Franklin’s works written to instruct or improve the public — of which the Autobiography is best-known — all rest on assumptions about the possibilities open to the individual, which have come to be called “the American dream.” The essence of the dream is that any man can earn prosperity, economic security, and community respect through hard work and honest dealings with others. That is, work is the avenue through which one reaches wealth, and conversely, any one who works hard and uses his opportunities shrewdly can assume that wealth will be his reward.
This assumption was revolutionary at the time Franklin lived. Most European countries were still characterized by a clearly defined class structure; their political and social institutions militated against dramatic changes of economic status for more than the lucky few. Franklin, the arch-democrat, felt that in the American colonies anyone could fashion his own economic and social status through his personal merits. He preached that the possibilities were limitless for those practicing frugality, honesty, industry, and like virtues.
Franklin’s own life was the apparent proof of these assumptions: he had left Boston at seventeen, with only a short period of formal education and the knowledge of a trade behind him, had arrived almost penniless in Philadelphia, and had been able through luck and work to make a fortune and to retire at the age of 42. He and his readers chose to believe that such a career was possible for any American. Thus for a century — and even today — students are taught the Autobiography in order that they might learn this democratic vision of American potential.
Franklin’s Autobiography thus becomes an important document in shaping American character, because it shaped American expectations. American school children learned through Franklin that the lowliest citizen was as humanly worthy as the wealthiest because of his potential for earning wealth, and that poverty, like body lice, was disgraceful only if one failed to do something about it. Further, they learned that formal education was unnecessary, since the intelligent could learn by themselves. America was the land of endless opportunity for everyone.
Franklin, of course, only articulated precepts that were generally accepted, or at least generally held acceptable, in his society. He did not originate the worldview he expressed. But his immense personal prestige, and his impressive personal example, helped to make those precepts appear as almost self-evident truths to moralists of every persuasion.
Finally, Americans chose to believe Franklin’s descriptions of American opportunities because they were so flattering. They told the American of his own worth, and promised eventual reward, however grueling his present labors might be. They suggested that his country was superior to those in which such opportunities did not exist, and that he was superior to citizens of those less-fortunate countries because he had such opportunities. And, Franklin seemed to suggest, anyone who emulated him closely enough could eventually duplicate his prestige and career. Thus for a century Franklin’s words maintained in the United States nearly the status of Holy Writ. His vision has been credited as the inspiration for many large fortunes, and his individualism has seemed the paragon of “the American way of life.”