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The American Enlightenment in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

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American Enlightenment was a very important period in American history. Not only because it was a time of intellectual flourishing and education, but more importantly, because it led to the American Revolution. It was a period, when human main interest shifted from simply believing in and relying on Gods superiority, to focusing on self-development and self-reliance. We can easily observe such a way of thinking in Benjamin Franklin works, such as his Autobiography or in one of the most important documents in the history of the United States, Declaration of Independence.

The period of Enlightenment was revolutionary in itself. The 18th century was a great intellectual change in many fields. Most important of them were education, philosophy, science, and technology. This phenomenon has its source in Europe, where first signs of similar changes were visible already in the 17th century, though in America it took a slightly different course. The most important effects of American Enlightenment were visible in political philosophy. The ideas of rejection of monarchy, liberalism, and republicanism gained popularity, and later became the ideology behind the American Revolution and creation of the United States of America.

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‘Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography’ is a great source of knowledge about the changes I mentioned before. He describes his own observations about many changes. The first example would be the story of commencing a public subscription library. Franklin describes his surprise about the growth in the popularity of reading: ‘reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observ’d by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent than people of the same rank generally are in other countries”. Another interesting topic, which was influenced by the ideas of Enlightenment was religion. Although praising God was still one of the most important aspects of human life, people began to treat it with a more reasonable attitude. A great example of this phenomenon is Benjamin Franklin himself, who describes his change in relationship with religion and church. Even though he grew up and was educated Presbyterian, he himself decided to not to attend public assemblies. He understood and believed in some principals, but at the same time others appeared to him ‘unintelligible’. One of his most important citations regarding religion from Autobiography is: “My conduct might be blameable, but I leave it, without attempting further to excuse it; my present purpose being to relate facts, and not to make apologies for them”..

One of the most important ideas of American (but not only) Enlightenment was self-development and becoming so-called „self-made man”. Franklin’s approach to this was quite peculiar. One of his ways of self-improvement to accomplish “moral perfection”. In order to do so, he created a list of moral virtues, which he wanted to ”habituate”. The list consisted of thirteen virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity and humility. He gave himself a week for every one of them to work on: “I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen”. The order in which they were planned was not accidental. Acquisition of one was supposed to facilitate acquisition of another, as he explains: ”Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations. This being acquired and established, silence would be more easy (…)”. The plan was working at the beginning, but after the first year of repeating the course, because of his other responsibilities (voyages and business affairs), he had to abandon the practice, although he always’ve kept his book, where his plan was noted, with him.

While looking for information or trying to understand the phenomenon of American Enlightenment, it is worth to get acquainted with ‘Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography’ or his other works such as ‘Declaration of Independence’, of which he was a co-author.

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The American Enlightenment in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
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