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The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Once you get used to reading 18th century English, this is an absolutely delightful, interesting and thought provoking book, well deserving of its place at the top of the Harvard classics bookshelf.

The two facts I knew for certain about Benjamin Franklin before I read the book were that he was a founding father of the USA, and he was a pioneer in the field of electricity. The former fact isn’t even a subject in the book, which ends in 1757, and the latter is mentioned only in passing. And yet anyone reading the book is sure to come out thinking that Franklin was one of the most interesting people who ever lived.

His accomplishments in life were astonishing. He got his start in life in the printing business, and eventually started the second newspaper in America. He was responsible for inventing the concept of a municipal fire department, convincing the public to pay for crime-watch and street-cleaning, conceptualizing and implementing the equivalent of city bonds, founding a university that survives to this day, and leading troops in battle, among other things.

Socrates, who said “the un-examined life is not worth living”, could not have been prouder of this man. It’s fascinating how deeply Franklin examines himself, analyses his smallest failings and endeavors to improve them. He spent months maintaining a diary in which he gave himself black marks every day for offending his high standards of decency, integrity, and hard work. His methods of keeping a habit of daily study of some subject or other throughout his life are very motivating.

The book also gives a wonderful glimpse into early America, way back in time when the country as it is today was still being made. How Boston had paper currency whilst Philadelphia had silver, how business was financed not by banks but people of means, how the British aristocracy coerced ever more taxes from the colony in the name of protection, which ultimately led to the revolution. Most striking of all, though is that this isn’t told from a grand historical perspective, but from the point of view of one man who was involved with all of these dealings personally — a feat which, alas, is almost impossible in today’s world of specialists, where an economist can’t be a general, who can’t be a philosopher, who cannot afford to be a politician.

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