Circling the Squares: City-Building in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
This essay argues that the pattern of recursive circulation visible in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography shifts from the realm of metaphor to play a concrete role in Philadelphia’s early development. In the narrative, itself recursive, Franklin becomes urban by circulating through London’s streets and performing a cosmopolitan self. On his return home to Philadelphia, he continues this pattern of performative circulation, circling city blocks and cycling through his self-designed grid of improvement. And in a distinctly American move, Franklin leverages this persona by circulating his name—on petitions, bonds, and currency—to build the city of Philadelphia. Franklin’s circulation through locales such as Boston, Philadelphia, London, and Paris transformed Philadelphia’s built spaces; his literary formulations of these processes in the Autobiography reveal him to be a major theorist, as well as a builder, of eighteenth-century American urbanity. As Franklin circles the squares—of gridded streets, of his chart of virtues, of the pages of the Autobiography—he enacts a theory of recursive improvement that extends from the body to the physical spaces of the city to the body politic, in which even the most grand and abstract transformation is grounded in physical movement. As it structures the Autobiography, I argue, circulation enabled Franklin’s engagement with the Atlantic world he inhabited and helped to shape.