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Franklin's Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin

Updated on May 5, 2010

Franklin's Autobiography, written by Benjamin Franklin at four intervals between 1771 and 1789, relates events in his life from his birth in 1706 through the late 1750's. It was published posthumously, in four parts—some in French, some in English—between 1791 and 1828. The whole book was first published in 1868, edited by John Bigelow.

The first installment, written while Franklin was visiting the bishop of St. Asaph at Twyford, England, carried the narrative to 1731. Intended for Franklin's own posterity, it contains what he called "several little family anecdotes of no importance to others." However, friends persuaded him, after the American Revolution, to continue the account for the sake of the public. At Passy, France, in 1784, he wrote the engaging pages that tell of his early religious speculations and his pursuit of moral perfection. In 1788, at home in Philadelphia, he brought his history from 1731 to 1757, and shortly before his death early in 1790, he added a brief section dealing with his initial trials as London agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

Franklin was already a great diplomat and statesman and an honored citizen of the world when he began the autobiography, but he assumed no posture in presenting his small beginnings as a printer and provincial politician. Nothing can exceed the candor with which he tells of his struggles for a livelihood, unless it be the lack of modesty with which he recounts his successes. In the Autobiography he is actually the hero of one of the few universally interesting plots—that in which a person wins his way unaided. There is something essentially dramatic in Franklin's steady progress to wealth and influence; he had the golden touch that turns every material thing to some human advantage. Yet the book has no romantic coloring. The family anecdotes are neither intimate nor sentimental, and the comments upon style, politics, morals, and religion take no higher tone than that of good sense. His noble achievements as scientist and philanthropist are narrated as quietly as the purchase of his first silver spoon. In part, of course, this classic simplicity is due to the fact that Franklin wrote as a richly experienced man, incomparably bland, smooth-tempered, prudent, and just; but it is due even more to the fact that Franklin was, above all, the citizen—that his life was thoroughly enveloped in civic affairs. His language is the plain speech of a man who has no private eccentricities of thought or feeling; he chose to tell about himself what he knew, from his wide knowledge of the world, that the world would want to know. One of the greatest of autobiographies, Franklin's Autobiography established the straightforward, realistic style followed by most modern autobiographers.


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