The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

by Benjamin Franklin

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: April 28, 2024
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Dive into Benjamin Franklin's remarkable life and legacy with our comprehensive book summary. Uncover his diplomatic triumphs, communication innovations, and pivotal role in shaping the United States. Explore insightful questions to apply and internalize Franklin's enduring lessons.

What are the big ideas?

Unfinished Autobiography Compleated

The author, a descendant of Franklin, fills the gaps in Franklin's unfinished autobiography using his writings to maintain his authentic voice and style.

Interactions with Proprietary Government

Franklin's challenging interactions with the Penn family over defense contributions highlight the struggles and political maneuverings in colonial governance.

Innovations in Communication

Franklin's postal tour improves mail efficiency across colonies, reflecting his pragmatic approach to problem-solving and public administration.

Diplomatic Skills in France

Franklin's diplomatic efforts in France during the American Revolutionary War showcase his critical role in securing vital French support and negotiations.

Constitutional Influence

Franklin's active participation in the Constitutional Convention illustrates his significant input in shaping the governance and future of the United States.

Advocacy for Abolition

In his final years, Franklin becomes a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery, using his influence and position to push for societal change.

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Unfinished Autobiography Compleated

The author, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, completes Franklin's unfinished autobiography by drawing on Franklin's extensive writings - including letters, journals, and unpublished essays. The goal is to present Franklin's life story entirely in his own words and voice, maintaining the authentic style and perspective that Franklin himself intended.

This is no easy task, given the vast volume and complexity of Franklin's writings. The author must carefully select and assemble the relevant materials, filling in gaps and weaving together a cohesive narrative. Yet the result is a comprehensive autobiography that captures the full arc of Franklin's remarkable life, from his early years as a young entrepreneur to his later roles as a revolutionary, diplomat, and nation-builder.

By relying on Franklin's own words, the author ensures that this "Compleated Autobiography" remains true to the original vision. It is, in essence, the autobiography that Franklin himself would have written, had he lived to complete the work. Through this labor of love, the author honors the legacy of one of America's most celebrated Founding Fathers.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight:

  • The author states that Franklin "had virtually written—albeit in bits and pieces—the remainder of his illustrious life through his journals, essays, and letters to his relatives and friends about family life, politics, science, business, literature, and philosophy." This allowed the author to draw on Franklin's own writings to complete the autobiography.

  • The author explains that he "relied on Franklin's detailed outline of his memoirs, which he referred to himself when writing the Autobiography. Just as he injected historical events into his account to make a philosophical or moral point, so too have I inserted Franklin's stories into the Compleated Autobiography."

  • The author notes that in a few cases, he "had to rely mostly on several third party sources for Franklin's perspective" when Franklin did not write about certain events himself, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention.

  • The author states that he "corrected much of the spelling, grammar, and sentence structure to reflect modern English usage, and have made structural changes in tense and person to create a seamless flow of writing. In no circumstances do these minor changes affect the meaning or style of Franklin's prose."

  • The author explains that he "maintained some of the old English spelling and abbreviations that Franklin used, to give the work a sense of history" in order to preserve Franklin's authentic voice.

The key terms and concepts illustrated here are:

  • Drawing on Franklin's own writings: The author used Franklin's journals, essays, and letters to complete the autobiography in his voice.
  • Preserving Franklin's style and voice: The author made minor edits to improve readability while maintaining the meaning and style of Franklin's prose.

Interactions with Proprietary Government

Franklin's interactions with the proprietary government of Pennsylvania, led by the Penn family, reveal the complex political dynamics and power struggles in colonial governance. The Penns, who owned the Pennsylvania colony, frequently clashed with Franklin over defense contributions and other issues. These conflicts highlight the tensions between colonial assemblies and proprietary governors who represented the interests of the crown.

The proprietary government system gave significant authority to wealthy colonial families like the Penns, who could appoint governors and shape policies to benefit their own interests. This often put them at odds with the elected colonial assemblies, like the one Franklin served on, that sought greater autonomy and self-governance. Franklin had to navigate these political maneuverings and power struggles as he advocated for the colony's defense and other priorities.

These challenging interactions underscore the inherent conflicts and complexities of colonial governance prior to the American Revolution. The clash between proprietary authority and colonial self-determination foreshadowed the growing divide between the colonies and the British crown that would ultimately lead to the fight for independence.

Unfortunately, the provided context information does not contain any specific anecdotes, stories, or examples that illustrate Franklin's interactions with the proprietary government or the Penn family. The context focuses more on providing biographical details about Franklin and the people he interacted with, rather than details about his political struggles. Without any relevant examples in the given context, I cannot provide a response that supports the stated key insight. The context simply does not contain the necessary information to address that particular query.

Innovations in Communication

Benjamin Franklin revolutionized communication across the American colonies through his innovative postal system. As Postmaster General, he streamlined mail delivery by establishing new routes, improving infrastructure, and implementing efficient management practices. This pragmatic approach to public administration allowed Franklin to solve real-world problems and enhance connectivity between the colonies.

Franklin's postal tour demonstrated his keen understanding of the colonies' needs. By optimizing mail routes and upgrading facilities, he made it easier for people to send and receive letters, newspapers, and other important information. This improved communication was crucial for fostering a sense of unity and shared identity among the diverse colonial population.

Franklin's problem-solving mindset and commitment to public service were hallmarks of his approach to the postal system. He constantly sought ways to enhance efficiency and meet the evolving needs of the colonies. This innovative spirit laid the groundwork for the modern U.S. Postal Service and highlighted Franklin's lasting impact as a Founding Father.

Unfortunately, the provided context does not contain any information about Franklin's postal tour or innovations in communication. The context focuses on Franklin's life and writings, including his unfinished autobiography and efforts to complete it. There are no specific anecdotes, stories, or examples related to Franklin's work improving mail efficiency across the colonies. Without relevant details in the given context, I cannot provide examples to support the stated key insight. The context does not contain the necessary information to address this query.

Diplomatic Skills in France

Franklin's diplomatic skills were instrumental in securing French support for the American Revolution. As America's first ambassador to France, Franklin navigated complex political and cultural landscapes to forge a critical alliance. He skillfully negotiated loans, supplies, and military aid from the French government, providing a vital lifeline for the struggling American colonies. Franklin's persuasive abilities and personal charm allowed him to win over French leaders, who were initially skeptical of the colonial uprising. His diplomatic acumen was on full display during the peace negotiations with Britain, where he played a key role in securing favorable terms for the newly independent United States. Franklin's diplomatic triumphs in France were a testament to his versatility and strategic thinking, cementing his status as a pivotal figure in the American Revolution.

Here are some examples from the context that showcase Franklin's diplomatic skills in France during the American Revolutionary War:

  • Franklin was sent to France in 1776 as one of the American commissioners to negotiate an alliance and secure French support for the American Revolution. As the context notes, this was a "singular event" that Franklin apparently chose not to write about, so we have to rely on third-party sources like the diary of Arthur Lee, one of the other commissioners, to understand Franklin's perspective.

  • According to Lee's diary, Franklin spent an evening reminiscing and discussing with him the "events of the year and a half following the signing of the Declaration of Independence" and Franklin's role in the negotiations in France. This provides insight into Franklin's diplomatic efforts and perspective during this critical period.

  • The context also mentions that Franklin composed an "Account of the Negotiations in London for Effecting a Reconciliation between Great Britain and the American Colonies" which he intended to include in his autobiography. This document likely contained Franklin's firsthand account of his diplomatic work trying to negotiate a reconciliation between the colonies and Britain.

  • Additionally, Franklin wrote a "Journal of the Negotiation for Peace with Great Britain from March 21ST to July 1ST, 1782" which further demonstrates his central role in the diplomatic negotiations that ultimately led to the Treaty of Paris and American independence.

So while the context notes a lack of Franklin's own writings on his involvement in key events like the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Convention, it highlights several examples of his diplomatic efforts and perspectives during the American Revolution, particularly his critical work in securing French support and negotiating peace with Britain.

Constitutional Influence

Franklin played a crucial role in the Constitutional Convention, which laid the foundation for the governance and future of the United States. As one of the Founding Fathers, Franklin's active participation and influential contributions shaped the development of the U.S. Constitution. His deep understanding of political theory and practical experience in governance allowed him to provide valuable insights that were instrumental in shaping the final document. Franklin's involvement in this pivotal event demonstrates his significant impact on the establishment of the American system of government, which continues to guide the nation to this day.

Unfortunately, the provided context does not contain any information about Benjamin Franklin's involvement in the Constitutional Convention or his influence in shaping the governance and future of the United States. The context focuses on Franklin's first mission to London from 1757-1762 and does not mention his participation in the Constitutional Convention. Without any relevant examples from the given context, I cannot provide specific anecdotes, stories, or examples to support the stated Key Insight. The context simply does not contain the necessary information to address this query.

Advocacy for Abolition

In his later years, Benjamin Franklin became a passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery. As president of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery, he actively worked to suppress the slave trade and gradually abolish slavery itself. Franklin sent copies of the society's constitution and relevant laws to influential figures like Pierre-Samuel du Pont and Lafayette, seeking their support in exposing the injustice of the slave trade.

Franklin recognized that the movement to end slavery had been building for decades. He noted that nearly 100 years earlier, Quaker writer George Keith had called on Friends to free their slaves after a reasonable period of service. In the 1720s and 1730s, Franklin himself had printed abolitionist books by Ralph Sandyford and Benjamin Lay, helping to sow the seeds for this growing cause. Now, Franklin saw the "springtime" of this long-standing effort, as legislatures in the United States and Britain moved to ban the slave trade.

Franklin believed that ending slavery was a moral imperative, a matter of "the honour of the United States of America, and to the happiness and natural rights of mankind." He expressed hope that the French king, who had recently abolished religious oppression, would also move to end "this most grievous of all civil" injustices - the inhumane trade in human beings. Through his advocacy, Franklin sought to alleviate the "miseries of those unhappy people who are doomed to taste of the bitter cup of perpetual servitude."

Here are the key examples from the context that support the insight that in his final years, Franklin became a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery:

  • Franklin states that "in the final years of my life, I engaged in a cause of the utmost importance to the honour of the United States of America, and to the happiness and natural rights of mankind." This cause was the abolition of slavery.

  • As president of the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery, Franklin "sent to gentlemen of character and influence, disposed to aid us in exposing the inequity of the slave trade, such as Pierre-Samuel du Pont and Lafayette, copies of the constitution of our society and of the laws that are now in force in Pennsylvania for abolishing Negro slavery." This shows his active efforts to promote the abolition of slavery.

  • Franklin notes that "the groans of our distressed and injured brethren from the slaves of Africa have at last reached the ears of the citizens of the United States" and that "most of our legislatures have already abolished the slave trade, and a provision has been made in the general Constitution, which we trust will effect its abolition completely." This demonstrates his support for legislative efforts to end the slave trade and slavery.

  • Franklin states that "nothing effectual will be done until France concurs in it" to abolish the "most grievous of all civil" institutions of slavery, indicating his desire for international cooperation to end this practice.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" that resonated with readers.

Never confuse Motion with Action.

In the pursuit of progress, it's essential to distinguish between mere activity and actual achievement. Busywork or superficial efforts can create an illusion of productivity, but they don't necessarily lead to tangible results. True success requires focused effort, deliberate action, and a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished.

...there will be sleeping enough in the grave....

This phrase suggests that one should make the most of their time on earth, as there will be ample opportunity to rest in the afterlife. It encourages individuals to stay active, productive, and engaged with life, rather than wasting it on excessive sleep or idleness. In essence, it's a call to live life to the fullest and make every moment count.

When the well is dry we know the value of water

We often take things for granted until they're no longer available. It's only when we face scarcity or loss that we truly appreciate the value of something. This realization can be a powerful motivator, prompting us to cherish and conserve what we have.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How did the author manage to complete the autobiography using original writings?
2. Why is the autobiography considered comprehensive despite being initially unfinished?
3. What efforts were made to maintain the authenticity of the narrative’s voice?
4. How did the author handle topics that the original writer did not document personally?
5. What was the rationale behind making changes to the prose in the narrative?
6. What is the proprietary government system and how does it affect political authority in a colony?
7. How do proprietary governors typically conflict with colonial assemblies?
8. What broader impacts do conflicts between proprietary governors and colonial assemblies have on colonial governance?
9. How did streamlining mail delivery contribute to connectivity between regions?
10. What are some benefits of optimizing mail routes and upgrading facilities in a postal system?
11. How does effective public administration impact real-world problems?
12. What role did diplomatic skills play in securing international support during the American Revolutionary War?
13. How do persuasive abilities contribute to successful negotiations in complex political landscapes?
14. Why is versatility important in diplomatic negotiations?
15. What impact can personal charm have in international relations?
16. What role did a crucial participant's contributions play in the foundational event that structured a nation's governance?
17. How does the involvement of informed individuals in political theory impact the creation of governmental documents?
18. Why is the experience in governance valuable during the formulation of a nation's constitution?
19. How can the influence of early political leaders still impact a nation today?
20. What role did the individual play in the abolition movement during his presidency of a certain society?
21. How did early advocacies and actions contribute to the later abolition movement?
22. What was the perceived moral significance of abolishing slavery for the nation?
23. Why did the individual hope for international cooperation in the abolition efforts?
24. What metaphor did the individual use to describe the abolition movement and why?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you use personal writings such as letters, journals, or diaries to create a comprehensive narrative or project about someone in your family or community?
2. How might you preserve someone’s voice and style when documenting or presenting their story, while also ensuring it is accessible to modern audiences?
3. How might conflicts in present-day governance reflect the complex dynamics observed between different levels of authority during colonial times?
4. How can you optimize the processes in your organization to enhance efficiency and communication?
5. How can you employ diplomatic skills and personal charm to build strategic partnerships in your personal and professional life?
6. How can you apply historical lessons from foundational constitutional principles to enhance democratic practices in your community or organization?
7. What steps can you take to educate others about the importance of political participation and informed voting based on the principles established during the Constitutional Convention?
8. What steps can you take to challenge systemic injustices in your community?

Chapter Notes


Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Franklin's Unfinished Autobiography: Franklin's Autobiography ends abruptly in 1757, leaving out the most eventful years of his illustrious political career in the subsequent 33 years until his death in 1790. This left a significant gap in the record of his life.

  • Franklin's Extensive Writings: Despite not completing his Autobiography, Franklin left behind a vast trove of writings, including journals, essays, and letters, that provide a wealth of information about the later years of his life that were missing from the Autobiography.

  • Compleated Autobiography Project: The author of this work, a descendant of Franklin, undertook the task of compiling and editing Franklin's various writings to create a "Compleated Autobiography" that fills in the gaps left by the unfinished original.

  • Approach to Completing the Autobiography: The author aimed to create a work entirely in Franklin's own words and voice, drawing from his various writings and following his own outlined plan for the Autobiography. The author made minor edits to modernize the language while preserving Franklin's style and content.

  • Personal Connection to Franklin: The author has a personal connection to Franklin as a descendant through his daughter Sally, which motivated the author's interest in completing the Autobiography and honoring Franklin's legacy.

Chapter One - First Mission to London, 1757–62

  • Arrival in England and Initial Challenges: Franklin and his son arrived in England in 1757 after a treacherous sea voyage, and faced various difficulties upon settling in London, including poor housing conditions, expensive living costs, and health issues.

  • Interactions with the Proprietary Government: Franklin engaged in a contentious dispute with the Penn family, the proprietary owners of Pennsylvania, over their refusal to contribute to the colony's defense efforts during the war. This led Franklin to advocate for the colony to come under the direct rule of the Crown.

  • Travels and Intellectual Pursuits: Franklin took several trips around England, including a visit to Cambridge University, where he conducted experiments on the cooling effects of evaporation. He also developed a new musical instrument called the "Armonica" during his time in London.

  • Connections and Friendships: Franklin formed many valuable connections and friendships during his time in England, both with influential individuals and with his extended family in Leicestershire. He expressed a deep appreciation for the hospitality and intellectual stimulation he experienced in Scotland.

  • Reflections on Religion and Morality: Franklin engaged in a thoughtful critique of religious and moral concepts, advocating for a focus on practical, benevolent actions over empty rhetoric or dogma.

  • Perspectives on the British Empire: Franklin expressed a belief in the future grandeur and stability of the British Empire, with America serving as the foundation for its continued growth and success.

Chapter Two - My Return to Philadelphia, 1762–64

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Pleasant Passage to America: Franklin had a pleasant voyage to America, traveling with a convoy of merchant ships under the protection of a warship. The journey included a stop in Madeira, where they were able to resupply and enjoy the island's diverse climate and produce.

  • Increased Cost of Living in America: Franklin found that the cost of living in Philadelphia had more than doubled since his previous stay, which he attributed to an oversupply of money and a shortage of labor.

  • Elected to the Assembly: Franklin was unanimously re-elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly during his absence, and the Assembly voted to compensate him for his services in England.

  • Tour of the Post Offices: Franklin undertook a tour of the post offices in the northern colonies to improve the efficiency of mail delivery, including establishing a faster route between Boston and New York.

  • Appreciation for Scottish Music: Franklin's daughter Sally collected Scottish music to send to a friend in Scotland, and Franklin expressed his appreciation for the simple beauty and enduring quality of Scottish tunes.

  • Higher Opinion of the Black Race: After visiting a Negro school in Philadelphia, Franklin expressed a higher opinion of the natural capacities of the Black race, finding their apprehension, memory, and docility to be on par with white children.

  • The Paxton Boys and Indian Massacres: Franklin recounts the attacks by the "Paxton Boys" on peaceful Native American communities, and his efforts to rally the citizens of Philadelphia to defend the remaining Indians under the protection of the government.

  • Weakness of the Proprietary Government: Franklin argues that the proprietary government of Pennsylvania was weak and unable to maintain order, leading the Assembly to petition the Crown for a change in the form of government.

  • Return to London: Franklin was tasked by the Assembly to return to England to prosecute their petition for a change in government, and was accompanied to the ship by a cavalcade of 300 friends.

Chapter Three - Second Mission to England, 1764–75

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Franklin's Reputation and Treatment in England: Franklin was held in high regard in England, being elected as a foreign member of the Royal Academy in Paris and frequently consulted by members of Parliament and the nobility. However, he was also the target of abuse and attacks, particularly after the revelation of the Hutchinson letters, which led to him being dismissed from his position as Deputy Postmaster General in North America.

  • Attempts at Reconciliation: Franklin engaged in various negotiations and discussions with British officials, including Lord Howe and Lord Chatham, in an effort to find a peaceful resolution to the growing tensions between Britain and the American colonies. These attempts, however, were ultimately unsuccessful.

  • Deteriorating Relationship between Britain and the Colonies: Franklin observed the growing resentment and animosity between Britain and the colonies, noting the "malice against us in some powerful people" and the "perverse and senseless management" of Lord Hillsborough. He predicted that the continued oppression of the colonies would lead to their eventual revolt and the potential downfall of the British Empire.

  • Franklin's Warnings and Advice: Franklin repeatedly warned the British government about the consequences of their policies towards the colonies, advising them to pursue a more conciliatory approach and to address the legitimate grievances of the American people. He offered specific proposals for resolving the disputes, but these were largely ignored or rejected by the British authorities.

  • Personal Losses and Homecoming: During his time in England, Franklin received news of the death of his wife, Deborah, which made it necessary for him to return home to Philadelphia. This personal loss, combined with the failure of his efforts to prevent the escalation of the conflict between Britain and the colonies, weighed heavily on him as he prepared to depart for America.

Chapter Four - Congress and the Declaration of Independence, 1775–76

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Franklin's Arrival in America: Franklin arrived in America in May 1775 after a 6-week voyage, finding the colonies in a state of preparation for war, with everyone learning the use of arms and trade and business at a standstill.

  • Appointment as Delegate to Congress: Franklin was unanimously chosen by the Pennsylvania Assembly as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he was involved in various committees and activities.

  • Symbolism of the Rattlesnake: Franklin proposed the rattlesnake as a symbol of America, describing its various attributes that represented the colonies, such as vigilance, magnanimity, and the 13 colonies united.

  • Challenges in Canada: Franklin was appointed as one of the commissioners to Canada, but the mission faced significant challenges due to a lack of funds and supplies, leading to a retreat of the American forces.

  • Declaration of Independence: Franklin was involved in the drafting and revision of the Declaration of Independence, and he signed the final document, hazarding his life and fortune in the process.

  • Meeting with Lord Howe: Franklin met with Lord Howe to discuss the possibility of reconciliation, but the meeting was unsuccessful as Lord Howe could not recognize the colonies as independent states.

  • Appointment as Commissioner to France: Franklin was appointed as one of the commissioners to France, with the goal of obtaining recognition of American independence, securing treaties, and obtaining military aid.

  • Reflection on the Revolution: Franklin reflects on the remarkable nature of the American Revolution, which was achieved despite numerous obstacles and challenges, and the resulting establishment of a new nation.

  • Severing Ties with Britain: Franklin expresses his regret at the necessity of breaking ties with Britain, but acknowledges that the extreme cruelty of the British treatment had extinguished any desire for reconciliation.

Chapter Five - Minister to France, 1776–78

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Arrival in France and Initial Challenges: Franklin arrived in France after a rough 30-day voyage, facing health issues and a difficult journey to Paris. However, he was welcomed warmly in France, where America had many supporters.

  • Diplomatic Efforts and Negotiations: Franklin, along with Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, met with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count de Vergennes, and the Spanish ambassador, Count d'Aranda, to seek military aid and a formal alliance. They were cautious in their approach, as the French court was reluctant to openly support the American cause and risk conflict with Britain.

  • Financial Assistance from France: Despite the French court's hesitation, Franklin and his colleagues were able to secure a loan of 2 million livres without interest, as well as a grant of 2 million livres from the French government, which was kept secret from the public.

  • Influx of Foreign Officers: Franklin was inundated with requests from European officers, particularly French, who wanted to join the American cause. While he was unable to accommodate all of them, some notable figures, such as Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette, were able to join the American forces.

  • Prisoner Exchange and Treatment: Franklin advocated for the humane treatment of American prisoners held by the British and worked to facilitate prisoner exchanges, though he faced significant challenges and delays from the British government.

  • State of the American War Effort: Franklin provided the French and Spanish courts with detailed information about the state of the American war effort, including the size of the population, the strength of the military, and the impact of the war on agriculture and commerce.

  • French Alliance and Treaty Signing: After the news of the American victory at Saratoga, Franklin and his colleagues were able to negotiate a formal alliance with France, which was signed in February 1778. This alliance provided crucial military and financial support to the American cause.

  • Changing Attitudes in Britain: As the war progressed, Franklin observed a shift in British attitudes, with Lord North acknowledging the need for peace and proposing conciliatory measures, though these were seen as insincere by the American commissioners.

Chapter Six - Minister to France, 1778–79

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Enjoyable Neighborhood in Passy: Franklin enjoyed living in Passy, a well-built village on a hill near Paris, where he had a pleasant living situation with a bath, garden, and agreeable neighbors. He found the French cuisine agreed with him better than the English, and he was treated with great respect and politeness by all ranks of French society.

  • Overwhelming Popularity and Fame: Franklin's face became extremely well-known in France, with numerous portraits, busts, and prints being made and distributed widely. This celebrity was sometimes a burden, as he was constantly besieged by visitors and requests, which disrupted his work.

  • Cherished Friendships: Franklin greatly valued his long-standing friendship with Madame Brillon and her family, as well as his past friendship with Mrs. Stevenson and her daughter Polly in London. He found great pleasure in their company and conversation.

  • Contentious Relationships with Colleagues: Franklin had difficult relationships with his fellow commissioners, particularly Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard, who frequently wrote him angry, accusatory letters that he chose not to answer in order to maintain civility and avoid conflict.

  • Philosophical Musings: Franklin contemplated the nature of fame, the brevity of life, and the importance of maintaining a positive, appreciative outlook, as exemplified by his fable "The Deformed and the Handsome Leg."

  • Frugal and Efficient Governance: Franklin believed that America could be governed cheaply and effectively, without the need for expensive military forces or government bureaucracy, as the American people were industrious and virtuous.

  • Free Trade Principles: Franklin advocated for free and fair trade between nations, opposing the use of duties and tariffs to unfairly advantage one's own country, as he believed this ultimately led to harm and retaliation.

  • Desire for Separation of Commissioners: Franklin requested that Congress separate the commissioners in Paris, as the difficulties of managing business with multiple commissioners led to delays and inefficiencies.

Chapter Seven - Minister to France, 1779–81

  • Appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary: Franklin was appointed as the minister plenipotentiary to the French Court in 1779, a position he did not obtain through solicitation or intrigue. This marked a public show of confidence in him.

  • Lafayette's Bravery and Conduct: Lafayette had gained the esteem and affection of the whole continent of America through his bravery and good conduct.

  • Depreciation of American Currency: The depreciation of the American currency due to over-issuance greatly affected salaried men, widows, and orphans, leading many officers to engage in speculation.

  • Protecting Captain Cook: Franklin issued orders to American cruisers not to intercept or molest Captain Cook, the celebrated navigator, in recognition of the importance of his scientific endeavors.

  • Concerns about Wasteful Spending: Franklin was concerned about the American people's wasteful spending on luxuries like tea, which could have been better used to fund the war effort.

  • Difficulties in Obtaining Loans: Franklin faced significant challenges in obtaining loans from Europe to support the American war effort, as the European powers were also engaged in war and had limited resources to spare.

  • Mutiny on the Alliance: Franklin had to deal with a mutiny on the American ship Alliance, which was delayed in departing due to disputes over prize money and the restoration of its captain, Landais.

  • Distress of American Prisoners: Franklin was deeply concerned about the cruel treatment and poor conditions faced by American prisoners held in British prisons, and made efforts to provide them with assistance.

  • Philosophical Pursuits: Despite his busy schedule, Franklin maintained an interest in philosophical and scientific pursuits, corresponding with colleagues and sharing his observations.

  • Desire for Peace: Franklin expressed a strong desire for the end of the war, recognizing that American independence was the only path to true safety and respect on the world stage.

Chapter Eight - Minister to France, 1781–83

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Cornwallis' Surrender at Yorktown: The combined American and French forces forced General Cornwallis to surrender at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781. This was a major victory for the American cause, with Cornwallis' army of over 6,000 soldiers and 1,800 slaves surrendering.

  • Changing Sentiment in England: The military victories of General Washington and the surrender at Yorktown significantly strengthened the opposition to the war in the British Parliament. This led to the dismissal of the old ministers and the appointment of a new ministry under Lord Shelburne, who was more inclined towards peace.

  • Peace Negotiations: Franklin was one of five American commissioners appointed to negotiate a peace treaty with Britain. The negotiations were complex, involving not just the U.S. and Britain, but also France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Franklin kept a detailed journal of the proceedings.

  • Acknowledgement of American Independence: A key outcome of the negotiations was Britain's acknowledgement of American independence as the first article of the treaty. This was a major concession that Franklin and the other commissioners were able to secure.

  • Fisheries and Boundaries: The treaty also secured favorable terms for the U.S. regarding fishing rights in the North Atlantic and the boundaries of the new nation, which were largely as the Americans had demanded.

  • Challenges with Finances and Supplies: Franklin faced ongoing challenges in securing sufficient funds and supplies from France and the U.S. to support the war effort. He was often overwhelmed with demands for money and had to navigate complex financial arrangements.

  • Reconciliation with Britain: Franklin expressed a desire for true reconciliation between Britain and America, rather than just a peace treaty. He saw this as important for lasting peace and harmony between the two nations.

  • Philosophical Reflections: Throughout the chapter, Franklin offers philosophical reflections on the nature of war, the character of mankind, and his belief in divine providence and a just afterlife.

Chapter Nine - Minister to France, 1783–85

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Disagreement with John Adams: Franklin believed that the French minister was not an enemy of America, contrary to Adams' view. Franklin thought Adams' suspicions of the French were unfounded and that they had provided valuable assistance during the war.

  • Encouraging Immigration to America: Franklin wrote an essay called "Information to those who would remove to America" to provide information to Europeans interested in immigrating to America. He emphasized the availability of land, good laws, liberty, and a welcoming environment.

  • Translating State Constitutions into French: Franklin published a French translation of the book of state constitutions to provide foreign ministers with accurate information about the political state of America, which he felt was misrepresented abroad.

  • Invention of Double Spectacles: Franklin invented double spectacles that allowed him to see both distant and near objects clearly, which he found very convenient.

  • Investigating Animal Magnetism: Franklin was part of a commission appointed by the King to investigate the claims of animal magnetism made by Mesmer, which they concluded were unfounded.

  • Electrical Experiments: Franklin recounted two dangerous electrical experiments he conducted, one where he accidentally shocked himself and another where he was knocked unconscious.

  • Proportioning Punishments to Crimes: Franklin criticized the disproportionate use of the death penalty for minor crimes, arguing that punishments should be proportional to the offense.

  • Abolishing Privateering: Franklin supported America's efforts to abolish the practice of privateering, which he saw as a form of legalized robbery.

  • Desire to Return to America: Despite offers to stay in France, Franklin was eager to return to America to spend his remaining years with his family.

  • Signing Treaties with Prussia and Departing France: Franklin's last act as minister was to sign a treaty of friendship and commerce with Prussia before departing France to return to America.

Chapter Ten - The Creation of a New Nation, 1785–87

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Arrival in Philadelphia: Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on September 14, 1785 after a pleasant 5-week voyage from France. He was warmly welcomed by his family and the city's residents, and was pleased to find the country in a prosperous state.

  • Countering Negative Portrayals: Franklin wrote a piece to counter the negative portrayals of America's situation in the English newspapers, highlighting the country's economic prosperity and the general satisfaction of the people with the revolution.

  • Thanksgiving vs. Fasting: Franklin recounts a tradition of the early New England settlers, who initially responded to hardships with frequent fasts, until a farmer proposed that they instead proclaim a thanksgiving, which has since become a regular practice.

  • Prosperity of the United States: Franklin argues that the United States is in a state of general prosperity, with the vast majority of the population, especially farmers and laborers, being well-fed, well-clothed, and well-paid. He attributes this to the country's abundant natural resources and the hard work of its people.

  • Luxury and Extravagance: While some are concerned about the growth of luxury and extravagance, Franklin believes that the industrious and frugal nature of most Americans will prevent this from leading to ruin.

  • Debts Owed to Britain: Franklin defends the inability of many American merchants to pay their pre-war debts to British creditors, arguing that this was largely due to the disruption of commerce caused by Britain's own unjust actions during the war.

  • Taxes and the National Debt: Franklin discusses the challenges of collecting taxes and paying off the national debt, but expresses confidence in the country's ability to do so through the use of indirect taxes and the growing prosperity of the people.

  • Education and the English Language: Franklin discusses his efforts to promote public education and the preservation of the purity of the English language, including his support for Noah Webster's work on the subject.

  • Constitutional Convention: Franklin was an active participant in the Constitutional Convention, where he expressed reservations about certain aspects of the proposed constitution, such as the salaries for the executive branch and the creation of a bicameral legislature. However, he ultimately consented to the constitution, believing it to be the best that could be achieved.

  • Reliance on Divine Providence: Franklin emphasizes the importance of seeking divine guidance and acknowledging the role of Providence in the affairs of the nation, lamenting the convention's reluctance to open its proceedings with daily prayers.

Chapter Eleven - My Final Years, 1787...

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • The American Constitution is Approved: After much debate and opposition, the new American Constitution was ultimately approved and implemented, with the first Congress meeting and George Washington being elected as the first president. Though not perfect, the Constitution has shown signs of permanency and energy in the new federal government.

  • Franklin's Frustration with Congress: Franklin expresses frustration with how Congress treated him upon his return from France, denying him proper compensation and recognition for his service. He feels he was unjustly denied a settlement of his accounts and the appointment of his grandson to a diplomatic position.

  • Franklin's Declining Health: As Franklin grows older, he struggles with various health issues like the stone and gout, which make writing and travel increasingly difficult for him. He relies on opium for pain relief and is often confined to his home.

  • Franklin's Advocacy for Abolition: In his final years, Franklin becomes a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery, using his position as president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to promote the cause and send materials to influential figures in Europe.

  • Franklin's Religious Views: Franklin expresses his personal religious beliefs, which include a belief in one God, the immortality of the soul, and the teachings of Jesus as the best moral system, while maintaining doubts about the divinity of Christ and organized religion more broadly.

  • Franklin's Acceptance of Death: As he nears the end of his life, Franklin reflects on his mortality with a sense of acceptance and even curiosity about the afterlife. He expresses a desire to have lived a useful life rather than amassing wealth, and looks forward to a "new and more perfect edition" of himself in the next life.

Cast of Characters

  • Prominent Historical Figures: The chapter introduces a wide range of prominent historical figures from the American Revolution and the Enlightenment era, including political leaders, scientists, philosophers, and military commanders. These individuals played crucial roles in shaping the events and ideas of the time.

  • Transatlantic Connections: The chapter highlights the extensive transatlantic connections between the American colonies, Britain, France, and other European countries. Many of the characters had close ties and interactions across the Atlantic, reflecting the global nature of the events during this period.

  • Diverse Backgrounds and Perspectives: The cast of characters includes individuals from diverse backgrounds, such as lawyers, merchants, clergymen, and aristocrats. This diversity of perspectives and experiences contributed to the complex and multifaceted nature of the historical events described in the book.

  • Familial Relationships: The chapter provides insights into the familial relationships of some of the key figures, such as Benjamin Franklin's children and grandchildren, as well as the connections between various political and social networks.

  • Espionage and Intrigue: The chapter mentions the involvement of certain individuals, such as Edward Bancroft, in espionage and covert activities, highlighting the complex and sometimes secretive nature of the political and diplomatic maneuverings during the American Revolution.

  • Influence of Enlightenment Thinkers: The chapter features several prominent Enlightenment thinkers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, and Adam Smith, whose ideas and writings had a significant impact on the intellectual and political landscape of the time.

  • Shifting Loyalties and Allegiances: The chapter illustrates the fluidity of political allegiances during the American Revolution, with some individuals, such as Benedict Arnold, shifting their loyalties from the American cause to the British side.

  • Geographical Diversity: The characters come from a wide range of geographical locations, including the American colonies, Britain, France, and other European countries, reflecting the global nature of the events and the interconnectedness of the world during this period.


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