he had “emerg’d from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a State of Affluence and some Degree of Reputation in the World.”[16]

Although Franklin presents his autobiography as a kind of how-to-succeed book, he clearly realizes the many difficulties that other colonists faced in trying to succeed, which he did not simply because he was born a white male.[17] For white males like Franklin, success stories are expected to be more common, because white men predominantly controlled many aspects of the colonies. Franklin realizes this inequality as a young apprentice in argument with a friend, Franklin argues for “the Propriety of educating the Female Sex in Learning, and their Abilities for Study”[18] and later as an established businessman, he “recommends…Education for our young females.”[19] Clearly Franklin realizes the problems during his era with the barriers slowing female success.

The fact that Franklin recognizes the disadvantages of the majority people in colonial America, makes it all the more important to remember that his kind of success was not available to everyone. Clearly Franklin had a substantial advantage since boyhood over such segments of the population as blacks, Indians, and women. With roughly half of the white population in the colonies being at severe disadvantage to Franklin, essentially from birth, the magnitude of the exclusivity of Franklin’s narrative of success becomes transparent. Most white women in colonial America could not hope to succeed in the same way that Franklin did, considering that there were restrictions on women individual liberties in most circumstances because of the prevailing attitudes of colonial America. One Maryland colonist sums up this view in opposition to female autonomy and individual success, when he recommends to Lord Baltimore in 1638:

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.[20]

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 America “lost their legal or civil identity when they married.”[21] Clearly in an era where attitudes of male superiority were the norm, numerous restrictions were legislated to limit the independence of colonial women.

Regardless of the many limitations on the freedoms of women in the colonies, some tales of success existed and often resembled Franklin’s own narrative. To find one of these unique narratives, one has to look no further than Franklin’s own family. Ben Franklin’s sister-in-law, Anne Smith Franklin, inherited and successfully ran her deceased husband’s printing business in Newport, Rhode Island with the help of her daughters for over thirteen years. She even served as the colony’s official printer until 1748 when her son James succeeded her.[22] Though there were other examples of successful female entrepreneurs, “women printers are the best-documented colonial business-women (because their names appear on everything they produced).”[23] Some of the most successful women in colonial America probably remain unknown largely due to this lack of evidence, however there are many accounts of arguably the most well known female entrepreneur in colonial America.

Historians label Eliza Lucas Pinkney as “the best known woman of the era”[24] largely because of her famed contributions to agriculture. Eliza’s experiments growing indigo in South Carolina helped to revolutionize southern crops. Within just a few years of her experimentation and distribution of the seeds, indigo had become one of the most successful export crops in the state. Because of Eliza’s success, though, it should not be assumed that most women in colonial America had the same opportunities as Eliza. Eliza was a single, wealthy white woman, and these traits allowed her a certain amount of independence. Even still, Eliza’s tale was not the average story of colonial women, but abnormal because she succeeded despite the many restrictions on her success due to her gender. Women were not, however, the only group largely denied an equal opportunity to succeed.

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.[25] 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.[26]

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.”[27] 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.[28]

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.[29]

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.”[30] 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.”[31] 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.

[1] Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. (New York: Penguin Books, 2001) 162.

[2] 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.

[3] H.W.Brands. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. (New York: Random House Inc., 2000) 44.

[4] Franklin. Autobiography, 44.

[5] Franklin. Autobiography, 59.

[6] Franklin. Autobiography, 93-113

[7] Brands. First, 188-210.

[8]. Franklin. Autobiography, 66.

[9] Franklin. Autobiography, 73.

[10] Brands. The First, 8.

[11] Franklin. Autobiography, xiii.

[12] Taylor. American , 162.

[13] Franklin. Autobiography, 67.

[14] Brands. First, 91.

[15] Brands. First, 44.

[16] Franklin. Autobiography, 1.

[17] Taylor. American,173.

[18] Franklin. Autobiography, 11.

[19] Franklin. Autobiography, 81.

[20] Jaycox. Colonial, 143.

[21] Jaycox. Colonial, 313.

[22] Jaycox. Colonial, 312

[23] Jaycox. Colonial, 312.

[24] Jaycox. Colonial, 313.

[25] Brands. First 703.

[26] Jaycox. Colonial, 284.

[27] Jaycox. Colonial, 272.

[28] Franklin. Autobiography, 102.

[29] D.H. Lawrence. Studies in Classic American Literature. (London: Martin Secker, 1924) 15-27.

[30] Taylor. American, 203.

[31] Taylor. American, 203.

All text and images Copyright 2001-2006


Post a Comment

<< Home