Being one of the first “self-made men” in America, Benjamin Franklin and his autobiography best portrayed many of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s views regarding transcendentalism. Coinciding with Emerson’s views of self-reliance, Franklin placed a great deal of value on individuality and self worth. He was independent and determined, rising above the poverty in which he and his fourteen other brothers and sisters were raised. Due to the lack of finances in his family, Franklin was removed from all institutions of formal instruction and had to rely upon himself to obtain a quality education. Franklin stated in his autobiography, “[h]aving emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred to a state of affluence with a considerable share of felicity, the conducting means I made use of, which with the blessing of God so well succeeded” (Franklin 321). Franklin did not let this hinder his ambition for perfection, for his desires pushed him forward as an individualist and his natural talents ensured his personal success.
Regardless of his financial state and his ancestral history of poverty, Franklin was determined to educate himself in the arts of literature, science and invention. Being fond of study and reading, Franklin stated that “all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid in books” (323). By mimicking styles, rewriting and comparing his work to authors such as Daniel Defoe, Sir Richard Burton, and Cotton Mather, Franklin worked his way up the preverbal success ladder. While still working for his older brother, Franklin started submitting anonymous works to the New England Courant in order to get acquainted with the business. Diligence and hard work eventually paid off for Franklin; thanks to his self-imposed education and trust in his natural abilities, Franklin founded The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730. Franklin achieved the unthinkable in his lifetime because he did not stop, as so many would, when he was met with adversity.
Franklin did not conform to society’s standard by giving up when faced with a barrier. Instead of quitting, he acted as a transcendentalist would have: “[t]rust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, and connection of events” (Emerson 934). Franklin trusted his own instincts and natural skills. He had full confidence in his abilities to educate himself and move forward in the world. Franklin did not depend on his family to financially support and educate him. Rather, Franklin trusted in his own capabilities and surged forward in society, and later emerged as one of the greatest politicians, inventors, and scholars known to man-kind.
Emerson also states in his essay, “Self-Reliance”, “[t]here is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion” (Emerson 934). In other words, one must not conform to what society dictates as necessity. One must be content with his own individual and natural blessings and feel free to explore those gifts without feeling apologetic to the surrounding societal norms: “Man is timid and apologetic… he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments about the past” (Emerson 941). One should not hold back their true nature because it is not the standard, on the contrary, Emerson explains that one should “speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again” (Emerson 937). Furthermore, Emerson says that we should “affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face of custom, and trade, and office, the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever man works” (Emerson 938). This is precisely what Franklin did in his lifetime; he recognized his potential and did not settle for mediocrity. He did not follow traditions; he trusted himself and created a new tradition, the American Dream.
Even after his success as an inventor and a scholar, Franklin did not let pride overcome his senses. Just as Emerson avidly protested measuring ones worth by material possession and by what one has; he proclaimed, “[a] political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you to peace but the triumph of principles” (Emerson 949). Franklin accepted these transcendental ideals; for he did not measure his success based on his social status or material wealth. Instead, he sought moral perfection. Franklin stated after opening his own press, “it was about this time I conceived to the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.
I wished to live without committing any fault any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into” (Franklin 343). Franklin “became a real doubter in many points of… religious doctrine” (Franklin 325), yet believed in moral perfection and principles, just as Emerson did. Franklin understood that to be at peace with oneself and to truly benefit mankind, one would have to go against custom, if necessary, to uphold certain moral principles. Franklin listed thirteen virtues in which he focused on one at a time, he planned to “fix on one of them at a time; and, when [he] should be the master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till [he] should have gone through the thirteen” (Franklin 344).
As one can see, there are many connections between Franklin’s Autobiography and Emerson beliefs in transcendentalism. Both shunned traditional religion and societal conformity and placed high values on independence and self worth. As stated by Emerson, “one could find his or her own way to transcendence through self-knowledge, self-reliance, and the contemplation of nature.” Franklin was an excellent example of these beliefs.
Perkins, George, and Perkins, Barbara, eds. The American Tradition in Literature. 10th ed. Vol. 1. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Perkins and Perkins 933-949
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography.” Perkins and Perkins 321-351