Monday, March 26, 2012

Ben Franklin's "Compleated Autobiography": First Thoughts

After the dismal story of Joseph Stalin's rise to power, I was hungry for a more uplifting biography, and one closer to home.  So, when I saw The Compleated Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin on the shelves of my audiobook shop, I eagerly picked it up.  Like a typical American, I have some nebulous ideas about Franklin as an accomplished statesman, inventor, scientist, and Founding Father of my country, but these perceptions tend to be changed by the long fermentations of history, spiked with the obligatory patriotic admiration.  But who was he, really?

Having just read Stalin's story, it will be interesting to compare these two historical figures.  Ben Franklin is something close to a demi-god to Americans, and it seems Stalin and his government worked to instill a similar opinion of himself during his rule of the Soviet Union.  Both men were revolutionaries with above-average intelligence and considerable charisma.  What about their personalities distinguishes these two towering figures of history?  What characteristics resulted in one being remembered as a brutally repressive dictator while the other persists as a beloved national hero?  It may seem naive, bizarre, or even offensive to make this comparison, but I'm trying to remain open-minded since my opinions of these historical figures are certainly colored by my education and culture.

In fact, it might not be fair to base my comparison on these two books.  Ben Franklin's autobiography was largely written by the man himself, then ultimately compiled and edited by historian and Franklin descendant Mark Skousen in 2007, more than two centuries after Franklin's death.  Young Stalin, on the other hand, is written entirely from the perspective of a modern Western historian who is not at all sympathetic to the dictator or his cause.  Certainly the tone of the two books will differ greatly with regard to their subjects.  Yet I do think that actions speak louder than words, and I hope that the actions and choices these two men made will provide a fair testament to their respective characters.

Now into the third chapter, I am already impressed by the clarity and versatility of Franklin's thought.  In one minute he is discussing tax disputes with the proprietors of Pennsylvania, and in the next, he is describing a musical instrument he invented or a chemistry experiment he conducted with Cambridge professor John Hadley.  Then, his mind will turn to a critique of a religious text and its moral implications.  Reading these words two and a half centuries later, Franklin's words still speak of a sharp mind tirelessly examining all aspects of the world around him, and an earnest desire to offer improvements when possible.

A modern replica of Franklin's musical instrument, the armonica.
His philosophy was clearly influenced by his Puritan upbringing.  He valued hard work, good deeds towards others, and a measure of sobriety (on returning to his home town of Philadelphia in 1762 he decried the rapid proliferation of taverns there in his six-year absence).  Yet he always had one foot firmly planted outside of his times, and a long stride he had.  While he must have been a racist by modern standards, Franklin, upon visiting a "negro school" in Philadelphia with a clergyman friend, observed that the children's "apprehension seems as quick, their memory as strong, and their docility in every respect equal to that of white children."  It took the rest of society two more centuries to come to that recognition of equality, and some still haven't caught on.  Similarly, when mobs of angry countrymen began brutally massacring innocent Native Americans in their midst, Franklin took initiative to condemn these attacks and secured the majority public opinion behind him.  Still, he didn't express any guilt over his countrymen taking the Natives' land in the first place.

I'm only just delving into this book, but so far it seems that Franklin was a remarkable person who deserves every bit of his reputation.  He was both an optimist and a realist, seeking to appraise every situation clearly and then make the best of it.  I may have to work harder to read between the lines for Franklin's faults... but in any case, looking forward to learning more.

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