The Thirteen Virtues of Benjamin Franklin

Does one remember that initial meeting with an American Founding Father, when you first hear their name and fixed point in time and history? I do. It was in a cartoon called Ben and Me, based on a child’s book I never read. I learned Benjamin Franklin was not that brilliant, and a mouse took all the credit. Oh, wait, no. That’s not the true Benjamin Franklin.

The true Benjamin Franklin was an unusual personage whose renown of today does not match what he once said of himself in his autobiography; “For I was but a bad Speaker, never eloquent, subject to much Hesitation in my choice of Words, hardly correct in Language, and yet I generally carried my Points.”[1] The ability to carry his points would lead him to speak; however bad he might think he was, to leading powers on both North America’s shores and that of England.

He was also a man driven to consider what he called “moral Perfection,” that is, to be the best person and citizen he could be. In his youth, he composed a list of Thirteen Virtues, each with a brief explanation of how he ought to apply them. These were: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility. He “determined to give a Week’s strict Attention to each of the Virtues successively.”[2] These could be difficult to achieve, taking for example Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation. Or Frugality:  Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e. Waste nothing. And then there’s Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

We who read this in modern times may heave a sigh, because, OF COURSE someone like Benjamin Franklin would strive for such things. It can guilt-trip me, because the society and times I belong to says to live for myself and not care so much about “moral perfection.”

But the best part of reading his autobiography is his human honesty. For he grew as a person and admitted that adherence to such goals was hard, sometimes impossible, and as an old man reflected that “on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I have been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour a better and a happier Man than otherwise should I have been, if I had not attempted it.”[3]

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It felt good to know Benjamin Franklin was just like me, failing but acknowledging the failure and moving forward from it. I also like how he encouraged me, you, and all who read his autobiography to strive for virtue and perfection, to imitate Christ in His humility. As a person I am imperfect yet I can work harder at being a better individual, not gossiping, or being wasteful, wronging no-one, being “not disturbed at Trifles” or using “hurtful Deceit.”[4]

That is one reason why I like Benjamin Franklin so much and what earned him a place of respect in my Favorite Historic Figures list. Another reason is because his life of faith has a revolution from when he was young to when he was reflecting on his life as an older man. His childhood raised him with what he called “religious Impressions” and as a young man converted to Deism: “In short I soon became a thorough Deist.”[5]

Deism at its most basic form often takes metaphor in watch-making terms: God the Watchmaker creates a perfectly timed universe and earth that will continue to operate without His involvement. God looks down at man but does not interact further with him. Benjamin was a warm Deist-Christian, one who believed God still involved Himself in His Creation and acknowledged his beliefs in a Christian Creed he composed: “That there is one God who made all things. That he governs the World by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped by Adoration, Prayer and Thanksgiving. But that the most acceptable Service of God is doing Good to Man. That the Soul is immortal. And that God will certainly reward Virtue and punish Vice here and hereafter.”[6]

What struck me as most interesting about his assessment of God is how he sees God working in lives, i.e. “doing Good to Man.” Mr. Franklin heard and spoke with George Whitefield, the Billy Graham Evangelist of his era, and said he “never had the least Suspicion of his (Whitefield’s) Integrity, but am to this day decidedly of Opinion that he was in all his Conduct, a perfectly honest Man.”[7]

They were not religious friends but Benjamin records being moved by Whitefield’s sermons and had heard them enough times to know when they added new material. Perhaps he had even heard from Whitefield’s Walking With God: “In handling my intended subject, I shall, FIRST, Endeavor to show what is implied in these words, WALKED WITH GOD. SECONDLY, I shall prescribe some means, upon the due observance of which, believers may keep up and maintain their WALK WITH GOD. And, THIRDLY, Offer some motives to stir us up, if we never walked with God before, to come and walk with God now. The whole shall be closed with a word or two of application.” Though Benjamin was by his own admission an imperfect man, I believe he walked with God. I respect he was unafraid to admit it, per his words from the prior paragraph concerning God’s nature.

And if a man as well-respected as Benjamin Franklin can find improvement through application of virtues and self-discipline, it is my wholehearted belief we modern journeymen on this same road called life can too. Thank you, Mr. Franklin, for sharing through the ages that you were just as I am: an imperfect creation but loved by God.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caitlin Horton is a 20-something reader, seamstress, and history buff. She lives a life blessed in the knowledge that she is God’s child, and her life has a purpose in the scope of His plan. She encourages her readers to remember, every day can be like Bilbo’s “adventure” if you’re willing to take the “ordinary” and add some “extra” in front of it!

[1] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, ed Leonard W. Labaree, Ralph K Ketcham, Helen C. Boatfield, and Helene H. Fineman (London: Yale University Press, 1964), 160.

[2] Benjamin Franklin, 151.

[3] Benjamin Franklin, 156.

[4] Benjamin Franklin, 150.

[5] Benjamin Franklin, 113-114.

[6] Benjamin Franklin, 162.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, 178.

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