The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Part 1 Summary
Franklin writes to his son, William, the governor of New Jersey, from Twyford, England, in 1771.
He is doing research on his ancestors and thinks his son might be interested in anecdotes about his (Franklin's) life, so he decides to put them in writing. In other words, he's looking for an excuse to write about his life.
Franklin reflects that if he could live his life over again, he'd do it pretty much the same way, only stopping to correct some small mistakes.
Since people can't relive their lives the way they can rewrite books, though, Franklin rationalizes that the best substitute is to "recollect" your life through writing.
First, he thanks God for the great life he's had so far.
Franklin then recounts his ancestry, which he learned about from papers collected by his uncle.
He says his English ancestors worked in many trades, like smithing, wool dyeing, and silk dyeing.
They also stuck to their guns when it came to religion, standing up for Protestantism even when there was a Catholic queen (Mary) on the throne.
Franklin's father, Josiah, had two wives and seventeen children. Franklin, who was born in Boston, was the second youngest.
He begins his education at eight by going to grammar school, but because his parents don't have enough money, by age ten he has to help his father in his candle- and soap-making business. Franklin hates it.
He describes his father as a tough guy who's pretty fair and has a lot of influence in the community. About his mother, though, Franklin just says she was really healthy and nursed all her children. He gets sidetracked talking about the headstone he placed on their joint grave.
Back to Franklin's life, which he picks up at age twelve: since he's still not satisfied with making candles, his father takes him around to look at a bunch of different trades.
What Franklin really likes is reading. He reads whatever he can get his hands on: Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Burton's Historical Collections, Plutarch's Lives, and Defoe's An Essay on Projects.
Since Franklin loves books so much, his father decides he should train to become a printer, just like his older brother James.
Franklin signs indenture papers to work for his brother as a journeyman until he's twenty-one.
The best thing about his new job is the access he has to so many books, good and bad.
He's inspired to write two lengthy, trashy poems, which his brother prints and Franklin gets to sell. If his father hadn't told him that his poetry was terrible, Franklin might have become a poet.
Franklin becomes friends with another kid who likes to read, John Collins, and they begin writing arguments or debates to each other in order to practice and improve their writing.
He also begins reading the Spectator (a periodical written by Addison and Steele), and uses it as a tool to practice his reading comprehension and writing skills.
At sixteen, after reading a book about vegetarianism, Franklin begins to start practicing it. The best thing about this is that his brother hands over the business of paying for and planning meals to Franklin: he lives frugally and saves a lot of the money. He also takes the time usually spent on meals to read and educate himself.
Franklin keeps reading books on arithmetic and navigation, philosophy, rhetoric and logic, and religious doctrine.
He shows his impressive educational background by quoting Pope's An Essay on Criticism and editing it so it emphasizes the idea that immodest words make no sense.
In the early 1720s, Franklin's brother starts printing The New England Courant, the second American newspaper.
Franklin wants to contribute to the paper but worries his brother won't take him seriously, so he writes an article anonymously – the first of the Silence Dogood series – and submits it, receiving high praise.
However, Franklin's getting dissatisfied with his brother James, who treats him more like an underling than a relative and frequently beats him. Franklin would like nothing more than to get out of the contract he has with James.
When a political article is published in the newspaper, James is arrested and put in jail. While he's in jail, Franklin gets to be in charge of the paper, which he loves.
After James is released from jail, he's not allowed to print the paper under his own name, so the brothers arrange to start publishing the paper under "Benjamin Franklin."
As part of this deal, Franklin is released from the indenture papers he signed before and gets to sign new, secret ones. In this new agreement, Franklin finds a loophole for quitting his brother's business. Later, he'll consider this one of the first big errors of his life.
Since Franklin is leaving his brother in the lurch, James makes sure Franklin can't find work anywhere else in Boston.
Franklin disguises himself and sails for New York, where he arrives with no job, no prospects, and hardly any money.
He finds a printer named William Bradford and asks for a job.
Bradford doesn't have any openings, but refers Franklin to his son Andrew's printing practice in Philadelphia. Andrew Bradford's second in command, Aquila Rose, has just died, so his father thinks he could use the extra help.
Franklin sets off for Philadelphia on a dangerous voyage. Squalls and storms divert his boat to Long Island, where he catches a fever. When the fever gets better he catches a ferry and then walks fifty miles to Burlington (eighteen miles away from Philadelphia).
In Burlington, Franklin stays at an inn run by Dr. John Browne, who becomes one of his life-long friends.
By the time he gets to Philadelphia, Franklin is disheveled, dirty, and hungry. With the little money he has, he buys three big rolls (which to us would look like great loaves of bread), and walks down the street looking for somewhere to stay, eating one roll and holding the others under each arm.
Franklin will later find out that as he walked around holding all this bread, he walked right by the house of his father-in-law, and his future wife saw him. We guess first impressions aren't everything.
Franklin gives away his extra bread to a poor mother and child before sleeping in a Quaker meeting house.
A friendly Quaker leads him to the Crooked Billet, where Franklin eats and rests before seeking out Andrew Bradford.
At Bradford's print shop, Franklin runs into William Bradford again. Andrew Bradford tells Franklin he no longer has a job for him, but there's another printer in town named Samuel Keimer who might.
William Bradford goes with Franklin to Keimer's; Keimer tests Franklin on his printing skills and is satisfied.
He offers Franklin work as soon as some comes in for him to do.
In the meantime, since Keimer doesn't know that Bradford's the father of the other main printer in town, Bradford takes advantage of the situation to snoop around on his business.
Keimer's print shop is small and shabby, but he has a little work for Franklin: an elegy for Aquila Rose (Andrew Bradford's deceased employee), some pamphlets, and some cases.
Franklin stays at Bradford's for a while until Keimer decides he shouldn't be living with the competition, and sends him to board at the Reads', home of Franklin's future wife.
Franklin doesn't think much of either Philadelphian printer, but he starts making friends and trying to make a good home for himself away from Boston.
He's unpleasantly reminded of Boston, though, when his brother-in-law Robert Homes writes him a letter asking him to go back to his friends in Boston. Franklin refuses.
Franklin doesn't know it, but Homes shows Sir William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania, his letter. The governor is really impressed and promises to give Franklin business in Philadelphia.
Since Franklin doesn't know about the governor's interest, he's surprised to see him arrive at Keimer's workplace, along with a friend, Colonel French.
The Governor and the Colonel take Franklin for drinks, and offer to set him up as a printer with lots of government business. Franklin needs his father's assistance, but is worried he won't get it, so the governor offers to write him a letter of recommendation.
Franklin keeps this secret from his boss, Keimer, and sets sail for Boston only seven months after leaving.
Everyone is happy to see Franklin again except his brother James. Franklin makes matters worse when he visits his old workplace dressed in better clothes, with money to spare and tales of how great he has it in Philadelphia.
Even though Franklin's father first seems impressed by the governor's letter, he thinks Franklin is too young and immature to be set up in charge of such an important and valuable business.
Franklin meets up again with his friend John Collins, who's now working at the post office. They arrange to rendezvous later in New York.
Meanwhile, his father encourages him to go back to Philadelphia to work hard and save money. If Franklin can make a good start towards saving and show he's serious about the business, his father will help him out when he turns twenty-one.
Franklin goes to New York by way of Rhode Island, where he visits his brother John. His brother's friend Vernon entrusts Franklin with the task of picking up some money that he's owed once Franklin gets to Pennsylvania.
On the voyage to New York, Franklin narrowly escapes falling in with some women who are not all they seem and is warned against it by a friendly Quaker woman; he later finds out that they're thieves who tried to rob the ship's captain.
In New York, Franklin meets up with Collins. They pick up where they left off in their friendship, which is partially based on scholarship and intellectual conversation, but Franklin is kind of annoyed Collins is turning out to be a drunk, and one who's lost a lot of money gambling.
Franklin and Collins are on the way back to Philadelphia when Franklin picks up the money that's owed to Vernon. But Collins doesn't pull his own weight: he keeps drinking and borrowing money from Franklin, and he can't sober up long enough to get a job.
Collins needs so much money that they use some of Vernon's, to Franklin's dismay.
One night, when they're out on a boat with some other guys, Collins is so drunk he refuses to row. He and Franklin start arguing, and Franklin throws him overboard.
Their friendship doesn't really recover from this. Collins gets a job as a tutor in Barbados, and leaves, but he never pays back the money he owes Franklin.
Franklin regrets spending some of Vernon's money, but he doesn't suffer too much from it. (Vernon won't come to collect for a few years.)
Even though his father won't lend him money for the business, the governor offers to do it. He tells Franklin to make a list of everything he needs – Franklin will need to special order some inventory from England – and says he can pay him back later.
Franklin doesn't realize that he governor makes a lot of promises he doesn't keep, so he thinks it's awesome when the governor offers to send him to England to select items for his printing shop in person.
At this point, Franklin also decides to start eating fish again, rationalizing his decision by the fact that fish eat other fish, so people might as well also eat fish.
Meanwhile, Franklin keeps working for Keimer without mentioning the governor's plan to set him up in his own business. They have a pleasant relationship and challenge each other to set up a new "Sect," in which people will keep the seventh-day Sabbath, grow full beards, and not eat animal food. This idea only lasts about three months.
Franklin begins courting Deborah Read, but they don't make any serious commitments because they're both so young.
He makes friends with several Philadelphians: Charles Osborne, Joseph Watson, and James Ralph.
They all like to read literature, especially poetry, and talk about it. James Ralph wanted to be a poet, but, Franklin tells us, he'll become a good prose writer. The others will die young.
James Ralph decides to go with Franklin on his governor-sponsored trip to England.
While Franklin is supposed to pick up several letters of credit and recommendation from the governor to take with him on his voyage, the governor keeps putting him off, and Franklin has to sail without them. Franklin leaves for England, believing that the governor will arrange for these letters to be sent to him when he arrives.
When the ship docks at New Castle before crossing the Atlantic, Colonel French brings some letters on board that Franklin believes are from the governor. The captain won't let him open them until they land in England, though. Also in New Castle, the lawyer Andrew Hamilton and his son James, who were supposed to be sailing to England, suddenly disembark so they can work on a case.
On the voyage, Franklin makes friends with Mr. Denham, a Quaker.
Upon their arrival in England, Franklin can't find any letters addressed to him. He takes some that seem to be in the governor's handwriting to a creditor, but they turn out to be written by someone else, William Riddlesden, and are no good.
Franklin turns to Mr. Denham, who tells him the truth about the governor's character: he can't be trusted and that he probably never meant to write Franklin any letters. Instead, Mr. Denham tells Franklin, he needs to find some work in England.
Franklin figures out that the letters from Riddlesden were part of a plot to discredit Andrew Hamilton, who's a friend of Mr. Denham's. By telling Mr. Denham about this, Franklin becomes his lifelong friend.
James Ralph and Franklin set up housing in London and begin looking for work. Ralph has a hard time finding a job, but Franklin gets lucky with the famed Palmer's Printing-House, where he works for about a year. During this time, he's always lending Ralph money.
The men go to a lot of plays and don't manage to save any money. Ralph forgets about his wife and child, while Franklin doesn't think much about his girlfriend, Deborah.
While working at Palmer's, Franklin writes A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, which he later regrets doing, even though it helps him meet different people in London.
Since he's living next door to a bookseller named Wilcox, Franklin gets to borrow books from him, which may have given him ideas for starting a library.
The surgeon William Lyons reads Franklin's pamphlet, is impressed, and introduces him to Bernard Mandeville (author of Fable of the Bees) and Dr. Henry Pemberton. Franklin also meets Sir Hans Sloane, future president of the Royal Society.
Ralph falls in love with a milliner and moves in with her, but he has to move to the country to work when they run out of money.
While he's in the country, he uses Franklin's name as his own.
Because the milliner has run out of money, she relies more and more on Franklin, who takes this as an invitation to come on to her. She turns him down and tells Ralph, who decides that, based on this, he no longer has to pay Franklin the money he owed him.
Franklin regrets losing Ralph as a friend, but is glad that he can start saving money on his own, and begins working at a larger printing house called Watts'.
While working at Watts', he's amazed at how the other printers drink strong beer to make themselves "strong," even though Franklin clearly explains to them why that's irrational.
Although at first Franklin is reluctant to contribute to a drinking pool with his new colleagues, he relents after they begin teasing him. In turn, he teaches them to eat cheaper and healthier breakfasts.
Franklin changes lodging to live in Duke Street, which is nearer to his new job. Here, he keeps his new landlady, a widow, company.
The landlady enjoys his company so much she charges him very little rent for the remainder of his time in London. Franklin also has an interesting encounter with a maiden lady who lives in the building and teaches him about Catholicism.
At his new job, Franklin makes friends with a guy named Wygate, who is better educated due to his wealthy background. Franklin teaches him how to swim.
Wygate and Franklin become close, and Wygate asks Franklin to travel with him throughout Europe.
When Franklin tells Mr. Denham about the plan, though, Denham tells him it's time to start planning to return to Philadelphia.
Franklin briefly reveals Denham's honorable past: Denham had been a businessman in Bristol who had debts with many people. When he couldn't keep them, he moved to America to make his fortune. He came back to England – on the same ship as Franklin – and paid back every single one of his creditors. Franklin is very impressed by this history.
Based on what he knows of the man, Franklin agrees to get out of the printing business and go with Denham back to Philadelphia, as his clerk.
Right before their ship leaves for Philadelphia, Franklin is given a meeting with Sir William Wygate, who wants Franklin to teach his sons how to swim. Franklin decides to pass on this offer and return to America, although he thinks he would make a lot of money if he stayed to start a "Swimming School."
Finally, in 1726, Franklin sails back to America. On the voyage, he works on a Plan for how to behave in life in his Journal (today, we can only read the "Preamble" and the "Outline"). Franklin says it's amazing how well he sticks to it throughout his life.
Back in Philadelphia, many things have changed. Major Patrick Gordon has replaced Governor Keith in his governmental position; when Franklin sees Keith in the street, they don't even talk to each other.
Franklin learns that Deborah Read, his girlfriend, had gotten engaged (technically married) to a guy named Rogers while he was in England, but now she's single again because Rogers ran off. This makes him feel a little better about not having been in touch.
He learns that his old boss, Keimer, is doing pretty well, but that doesn't stop him from working with Mr. Denham in his new business.
Working with Denham is going great until they both get sick with pleurisy (like pneumonia, but scarier).
Franklin's lucky enough to recover, but Denham dies. The business reverts to Denham's heirs, and Franklin has to figure out some new employment.
With only a few options, he starts working for Keimer again.
At Keimer's, Franklin works with Hugh Meredith, Stephen Potts, a serviceman named John, George Webb, and David Harry. None of them know as much about printing as Franklin, and he figures out that Keimer's just using him to teach the other, less experienced guys what to do – after that, Keimer will probably fire him.
He makes good friends with Meredith, a smart and decent guy who sometimes drinks a little too much.
Even though Franklin makes himself super-useful, including creating molds for letters of type, he can tell that Keimer's less and less interested in having him around.
After Keimer yells at Franklin in public, they have a heated argument and Franklin quits.
This turns out to be for the best, though, because Meredith comes to Franklin and suggests they should go into partnership together after Meredith is done working for Keimer. Meredith's family money and Franklin's business experience make for a good match.
While they're waiting for Meredith's contract with Keimer to run its course, Franklin gets a job printing money in Burlington with Keimer. Keimer only hires him because of his special talents.
During their time in Burlington, everyone compares Franklin favorably with Keimer. Franklin makes several important friends there, including Judge Allen, Province Secretary Samuel Bustill, Isaac Pearson, Joseph Cooper, and Surveyor General Isaac Decow.
Franklin pauses in his narrative to talk about the shape of his mind, principles, and morals. He says he was brought up to be a religious person, but began having doubts because he did so much reading. As a consequence of his reading, he became a Deist. He says that while he liked believing in Deism, it was not very practical. Instead, he decides to work on "truth, sincerity, and integrity."
Back in Philadelphia, Franklin and Meredith split from Keimer and start their new business. Because they can't afford the rent on their building, they split it with a workman named Thomas Godfrey and his family.
As soon as they've finished setting up, a friend named George House brings in their first customer. Franklin says the five shillings they first earned made him happier than any other income he'll have.
Despite ill wishes from guys like Samuel Mickle, a Philadelphia misanthrope, Franklin and Meredith's business begins to prosper.
Franklin reveals that a club he helped found, called the Junto, is now almost a year old and going well. The members of Junto meet on Friday nights to discuss essays and debate political and philosophical ideas.
Other members of the Junto included Meredith, Potts, and Webb, as well as Joseph Breintnall, Nicholas Scull, William Parsons, William Maugridge, Robert Grace, and William Coleman. Many of them helped bring customers to Franklin's printing shop.
People in town are impressed by Franklin's industry and dedication to getting each job done.
When Webb comes to Franklin to ask him for a job, Franklin lets it slip that he's thinking of starting a newspaper. Even though he asks Webb to keep it a secret, Webb tells their old boss, Keimer. Keimer starts printing a newspaper, which keeps Franklin from starting his own.
Instead, Franklin bides his time while writing pieces for Bradford's paper.
Keimer's paper operates at a loss for some time, until he offers to sell it to Franklin very cheaply.
In only a few years, Franklin says, the paper now known as the Pennsylvania Gazette begins making him a nice profit.
Even though these achievements are shared in his partnership with Meredith, Franklin explains that it's really him doing all the work – Meredith drinks a lot and isn't very good at his printing job.
Luckily, Franklin's choice of topic in the first few papers – Governor Burnet's debate with the state Assembly – catches public interest and garners new subscribers.
When Franklin and Bradford's papers cover the same events, Franklin's paper looks more professional and has more success. Because of this, his company is voted Printer of the Year for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. One reason Franklin's press might have gotten this gig, though, is because his old acquaintance Andrew Hamilton is a member of the House.
At this point in his life, Franklin is also able to repay his old debt to Vernon, with interest.
However, soon Franklin runs into an unexpected difficulty, which is that his investment partner, Meredith's father, can no longer invest as much in printing business as they had expected.
Franklin fears that the business will have to be sold to pay the debts that remain without this investment. Luckily, two friends, William Coleman and Robert Grace, both offer to help Franklin pay off the debts, if he abandons the partnership with Meredith.
Franklin honorably offers to stand by Meredith as long as there is a chance that he'll come through on the investment.
However, Meredith decides that he'd rather move to North Carolina to be a farmer. He asks to honorably dissolve the terms of their partnership.
Free from the earlier agreement, Franklin borrows money from each of his friends, Coleman and Grace, and presses onward with the business.
Nearly simultaneously, Franklin lucks out by getting two contracts to print paper money for the state. This helps his business grow.
Franklin opens a stationery shop, pays off assorted debts, and hires an apprentice.
His old boss, Keimer, retires to Barbados, and his apprentice David Harry succeeds him.
Franklin offers Harry a partnership, which the latter refuses. This turns out to be a good thing for Franklin, because Harry's got really expensive tastes and runs his business into the ground. He ends up going to Barbados too.
This leaves Bradford as Franklin's only competition in Philadelphia, and Bradford seems to be more interested in managing the post office. Because he's connected to the post office, though, more people buy his papers than Franklin's.
All this time, Franklin has been renting part of the business space to the Godfreys, who now try to set him up with a relative's daughter.
When Franklin requests a dowry, the Godfreys back out of the deal, which causes tension between them, and soon they move out of Franklin's place.
Franklin can't stop thinking about marriage, though, even though most of the women he'd be interested in marrying think he doesn't have enough money to be a suitable candidate. This means he visits some whores, which he regrets later. He's mainly just glad he doesn't catch any diseases.
He gets back in touch with Deborah, and they decide to get married, even though they can't marry in a church because, technically, they can't prove her first marriage was invalid. Since they both consider that it was, though, they get married in a civil ceremony in 1730.
Around that same time, Franklin's club gets together and plans out one of the first American circulating libraries. They gather together books but can't get enough for a respectable library.
So, Franklin goes public. He writes proposals and gathers fifty subscribing members.
The club is so successful that soon he writes it a Charter, and they expand to one hundred members.
As Franklin tells us, this was the first of many North American Subscription Libraries, and it has proved to be a great part of American culture.
Franklin ends this section by telling the reader that what he's written so far has been oriented to family, with the intention to recollect his life for a few others, just like he talked about in the beginning. The next part, he says, is more public and talks about advice more generally.
He takes a break in between writing the parts because of the American Revolution.