David Murdock: On Benjamin Franklin (and his list of virtues)

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Of all the Founders, Benjamin Franklin is the most compelling to me. Full of wit and wisdom, he has fascinated me since my college days. There are still things about him that astonish me, all these years later.

An example of Franklin’s wit can be found in a comment he made to John Hancock — he of the gigantic signature — at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. After signing, Hancock remarked on the need for unity at that point, “We must all hang together.” Franklin replied, “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

David Murdock
David Murdock

Jared Sparks was the first historian to record that quote from Franklin, in an annotated edition of Franklin’s writings published in the middle of the 19th century. Franklin wrote quite a variety of things, many showing that sense of humor. My favorite is “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” It’s an extraordinary book, one that I think has been more influential to the formation of how Americans think of themselves than is commonly known.

Despite how beloved Franklin was in the United States and indeed, around the world, at the time of his death in 1790, his “Autobiography” reads like that of a humble man. He even admits, in the opening paragraphs, that “(I may as well confess it, as the denial of it would be believed by nobody), I shall perhaps not a little gratify my own vanity.” Earlier, he had said: “I have raised myself to a state of affluence and some degree of celebrity in the world.”

It’s that phrase, “I have raised myself …” that concerns me here. Much of the “Autobiography” reads like a how-to manual on how to achieve the same “state of affluence and some degree of celebrity” that Franklin had. He is ostensibly writing to his son, William, but the advice he gives while weaving the story of his life applies to most everyone.

Although he acknowledges that “constant good fortune has accompanied me,” Franklin seems to believe that much of his status comes from personal habits that he formed consciously, as sort of a program. That’s the most striking part of the book for me: Franklin’s list of 13 virtues and his plan for achieving them.

Another example of Franklin’s wit is in how he introduces his plan: “I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” but acknowledges just a little later that “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined.” Then, he lists his virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility. He gives a short description of each, most of which are quite funny, when the ambiguity of his remark is considered.

For example, Franklin describes Temperance as “Eat not to dullness: drink not to elevation.” The striking thing to me is how much latitude he gives himself — do not eat “to dullness” — that could be quite a bit of food, and it’s spot-on advice. How many of us stuff ourselves to the point that we are dull afterward? I know I do. And “drink not to elevation” doesn’t quite mean abstinence from all alcohol; it means “don’t get drunk.”

And Silence, the next item on his list? “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself: avoid trifling conversation.” Well, what exactly does he mean by “trifling?” Evidently, Franklin quite enjoyed sparkling conversation. He’s not exactly urging an ascetic, monkish silence.

Franklin’s list of virtues inspired quite a few Americans. “The Autobiography,” published not long after his death, became required reading in many American schools, reaching a zenith of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s not as well known today as it was, but I still see references to it. A quick Google search, for example, turned up several articles where people have attempted to cultivate those virtues and reported on their results. Believe it or not, there’s even merchandise — there are T-shirts emblazoned with the virtues and even notebooks to track them.

That’s where Franklin sounds most like he was writing right now. He realizes quickly that he must form the “habititude” of these virtues, that they are not simply traits a person either does or does not have. To that end, he tackles them one at a time, and keeps track of when he fails so he can figure out why. That advice could come out of any self-help book published today.

It worked, to a large extent. The part of Franklin’s life I find most inspiring is how much he achieved later in life. When he worked on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, for example, he was 70 years old! Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration, was 33. Much of what we remember Franklin for was accomplished in the second half of his long life.

Not too shabby for someone born in “poverty and obscurity,” according to his own reckoning. And I haven’t even mentioned all the other things Franklin did — some confirmed by history and some apocryphal (like inventing the rocking chair — often credited for that, he simply didn’t). Not bad for a guy who arrived in Philadelphia by himself with only the clothes on his back (his luggage was delayed) when he was only 17.

David Murdock is an English instructor at Gadsden State Community College. He can be contacted at murdockcolumn@yahoo.com. The opinions reflected are his own.     

This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Columnist David Murdock looks at Benjamin Franklin and his virtues