American Portraits

A Project of Moral Perfection: Benjamin Franklin’s List of Virtues and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn how Benjamin Franklin purposefully tried to be virtuous throughout his life.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

In the late 1720s, a young Philadelphia printer sat down at a table by candlelight and opened up a small leather book. Benjamin Franklin began to plan what he called a “bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection.” He was not a struggling man who was trying to turn his life around after a series of bad decisions; in fact, Franklin had recently married and was a successful printer who was committed to serving the community as an emerging civic leader. With a few fits and starts, he jotted down twelve virtues that he would try to follow….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can being virtuous help you to achieve your purpose?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn how Benjamin Franklin purposefully tried to be virtuous throughout his life.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Benjamin Franklin’s attempts to be virtuous in his life.
  • Students will examine how Franklin was purposeful in the way that he lived.
  • Students will apply their knowledge about purpose to their own lives.

Background

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. Growing up, he heard a great deal about morality and religion in the Puritan society. As a young man, however, he rebelled against authority and loved to play devil’s advocate by questioning all accepted wisdom. Franklin liked to argue and was seen as disputatious and a bit of a gadfly.

Realizing that he was rubbing people the wrong way and making as many enemies as friends, Franklin decided to reform his character. His first goal was to stop being so argumentative—he came to believe that he did not need to win every debate. In doing so, Franklin learned an important lesson in moderation and prudence.

After running away to Philadelphia, he set up a printer’s shop and began making something of himself as an adult. He started a plan to practice virtue. He also took part in civic life in Philadelphia by creating a subscription library. Over the course of the next few decades, Franklin created a number of civic institutions including a volunteer fire department, a system of night watchmen, and educational academies. He would later enter politics and serve as a member of the Continental Congress, a diplomat to France, and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

Vocabulary

  • Puritan
  • Disputatious
  • Gadfly
  • Temperance
  • Silence
  • Order
  • Resolution
  • Frugality
  • Industry
  • Sincerity
  • Justice
  • Moderation
  • Cleanliness
  • Tranquility
  • Chastity
  • Aristotle
  • Enlightenment
  • Philosophers
  • Vice
  • Habitude
  • Mastery
  • Fleeting
  • Diplomat
  • Statesman
  • Utility
  • Endeavor
  • Amiability
  • Civility
  • Affability
  • Vignettes
  • Infallibility

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Benjamin Franklin’s identity?
  • What was Franklin’s purpose in developing his plan for moral perfection?
  • How did Franklin attempt to achieve moral perfection? Did he succeed? Why or why not?
  • How did Benjamin Franklin’s purposeful life help to advance freedom for himself as well as for others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Brands, H.W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Anchor, 2000.
  • Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.
  • Lemay, J.A. Leo and P.M. Zall, eds. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. New York: Norton, 1986.
  • Lopez, Claude-Anne and Eugenia W. Herbert. The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family. New York: Norton, 1975.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Schiff, Stacy. The Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. New York: Henry Holt, 2005.
  • Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin.  New York: Penguin, 1991.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Penguin, 2004.

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