Study Guide

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin Wealth

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[I] propos'd to my Brother, that if he would give me Weekly half the Money he paid for my Board, I would board myself. He instantly agreed to it, and I presently found that I could save half what he paid me. This was an additional Fund for buying Books (1.21)

Franklin's frugal from minute one. This concern with budgeting for himself is really brought on by a case of vegetarianism – Franklin can't eat what everyone else is eating – but it turns into an experiment on frugality and saving. He turns half of his food funds into money for books, feeding his brain instead of his belly, and it's his careful use of money that makes that possible.

This was another of the great Errata of my Life, which I should wish to correct if I were to live it over again. In fact, by our Expenses, I was constantly unable to pay my Passage. (1.64)

The error Franklin's talking about here isn't just financial – he's saying he regrets not being in better touch with Deborah when he goes to England in Part 1, which he blames in part on not being able to save money while he's gone. His inability to save money combines with his lack of faithfulness, resulting in a larger, compounded "erratum."

He reminded me that Keimer was in debt for all he possess'd, that his Creditors began to be uneasy, that he kept his Shop miserably […] That he must therefore fail; which would make a Vacancy I might profit of. I objected my Want of Money. […] he was sure [his father] would advance Money to set us up, if I would enter into Partnership with him. (1.86)

Meredith is coaxing Franklin into profiting from someone else's bad luck. Since their former boss is sinking into debt, that makes an opportunity for their business to replace his. The profit here is both metaphorical and actual: their new business will benefit from Keimer's folding, just as they will make more money working for themselves than they did for him.

All our Cash was now expended in the Variety of Particulars we had been obliged to procure, and this Countryman's Five Shillings, being our First Fruits and coming so seasonably, gave me more Pleasure than any Crown I have since earn'd; and from the Gratitude I felt towards House, has made me often more ready than perhaps I should otherwise have been to assist young Beginners. (1.90)

Money isn't just valuable because of the meaning society agrees to assign it. Here Franklin only makes five shillings. Compare that with what he makes on Poor Richard's Almanac – this is nothing. Yet this money is worth more to him emotionally than other salaries he gets later in life because it's the first thing he earns under his own steam is his own business. This money has emotional value – "industry" – attached to it.

We gave Bail, but saw that if the Money could not be rais'd in time, the Suit must come to a Judgment and Execution, and our hopeful Prospects must with us be ruined, as the Press and Letters must be sold for Payment, perhaps at half-Price. (1.99)

Because Franklin's partner can't come through with the goods, their whole business almost goes belly-up. It seems that while Franklin stuck to his half of the bargain, bringing his experience, his friend couldn't stick to his, contributing the money. You know the writing strategy of putting the most important thing at the end of a sentence? As Franklin lists the bad things that will happen, their impact seems worse and worse: first bail, then a suit, then a ruined dream. What we're left with at the end is just that the very instruments of his trade must be sold and that – horrors! – they might have to be marked down as half off. Franklin will later talk about money as something that breeds itself, but in this case it seems that debts do too.

I told them I could not propose a Separation while any Prospect remain'd of the Merediths fulfilling their Part of our Agreement. […] But if they finally fail'd in their Performance, and our Partnership must be dissolv'd, I should then think myself at Liberty to accept the Assistance of my Friends. (1.100)

Here wealth is connected to virtue and loyalty. Faithfulness to friends and keeping promises is more important than jumping ship when new money comes along, even if it's money you desperately need. Franklin feels obligated to give his friend Meredith the chance to keep up his end of the agreement, even when he's worried about how they're hovering over debts. This shows, too, though, that Franklin is confident his other friends are good for giving him money, and he's not too worried about letting this opportunity slip by.

I endeavor'd to make [Poor Richard's Almanac] both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such Demand that I reap'd considerable Profit from it, vending annually near ten Thousand. (3.6)

Although Franklin's talking about another piece of writing he worked hard on, what we really get a sense of here is how that writing mattered financially. He measures the book in profits, not in critical acclaim, even though he seems to be just as interested in making the book really help people as he is in making money from it.

As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the Coppers. Another Stroke of his Oratory made me asham'd of that, and determin'd me to give the Silver; and he finish'd so admirably, that I emptied my Pocket wholly into the Collector's Dish, Gold and all. (3.22)

As above, here we see another connection between the power of words and money. With each line of Whitefield's sermon, Franklin is so entranced that he gives more money. The compounded effects of Whitefield's rhetoric – which Franklin doesn't tell us about specifically – are shown here through the metaphor of money. The little ideas are like copper, the bigger ideas are like silver, and by the end, the conclusion sounds so impressive that it turns into gold.

I expericenc'd too the Truth of the Observation, that after getting the first hundred Pound, it is more easy to get the second: Money itself being of a prolific Nature (3.29)

Franklin pauses here to give advice, saying that once you have some money, it's easier to get some more. It's kind of like how it's easier to get a date if you've already got one. The first step is hardest, but, after that, holding on to that first bit of good luck (whether it's money, dates, or something else) seems to bring in even more.

When I disengag'd myself as above-mentioned from private Business, I flatter'd myself that, by the sufficient tho' moderate Fortune I had acquir'd, I had secur'd Leisure during the rest of my Life, for Philosophical Studies and Amusements (3.49)

By this point in the text, Franklin has worked hard and made enough money to retire. Good for him. It's what he wants to do with it that's really interesting. Instead of investing, or going on vacation, Franklin wants to invent more stuff and participate in philosophical debates. You know, as we all do. Unfortunately for Franklin, he's too good at political and diplomatic stuff, and instead of getting to spend his time inventing who knows what else, he ends up serving as a diplomat (this isn't fully covered in the Autobiography, but we're giving you the heads up anyway).

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