Benjamin Franklin, born January 15, 1706, was the 15th of 18 children. Although he did not go on to become a minister as his father had hoped, libraries were central to Franklin’s education. He and his fellow students formed a self- improvement club called the Junto, created a short-lived subscription library as a means of pooling resources for study. Using this early subscription library as a model, he later went on to establish the Philadelphia public library. The success of the Philadelphia library led to its inception across the country. Not only did it provide entertainment for the masses, it also had the added effect of increasing the vocabulary of the community as he noted in his biography:
“…reading became fashionable, and our people, having no publick [sic] amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books, and in a few years were observ’d [sic] by strangers to be better instructed and more intelligent…” (Franklin, 72).
He was surprised by the success of the library; but success did not come easily which he points out with the development of his list of virtues.
About 1728, following a philosophical disagreement with the Presbyterian minister where he attended church, Benjamin made a list of virtues that would make their way into the fabric of American life. He had a list of 13 values: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, and humility. He listed each one of these values and kept a diary to note his successes and failures for each one. He tackled one at a time and was relatively successful with most of them. He had a bit of trouble with silence; but the one virtue that he had the most trouble with was order:
“In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it.” (Franklin, 83).
He was not afraid to document his own failures and was therefore successful with the virtue humility. Humility was not, however, one of the original virtues on his list; a friend of his suggested Benjamin add it to his list citing his abundance of pride as justification.
Franklin had many friends from different religions including a Quaker friend of his who suggested that he add humility to his list of virtues to acquire. Franklin could not be described as religious due to his rejection of religious hypocrisy. One example would be Franklin’s support of Hemphill, an unorthodox Presbyterian minister who also believed in good works over dogma. Another example would be his criticism of religious authorities under the guise of Silence Dogood. The virtues that he sought to acquire for example, he wanted to offer to all people as an example of how to live:
“…my scheme was not wholly without religion, there was in it no mark of any distinguishing tenets of any particular sect. I had purposely avoided them…might be serviceable to people in all religions…” (Franklin, 84).
Much of what Benjamin Franklin experienced and taught throughout his life has become ingrained in the American way of life. His works such as Poor Richard’s Almanac and the Silence Dogood letters are forerunners to the American belief in religious tolerance, self-improvement, and helping others.
Franklin, Benjamin (n.d.). Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Retrieved from http://dallaslibrary.lib.overdrive.com
Glazener, N. (2008). Benjamin Franklin and the Limits of Secular Civil Society. American Literature, 80 (2). Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com