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Poor Richard's AlmanackSummary and Reviews of Poor Richard's Almanack
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds Criticism (Norton Critical EditSummary and Reviews of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds Criticism (Norton Critical Edition)
Benjamin Franklin: Writings (Library of America)Summary and Reviews of Benjamin Franklin: Writings (Library of America)
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Complete Set: Volumes 1-37Summary and Reviews of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Complete Set: Volumes 1-37
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Benjamin Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is so widely revered today that it is not surprising that whoever is extolling his virtues would shape him to his own mold.  The Christian community claims him as a devout Christian.  Non-Christians claim he was a freethinking deist who believed that anyone who worked hard and loved his fellow man would make it to heaven.  Some ignore his religious side and concentrate on Franklin as scientist or philosopher on a level with Rousseau or Voltaire.


With all these conflicting approaches to the life of Franklin, it is hard to separate fact from fiction.  There is no debate that by the time of death, Franklin was admired in and has been continuously, with very little exception, right up to the present.  The best way to know who Franklin was is to read what he wrote.  Anyone who reads a third party evaluation of him will almost certainly get a biased profile of an undoubtedly great and complicated man.


The facts are that Franklin was born in Boston in 1706.  He was a printing apprentice for his brother at the age of twelve, and in his early years, but he left his brother in Boston and eventually settled in Philadelphia where he became a rather wealthy businessman and writer.  He began his famous experimentation with electricity in Philadelphia, and his discoveries in this area brought him international fame.  His already considerable fame in Philadelphia as a philanthropist turned eventually into political interest.  His political accomplishments gave him an inevitable legacy as one of those larger than life figures we now call a Founder.  By the time he died in 1790, he had been a representative in the Second Continental Congress, a diplomat who helped negotiate the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.


Franklin’s literary output is huge, taking up ten volumes when it was first collected for publication.  It began with satirical essays in his brother’s newspaper.  Franklin wrote these under the name of “Silence Dogood,” following a convention of the day of writing satire under a guise that was itself a part of the irony of the commentary.  Franklin, in these early pieces, lampooned everything from bad poetry to prostitution and did it without anyone knowing that a teenaged printer’s apprentice was the one cutting through the pretentiousness and vice happening in Boston.


In Philadelphia, Franklin moved beyond satire to write on many subjects under his own name and in a style that exuded humor, practicality and good sense.  From his most famous work, Poor Richard’s Almanack, to his appeals for support in philanthropic projects in education and hospital building, and finally his passionate appeals to justice and compassion, Plain Truth and A Narrative of the Late Massacres, Franklin built his reputation for being the moral lover of humanity that make him such a difficult person to fully understand.  He didn’t stop writing satire, though, and he raised it to a new level with the subtle “A Witch Trial at Mount Holly” and “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” which fooled even the most eminent readers of the day into thinking an uneducated maiden had produced its discerning common sense. 


In 1757, a group of American colonies appointed Franklin as their agent and sent him to England to appeal to the English government for better treatment.  He spent almost twenty years there, and, during that time, he used his skill in satire to help convince the English public that the monarchy of England was mistreating their colonists across the ocean.  Among his satirical and persuasive essays of the period were “The Grand Leap of the Whale” and “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.”  The latter proved ironically prophetic when the government of England actually implemented the exact policies Franklin had set forth in jest.  Finally, in “An Edict By the King of Prussia,” Franklin turned the tables and put the English reader into the condition of the American colonist.  Apparently, Franklin wrote with such subtlety and skill that he convinced them that because England was originally settled by Germanic tribes, Prussia was assuming the right to tax all imports to Prussia of English goods and even to prohibit the sale of hats by merchants from one county in England to buyers in another.


Even during his busy years as American minister to France during the Revolution, Franklin found the time to write essays in response to what he saw as injustice and humanity’s hypocritical tendencies.  Some of these pieces were satirical, and some were serious but, in all, Franklin’s wise tolerance shone through.  Franklin used whatever literary form or device he thought would convince his readers that common sense, reason, and benevolence should be their guiding principles.


If someone read nothing but Franklin’s definitive literary work, his Autobiography, that person would most likely be able to form a positive opinion of Franklin.  Franklin did present himself in this masterful work of literature in a generally positive light, but he also disclosed his youthful mistakes.  Even by the end of the book, Franklin still admitted that he was a flawed human being but also held himself up as an example of hard work, virtue, and shrewdness producing an admirable and successful life.  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is the most translated piece of American nonfiction literature, which helps make its author the image of America for many.

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