Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Ambition

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I went however with the Governor and Colonel French, to a Tavern the Corner of Third Street, and over the Madeira he propos'd my Setting up my Business […] both he and Colonel French assur'd me I should have their Interest and Influence in procuring the Public-Business of both Governments. (1.40)

As a young guy Franklin's susceptible to flattery and status, and when high-ranking men suggest he start up his own business, Franklin's all ears. Governor Keith and Colonel French tempt Franklin with ideas about government-related success and with Madeira. Liquor is just as convincing as their ideas for his promotion, but even more delicious is the idea that he'd have such important "Influence" working on his behalf.

The Governor treated me with great Civility, show'd me his Library, which was a very large one, and we had a good deal of Conversation about Books and Authors. This was the second Governor who had done me the Honor to take Notice of me, which to a poor Boy like me was very pleasing. (1. 46)

Franklin puts himself down, saying he's just a "poor Boy," but for a simple guy he's meeting a lot of high-ranking officials. Here, Franklin achieves a kind of temporary equality with this governor by using the cultural capital – his self-education – that he possesses. In other words, he's able to talk to the governor like an equal because he's done such an impressive amount of reading.

But from this Incident I thought it likely, that if I were to remain in England and open a Swimming School, I might get a good deal of Money. And it struck me so strongly, that had the Overture been sooner made me, probably I should not so soon have returned to America. (1.77)

Franklin is tempted by the dubious honor of opening and running a swimming school. It's hard to imagine his ambitious ideas of empire-building and scientific discovery being satisfied with teaching English kids how to swim. There can't be so much money, or honor, in teaching swimming – no offense to swim teachers – that running a swimming school could best helping run a national government.

what will the World say if kind, humane and benevolent Ben Franklin should leave his Friends and the World deprived of so pleasing and profitable a Work, a Work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions. (2.3)

Here, Abel James is encouraging Franklin to keep writing by appealing to his ambitious side. He doesn't just stop at flattering Franklin personally or complimenting how "pleasing" his book could be, he asserts that Franklin's book is going to have impact on "millions" of people. What's funny about this is that James is right. Franklin's book is "useful and entertaining," and, as a long-term bestseller, it has been read by tons of people. In what we can say is a kind of "speech-act" (very basically, that's a technical term for how saying something can call it into being), James foretells the future of the Autobiography.

The Objections, and Reluctances I met with in Soliciting the Subscriptions, made me soon feel the Impropriety of presenting oneself as the Proposer of any useful Project that might be suppos'd to raise one's Reputation in the smallest degree above that of one's Neighbors, when one has need of their Assistance to accomplish that Project. (2.35)

Franklin's cluing us in to one of the key components of successful people: don't let your ambition show on the outside. If you really are ambitious about "Projects," you'll let go of your ego for the greater good of whatever you're supporting. By putting your ego aside, this passage says, it's much easier to get other people to help you out and take on aspects of the project too. If you try to steal all the credit, though, to gratify your personal ambition, projects like these may not take off at all.

I from thence consider'd Industry as a Means of obtaining Wealth and Distinction, which encourag'd me; tho' I did not think that I should ever literally stand before Kings, which however has since happened; for I have stood before five, and even had the honor of sitting down with one, the King of Denmark, to Dinner. (2.36)

Hard work reaps its own rewards. Franklin's moderately ambitious, but he doesn't hope for or plan on hanging out with monarchs. Because he's so industrious, though, his good works lead him to even higher honors than he had aspired to. He seems to only be ambitious about making a nice salary and a difference in the world, but ends up spending time with prominent heads of state.

[B]esides the Pay for immediate Service as a Clerk, the Place gave me a better Opportunity of keeping up an Interest among the Members, which secur'd to me the Business of Printing the Votes, Laws, Paper Money, and other occasional Jobs for the Public, that on the whole were very profitable. (3.16)

The kind of ambition Franklin shares with us is always based in practicality. He sees value in this promotion on many levels: it's an immediate raise, but it also has all this networking potential to get other jobs and meet new clients. He approaches this government position as a businessman. And yet, it doesn't seem like Franklin's taking advantage of anyone or stepping on any toes. He's just acting on his instincts in a reasonable way.

I would not however insinuate that my Ambition was not flatter'd by all these Promotions. It certainly was. For considering my low Beginning they were great Things to me. And they were still more pleasing, as being so many spontaneous Testimonies of the public's good Opinion, and by me entirely unsolicited. (3.49)

Franklin's only human – whose ego wouldn't be stroked by these kinds of promotions and raises? This language shows him as someone who's not afraid to admit his ambitious tendencies, or his hope for better things, while still being mindful of his origins, where he came from, and how hard he's worked to get where he is. What Franklin values here, too, is that he doesn't ask for this kind of honor and increased responsibility, people are just giving it to him. That's a pretty subtle way of seeing one's ambition pay off.

I had not been previously acquainted with the Project [of an honorary escort], or I should have prevented it, being naturally averse to the assuming of State on any Occasion, and I was a good deal chagrin'd at their Appearance, as I could not avoid their accompanying me. (3.117)

In this moment, Franklin says he's embarrassed to be publicly honored like this. It's funny that he is ambitious about effecting change in the world around him, founding institutions and sharing his inventions and ideas, but he's less excited about a bunch of guys with swords escorting him around. Some people would be all about this public acknowledgment of their contributions. We can see this attitude as reminding us of Franklin's practicality and the humility that he often, if not always, practices – and how those qualities are so bound up with the real, human ambition he does possess.

I had always understood from our Charters, that our Laws were to be made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the King for his Royal Assent, but that being once given the King could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent Laws without his Assent, so neither could he make a Law for them without theirs. (4.2)

Here, Franklin can be seen as speaking on behalf of America as a growing nation (although it's not being revolutionary yet). Like Franklin, America has dreams and goals – it too aspires to better things. America has dreams of governing itself, of not being run roughshod by the English government, and of making laws that can't be knocked down. Franklin's just standing up for them.

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