Celebrating 17 years

How Benjamin Franklin’s Dream Came True:

The Origins of the American Dream in His Autobiography

In the Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin achieved his goal by being able to express himself and his ideas freely. By expressing himself in the mode he felt was ideal, Franklin followed a similar cause that his Puritan ancestors came to America to accomplish. The Puritans first arrived in America in 1620 and founded the New England colony of Plymouth Plantation. The main reason the Puritans came to America was to escape an oppressive British Empire that disallowed them from expressing their belief that prayer and public confession to their congregation did not require the assistance of priests. Franklin instead settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and traveled extensively across America’s East coast to start his private printing house, a circulating library, newspaper along with various other accomplishments that someone of Franklin’s background would not have been allowed to do in England because of the King might have considered it spreading mutinous propaganda. Throughout my essay I will be arguing that Franklin attained the American dream because his Autobiography achieved its goal of being an open and liberal text that future generations of Americans would follow. The American dream can therefore be defined in Jeffersonian terms as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, attaining the American dream implies that one transgress all impediments to express the true definition of selfhood.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is a strict stance against old world values. The main old view value stated that “the Christian Church must deliver the laws which she hath received from her King, not dare make laws” (Hall xi). A key eighteenth century figure like Benjamin Franklin valued higher law values because allowing the government to interpret biblical passages the King could always place his own slant to make it seem that God ordained his leadership. Higher law practices instead advanced that God’s power was absolute and that no earthly being could rule the world. Franklin followed the New World belief because he lived his life with temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. Moreover, Franklin stressed how he “determined to give a Week’s strict Attention to each of the Virtues successively” (87).

Franklin’s schedule followed the New World’s tenants because he felt that church attendance was not mandatory to live life the way God ordained. Furthermore, Franklin’s virtues rejected English kings who would praise God’s word as their own and indulge in wealth while many citizens suffered from poverty. By placing the words “Week”, “Attention”, and “Virtues” in upper-case, Franklin stressed that his Virtues must be followed rigorously. Franklin spent an entire week on every Virtue and would move on to the next one only once he would not sway from the week’s Virtue in any way. Swaying from the week’s Virtue meant that Franklin would have to start the entire cycle over again. Perfecting the entire cycle is what made him the astute and hard working individual who accomplished tremendous feats and discovered significant technical innovations such as electricity that we still used today. Benjamin Franklin believed that every American must perfect each virtue in order to attain the America dream and make America into a great world power.

Another Old World value that Franklin rejected was the censoring of any idea not ordained by the King of Britain. The Autobiography was Franklin’s life long work that he dedicated to expressing his every thought and belief. Arriving in New England at about 1682, Benjamin Franklin’s father, Josiah, found that English Conventicles were often disturbed by English laws and that they “induced some considerable Men of his Acquaintance to remove to that Country, and he was prevailed with to accompany them tither, where they expected to enjoy their Mode of Religion with Freedom” (8). The Autobiography is therefore Franklin’s embodiment of expression that had his family remained in England would have been impossible to achieve. What makes Franklin’s mode of expression unique is that it draws exclusively on the self and allows the self to develop into a cohesive whole without the government imposing on it. Living in a land like America where its citizens could express themselves freely, writers like Franklin were able to establish a mode of expression that everyone could accurately represent themselves freely. It could then be argued that the first step in attaining the American dream was to reject Old World Values and adopt New World ones in place.

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography demonstrated that power and the ability to achieve the American dream lies in writing and literacy. Ormond Seavey has noted that Franklin’s “befriended a prominent Philadelphian who had formerly opposed his election of clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly by asking to borrow a rare book and thanking the man for the loan” (xii). Despite having his clerkship opposed by a prominent official, Franklin still managed to increase his knowledge by having this man loan him a book from his personal library. Moreover, by achieving his goal of winning a clerkship in Philadelphia Assembly allowed Franklin to impose his influence on American politics. According to Franklin, the America dream was rooted in the ability to read and write. In an era where few received a formal education, Franklin sought to resolve America’s high illiteracy rate by establishing the first public circulating library. Franklin amassed books collected from private donations from members of the Junto. America’s first public library was established in the following way:

And now I set on foot my first project of a public Nature, that for a Subscription Library. I drew up the Proposals, got them into Form by our great Scrivener Brockden, and by the help of my Friends in the Junto, procur’d fifty Subscribers of 40/ eachto being with & 10 / a year for 50 Years, the Term our Company was to continue. We afterwards obtain’d a Charter, the Company being increas’d to 100. This was the Mother of all the N American Subscription Libraries now so numerous. It is become a great thing itself, & continually increasing.—These Libraries have imporov’d the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common a Tradesmen & 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 Defense of their Privileges (Franklin 71-2).

Franklin’s definition of the American dream implied that everyone have the right to learn freely and receive an equal education despite class or social rank. The subscription fees that Franklin’s library charged its members were not for profit, but a means of generated money to purchase more books. During the Colonial era the America dream meant that public institutions must reinvest their earnings in educating its citizens and establish the idea that “[t]he safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment … and on that love of country which almost invariably be connected with birth, education and family” (Kauffman 42). The “common national sentiment” in Franklin’s Autobiography was an America ideal that could be made possible only once Americans were properly educated and understood their position in the nation. I must stress that although a contemporary reader may conclude that Franklin was a perfect egalitarian he was very much against eastern European immigration. Franklin feared that German immigration would have WASPs appropriate into German culture. What Franklin later suggested was that German immigrants be spread across America in very small numbers and slowly appropriate them into WASP culture. As section one of my essay has demonstrated, the American dream in Franklin’s Autobiography was invested largely in starting one codified national mindset and slowly begin a gradual melting pot.

The American Dream and Franklin’s Erratas:

Eighteenth century America was driven primarily by an awareness of expansion. The modern reader may have some difficulty grasping how Colonial Americans defined the America dream as being one of endless possibility. Franklin’s classification of the American dream implied an ideal that everyone had the chance to achieve the Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Franklin, the American dream was possible for anyone who had the willingness to work hard and honestly. In Franklin’s estimation, anyone who would abide by this maxim would either achieve success or be emulated for their effort. Even those who did not achieve their goal would still have made a contribution to their nation because they followed the understanding that hard labor and honesty are qualities that everyone must strive for.

Benjamin Franklin has traditionally been defined as a self-made man and rugged American individualist. The Autobiography is structured primarily around several errata that Franklin learned from throughout his life. For section two of my essay I will be defining errata as a mistake in printing or writing. What I will be arguing is that Franklin was a constant reviser of not only written work but also by of the way he lived his life and that the way to achieve the American dream was to constantly correct one’s errors until these errors were eradicated into good personal qualities or at least to have learned never to commit them again. My definition of rugged American individualism is that it was a persistent form of self-reliance in attaining a goal and success in conveying a message. Franklin’s first erratum was when he assumed responsibility of his brother James’ newspaper. During the pre-revolutionary era James Franklin’s newspaper, the New England Courant, published an article that urged against the Assembly. This article had James Franklin “censur’d and imprision’d for a Month by the Speaker’s Warrant” (Franklin 21) for what Benjamin Franklin termed “not discovering its authors.” Perhaps James Franklin’s unwillingness to divulge the author’s identity was either because he wrote the piece himself or that he agreed with the article’s content. Benjamin Franklin assumed responsibility of the paper to prevent it from ceasing publication. In order to free his brother, Franklin signed a new indenture that assured the Assembly would discharge his brother. Franklin’s great regret was that the “fresh Difference arising between my brother and me, I took it upon me to assert my Freedom, presuming that he would not venture to produce new Indentures” (21). Franklin simply assumed that his brother would accept the new changes made to the newspaper as though they were his own. Franklin later understood his error of having been “too savvy and provoking” by having assumed that his brother would share the same perspective he had and to never make a similar supposition again. What Franklin intended in his Autobiography was to explain to his readership how he understood his errors and how and why to correct them. Writing therefore became Franklin’s manner of explaining his wrongs and explicitly stating that he will never commit that particular wrong again. Franklin’s mode of conveying his sage was an effective one given that the reader is drawn into the narrative by Franklin’s assertive tone and will likely not commit the same errors.

Benjamin Franklin’s second errata occurs several pages later when he realizes that Vernon will never remit him the money required to clear their debt. After lifting Franklin Vernon from the river Franklin recalled how he and Vernon

hardly exchanged a civil Word afterwards; and A West Indian Captain who has commission to procure a Tutor for the Sons of a Gentleman at Barbados, happening to meet with him, agreed to carry him tither. He left me then, promising to remit me the first Money he should receive in order to discharge the Debt. But I never heard of him after.—The Breaking into this Money of Vernon’s was one of the first great Errata of my Life” (35).

What Franklin learnt was to remain self-reliant in market economy and not to rely too heavily on other people’s promises. Franklin and Vernon hardly ever “exchanged a civil word” because the money in question came between them. Since Vernon’s new employment made Franklin expendable, Vernon had no need to communicate with Franklin. What Franklin realized was to be careful in partnerships involving money because one partner my abandon the other once they receive a more lucrative offer elsewhere. With every errata that Franklin corrected he reformed himself by understanding his mistakes and learnt never to make the same mistake again.

The most interesting of Franklin’s errata is the third one because it is the only error he was unable to correct. The error Franklin committed was to have spent all his earnings with Ralph “in going to Plays and other Places of Amusement” (44). Franklin warned his readership to avoid frivolous spending no matter how much one earns or has saved because such spending was why he was unable to pay his passage. Had Franklin saved his money he would have been able to move more freely. Franklin was unable to fully correct this erratum because he could never reclaim the money he spent. Franklin did redeem himself because he spent his money wisely from then on.

While at Palmer’s Franklin was assigned to work on the second edition of Woollaston’s Religion of Nature. Franklin had great doubts about some of Woollaston’s theories so he composed a pamphlet entitled A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. Although Mr. Palmer recognized Franklin as an industrious young man, he nonetheless “expostulated” (44) Franklin’s reasoning considering it abominable. Franklin considered publishing a counter to Woollaston’s theories another errata of his life because he did not receive his superior’s authorization before releasing the text. What Franklin learned was that at work one must always verify with their superiors if their actions are acceptable or not and to always build on constructive criticism.

Benjamin Franklin’s errata were not always about money or business affairs but about restraint and morality. Having grown fond of Mrs. T, Franklin attempted “familiarities … which she repulsed with a proper Resentment” (46). Franklin blames this lapse in morality to the fact that she was “under no religious Restraints” and presumed his importance to her because he assisted Mrs. T a great deal financially. By giving Mrs. T to ward him off with “a proper resentment,” Franklin gives women a great degree of power that most other early American male writers would not allow. Mrs. T then becomes the moral point of reference that set Franklin back on the right moral track that he needed to follow in order to realize the American dream. Women therefore play a pivotal role in Franklin’s ideal because they must ensure that men control their sexual inhibitions.

Benjamin Franklin did not regard owning money to be shameful provided that one paid their debts off honestly. Paying his debt to Mr. Vernon for the money he borrowed was done honestly and without deceit. After writing a careful letter of explanation, Mr. Vernon allowed Franklin a little more time to pay “the Principle with Interest & many Thanks” (65). Franklin quickly qualified his statement by asserting that “that Erratum was now in some degree corrected.” Franklin never tried to avoid Mr. Vernon or make a promise that he was unable to keep. By paying his debts in an honest and timely manner, Franklin achieved life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because not only did he pay his debts through hard work, but also because he did so honestly with Mr. Vernon from beginning to end.

Franklin’s last errata is perhaps the most important one because he learned not to place money over love. Franklin erroneously placed money over love by leaving Miss. Read in England to pursue work in America. The proposed marriage between Franklin and Miss. Read was considered “invalid” (70) because husband and wife were not to be separated for several months at a time. Miss. Read then married another man who mysteriously disappeared while he was in great debts. On September 1, 1730 Franklin retuned to England to marry Miss. Read and settle with her in America despite the possibility of having to accept responsibility of her previous husband’s debts. Together Franklin and Miss. Read “attended shop together” (71), “throve together”, and “mutually endeavored to make each other happy.” Franklin was able to correct his error because he managed to find a way to place love over money while still prospering financially. Moreover, Franklin and his new wife both participated equally in the shop. Such a partnership demonstrated how a couple who truly loves on another will overcome all obstacles. Furthermore, by being able to correct this errata, Franklin learned from his mistakes and was able to profit as though the error never occurred. By correcting these errata, Franklin achieved the America dream because he was able to learn from his mistakes. Franklin’s awareness and persistence is what has made him an enduring figure in World History. The American dream in Autobiography can therefore be seen as a continual process of self-awareness and the willingness to attain perfection.

Autobiography and the American Dream:

Why did Benjamin Franklin choose autobiography to be the genre to express life story and view points? Why has the Autobiography remained the text scholars still draw upon as the origin of the America dream? During eighteenth America the narrative or more specifically the autobiography was the genre of choice among writers. Ormond Seavey has suggested that in the Autobiography Benjamin Franklin insisted “that the mode of identity he embodie[d]—one that entitle[d] consciousness and continual control over every aspect of life—is the only life worth living through to the end” (94). I argue that Franklin chose autobiography to express himself because it allowed him to control his narrative and have the reader drawn closer to his experiences.

Although Franklin was a well-versed individual, the reader must not forget that he never received a college education because his father was unable to afford the tuition fees. Instead Franklin’s father sent his to a school for writing and arithmetic and taken to “assist [his] Father in his Business, which was that of a Tallow Chandler and Scope-Boiler” (Franklin 9). What Franklin ultimately accomplished in his Autobiography was to “emphasize his life as a noble example of the results of industry and perseverance “(Zall 9) and also serve “as a sentimental center for nationalistic feelings, helping to bind an entire people by a common heritage.” The common heritage Franklin established was an American strive for a common goal to achieve a dream based on a national identity driven by hard work and honesty. Franklin’s statemernt that “tho’ I pleaded the Usefulness of the Work, mine convince’d me that nothing was useful which was not honest” (10) sets the course for a text that was written through hard honest work by a man who achieved the American dream by following these very qualities.

In a contemporary context Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography remains an important text because of its emphasis on honesty and hard work. Franklin’s writing continues to be taught in high schools and across university campuses because it teaches students to study, work hard and remain honest. By following Franklin’s maxims the reader learns that morals, family and honest labor should always be placed before money. Moreover, as an autobiography Franklin’s text advocated that achieving the American dream stems from within the individual self and that it should not be affected by any outside circumstances.

 

Works Cited

Franklin, Benjamin. “Autobiography.” Autobiography and Other Writings. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. 1-180.

Hall, David. “From the Old to the New World.” Puritans in the New World: a Critical Anthology. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004-3-8.

Kaufman, Eric D. “Limited Liberals: ‘Double-Consciousness’ in Anglo-American Thought, 1720-1920.” The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2004. 37-57.

Seavey, Ormond. “General Introduction.” Autobiography and Other Writings. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ix-xxii.

---. “Franklin’s Identity in the Autobiography.” Becoming Benjamin Franklin: the Autobiography and Life. University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988. 93-6.

Zall, P.M. “The Importance of the Work.” Franklin’s Autobiography: a Model Life. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. 7-10.

Recommended Readings

Bercovitch, Scavan. The Puritan Origins of the Self. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975.

Miguez, Ricardo. American Dreams: Dialogues in U.S. Studies. Ed.: Ricardo Miguez.

Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2007.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin’s Letters to the Press, 1758-1775. Ed.: Vernon W. Crane. Chapell Hill: University of Carolina Press, 1950.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. New York and London: Penguin Classics, 1986.

Stern, Milton, and Seymour L. Gross. American Literature Survey: Colonial and Federal

To 1800. New York: The Viking Press, 1965.