Benjamin Franklin’s face – on banknotes, letterheads and civic documents – is an ageless icon of the American revolution, at once benign but cunning, projecting a mood that’s universal and accessible. In life, he was a great inventor (of stoves, lightning rods and bifocals); in literature, a great self-inventor. In all these guises (icon, innovator, self-advertiser), he is a true founding father, and 100% American. His Autobiography is perhaps his finest creation, what the critic Jay Parini has called “a foundational book for Americans” that offers “a template for self-invention”.
The book itself is quite short, having been published in an abbreviated form after his death, but the tale it tells – a boy who makes his way in the world without connections, wealth or education, essentially living off his wits – is an archetypal portrait of “the founding fathers’ founding father”. There’s also a revolutionary strand running through the text that makes it an ABC of democratic revolt as well as a canny self-portrait of a robust and rather enthralling radical, a lover of life, of women, and of simple pleasures, with an apparently uncomplicated delight in the world around him. His can-do enthusiasm and practical, folksy approach to the issues of the day is – dare one say? – quintessentially American. In other manifestations, it surfaces again in the lives and careers of US presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.
Franklin was a man always boiling over with ideas and opinions, a man of print and paper. Long before his Autobiography he had become famous for his Almanack (published under the pseudonym “Poor Richard”), and its pithy sayings: “Fish and visitors stink in three days”; “No gains without pains”; “Make haste slowly”; and, most ironic and American, “God helps those who help themselves”.
His Autobiography was the culmination of a life devoted to the break with a colonial “tyranny”. In the making of the American republic, Franklin had a hand in three crucial founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the wartime alliance with France; and the peace treaty with the Britain of George III. Breaking free of protocol and decorum, his Autobiography became the inimitable personal statement of a patriot who had long subordinated himself to a struggle for political and national liberty.
A printer by profession, Franklin was also a newspaper proprietor and a publisher. He had the ink of revolution in his veins. The Autobiography, unfinished at his death in 1793, was compiled from four separate and unfinished manuscripts: first, a memorable opening, Franklin’s letter to his son that establishes a blueprint for the American dream: “Before I enter upon my public appearance, it may be well to let you know the then state of my mind with regard to my principles and morals, that you may see how far those influenc’d the future events of my life. My parents had early given me religious impressions, and brought me through my childhood piously in the Dissenting way.”
Franklin never failed to promote himself as a gregarious seeker after truth: “I began now to have some acquaintance with the young People of the Town that were Lovers of Reading with whom I spent my evenings very pleasantly; and gaining Money by my Industry and Frugality, I lived very agreeably…”
Part two takes up his story after a 13-year gap in the narrative, and here the author projects his younger self as a creature of “resolution”, “sincerity”, “moderation”, “chastity” and “humility”. Franklin’s main concern – which links him to a vigorous, ongoing American tradition – is “self-improvement”.
Part three reports his contributions to civil life in the new US, notably a prototype of a police and fire department, and morphs into an account of Franklin’s pre-revolutionary life in old colonial London. Here, he describes his flirtations with “the age of experiments”. (Franklin, famously, took great personal risks to investigate the source of lightning.) There is, in these published pages, no thrilling eye-witness account of the great American independence struggle, no insight into Washington or Jefferson’s character. Franklin is concerned to set the record straight for his own place in history, projecting his private struggles and achievements.
The afterlife of the Autobiography provoked reactions from writers as varied as Keats, Melville and Emerson (No 60 in this series) whose essay on “self-reliance” refers to the founding father as frugal and “inoffensive”. Franklin himself would have been just as delighted to know that, according to legend, The Autobiography was one of the few books that Davy Crockett kept to hand during the final siege at the Alamo. A beacon of sturdy reassurance and common sense, it remains a great book in a crisis.
A signature sentence
“And it being found inconvenient to assemble in the open air, subject to its inclemencies, the building of a house to meet in was no sooner propos’d, and persons appointed to receive contributions, but sufficient sums were soon receiv’d to procure the ground and erect the building, which was one hundred feet long and seventy broad, about the size of Westminster Hall; and the work was carried on with such spirit as to be finished in a much shorter time than could have been expected.”
Three to compare
Benjamin Franklin: Poor Richard’s Almanack (1732)
DH Lawrence: Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)
F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)
• The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin is published by Guild of Master Craftsmen (£9.99). To order a copy for £7.99 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010