Benjamin Franklin's Art of Virtue in Frederick Douglass' "Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The Art of Virtue

3. Franklinian Douglass, an American Slave and a Self-made Man
3.1 Temperance
3.2 Resolution
3.3 Justice
3.4 Moderation
3.5 Tranquility

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The notion of the nature of man was a frequently discussed topic by philosophers and authors like Aristotle, Bacon, Locke and Franklin. Benjamin Franklin, however, takes an outstanding position on this issue. Being the tenth son of fifteen children of a soap boiler (cf. Baym and Levine 234), Benjamin Franklin was born into the labouring class in the beginning of the 18th century (cf. Huang and Mulford 146) and soon found himself rising to the point of becoming one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Through undergoing the national ethos: from rags to riches, he lived the American Dream and became a role model of the self-made man for white and, as we will later see, for black Americans as well. His autobiography includes a concept of living a virtuous life and a self- documentation of trial and error.

This concept of a self-made man is often adopted in African-American slave narratives such as in the autobiographies of Josiah Henson, Harriet Jacobs or Frederick Douglass. Just as Franklin represents the possibility of individual freedom and material success (cf. Huang and Mulford 150f.), the former slaves freed themselves from slavery and built up completely new lives becoming military officers, founders of schools, abolitionists and authors. They followed Franklin's example not only because he was a self-made man, but also as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States with the result that Benjamin Franklin's “influence on the development of the slave narrative [is] considerable”(Levine 100).

This paper aims to show the Franklinian way of thinking towards a virtuous life in Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and display how this adaptation is noteworthy with respect to slave narratives. Therefore, we will start by looking at several keywords and defining them in order to understand the concept of the Art of Virtue in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and then divide the thirteen given virtues into categories. We will continue to apply one category to Frederick Douglass' slave narrative and see in which extent Douglass adopts the Art of Virtue to become a self-made man.

2. The Art of Virtue

To understand Franklin's idea of a virtuous life and to avoid ambiguity, we first have to make assumptions on arising keywords. With the result of being a frequently discussed issue, philosophers came up with various kinds of definitions for terms like virtue and habit. Three definitions of virtue were dominant in the 18th century: First, the idea that virtue can be practised and depends on knowledge (cf. Fiering 201). Secondly, “virtue as a firm purpose or resolution of doing whatever right reason demands to be done”(Fiering 201). Thirdly, and this assumption is also made in this paper, the caritas model of moral perfectionism that the key of virtue lays in a change of heart rather than in knowledge or right reason (cf. Fiering 202). As virtue being a product of habit (cf. Fiering 202f.), we now have to define habits as well: while we think of an inherent, plain and unthinking action, the word habit in the classical tradition “was more psychologically inclusive [and seen as] a mental possession that was added to nature and that empowered one with a certain facility in action”(Fiering 202).

Now that the necessary assumption have been clarified, we can now focus on Franklin's Art of Virtue, which was originally supposed to be a “treatise on the management of human character”(Anderson 24), but remained unwritten. However, he explains a rough draft in the second part of his autobiography. With the goal of “arriving at moral perfection”(Franklin 300), he comes up with thirteen names of virtues and “[annexes] to each a short precept, which fully [expresses] the extent he [gives] to its meaning”(Franklin 301), for instance: “1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation”(Franklin 301) or “6. Industry: Lose no time. Be always [employed] in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary actions”(Franklin 301). These thirteen virtues are listed in a table with a hierarchical system, “building from temperance and silence at the beginning of the list toward chastity and humility at its conclusion in ascending order of difficulty”(Anderson 27). Franklin himself also mentions in his autobiography that the list is by no means arbitrary, but that following virtues can only be acquired when the previous virtue is succeeded (cf. Franklin 303). To check himself, he had a notebook with tables. He kept a watching brief over a particular virtue every week and registered his errors, or as he would call it errata, so that after thirteen weeks he went trough all of them and could start again with the first virtue. Since a year has fifty-two weeks, he went through the process four times a year for a lot more than fifty years. Although he says that he never reached perfection, he describes himself as a better and happier person through following his thirteen virtues (cf. Franklin 306). In terms of his third virtue order, he also made a schedule for every day with notes on working hours, sleeping times and eating. A crucial point here is the evening question on what good he had done at the end of the day.

After a dialogue with a Quaker friend he understood that by following his virtues he would have been a good individual for himself, but as the friend informed him that he was insolent (cf. Franklin 307f.), he added one virtue to the original twelve virtues: humility. With this new virtue he was not only a good individual for himself, but also a good human for his environment. He asked himself every evening which good deed he made on that particular day. “He [declines] to view most men as inherently either virtuous or vicious, selfish or unselfish”(Larson 112) and argues that mankind have selfish and altruistic impulses. While he explains that some actions are good and virtues in themselves like bringing a child into the world and taking care of him or her afterwards, “he [also] emphasises the view that virtue lies for the most part in the actions men perform rather than in their motives for performing them”(Larson 115). In our example is the inherent good action to bring a child into the world, but the motive might be that the child can later take care of their parents. What for Franklin mattered was not only the living of a virtuous life, but also teach others to do so (cf. Larson 114f.) and before we will see that he actually taught plenty of Americans, in particular African-Americans, to life a virtuous life and also teach to do so, we have to take one last look on the virtues and divide them into categories to have a better basis for the analysis of Douglass' slave narrative.

Benjamin Franklin avoids a particular religion or stereotypical thinking in his thirteen virtues, because he wants to ensure an universal use of all kinds of people regardless of their religion (cf. Franklin 307). The list is rather a mixture of virtues of various kinds of spiritual thinkings which can be classified in following categories: Old classical Greco-Roman ideals including temperance, resolution, justice, moderation and tranquility (cf. Fiering 218). For our analysis we will focus on that category as they are very present and outstanding in the slave narrative. The others can be divided into Roman Catholic, Puritan believes with silence, chastity and humility and Protestant-capitalists believes, according to Max Weber, with order, industry, frugality and cleanliness (cf. Fiering 218). There is one unclassified virtue sincerity which cannot be put into the mentioned categories since it is a key virtue in more than one category.

3. Franklinian Douglass, an American Slave and a Self-made Man

Frederick Douglass' Narrative is highly influenced by the thirteen virtues described above, which is the reason why the pursuing analyses are made by taking the Old classical Greco-Roman virtues into account to show the adaptation of virtues and to illustrate the influence of Benjamin Franklin on slave narratives.

3.1 Temperance

“Eat not to dullness. Drink not to elevation.”

This virtue seems at first glance inappropriate, because the food allowance, described in almost every slave narrative, already includes the adherence of this virtue. However, we cannot juxtapose a slave narrative and an autobiography of a Founding Father of the Declaration of Independence with the same framework conditions since “black narrators of the slave narrative surely did not have the freedom of a Franklin”(Levine 100). We will though see that there is a shift of thinking towards food in Douglass' Narrative and that he relinquishes food for education, which takes him closer to his freedom.

“Eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal”(Douglass 949). This was, according to Douglass, the monthly allowance of food, which is truly not much. The situation of a slave is depending on the household he lives in and if he is living in the countryside or in the city as “a city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation”(Douglass 960). Douglass' situation changed positively as he grows up and gets to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld to take care of a child named Thomas. In this household he does not only learn to read, but has also enough food to exchange it for education. During the time he goes on errands, he hurries up so that he finds enough time to talk with the white children on the street who improve his reading and writing skills (cf. Douglass 962). He describes it as a win-win situation: the white children are hungry and he refers to himself also as eager for education as he talks about the “bread of knowledge”(Douglass 962). He knows how it feels to be hungry from his previous years on the plantation and feels empathy for the poor white children. However, he also sees the opportunity to obtain more knowledge. We clearly see a change of habits and a shift of meaning of the term 'food' for Douglass. He first refers to food as a rationed precious good with no other option but consuming it to stay alive. After the coincidence of changing the household and leaving the plantation, he sees that there is another option to deal with food - to use it as a tradable good. He rather would relinquish food consumption and trade it for education as the opportunity costs were to high too just consume the food. The utility of education is higher than his utility of food in the current situation.

Douglass approaches his freedom through temperance in food consumption. His recent gained knowledge makes him not only eager for more education, as he embraces every single situation to read and write (cf. Douglass 964f.), but also makes him aware of what it takes to taste freedom as he says that education is “the pathway from slavery to freedom”(Douglass 960). Through Benjamin Franklin's first virtue Douglass gets closer to become a free and self- made man.

3.2 Resolution

“Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.”

Douglass' escape from slavery through access to education is the key element of his Narrative so it can be said that this is the most obvious and dominant virtue in Douglass' life and the virtue which changed his life completely. We see that the second part of the precept cannot be seen as a success as he fails in his first escape attempt, but what remains undoubtedly is his volition in education and his view that escaping slavery is not an option, but a necessity for him.


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Benjamin Franklin's Art of Virtue in Frederick Douglass' "Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass"
University of Wuppertal
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Self-made man, American Dream, slavery, Founding Father, virtues, autobiography, america, comparison
Quote paper
Kevin J. Zuchanek (Author), 2018, Benjamin Franklin's Art of Virtue in Frederick Douglass' "Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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