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Benjamin Franklin and the Civic Virtues of the First American

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Benjamin Franklin portrait

By Brian P. Raftery, MA
Faculty, College of Humanities and Social Sciences 

In preparing to co-author a new course in American literature, I re-read “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” As you may know, it was an enormously popular and influential work in its era, and it continues to be studied in literature, history and philosophy courses to the present day.

The autobiography recounts Benjamin Franklin’s prototypically American success story, which starts with his early life as the 15th of 17 children of a poor tallow chandler in Boston. It follows him through an unhappy apprenticeship in an older brother’s printing shop until he leaves Boston at the age of 17 to make his own way.

Through hard work, thrift, intelligence and skill, he became a prosperous printer and one of Philadelphia’s leading citizens. As a civic activist, Franklin played a central role in the establishment of a fire department, a postal service, a hospital, a library and an academy that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Franklin came to be seen as the “first American,” a sobriquet that reflects the idea that the virtues he exemplified and wrote about were those admired and shared by many of his contemporaries.

He was, for example, industrious, self-educated, frugal and optimistic. He tried to live in a manner consistent with the virtues necessary for an individual to achieve success while contributing to the advancement of society and the well-being of his fellow citizens.

Below are Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues and precepts, taken from his autobiography:

  1. Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.
  2. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversations.
  3. Let all your things have their places.
  4. Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself, i.e. waste nothing.
  6. Lose no time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Use no hurtful deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Avoid extremes. Forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Tolerate no uncleanness in body, clothes or habitation.
  11. Be not disturbed at trifles or accidents, common or unavoidable.
  12. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring.
  13. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Which of these virtues do you think do today’s Americans value? Put another way, how would a list of contemporary American virtues differ from Franklin’s, and what do those differences suggest about the future of our country?

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References:

  • Norton Anthology of American Literature (Seventh Edition): Volume A. “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (Part Two),” pp. 526-7.
About Brian P. Raftery, MA
Professor Rafferty headshot
Faculty, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

Born and raised in New York City, Brian is the first-born son of Irish immigrants and the first Raftery in America or Ireland to graduate from college. His parents were devoutly religious, and they made many sacrifices so that he could have a rigorous and traditional Catholic education. Brian was taught by the sisters of St. Joseph at Blessed Sacrament School, by Franciscan brothers at St. Francis Preparatory High School and by the Vincentian fathers at St. John’s University, from which he graduated cum laude. Dreaming of becoming an English professor, Brian went to Syracuse University on a teaching fellowship. When he took a year off before entering the PhD program at Syracuse, he met his future wife at a publishing convention in Washington, D.C. Judy and Brian have four children, all of whom are attending college or working in California.

Read more about Brian Raftery.