The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

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Themes and Colors
Industriousness Theme Icon
Vanity and Humility Theme Icon
Error and Correction Theme Icon
Self-Improvement and Self-Education Theme Icon
Public Projects, Communality, and Civic Duty Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Error and Correction Theme Icon

In his attempts to reach moral and personal perfection, Benjamin Franklin of course makes many errors. Franklin prefers to use the printer’s term for mistakes in his proofs (Errata or an Erratum) for several of the major mistakes he considers himself to have made in his life. One of the justifications for this choice in terms may be that, like printing proofs, he saw the major mistakes of his life as events that could, through proper future behavior and action, be corrected. His first great erratum, he says, was leaving his apprenticeship to his brother, James Franklin, in order to begin a new life for himself as a man in Philadelphia. This error is one he believes himself to have corrected many years later when his brother died an untimely death and he adopted and educated his ten-year-old son.

Error and correction also have strong ties within the Autobiography to the theme of Civic Duty. Franklin is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve upon public policy and practice, and several of his inventions and policies arise as corrections to previous societal errors. One great irremediable error Franklin notes is failing to inoculate (get vaccines for) one of his young sons who died of the small pox. He describes the story in the Autobiography in the hopes that others will learn from his bad example and so may correct the error by having their own children vaccinated.

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Error and Correction Quotes in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Below you will find the important quotes in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin related to the theme of Error and Correction.
Part 1 Quotes

You may remember the inquiries I made among the remains of my relations when you were with me in England, and the journey I undertook for that purpose. Imagining it may be equally agreeable to you to know the circumstances of my life, many of which you are yet unacquainted with, and expecting the enjoyment of a week’s uninterrupted leisure in my present country retirement, I sit down to write them for you.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker), William Franklin
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

At the very beginning of the autobiography, Benjamin Franklin addresses his son, William, in this passage. He thinks that William will be interested in learning about his father's life, a great portion of which William is unaware.

By journeying to England to find out about his ancestors, Benjamin Franklin demonstrates an interest in uncovering his past--in fleshing out the 'biography' of his origins, a history which predates him. Now, looking back on his life, Benjamin thinks William will share his interest in learning about the people who came before him, and so endeavors to write down his own history for William. This idea relates to Franklin's constant emphasis on self-correction and self-improvement--learning more about the past, and particularly one's own family history, can allow one to attempt to avoid past mistakes or be inspired by past successes.


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And, lastly (I may as well confess it, since my denial of it will be believed by nobody), perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity. Indeed, I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory words, “Without vanity I may say,” &c., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action…

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage at the beginning of the autobiography, Benjamin Franklin accounts for the element of vanity implicit in any autobiography, in any account one gives of one's self, life, or history.

To try and narrate one's life assumes, at the very start, that one's life is worth being told--that one's life has a certain importance or authority, and that those who read about it will gain pleasure or instruction from it. Franklin seems to be accounting for this here; he tries to depict how aware he is of this assumption at the heart of writing an autobiography. Yet he also wants to defend vanity, to a certain extent, and claims that vanity can propel someone towards action--towards virtuous and good action. It's as if vanity is sometimes a motor for the good, and that the idea of pure humility--humility untainted by a trace of vanity--is a myth. Perhaps some amount of vanity is required for humans to do anything, to perform any action--but vanity doesn't necessarily entail evil.

That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Errata
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, beginning the second paragraph of the book, Benjamin Franklin says he would be content with reliving his life over again--though he would enjoy having the ability to edit or delete certain faults, errors, and accidents of his history.

Here, Franklin reveals a deep satisfaction with his own life, as well as an affirmation of life against death. He acknowledges his desire to revise and correct certain mistakes and events, but more powerfully claims that he would willingly choose to live his life over again despite these. In a way, Franklin's desire to revise his life (like a printer revises a second printing after checking for errata) doesn't seem to be motivated by wanting more pleasure for his life, but rather to correct the faults and errors he has committed so as to become more virtuous and industrious.

The first [poem] sold wonderfully, the event being recent, having made a great noise. This flattered my vanity; but my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances, and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

The "event" mentioned in this quote is the drowning of Captain Worthilake and his two daughters--a tragedy much discussed in Boston at the time. Benjamin Franklin's poem "The Lighthouse Tragedy" gave an account of this incident.

Here, the theme of vanity--at the core of the autobiography's beginning--again surfaces. Franklin notes that his poem's success flattered and indulged his sense of vanity, but his father counteracted this, though perhaps not in the sense of instilling humility in Benjamin. His father's motivation for ridiculing him seems to regard money more than the character trait of vanity; he isn't really trying to prevent Benjamin from acquiring a pretentious personality. Rather, his father seems most intent on preventing his son from writing poetry because it is not profitable. In this way, Benjamin's father ironically exemplifies a different kind of vanity.

I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before this quote, Benjamin Franklin writes about how he has just acquired a copy of Spectator, and comments about how delighted he was with its style of writing. He wants to try and emulate the sophistication of the publication's prose.

Here, Franklin demonstrates the strength of his will and drive to improve his skills, and his aptitude for acknowledging and identifying his weaknesses in order to advance himself. Franklin had recognized that his friend Collins was more eloquent than he was, and has decided to begin training himself to write with a more careful and calculated choice of words. By using the Spectator as the standard of quality for his writing exercises, he is able to gradually train himself to write more proficiently through practice and commitment.

I procur’d Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the [Socratic Method]. I was charm’d with it, adopted it, dropt my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage occurs shortly after Benjamin Franklin discusses his conversion to a vegetarian diet.

Having formerly argued in a direct, confrontational and oppositional manner, Franklin has decided to adopt the more humble approach to argumentation afforded by the Socratic method. Using this method, Franklin stops directly arguing with his opponent, but rather focuses on asking questions and doubting his opponents in order to bring them to a point where they contradict themselves (or he himself changes his mind). Franklin no longer tries to intervene with his own arguments and reasoning in order to bring his opponents to contradiction, but rather leads them to contradict themselves, to make their own errors. In this way, Franklin adopts a much humbler method of argumentation--humbler at least in its outward appearance, and much less likely to lead to a fight or a deadlock.

Instead of proclaiming a wealth of knowledge about a topic--which he may not posses--and aggressively arguing for a certain position, he decides to proclaim no such special knowledge, and to intently listen to the other's point of view. By adopting this method, Franklin comes to a fuller understanding of his opponents' positions, an understanding which also affords him more opportunities to lead them to commit errors of logic, ultimately giving him the upper hand.

My brother’s discharge was accompany’d with an order of the House (a very odd one), that “James Franklin should no longer print the paper called the New England Courant.”

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker), James Franklin
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Having served his jail sentence for publishing a controversial political piece in The New England Courant, Benjamin Franklin's brother James has been forbidden to continue printing the newspaper. Benjamin supposes that James's imprisonment was due to his refusal to reveal the author of the piece. During his brother's confinement, Benjamin managed the paper, and made sure to write pieces in it that criticized the Assembly responsible for incriminating James.

Here, we see the strict censorship of early eighteenth century Boston, and the authoritarian nature of the Assembly's power with regard to policing public discourse. Further, James's right to refuse revealing the author's name was not considered--such a right did not exist at the time. Yet, while the Assembly deemed James's conduct as an error in need of correction, Benjamin saw through the Assembly's 'arbitrary' power, and sought to criticize their 'correction' through his own political writings.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

Benjamin Franklin writes this after deciding to reincorporate fish into his diet. After reflecting on the fact that fish eat one another, he reasons that this justifies humans in eating them.

Here, it seems that Franklin is at once praising the merits of reason--that it enables our minds to logically explain our behavior as well as adjust it when new evidence suggests we should--while also playing on the humorous ability for reason to provide an explanation for practically anything the mind wants to justify. Franklin's resumption of eating fish, though based on a justification provided by his reasoning--that fish eat other fish--will, nevertheless, result in the death of fish which could otherwise be avoided (by continuing the vegetable diet). However, Frankin seems to mostly view his return to eating fish as a triumph of reason, as an improvement of his mind and health.

I continu’d [the Socratic Method] some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Having acquired Memorable Things of Socrates by Xenophon, young Benjamin Franklin decides to adopt Socrates's method of argumentation. Though he ultimately moves on from this method's emphasis on pure doubting, Franklin retains a hesitance towards sounding absolutely certain about any topic of argument.

This move by Franklin to resist appearing totally confident demonstrates his intention to be more humble in conversation. Humility is one of the virtues he later enumerates as the ingredients of a good character--becoming humble is one of the elements of his journey towards moral perfection. Here, we see how humility operates at the very level of speech and conversation--Franklin must rethink the way he approaches discussion with others. As we read later, this proves difficult, and Franklin says he has only been able to achieve humility at the level of outward appearances.

Part 3 Quotes

When I disengaged myself, as above mentioned, from private business, I flatter’d myself that, by the sufficient tho’ moderate fortune I had acquir’d, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements… but the publick, now considering me as a man of leisure, laid hold of me for their purposes, every part of our civil government, and almost at the same time, imposing some duty upon me.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Having given over the management of his printing business to David Hall, Benjamin Franklin thought he would be able to dedicate most of his time to purely intellectual pursuits. Here, however, he tells us that much of his time would be soon taken up performing civil service instead. 

Franklin reveals a strong sense of civic duty and community involvement here. Besides his own willingness to perform roles in public office, there's a sense that the community expected him to--that the community, aware of Franklin's ingenuity and industriousness, felt him to be an indispensible staple to the workings of things. It seems that, for Franklin, retirement is not an option for him--but he also might agree that complete retirement should never be an option for anyone, and that everyone should maintain an involvement in public affairs and the greater good.

Thus, if you teach a poor young man to shave himself, and keep his razor in order, you may contribute more to the happiness of his life than in giving him a thousand guineas. The money may be soon spent, the regret only remaining of having foolishly consumed it; but in the other case, he escapes the frequent vexation of waiting for barbers, and of their sometimes dirty fingers, offensive breaths, and dull razors; he shaves when most convenient to him, and enjoys daily the pleasure of its being done with a good instrument.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

After having described his innovative plan for keeping the streets of London and Westminster clean, Benjamin Franklin gives us this anecdote.

This quotes further reveals Benjamin Franklin's philosophy of industriousness--that it is much more important to acquire lasting skills and good habits than to seek satisfaction in temporary or material pleasures. To start of with a lot of money but little skill will not get one very far; knowledge and routine must be established in order for one to enjoy the freedom of independence and the satisfaction of self-sufficiency--qualities which support the pursuit and maintenance of wealth. The work of self-improvement leads to lasting pleasure, despite the investment of effort required--as opposed to the instantaneous and temporary pleasure made possible by the finite resource of money.

The British government, not chusing to permit the union of the colonies as propos’d at Albany, and to trust that union with their defense, lest they should thereby grow too military, and feel their own strength, suspicions and jealousies at this time being entertain’d of them, sent over General Braddock with two regiments of regular English troops for that purpose.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

The British government, denying the proposed union of the colonies--which commissioners (including Benjamin Franklin) from each colony had drafted in Albany--has sent English troops to New England in order to satisfy the colonies' need for a military power to defend against the Indians (and to have an excuse to tax America). Franklin intimates that this is also a gesture aimed at intimidating the colonies, as the British government is suspicious of New England growing an independent military power.

Franklin's keen sense of diplomatic and military relations continues revealing itself here. He understands England's fear that a union of the colonies may allow them an independence that could threaten British power. England is painted as a force of vanity, concerned with regulating the American economy and maintaining its revenue from taxation, rather than a genuine force that acts out of practical or strategic concern for America's growth.

…common sense, aided by present danger, will sometimes be too strong for whimsical opinions.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

Benjamin Franklin, discussing the Moravian village of Gnadenhut's anti-arms policy with bishop Spangenberg, learns that many of Gnadenhut's residents have recently started to bear arms after the recent Indian attack.

Here, Franklin's pragmatic view of human behavior is exposed. He thinks that the "whimsical" anti-arms policy of the Moravians has had its idealism deflated by the violent reality of the recent Indian attack. The high ideals of the Moravians, being in reality inadequate for their survival, are suddenly being ignored as they begin to acquire arms. Franklin points out a kind of vanity in the Moravians' holding of beliefs that ultimately cannot be followed--as if the refusal to hold practical beliefs about self-defense, when that refusal budges under the pressure of actual violence, is a vain way of thinking. The realities of war and of the need to protect themselves are now demanding common sense.

One paper, which I wrote for Mr. Kinnersley, on the sameness of lightning with electricity, I sent to Dr. Mitchel, an acquaintance of mine, and one of the members also of that society [the Royal Society], who wrote me word that it had been read, but was laughed at by the connoisseurs.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

The paper to which Benjamin Franklin refers in this quote is one where he argues for the sameness of electricity with lightning.

Franklin's sense of confidence in his own thinking and innovation is humbly shown to us here. He paints the "connoisseurs" as vain and unimaginative people who cannot look past their current beliefs in order to consider the possible truth behind Franklin's new theory. That Franklin's theory was "laughed" at shows that even people in very eminent academic positions can lack the decorum and intellectual integrity to consider a radical theory with levelheadedness and open-mindedness. Franklin oozes humility here, considering that his theory would later be proven correct and he would be heralded as a genius for it.

There was a great company of officers, citizens, and strangers, and, some chairs having been borrowed in the neighborhood, there was one among them very low, which fell to the lot of Mr. Shirley. Perceiving it as I sat by him, I said, “They have given you, sir, too low a seat.” “No matter,” says he, “Mr. Franklin, I find a low seat the easiest.”

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker)
Page Number: 183
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Benjamin Franklin writes about the party given for Lord Loudoun's succession of Mr. Shirley as (British) Commander-in-Chief of North America. The party occurred in New York, and Shirley was in attendance despite his being replaced by Loudoun.

Franklin acknowledges Shirley's sense of humility and dignity in this passage--a dignity that Shirley holds at the same time that he is averse to holding a position of extraordinary military power. Shirley metaphorically plays off of Franklin's polite concern--that Shirley has received too low a seat--in support of that aversion, that he dislikes positions of great power and prefers to be out of the spotlight, with less pressure and overwhelming responsibility. Franklin paints Shirley as a humble man who knows himself and his strengths firmly, such that he graciously steps down from his position and celebrates Loudoun's promotion.

On the whole, I wonder’d much how such a man [Lord Loudoun] came to be entrusted with so important a business as the conduct of a great army; but, having since seen more of the great world, and the means of obtaining, and motives for giving places, my wonder is diminished.

Related Characters: Benjamin Franklin (speaker), Lord Loudoun
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

After describing Lord Loudoun's indeciveness and irresponsibility in directing several 'paquets' (or mail, freight, and passenger transportation boats), Benjamin Franklin makes this remark about his own lack of surprise that an incompetent person like Loudoun can come to occupy such an eminent position as General.

Here is another one of the few instances of Franklin's pessimism in the autobiography. Like his belief that the mistakes of history are commonly repeated, this passage reveals his sense of wisdom about the corrupt and haphazard ways people acquire positions and offices of great authority. Franklin is taken aback by Loudoun's incompetence, but at the same time, based on his experiences traveling the world and meeting many people, he is after all not so shocked.