To this day, the figure of Benjamin Franklin is evocative of something quintessentially American, as though a true American could be identified by the degree to which they approximate that figure. Readers of Franklin’s autobiography may scan Franklin’s mannerisms and qualities for confirmation of existing identities or individualized schemata for betterment. Franklin everywhere encourages people toward health, wisdom, and success.
In pursuit of this betterment-by-role-model, readers of Franklin find themselves urged to acknowledge a difference between Benjamin Franklin’s life and their own lives. Franklin operates within the society of his audience, aspiring to a tenuous conception of perfection. So, oddly, the apparently warm and wise figure of Franklin is involved in the manipulative presentation of his self as separate from both his society and his audience.
The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already read the book.
In Franklin’s work, the appeals to humility and self-effacement are belied by a clear establishment of division between Franklin’s assayed perfection and his community. The first inkling of a less-than-inclusive self-presentation comes when Franklin concedes his own vanity as an inspiration for his work: “I give [Vanity] fair Quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of Good to the Possessor & to others that are within his Sphere of Action” (Franklin 4).
In this line, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography reveals his valuation of himself to be the attribute from which his public works result. Unlike his later apparent concession that his vanity opposes his perfection, this portion addressed to his son portrays vanity as an aspect of Franklin’s honesty; those who state otherwise in writing about themselves, he implies, are simply lying.
And Franklin is also careful to point out that it is customary of those who are not himself to put on such airs of modesty. Yet Franklin, who at the outset establishes a vain motivation for pursuing his writing, puts on the costume of modesty in such instances as the assumption of uncertainty into his polemical discourse (Franklin 17) and the hiding of his library project behind the feigned involvement of his peers (Franklin 78-9).
This disconnect between Franklin’s motives and actions in his autobiography is indicative of a manipulative, though not a malicious, intent. Humility is a tool which Franklin counts alongside his industry, morality, and economy as a means to acquiring a desired end.
The residents of colonial and later of free Massachusetts may count themselves lucky that Benjamin Franklin utilized his calculating mind for conducting his Junto, making experiments, and putting together community institutions, as it can hardly be said that such duplicity is either common or even entirely admirable.
When, after a long hiatus, Franklin resumes writing his autobiography, now addressed directly to the public, the affected modesty of Franklin’s self-presentation is greater, while the division between himself and his reader becomes explicit: “But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, [. . .] yet I was by the Endeavor a better and a happier Man than I should have been, if I had not attempted it” (Franklin 90).
Franklin sets himself up in this passage, and in the preceding carefully arranged schedules and charts, as an asymptotic grasper at perfection. It is precisely in this way that Franklin intends to present himself as a representative figure: not as one like the reader, but as an emblem of what the reader should aspire to be.
Even in his comments about the value of the “speckled Ax” earlier on the same page, one can not help but find the aforementioned discourse of hiding a certainty—in this case the certainty that moral perfection ought to be sought exactly how Benjamin Franklin has sought it—behind a modest sentiment—in this case the sentiment that his own failure to become entirely perfect makes the reader’s inevitable failure justified.
This is the great irony of Franklin’s autobiography: all of his appeals to virtue and self-effacement in service of the community serve only to make Franklin stand more conspicuous among his peers as an intended symbol of industry, wisdom, and success.
It may be shown, then, that the figure of Benjamin Franklin which comes to the modern American is one painstakingly constructed by the historical Franklin. Further, it may be shown that approximating a figure who is himself approximating a state of moral perfection is equally futile to the pursuit of perfection in the abstract.
Then, if such a figure is to be the source of an example for oneself and one’s progeny, one may be reticent to place such a high premium on emulating the interesting and renowned, but nonetheless manipulative and unattainable Benjamin Franklin present in his autobiography. Next week I will propose another early American as a better candidate for that quintessential American position: an alternative who is not manipulative, vain, and moralizing, but instead erudite, subtle, and truly humble.