Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Visions of America

By Benjamin Franklin

Visions of America

My Brother had in 1720 or 21, begun to print a Newspaper. It was the second that appear'd in America, and was called The New England Courant. The only one before it, was The Boston News Letter. I remember his being dissuaded by some of his Friends from the Undertaking, as not likely to succeed, one Newspaper being in their Judgment enough for America. (1.24)

The friends' attitude here is kind of cute. Can you imagine one newspaper being "enough for America"? Even in its beginning stages, with thirteen colonies of people spread across a wide distance, one paper wouldn't come close to providing the kind of news coverage a burgeoning nation needs. (P.S. Franklin's not exactly right with his facts here; while this was one of the first group of American newspapers to be published, it wasn't quite the second.)

[Meredith] had conceiv'd a great Regard for me, and was very unwilling that I should leave the House while he remain'd in it. He dissuaded me from returning to my native Country, which I began to think of. (1.86)

When Franklin says "Country" here, he doesn't mean America: he means Boston. His country is a city, so by "Country" he really means "home place." Obviously, Franklin's in what's not the United States of America yet, so it's impossible for him to consider himself American. It's funny to compare this sort of regionalism with how we categorize our country today; while we might think of ourselves as "from" a specific city or state, we consider "America" our country, and don't always align our country with our home.

These Libraries have improv'd the general Conversation of the Americans, made the common Tradesmen and 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. (1.110)

Here Franklin defines America by the quality of its libraries and education. He even goes so far as to posit that it's this quality of education that made the Revolutionary War possible. So, there you go: without the founding of these libraries, we'd all still be British citizens.

It will moreover present a table of the internal circumstances of your country, which will very much tend to invite to it settlers of virtuous and manly minds. And considering the eagerness with which such information is sought by them, and the extent of your reputation, I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your Biography would give. (2.9)

Benjamin Vaughan, Franklin's friend, urges him to keep writing his autobiography, but the reason he gives here is that it will work as great propaganda for American settlers. Franklin is such a stellar representative of this new nation, Vaughan asserts, that people will be more likely to emigrate there because they want to follow his example.

Let Englishmen be made not only to respect, but even to love you. When they think well of individuals in your native country, they will go nearer to thinking well of your country; and when your countrymen see themselves well thought of by Englishmen, they will go nearer to thinking well of England. (2.28)

Vaughan again, now telling Franklin that he owes it to British-American international relations to finish writing his autobiography. Finishing this text, according to this logic, is the one think that may help reconcile Brits and Americans to start being agreeable again.

Reading became fashionable, and our People having no public Amusements to divert their Attention from Study became better acquainted with Books, and in a few Years were observ'd by Strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than People of the same Rank generally are in other Countries. (2.33)

Again, reading becomes a big part of the American self-image and a class equalizer. It's probably partially due to Puritan society – that's the lack of "public Amusements" which gives people all this reading time – but Franklin's saying that, because of all this reading, average non-aristocratic Americans are way more educated than their foreign counterparts. Some roots to the American Dream can be found here: a good education can change your class standing.

This [paper] was much spoken of as a useful Piece, and gave rise to a Project, which soon followed it, of forming a Company for the more ready Extinguishing of Fires, and mutual Assistance in Removing and Securing of Goods when in Danger. (3.19)

Sometimes Franklin's modesty is too much. His plan for creating a fire department system is a big deal, but he calls it just "a useful Piece." Instead of lingering on why it's useful or what kind of reception it got, moves right to the point of telling us what it was all about and how it worked. His concept of "mutual Assistance" is a very American one.

I had on the whole abundant Reason to be satisfied with my being established in Pennsylvania. There were however two things that I regretted: There being no Provision for Defense, nor for a complete Education of Youth. No Militia nor any College. (3.30)

It's intriguing to see what Franklin thinks is most important for developing Pennsylvania, which is not a country but a rising city-state. He puts equal value on education and military defense, which is an unusual opinion, one that's remarkable for its combination of idealism and practicality. In creating a strong defense, he's also simultaneously making sure there's something important to defend.

The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would then have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretense for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned, would have been avoided. (3.68)

Here's Franklin as both historian and injured strategist, saying that the entire Revolutionary War could have been avoided if only people had adopted his plan for uniting the colonies around the time of the French and Indian War. We wonder if his hurt feelings – that the plan was turned down – cloud his judgment, or if he's right that the whole Boston Tea Party and its aftermath could have been avoided, if people had only listened.

This whole Transaction [General Braddock's loss] gave us Americans the first Suspicion that our exalted Ideas of the Prowess of British Regulars had not been well founded. (3.100)

In retrospect, this is a really tongue-in-cheek thing to say, as Franklin's writing about this part of history so many years later, after Americans revolted against the British and overcame them. It's pretty sarcastic, in hindsight, to make fun of these "exalted ideas" as things without foundation. It also seems, in context with other problems Franklin has coming up against British government officials, that this isn't, in fact, the first sign of trouble.