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In Response to

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography

Dearest Father,

It has now been three years since I left the house to pursue my academic career in the United States. I have gradually become sensitive to the needs imposed by the outside world; to the ethical and moral conflict that torments us as we step out in the world of adults. I can't help but ask myself, "What is it that helps sustain me during times of moral and emotional crisis?"

One of the courses that I am taking this semester at Wabash is History 141 'American History to 1877 ' and it is this course that has somewhat helped me answer my question. We were assigned Benjamin Franklin's autobiography as one of our readings for class. The more I read it, the more I learnt to appreciate the values you imparted to me over the years. I know you have read Franklin's autobiography and even recommended it to me on a number of occasions but till today, I didn't go through it. In this letter, I would like to tell you the numerous things that have struck me as remarkable in the autobiography.

Great people, you always told me, learn from their mistakes and therein lies their greatness. Franklin struck me as a good father and hard working businessman as well as a moral perfectionist. Part I of his autobiography is a letter to his son. In this, Franklin accepts that he made some major mistakes in his life. One of them was lending out money that his brother John's friend Vernon had asked him to recover from someone in Pennsylvania. Collins, the person who borrowed off this money, never returned it to Benjamin Franklin. It was a sizeable amount of thirty-five pounds and Franklin was lucky in that Vernon never pushed him to return it. Eventually, as his newspaper concern succeeded at Bradford, not only did he pay back Vernon in full, but also paid him the interest on the principal.

Another major mistake he made was by not keeping in touch with the lady of his life ' Miss Reid 'when he left for England at the young age of seventeen. He realizes years later how hard it is to find true love and rectifies his mistake when he marries her on September 1, 1730. They had anticipated some legal problems from Miss Reid's first failed marriage. I would like to call it divine providence that ensured this didn't happen. Also, I think it was the result of good karma. This, I believe, was Franklin's sensitivity to people in need (helping Ralph with money, giving the old landlady at his lodging at Little Britain his time when every second of his time was precious and never thinking of getting something in return for his favors). Franklin's sincerity and honesty earned him friends who came up with help in times of great need. I refer to the incident at Bradford where William Coleman and Robert Grace advanced him the money necessary to save his printing establishment and evade possible legal hassles.

By going through his autobiography, I also learnt that you had indeed imparted to me a wonderful quality and that is of being a voracious reader. For, as I understood by Franklin's autobiography, it was his voracious appetite for books and constant efforts at composition that created his career and made him the brilliant rhetorician and statesman he was. Though he head to leave Mr. Geo Brownell's well known school for writing and arithmetic at a very young age to assist his father in business (as you know, Franklin's family had very humble beginnings, his father's business was that of a tallow chandler and soap boiler), he found time to read. His father had a limited library, yet at a very young age, Franklin had finished Plutarch's Lives, Defoe's Essay on Projects and Dr. Mather's Essays to do Good. And, it became apparent as I read Dr. Mather's Essays to Do Good, that these works had a great influence on Benjamin Franklin's life. 
Reading was something that Benjamin Franklin was never to give up. Even when he was working at his brother's printing house, he used to utilize the little free time he had to read Cocker's book of arithmetic, Seller and Sturmy's book on navigation and even Locke On Human Understanding and The Art of Thinking by Messrs. du Port royal. He found great interest in rhetoric and logic and soon picked up the Socratic method of rhetoric as well. At Little Britain too, during a time when circulating libraries were hard to come by, Franklin managed to figure out a way by which a bookseller by the name of Wilcox would lend out books to him for reading.
But what I feel stood him in good stead for the rest of his life was his upbringing. His father was always frank and observant about his son, and never blind in his love. He told him that he 'fell far short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity'of which he convinced me by several instances,' when he first attempted to write. Also, Franklin tells us, his father tried, as often as he could, to have mature, intelligent people come over to their house so that the children could partake of the conversation and improve their minds. Franklin had humble beginnings and the time his father put in to educate his children, as I learnt in these few examples, would stand Benjamin Franklin in good stead throughout his life.
What impressed me most was that Franklin was never ashamed of his situation. Wherever he went at the beginning of his life, he had to start a career all over again'at Boston, Philadelphia and England. In each one of these instances he was nearly broke and had nowhere to go and yet, he managed by his industry and presence of mind, to survive and slowly earn the respect of the people he worked with. He says, 'I grew convinced that truth, sincerity and integrity in dealing between man and man were of the utmost importance to the felicity of life, and I formed written resolutions (which still remain in my Journal book) to practice them ever while I lived.'

In writing a letter of such frankness and high ideals, I had a rush of memories for which I wrote you this letter. These are the very ideals you wanted to impart in me and wanted me to live by. You told me that I would make mistakes in life, but as long as I learnt from them, they were not major obstacles. You told me that even in today's intensely materialistic world, values such as Franklin's would provide us spiritual sustenance, as would the humility and gratitude that he had towards the divine.

Reading Franklin's autobiography made me appreciate that there is no substitute for perseverance, hard work and at the same time humility and reminded me of the values you had sought to instill in me. The autobiography has been a personal experience for me and I discovered strong parallels between the ethical lessons that Franklin wanted to impart his son through this letter and what you, all through my childhood, kept stressing on. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for the enormous time and effort you spent in providing what I consider an ideal upbringing and it is this that sustains me in my moments of emotional and moral crises.      


More by :  Aurpon Bhattacharya

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