About The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin



Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1790, printer, scientist, statesman, wrote an Autobiography that poses a riddle never completely solved: How could such an incomplete, disjointed, inaccurate, mangled manuscript be so perennially popular? Translated into dozens of languages and reprinted in hundreds of editions, it continues to be one of the most successful books of all time, even though Franklin himself is sometimes viewed with suspicion by the haters of industry and frugality. An answer to the riddle of the Autobiography is partially hinted at by the ways in which it has been described, for if it has not been all things to all men, it has at least been remarkable to most men who have read it. Its most admired qualities have changed as fashions, philosophies, and needs have changed. But, significantly, the book continues to survive such changes.

For the diminishing numbers interested in obtaining moral instruction through their entertainment — a group including an apparent majority of nineteenth-century readers — Franklin's Autobiography is indeed a prize. His friends had urged him to complete his story in order to direct young people in the ways they should go; and it was primarily as a moral tract that expurgated versions of the Autobiography were first taught in American schools. Less didactic historians, however, have found the book equally valuable as the first detailed study of the American middle-class, a map of the road to wealth that that WASPish congregation traveled after secularizing their Protestant energies. Still others have seen it as a revolutionary document — an assertion of proletarian dignity and the tangible portrayal of a mind confident enough to seek new forms of government.

For those uninterested in questions of history or morality, the Autobiography gratifies the longing for a success story, for a book about a virtuous hero who survives many trials and makes good. Indeed, the Autobiography just begins to hint of ' the astonishing triumphs in store for Franklin before his death. Long before his years of public service were over he had been referred to in Parliament as one of the wisest men of Europe, and had been courted by kings.

During his 1764-1775 term as colonial agent in England, Franklin was considered by the British the quintessential American. Later, in France, he seemed to romantics an ideal — a noble savage miraculously comfortable at court. His character indicated to Europeans just what the provinces could produce. Many have therefore valued his Autobiography for the insight it affords into the mind of an American leader, a Founding Father, and for the picture of life in colonial America that it provides. And those interested in dissecting the components of the American character have perforce studied Franklin's Autobiography, if only because the reverence with which it was viewed made it a shaping influence on American thought.

Finally, for those uninterested in history, personality, or colonial sociology, there is still the language of the Autobiography to admire. When other considerations fade, Franklin is the master of the well-turned phrase, the succinctly pointed anecdote, the balanced sentence, humanized with an undercurrent of wry, sophisticated, self-critical, and ironic wit.

How the Autobiography Was Written

In 1771, when Franklin was 65 years old and had been serving in England seven years as Agent for Pennsylvania (his second stay in this capacity), he visited for two weeks at the home of Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, at Twyford. As part of his vacation, be outlined the story of his life and then wrote 86 pages, bringing his account up to 1730. But the leisurely rest at Twyford ended and he laid his Memoirs, as he called the Autobiography, aside, not to return to them for 13 years. He had carried his story only up to the point at which he began to be locally prominent in Philadelphia.

The intervening years, before Franklin began to write about himself again, were turbulent ones, encompassing the American Revolution. Almost as soon as the Declaration of Independence was signed, the American Congress sent Franklin as its Commissioner to France. While living just outside Paris at Passy, Franklin began Part Two (Sections 8 and 9 here) of his story in 1784, when he was over 78 years old. But he found time to pen only 17 pages before he laid the work aside again for four more years.

Increasingly ill with gout and gallstones, Franklin was finally allowed to return to America, but had no sooner arrived than he was elected President of Pennsylvania and then Delegate to the Federal Convention of 1787. Thus he found himself once more too busy with public affairs to indulge in personal reminiscences.

But in July 1788, he made his will, and in August began his Memoirs again, this time writing 117 pages (Sections 10-17). Franklin was now 83, and so constantly in pain that he had to resort to opium for respite. Sometime before his death on April 17, 1790, at the age of 84, he wrote his last seven and one-half pages, comprising what scholars call Part Four (Section 18).

Publication History of the Autobiography

For writing usually characterized by simplicity and clarity, Franklin's Autobiography comes to us with an extraordinarily complicated and murky publishing history. When he returned from England in 1775, Franklin brought with him the unrevised manuscript of Part One. He left it, along with other important papers, in the care of a friend, Joseph Galloway, when Congress sent him to France in 1776. But Galloway sided with the British during the Revolution and therefore had to flee from Philadelphia when the British troops withdrew. His wife stayed to protect their home, but died soon thereafter, apparently leaving the manuscript of Franklin's Autobiography in the hands of her executor, Abel James, a lawyer. James then wrote Franklin urging him to continue the story and sending him his original outline of proposed topics.

One mystery about the manuscript begins brewing while only Part One exists, hypothetically in James's possession as executor of Mrs. Galloway's will: later unauthorized editions of Part One are easiest explained by supposing that one of James's clerks stealthily made a copy of it while it was still in James's office, and that the secret copy somehow got to England immediately after Franklin's death.

While in France, Franklin was visited by his close friend Benjamin Vaughan, who had been sent by the British government to discuss peace negotiations. Franklin showed Vaughan James's letter, asking his opinion of it, and Vaughan found even more reasons than James had for urging Franklin to continue. Both letters are inserted at the beginning of Part Two, apparently to explain why Franklin continued to write after being estranged from his son William Temple, for whom the Memoirs were planned originally.

When Franklin, back in Philadelphia, finally began writing again in 1788, he apparently reread and probably revised his draft of Part One. Then he had his grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, make two copies of his first three parts and sent them to Benjamin Vaughan in England and to his friend Le Veillard in France, asking them for their suggestions and comments. At this point another mystery is born, for we have no way of knowing to what extent Franklin personally authorized the many changes in Bache's copies, and to what extent they were editorial corrections Bache himself supplied. To complicate matters further, though the first authorized edition of the Autobiography was based on one of Bache's copies, neither copy survives today. The exact wording of Bache's versions must be reconstructed from printed editions of the book and from translations supposedly based on Bache's copies rather than the original manuscript.

Le Veillard began translating the Autobiography into French as soon as he received one of Bache's copies. He proceeded meticulously, attempting to render as exactly as possible Franklin's English expressions and comparisons into French. But Franklin, after adding the last short section before his death, left the publication rights for the book to his illegitimate grandson, William Temple Franklin, Jr. And Temple, hoping to make a great deal of money out of a book for which the public was clamoring, forbade its publication in English or French, except in authorized editions which he himself would edit. But Temple found working from the original manuscript difficult, since the handwriting was often illegible, so at some point he apparently exchanged manuscripts with Le Veillard, taking to his printer Bache's neater copy to use, and failing to notice that Part Four had been added at the end of the original. He did not bring out his edition until 1818.

Within a year after Franklin's death in 1790, an unauthorized French translation of Part One appeared, followed two years later by London editions which were supposedly unauthorized re-translations into English from the poor French translation. Several mysteries arise because of these works: first, from what possible text was the French translation made (Le Willard convincingly denied having anything to do with it); and second, what sources were used for the English re-translations, since occasional wordings resemble the original manuscript more than the supposed French source? The simplest explanation is that all these pirated editions were taken from a copy of Part One made in Abel James's office.

Le Willard died on the scaffold during the French Revolution, and Temple Franklin dawdled so in publishing Franklin's papers that gossips suggested he had been bribed by the British government to suppress them. But finally he brought out the first three parts of the Autobiography in 1818, the text based on Bache's copy. Years later, in 1868, the American minister to France, John Bigelow, located and brought from Le Willard's heirs the original manuscript. He then noted how widely it differed from the official edition and brought out what he claimed was the definitive edition of the Autobiography, in the process reviling Temple Franklin on a number of grounds. But since Bigelow simply made corrections on a printed copy of the Temple Franklin edition, his own "definitive edition" has as many errors as he claimed the original definitive edition contained.

Temple Franklin was unjustly accused of bowdlerizing his grandfather's powerful prose. Of course, since neither of Bache's copies exists, it is impossible to know for sure what changes each grandson contributed in the 1818 version. But neither can anyone know whether many of these changes were not made by Franklin himself, when he directed Bache's copying. Consequently, no absolutely foolproof and totally authoritative text representing Franklin's final wishes will probably ever exist.

What Happened After the Autobiography Ends

In many ways, Franklin's Autobiography stops when it approaches the period of activity that made such memoirs most desirable. Although his scientific and philosophical reputations were based largely on the electrical experiments he mentions briefly in the Autobiography, his most significant political contributions were made after 1758, when the Memoirs ended. Considering both aspects of his career, Turgot coined for Franklin the Latin motto Eripuit caelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis: "He snatched the lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants."

Franklin's first mission to England to negotiate about the taxes that the Pennsylvania Proprietors refused to pay lasted from 1757 to 1762. During this time Franklin, with his son William, visited the homes of their ancestors, as Franklin reminded William at the beginning of the Autobiography, and in 1759 was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of St. Andrews. Thereafter he was addressed as "Dr. Franklin." On this trip he spent an extended time in Scotland, with many intellectual luminaries then living around Edinburgh, and called the visit "six weeks of the densest happiness I have met with in any part of my life." He was later given a doctor's degree by Oxford, and had the satisfaction of seeing his son William, who had accompanied him on most of his official missions to this point, appointed governor of New Jersey. He also continued his experiments and perfected a musical instrument called the armonica, which involved glasses filled with varying amounts of water and played with a wet finger rubbed round the rims. The instrument was so popular that Mozart and Beethoven, as well as others, composed music for it.

Franklin arrived home in Philadelphia on November 1, 1762, settled hopefully into domestic routine, prepared to serve as an Assembly member, and began to build a new house for his family. But in early winter of the following year he was again embroiled in public controversy. Frontiersmen, inflamed by Indian uprisings, killed two groups of friendly Indians; and Franklin wrote a pamphlet strongly condemning this massacre. The same settlers then decided to march on Philadelphia to murder the friendly Indians being guarded there. But Franklin met them outside the city, talked with them, reminded them of the three companies of soldiers defending Philadelphia, and persuaded them to go home without causing further trouble.

At this point bitterness increased against the Proprietors, who controlled Pennsylvania under Royal chatters inherited from William Penn. A faction led by Franklin convinced a majority of the Assembly to petition the King to take direct control of the Province. Opponents argued that the King's representatives would govern as corruptly as the Proprietors' men, and that to lose the Proprietors would be to lose the excellent Pennsylvania charter. Franklin's allies won the vote to petition the King, but on October 1, 1764, after a bitter and vituperative campaign, Franklin lost his seat in the Assembly. By the end of the month., however, the Assembly discovered that it could not do without his services and voted to send him again to England in order to present their petition. Again his wife Deborah refused to sail across the ocean, so he left without her. He was never to see her again, for he was unable to return for ten more years; and before he arrived, Deborah died.

When Franklin arrived in England as Colonial agent for the second time, his purpose was to end Proprietary government in Pennsylvania. Since he was later appointed agent for Georgia in 1768, New Jersey in 1769, and Massachusetts in 1770, however, he came to be regarded as the representative for all the American colonies. As the breach between England and the Colonies widened, Franklin began to be feared and hated as the embodiment of selfish American demands.

Over Franklin's opposition, the Stamp Act decreeing that stamps must be placed on all official documents was passed on March 22, 1765, as a method of bringing revenue into the British treasury. Since the American Assemblies claimed as a primary right the privilege of taxing themselves, the Americans were outraged. Franklin unwisely recommended his friends as distributors of the stamps and so was suspected of framing the act himself. But he worked tirelessly for its repeal, his labors given more leverage by American riots and boycotts of English goods. The climax of his struggle came on February 13, 1766, with Franklin's brilliant performance before Parliament (partially arranged beforehand) in which he answered the members' questions and explained the American position. The whole transcript of his examination was published in England, France, and throughout the Colonies, making Franklin the major colonial hero of the day. A month later he received most of the credit when the unpopular Stamp Act was repealed by Parliament.

In the years that followed, Franklin apparently remained hopeful that a stable and powerful British Empire could be formed. But relations were slowly deteriorating between the American colonies and England. Franklin wrote newspaper articles explaining the American position and, when those failed to work, wrote several brilliant satires and hoaxes attacking the British government. While these cutting satires may have affected public opinion, making some of the British more sympathetic to the Americans, they certainly embittered the officials of the government. Inevitably, such men found a way to revenge themselves upon their troublesome American gadfly.

On December 2, 1772, Franklin had sent secretly to a committee of the Massachusetts Assembly a group of letters he had been given, which were written by the Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, and the Lieutenant-Governor, Andrew Oliver. Both men urged English officials to make stronger and better-enforced demands on the colonists as a means of suppressing rebellious American spirits. Against Franklin's wishes, the letters were eventually published and aroused an impassioned public demand that the Governor be removed from office. In the ensuing furor, Franklin admitted having sent the letters to Hutchinson's enemies. On January 29, 1774, Franklin was called before the Privy Council, excoriated publicly in the most excessive style, accused of stealing the letters and of plotting against representatives of the Crown, and denounced for nearly an hour, to the glee of the applauding audience, He stood silently and refused to answer. Two days later he was removed from his office of deputy postmaster general.

Obviously, Franklin could no longer work openly and effectively with the British government. There is evidence that by the end of the year various officials were again attempting to contact him, because he was the only man considered capable of engineering a satisfactory compromise with the increasingly angry colonies. But by this time the positions of the colonies and the mother country were virtually irreconcilable. Hope for a settlement flared briefly when William Pitt, Lord Chatham, presented a plan Franklin liked to the House of Lords. But the Lords rejected it and launched an insulting personal attack on Franklin, who was in the audience. Franklin finally gave up all hope of a peaceful settlement and sailed for Philadelphia in March 1775.

He landed at Philadelphia on May 5 and on May 6 was elected as delegate to the Second Continental Congress. The rest of 1775 was spent working endlessly on the numerous committees to which he was appointed (work which included reviewing Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence). At the age of 70, he became a fervent revolutionary, proving his ardor by loaning the new Congress all the money he could personally raise, thereby encouraging others to do the same and aiding immeasurably the new government's finances.

In the autumn of 1776 Congress appointed Franklin one of three commissioners to the court of France. He quickly sailed to Europe on a warship, the capture of which would have meant his immediate execution by the British as a traitor. But once in Paris he was lionized, indeed idolized, by an adoring French public. His enormous personal prestige gave him more power than any other American could have wielded in negotiations with the French government. And by playing on the French desire to see the British Empire diminished, Franklin wheedled from the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI the funds that enabled the Colonies to successfully defend the independence they had declared. Though he was surrounded with British spies and American enemies, the latter either jealous of his adulation or disapproving of his courtly methods, Franklin traced in his French years one of the most successful diplomatic careers of the American Foreign Service. The period culminated with his personal direction of the negotiations for peace with England, and with the signing of the peace treaty on September 3, 1783. Franklin was officially replaced by Thomas Jefferson on May 2, 1785, and left his French home July 12, carried in one of the Queen's personal litters to spare him unnecessary pain from his gallstones.

Franklin landed in Philadelphia on September 14, 1785, greeted by cannon salutes, cheering crowds, and public celebrations befitting the arrival of America's most illustrious citizen. In October he was elected a member, and later president, of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, and began another phase of his public service. From May through September of 1787 he also served as one of Pennsylvania's delegates to the Constitutional Convention. Though virtually none of his ideas were incorporated into the document this Convention eventually adopted, he has been convincingly credited with holding the warring factions together in order to work out the compromise structure that was eventually ratified. His last speech urging unanimous acceptance of the compromise was reprinted over 50 times as arguments about ratification raged throughout the Colonies: "I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them. . . . Though many . . . persons think . . . highly of their own infallibility . . . . few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who . . . said, 'I don't know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right. . . .' I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention . . . would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument."

When Franklin ended his term as president of Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council in October 1788, his public career was finally finished. He spent the last two years of his life in "excruciating Pain," but wrote President Washington, "I am pleas'd that I have liv'd them, since they have brought me to see our present Situation." His last public act was to sign a congressional petition advocating the abolition of slavery. Then on an April evening in 1790, at the age of 84, Benjamin Franklin quietly died.

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