Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
Throughout The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin a vivid portrayal of 18th century America is depicted by Benjamin Franklin in his description of life as a young man to late adulthood in early America. Franklin’s description of his encounters in both England and America not only offer the reader insight into American and British relations during the 1700s, but also provide an unparalleled look at the American economy, the formation of the “American dream,” and the growing pursuit of knowledge and scientific understanding that was evident within the colonies during the Scientific Revolution. Franklin’s autobiography, therefore, offers more than a simple overview of his own life. In essence, the autobiography also serves as a “window” in time for readers to better understand early American life through the eyes of one of its Founding Fathers.
Franklin’s autobiography offers a detailed overview of the relationship between both America and Britain during the 1700s. In the descriptions provided, Franklin details how dependent the colonies were upon the British, especially in regard to defensive needs. Defensively, Britain offered the only viable means of protection for the colonies against an ever-growing threat posed by the Spanish, French, and Native Americans along the frontier. With both Spain and France being long-time rivals to Great Britain, Franklin described the situation as one of “great danger” for the American colonies (Franklin, 86). With a relatively weak militia the colonists were no match for the organized and well-equipped professional armies of Spain and France. By the time of the French and Indian War this notion became clearly evident as British forces were forced to enter the colonies in order to protect the American colonists from French and Indian aggression.
The protection offered by the British, however, does not entirely portray a positive relationship between the British and American colonists. Throughout his autobiography Franklin details numerous cases that describe the growing tensions between the British and the Americans. In one instance, Franklin attempts to warn a British officer of the dangers posed by Indians along the frontier. The British officer replies to Franklin: “These savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the king’s regular and disciplin’d troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression” (Franklin, 111). By including this short quote into his autobiography Franklin describes the superior attitude that British forces maintained against the American colonists. This case of superiority is further exemplified in a later instance described by Franklin in which British troops completely neglect to show any respect to their American counterparts: “…from their landing till they got beyond the settlements, they had plundered and stripped the inhabitants [American colonists], totally ruining some poor families, besides insulting, abusing, and confining the people if they remonstrated” (Franklin, 112). As Franklin proclaims: the abuses by the British “was enough to put us out of conceit of such defenders” (Franklin, 112). This growing tension, in turn, illustrates a developing trend within the American colonies with England quickly falling out of favor with the colonists.
Aside from describing American and British relations during the 1700s Franklin also gives an account of what the American economy revolved around as well. Based around a mercantile style economy the colonies relied heavily on a combination of indentured servants, apprenticeships, and journeyman that worked under a master craftsman until they earned their freedom (in the case of indentured servants), or became skilled enough to run their own business. Franklin describes how the eldest son of different families often found themselves, by traditional standards, “bred” for the particular family’s business (Franklin, 3). As for the other sons within a family Franklin describes how each was established within different apprenticeships at an early age. As in the case of Franklin’s family he describes: “My elder brothers were all put apprentices to different trades…I [Franklin] was put to the grammar-school at eight years of age, my father intending to devote me, as the tithe of his sons, to the service of the Church (Franklin, 6).
Franklin’s life story also illustrates two additional aspects of the American economy that includes the American economic dependence on Britain as well as the great amount of economic mobility allowed within the colonies. In the economic sense, Franklin illustrates the American reliance on Britain several times within the autobiography. Because America and Britain maintained a mercantile relationship with one another the colonists possessed no real means of developing various items and often relied on supplies from England when in need. This notion is seen with Franklin’s proposal to emplace cannons within Philadelphia. “We bought some old cannon from Boston, but, these not being sufficient, we wrote to England for more, soliciting, at the same time, our proprietaries for some assistance, tho’ without much expectation of obtaining it” (Franklin, 87). Besides being largely dependent on British goods Franklin demonstrates the ability for economic flexibility within the colonies with his description of own his life. Franklin, essentially, was an individual who transcended multiple financial barriers going from rags to riches.
Quote by Benjamin Franklin
"Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning."
— Benjamin Franklin
Science and Learning
Finally, another aspect demonstrated through Franklin’s autobiography is the rising focus on learning and experimentation that appeared prevalent during the 1700s. Passages concerning the American love of reading, philosophy, and science appear regularly throughout Franklin’s work. In one example, Franklin describes the rising number of libraries within the American colonies:
“It is become [libraries] a great thing itself, and continuously increasing. These libraries have improved 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 defence of their privileges” (Franklin, 53).
This love of reading and intellectual curiosity is also seen with another statement made by Franklin in regard to books and the new libraries opening up across the colonies: “…our people, having no publick [sic] amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observ’d by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries” (Franklin, 61).
In addition to reading, a love for science appears prevalent within Franklin’s autobiography as well. Franklin himself describes the 1700s as an “age of experiments” (Franklin, 130). The love of science, particularly in regard to electricity, is discussed at length by Franklin. Franklin gives a brief reference to a man known as, Mr. Kinnersley, and the great attention he received doing electrical experiments throughout the colony: “His lectures were well attended, and gave great satisfaction; and after some time he went thro’ the colonies, exhibiting them in every capital town, and pick’d up some money” (Franklin, 121). This description showcases not only the newfound fascination that Americans held towards electricity, but also helps demonstrate the growing and changing interest of Americans in regard to learning.
In conclusion, Franklin’s autobiography offers significant insight into both his life and American culture during the 1700s. The diplomatic relations, economic, and intellectual movement described by Franklin offers an unparalleled account of how America operated, particularly during the period prior to the American Revolution. By looking beyond the “face-value” of the autobiography, therefore, one is able to develop a far better understanding of both Franklin and early American life.
Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York, New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
Wikipedia contributors, "Benjamin Franklin," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Benjamin_Franklin&oldid=891000031 (accessed April 6, 2019).
© 2019 Larry Slawson
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 08, 2019:
I have always been interested in Benjamin Franklin, and I really enjoyed this article. I have watched a fair amount of historical documentaries, but I have not read his autobiography. Thanks for such great information about this patriot.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 07, 2019:
Well this is a must read. Thank you. My hero since I could read.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 06, 2019:
Thank you Liz! Yeah, it was definitely an interesting book. I originally read his autobiography during undergrad for one of my Colonial American History classes. Felt inspired to write about it for some reason haha.
Liz Westwood from UK on April 06, 2019:
This definitely sounds like it gives an interesting insight into the times he lived in. I was especially interested in your comments about the English-American relationship at this time in view of the fact that it is still described as a 'special' relationship.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 06, 2019:
@Coffeequeeen You should definitely read it sometime. Its a really great book! I think he originally wrote it for his children and grandchildren to read. Then over the years it made it to the public. Definitely provides a lot of insight into the American Revolution though, as well as early American culture.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on April 06, 2019:
I've not read this book, but it does sound very interesting and something I would like to read. Thanks for the article. =)