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THE Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin has probably been more extensively read than any other American historical work, and no other book of its kind has had such ups and downs of fortune. Franklin lived for many years in England, where he was agent for Pennsylvania and other American colonies. He was separated from his family, and it was during one of his long absences, in 1771, that he determined to write an account of his life, which had been an eventful one, for his son William Franklin, then about forty years old. William Franklin had been with his father in England, as the first paragraph of the Autobiography shows, and had been admitted to the bar there, but finding favor at court had been appointed Governor of New Jersey, and was in that position when Franklin was writing. He held to the royal cause and was thereby estranged from his father, though before Benjamin Franklin's death they were partially reconciled.
In 1771 Franklin was spending a week at Twyford, England, at the country seat of his friend Dr. Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, and there began the writing of his autobiography. The room in which it was written long bore and perhaps still bears the name of “ Dr. Franklin's Room." He began his work, as he says, for the pleasure of his own family, but there is little doubt that as he went on he anticipated publication. At this time he wrote so much of the autobiography as is included in the first ninety-five pages of this edition, covering, that is, the first twentyfive years of his life. The years
that followed were very busy ones, and it was not until 1784 that he again took up the narrative, being especially urged to this by his friend Benjamin Vaughn, to whom as to others he had shown meanwhile what he had already written. He was living at this time at Passy, then a suburb of Paris, where he was Minister of the United States to France, and William Franklin's son, William Temple Franklin, was secretary to his grandfather. He carried forward the narrative to page 114 of this edition, when he was again interrupted, and could not find another opportunity to work upon his book until 1788, when he brought the account up to the 27th of July, 1757, being page 216. Finally, in the last year of his life he wrote the few pages which leave the narrative still very incomplete. In consequence of these several beginnings, the autobiography is somewhat fragmentary, and the writer repeats once or twice what he has before said ; but the publication of the work had even stranger vicissitudes.
Immediately after Franklin's death in 1790, the first portion of the autobiography, that written in England, was published in French at Paris, and it is conjectured that the translator had become possessed of a manuscript copy surreptitiously and had published his translation without authority. Curiously enough, this French version was made the basis of the earliest English editions, for in 1793 two separate and distinct translations back from the French were published in London, and one of these translations continued to
be published in England and America for a quarter of a century. It was not till 1818 that the autobiography as written in English was published, forming a part of an edition of Franklin's writings prepared for a London publisher by William Temple Franklin.
Where had the original manuscript been all this time? After the death of Franklin, all his papers and manuscripts, including the autobiography, came into the hands of William Temple Franklin, then living in Philadelphia. But there was also a copy of the autobiography made by another grandson of Franklin, Benjamin Bache Franklin. It was made in 1789 for one of Franklin's intimate friends, M. Le Veillard, and remained for some years in the family of that gentleman, who lost his life during the French Revolution; then William Temple Franklin asked for it, as he thought it would make a cleaner copy for the printer, and in return sent the original manuscript by Franklin to the Veillard family. In this way the autograph copy, at the death of a daughter of M. Le Veillard in 1834, came into the possession of her cousin M. de Senarment, whose grandson delivered it, in 1867, to Mr. John Bigelow, who had been one of the great Franklin's successors as Minister of the United States to France. Mr. Bigelow compared this manuscript with the printed book as it left William Temple Franklin's hands, and found a great many petty differences, as well as a wholly unprinted section, that which now closes the work. Mr. Bigelow accordingly reissued the Autobiography and for the first time, in 1868, the book appeared as written by Franklin himself, nearly a hundred years after the first portion was written. Mr. Bigelow kindly permits the reprinting in this form of the text of his carefully prepared edition.
We have omitted the prefaces which separate the several parts of the work, and also one or two brief passages not adapted to school use.
The original work is not divided into chapters, but we have inserted chapter headings at natural breaks in the narrative, for the convenience of readers. Occasional footnotes have been added where the text seemed to call for explanation or illustration, but no words have been explained which could be understood by reference to a good dictionary. At the close of the autobiography will be found a sketch of Franklin's life, from the point at which he leaves off, to his death; and the Chronological Table which follows this Introductory Note will furnish further material for an historical study of this most interesting career.
There have been several lives of Franklin written, besides a large number of books and magazine articles upon
both as a statesman and as a man of science. So many-sided was he that he appears in the series of American Statesmen in a volume written by John T. Morse, Jr. (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.), and in the series of American Men of Letters in a volume written by John Bach McMaster (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.), and if there were a series of American Men of Science he certainly would have a place there. A volume entitled Franklin in France, by E. E. Hale (Roberts Brothers), is based upon recently collected Franklin papers, but the fullest life is that by James Parton, in two volumes (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.). In the Riverside Literature Series there is a number containing Poor Richard's Almanac and Other Papers (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.).