Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin & Selections from His Writings
Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790
Introduction by Henry Steele Commager
Illustrations by Thomas Hart Benton
Random House, 1944
Series: The Illustrated Modern Library

The other day I was in the library looking for Grant’s Memoirs, which was not on shelf, but the multiple editions of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography caught my eye.  I decided to review the section where Franklin outlines the thirteen virtues he focused on in order that he might strive for moral perfection (I’ve included them at the end of this post).  If you’re not familiar with Franklin’s Autobiography, I highly recommend it, not only for the historical record of Franklin’s accomplishments and astute observations, but for the glimpses of life in early America–both humorous and non–that he shares.

I read the book years ago and although much of it may be fuzzy in my mind, this section where he describes how he meticulously observed and recorded his daily progress on his chosen virtues really stuck with me.  It is probably the first secular self-help piece written in America and many self-improvement and/or business books written today still uphold Franklin’s method as an inspirational example of a practical system for accomplishing one’s goals.  You can click here to read the chapter that contains this section.  Scroll down to the paragraph that begins, “I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian.”

The copy I chose to look at was a small, red library-bound copy published in 1944.  I was pleasantly surprised by the colorful illustrations and enjoyed them so much that I decided to take the book home.  I’ve scanned several illustrations to share with you here.

At 10 Franklin is taken out of school to help with his father’s business, “which was that of a tallow-chandler and sope-boiler; a business he was not bred to, but had assumed on his arrival in New England” (12).
The young printer at work.

The illustrations looked vaguely familiar to me, but the name Thomas Hart Benton didn’t ring a bell.  So I Googled him and was pleased to find many examples of his work on line.  He also illustrated Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and that’s at least one place where I’ve seen his work.

Departure of the Joads, from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

If you’re interested in seeing more of Benton’s work, do a Google image seach and you’ll find some great examples.  Benton was a mentor of Jackon Pollock.  The other day at work I came across a new book about their relationship, Tom and Jack: The Intertwined Lives of Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock by Henry Adams.

Franklin’s 13 Virtues:
1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trivling conversation.
3. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed as trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Here is Franklin’s explanation of his system and a page example:

I made a little book, in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.

I determined to give a week’s strict attention to each of the virtues successively. Thus, in the first week, my great guard was to avoid every the least offence against Temperance, leaving the other virtues to their ordinary chance, only marking every evening the faults of the day. Thus, if in the first week I could keep my first line, marked T, clear of spots, I suppos’d the habit of that virtue so much strengthen’d and its opposite weaken’d, that I might venture extending my attention to include the next, and for the following week keep both lines clear of spots. Proceeding thus to the last, I could go thro’ a course compleat in thirteen weeks, and four courses in a year. And like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplish’d the first, proceeds to a second, so I should have, I hoped, the encouraging pleasure of seeing on my pages the progress I made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots, till in the end, by a number of courses, I should he happy in viewing a clean book, after a thirteen weeks’ daily examination.

Phew.  I don’t know if I could stick with this program for a week, let alone thirteen!  Have you ever created a systematic program for your own self-improvement?


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog recently. I have a Ben Franklin autobiography on my Kindle but have not read it yet.

  2. I read Franklin in high school, but haven't tackled it since. I recently stumbled across a copy. That, and reading your post, makes me eager to begin it anew.

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