The man we call Benjamin Franklin
The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast the websites on Ben Franklin’s biography and his autobiography. While disseminating the life of Benjamin Franklin through his autobiography, one learns much about the man. However when disseminating information found in the three websites below, another man slowly creeps out from behind the man already revealed. Which one is the real Benjamin Franklin? While observing the cornucopia of a man one learns that only by the process of comparing and contrasting will one be able to fix a solid face on the man we call Benjamin Franklin.
All the websites addressed in this paper share common subject matter yet are different in terms of analytical approach and main focus. The biography by Edmund S. Morgan calls upon the reader to reconsider traditional assumptions about Benjamin Franklin and move away from standardized cliches.
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While he is best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution, these weren’t his main achievements; furthermore, the documents (with the exception of the Declaration of Independence) didn’t reflect his views and beliefs.
However, this shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that Franklin was a not-so-important figure in the American history. Rather than that, the author suggests that Franklin should be applauded for other achievement and traits of character: ‘His was probably the most brilliant mind that most people who knew him had ever met, but he seldom showed it in public…[H]is mind would be quietly at work, trying to understand the world and the people he found in it, thinking of ways to make their lives easier’ (Morgan, 2005, para. 4). Edmund S.
Morgan believes that one of the major contributions of Benjamin Franklin was through his writings. Also, more attention should be paid to Franklin’s role as an advocate for American interests in England. In general, the biography tries to present a softer side of Franklin’s personality: ‘It may be well at first to dispel the image of him as an overweight scholar peering from his desk over the bifocal glasses he invented’ (Morgan, 2005, para. 8). PBS website also tries to reveal Ben Franklin’s personality to the readers. The website focuses on multiple identities Franklin possessed — both as a public figure and personality.
The website glorifies Franklin as Abolitionist, Almanac maker, Advertiser, Balloon enthusiast, Bifocals inventor, Composer, Cartoonist, Civic Citizen, Chess Player, Deist, Diplomat, Daylight Savings advocate, Enlightenment thinker, Electricity pioneer, Experimenter, Entrepreneur, Founding Father, Flirt, Fire fighter, Glass Armonica creator, Gulf Stream mapper, Genius, Humorist, Health nut, Inventor, International celebrity, Insurer, Junto creator, Journalist, Kite flyer, Librarian, Lightning rod inventor, Londoner, Medical Engineer, Militia member, Mathematician, Mason, Natural philosopher, Organizer (militia, fire dept.
, street cleaning), Odometer maker, Printer, Public relations master, Publisher, Prankster, Questioner, Quartermaster, Quintessential American, Revolutionary, Reader, Scientist, Swimmer, Self-made man, Traveler, Treaty signer, University builder, Volunteer, Visionary, Vegetarian (temporarily), Writer, Weight lifter, Xenophile, Young prodigy, Yankee, Yarn spinner, and Zealot. Perhaps the most interesting out of all these epithets is ‘Quintessential American.
’ The website tries to paint a picture of Franklin as a typical representative of the American nation and a symbol of all its virtues and achievements, such as Self-education, Physical Activity, and Moral Perfection. At the same time, the website acknowledges that Benjamin Franklin was no ordinary man, since he possessed outstanding qualities and skills. It is suggested that Ben Franklin helped define the concept of ‘good citizenship’ through his involvement in and commitment to community on the local level and the nation on the global level:
‘Ben Franklin believed that people volunteering together in a spirit of cooperation could accomplish great things. Driven by a strong sense of civic duty, he involved himself in his community and his nation’ (PBS, 2002, ‘Citizen Ben,’ para. 1). The website presents Franklin’s biography in an interactive and engaging way without compromising accuracy and objectivity. The only limitation of this resource is that the information is not well-structured and far from presenting a comprehensive picture.
The third website present the most, in my opinion, consistent and informative version of Franklin’s biography. It is structured according to the major periods of Franklin’s life, i. e. ‘Humble Beginnings: Franklin in Boston,’ ‘A True Journeyman: Franklin in Philadelphia,’ ‘A Promise Unfulfilled: Franklin in London,’ ‘Sprouting Roots: Back in Philadelphia,’ ‘A Busy Retirement,’ and ‘The American Patriot: Franklin and Independence.
’ Each section of the biography presents all the necessary information without going into unnecessary detail. Another compelling feature of this biography is that it is accompanied with abundant graphical aid. Yet it would be a mistake to say that ThinkQuest presents a dry and scholarly biography of Benjamin Franklin; it offers human touch through little entertaining details about this great man:
‘Inspired by his namesake uncle Benjamin, young Ben composed historical ballads (one was about the pirate Blackbeard) that were printed by his brother James in his fledgling print shop. The poems sold well’ (ThinkQuest, 1998, ‘Interesting Facts’). In order to determine how credible a certain piece of information is, it is necessary to analyze the source of this information in terms of legitimacy and possible bias. Edmund S. Morgan is a well-established historian specializing in early colonial history of America:
‘Edmund Morgan has authored dozens of books on Puritan and early colonial history, which are acclaimed for both their scholarly focus and their appeal to a general audience… Morgan, who joined the Yale faculty in 1955 and retired in 1986, has received many…honors during his long teaching career at Yale…Currently the chair of the board of The Benjamin Franklin Papers—the University’s massive project publishing materials related to the Founding Father and inventor—Morgan is now at work on a study of Franklin, who, he believes, is one of the most interesting people who ever lived’ (Gonzalez, 2001).
However, excessive admiration with Benjamin Franklin might come as a detriment to impartiality and objectivity — the two essential characteristics of any biographical writing. PBS website has little bias of this kind, however, it is often unclear where the information they are using comes from. There are no references or acknowledgements; no links to any works of Franklin or credible historical evidence is present. While Edmund S. Morgan extensively refers to Franklin’s own works, PBS website presents a simplified and pared-down version of Franklin biography. ThinkQuest is the only website that cites its references in an appropriate way.
The authors of the biography acknowledge that they based their writing on such publications as Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren, The Man Who Dared the Lightning-A New Look at Benjamin Franklin by Thomas Fleming, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Ben Franklin Laughing by P. M. Zall, Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father and Inventor by Leila Merrell Foster, and a number of other books and media resources. ThinkQuest is also an interesting information resource since it provides a sound general overview of the historical conditions existing in America in Franklin’s times.
The website offers definition of different historical phenomena that are important for the general narrative, such as King George I, French and Indian War (1754-1763), and other. All the biographies present a certain picture of colonial America: through the life career of Benjamin Franklin, it is possible to understand tense relations between Europe and America, heated debate around the issue of slavery, and the rise of American identity and civil consciousness. However, the most credible source of information on Franklin’s life and times is his autobiography.
This autobiography is of great relevance to the modern reader, and not merely for the reason that it provides an insight into the life of Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin shares his thoughts as to the organization of state and society, role of the citizens, position of America on the world’s stage and other matters of great interest and importance even for the modern reader. For example, he expresses concerns over the clash between religion and civil notion of citizenship, as he recollects that English were trying to plant certain religious ideas in America:
‘[S]ince not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforc’d, their aim seeming to be rather to make us Presbyterians than good citizens (Franklin, 2003, p. 66). ‘As for additional and types of sources, that would give greater confidence in your understanding Franklin, it is necessary to mention Franklin’s writings in the first place. As Edmund S. Morgan (2005, para. 5) correctly points out, ‘[i]n the awesome bulk of his papers, equivalent of 47 fat volumes of print, all available on this website, we can see Franklin whole.
’ Additional insight can be gained from reviewing resources dedicated to the American colonial history: greater understanding of conditions and developments of that era can aid the process of enhancing knowledge about Benjamin Franklin as a statesman, scientist, and outstanding public figure. References Franklin, Benjamin. (2003). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Touchstone. Gonzalez, Susan. (January 12, 2001). ‘Edmund S. Morgan: Sterling Professor Emeritus. ’ Retrieved September 5, 2007, from http://www.
yale. edu/history/faculty/morgan. html Morgan, Edmund S. (2005). ‘Introduction to the Papers of Benjamin Franklin. ’ Retrieved September 5, 2007, from http://www. franklinpapers. org/franklin/framedMorgan. jsp;jsessionid=86AD99C9931B8DF535D2C1CD6A1E6923 PBS. (2002). ‘Benjamin Franklin. ’ Retrieved September 5, 2007, from http://www. pbs. org/benfranklin/ ThinkQuest. (1998). ‘The Biography of Benjamin Franklin. ’ Retrieved September 5, 2007, from http://library. thinkquest. org/22254/home. htm