Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography
Introduction | Holdings: LC Manuscript, LC Print, Other Institutions | Online: LC, Other Institutions | Bibliography
"Franklin gave us the definitive formation of the
—J. A. Leo Lemay
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is both an important
historical document and Franklin's major literary work. It
was not only the first autobiography to achieve widespread
popularity, but after two hundred years remains one of the
most enduringly popular examples of the genre ever written.
As such, it provides not only the story of Franklin’s
own remarkably influential career, but maps out a strategy
for self-made success in the context of emerging American
nationhood. The Autobiography is a major source for
exploring Franklin’s ideas on wealth and virtue as well
as his motivations in pursuing a long life of active civic
participation. It is also uniquely useful as the story of
a successful working printer in eighteenth-century North America,
revealing much about the art and business of the printer's
trade that is not documented with such coherence elsewhere.
Written over the course of several decades and never completed,
Franklin's Autobiography is divided into four distinct
sections that differ both in tone and in focus—though Franklin
always intended the work to stand as a whole. As outlined
by editors J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall, Part One was penned while Franklin was
in England in July-August of 1771. This is also when
Franklin most likely drew up his outline for the entire work.
By the summer of 1782, both documents had been seen by a friend, Abel James,
who wrote to Franklin urging him to resume the project. Franklin drafted
Part Two in 1784 while living in France. Part Three, dating
from 1788-89, was composed when a Franklin now in his eighties
had, after a long and distinguished international career,
returned home to settle his affairs. This is also when he added most of his revisions. The shortest section,
Part Four, was written when Franklin was in poor health in
the last few months of his life.
Part One of Franklin's memoir is addressed
as a letter to Franklin's son William, perhaps as a literary
conceit—and although the two would later become estranged over the
events of the American Revolution, Franklin still preserved this aspect of the work. In fact, Revolutionary affairs figure little in the memoir.
The four Autobiography sections completed by Franklin in his lifetime examine the earlier and formative periods of his
life: his childhood and youth, his apprenticeship and flight
to Philadelphia, his accomplishments as a printer and then as
a scientist, and his civic involvements as a resident of Pennsylvania.
Due to public interest in Franklin's later political accomplishments,
most early printed editions of the Autobiography include added
text written by others, which rounds out the story of Franklin's years as a national and international diplomat.
The Autobiography, known variously as a Life or Memoirs before the 1840s, has an unusual and complicated
publication history, with several competing versions of the
text in circulation at once. Franklin named his grandson William
Temple Franklin as his literary executor, but Temple Franklin
was slow to bring an authorized edition of Franklin's memoir
to print. Soon after Franklin’s death in April, 1790,
unauthorized extracts appeared in two Philadelphia magazines: Universal Asylum
and Columbian Magazine by Henry Stuber (installments from May 1790
through June 1791) and American
Museum by Matthew Carey (July and November, 1790). The first
book-length edition appeared in French, produced in Paris in 1791—but this translation was based
on an early copy of Franklin's manuscript and included only an unrevised version of
Part One. Like the magazine pieces, it also contained biographical
material of which Franklin was not the author.
A book-length English edition, The Private Life
of the Late Benjamin Franklin, was published in London
in 1793, a year after it had already appeared in German and Swedish.
This English version was, however, a translation back into English from
the 1791 French, so that the still-partial twice-translated text differed considerably
from Franklin’s intended words. A second English retranslation
appeared in London the same year, first in installments in Lady's Magazine, then as part of a two-volume set
of Franklin's collected Works. By 1794, American editions printed
in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere, again based on one or another of the retranslated
versions, began to circulate. And so it went back and forth
across versions, languages, translations and continents for
another twenty-four years. A 1798 Vie de Benjamin Franklin, for example, translated
into French the English retranslation of the earlier French
version of Part One, but also included a directly translated
Part Two, which had not yet appeared in English.
Although grandson William Temple Franklin's Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin of 1818 quickly became the standard version once it was
available, it too was flawed. Mistakenly based on another
still-incomplete copy of Franklin's manuscript,
it did not include Franklin's final revisions of the
text, or any of Part Four. Part Four first appeared in Mémoires sur la Vie de Benjamin Franklin,
a Paris edition of 1828, available once again in French
translation before it appeared in English. It was
not until 1868 and the publication of John Bigelow's Autobiography
of Benjamin Franklin—at last based directly
on Franklin's final manuscript—that all four parts
of the work were at last printed together in their final form,
and in English.
Primary Holdings: Library of Congress Manuscripts
Several manuscripts related to
the creation of Franklin's Autobiography are held in the
Copies and translations:
Translation. On November 13, 1789, Franklin sent a copy of his
memoir to his friend Louis Guillaume Le Veillard in
Passy, France. In 1791, when grandson William Temple Franklin
traveled to France, he traded Franklin's
final manuscript for the one in Le Veillard's possession (apparently unconcerned about final edits, and thinking a clean copy would
be easier for typesetters to work with). Meanwhile, Le Veillard
translated (or had someone translate) the memoir into
French, drawing on both the near-final and final versions. Le Veillard’s
French translation was purchased by the Library of Congress in
Although Franklin never completed the Autobiography, he worked from an outline that indicates what he meant to include in the rest of his memoir.
William Short Copy, Thomas Jefferson Papers. Scholars believe that Franklin composed the outline for his memoir soon after he began his writing in 1771. In 1782, Franklin's Philadelphia friend Abel James sent a copy of that outline to Franklin in Paris, along with a letter urging him to resume the work. This James copy of the outline (now at the Morgan Library and Museum) became Franklin's working copy as he completed Parts Two, Three and Four of the Autobiography. At some point between 1782 and 1786, Franklin's French friend Louis Guillaume Le Veillard acquired copies of James's letter and Franklin's working outline. And in 1786, Thomas Jefferson borrowed Le Veillard's copies, as well as some additional notes on Franklin's life taken down by Le Veillard in French, to make further copies of his own. Jefferson's copies were prepared by his secretary, William Short, and are included in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division,
Library of Congress.
William Temple Franklin Copies, Franklin Papers, Series II. Two partial copies of Franklin's outline survive in the handwriting of his grandson and literary executor, William Temple Franklin. These outlines begin after the point in Franklin's outline that corresponds to the end of Part Three of the Autobiography, and they expand on and regroup some of Franklin's original headings. In his second copy (based on the first) Temple Franklin also pasted sections of already-printed biographies of Franklin into place according to his revised headings. Based on publication dates of the books he cut from, Temple Franklin's outlines were created after 1806. Although he did not eventually follow these outlines for his 1818 Memoirs
of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Temple Franklin was clearly influenced by them as he planned supplementary text for the incomplete Autobiography. Temple Franklin's outlines were purchased by the Library of Congress in 1882.
Additional materials by Franklin are also available
in manuscript. See the Finding
Aid for the Benjamin
Franklin Papers, Manuscript Division.
Primary Holdings: Library of Congress Printed Works
The Library's Benjamin
Franklin Collection in the Rare
Books and Special Collections Division consists
of 850 titles written, printed, edited, or published
by Benjamin Franklin. The collection includes many
early editions of Franklin's Autobiography,
among them these significant versions (in chronological
de la vie Privée de Benjamin Franklin, Écrits
par Lui-Méme, et Adressés a Son Fils.
Paris: Chez Buisson, 1791.
(French translation from partial manuscript; includes
Part Only only)
Franklins Enskildta Lefwerne, Upsatt af Honom Sjelf
och Stäldt til Hans Son. Stockholm: Anders
Jac. Nordström, 1792.
(Swedish translation from the 1791 French)
Franklin’s Jugendjahre, Von Ihm Selbst für
Seinen Sohn Beschrieben. Berlin: Heinrich August
(German translation from the 1791 French)
Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin... Originally Written
by Himself, and Now Translated from the French.
London: J. Parsons, 1793.
(one of two English translations from the 1791 French)
the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin: Consisting of His
Life Written by Himself: Together with Essays, Humorous,
Moral & Literary... In Two Volumes. London:
G.G.J. and J. Robinson, 1793.
(second of two English translations from the 1791 French)
Earliest American editions:
of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself.
Philadelphia: Benjamin Johnson, 1794.
of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself. New-York: T. and J. Swords, 1794.
of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin: Consisting of
His Life Written by Himself: Together with Essays,
Humorous, Moral & Literary... In Two Volumes. New York: Printed by Tiebout & Obrian for
H. Gain, V. Nutter, R. McGill, T. Allen, I. Read,
E. Duyckinck & Co., and Edward Mitchell, .
of the Late Doctor Benjamin Franklin: Consisting of
His Life Written by Himself: Together with Essays,
Humorous, Moral & Literary... In Two Volumes. New York: Samuel Campbell, 1794.
of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself. Danbury, CT: N. Douglas, 1795.
Vie de Benjamin
par Lui-même. Paris: Chez F.
Buisson, an VI de la République .
(multiply translated; first edition to include Part
of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin...Now
First Published from the Original Mss. London:
Printed for Henry Colburn, 1818.
(authorized edition prepared by Franklin's grandson,
William Temple Franklin; includes Parts One, Two, and
Three, plus additional biographical content)
of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, In Philosophy, Politics, and
Morals... With Memoirs and Anecdotes of his Life.
6 vols. Philadelphia: William Duane, 1808-18.
(released over a ten-year period; first American publication
to include the William Temple Franklin Memoirs)
sur la Vie et les Écrits de Benjamin Franklin.
Paris: Treuttel et Würtz; Strasbourg: Maison de
Commerce; London: H. Colburne, 1818.
(French translation of the William Temple Franklin edition)
sur la Vie de Benjamin Franklin, Écrits par Lui-Même.
Paris: Jules Renouard, 1828.
(corrected French translation of William Temple Franklin edition;
first edition to include Part Four)
of Benjamin Franklin, Edited from His Manuscript, with
Notes and an Introduction by John Bigelow.
Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.; London: Trübner & Co.,
(first complete printing from Franklin's original manuscript
Primary Holdings: Other
Franklin's final, holographic manuscript for the Autobiography is held by The
Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical
San Marino, California. See "The
Art of Virtue: Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography"
(via Internet Archive) to learn about an exhibit held at the Huntington in
2005-06. View a page image in Franklin's own handwriting, and a second page image scanned in color.
The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Franklin in 1731, holds extensive collections of early American printed materials, including published works by and about Franklin. Versions of the Autobiography can be found in their online catalog.
The American Philosophical
Society was founded by Franklin in 1743; its Library
now holds as much as 75 percent of the surviving papers of Benjamin Franklin (see Finding Aid), as well as extensive collections of images and artifacts relating to Benjamin Franklin. Selected materials are digitized.
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin project at Yale University works closely with Yale's extensive Franklin Collection. Thirty-nine
volumes through May, 1783 had been published as of early 2010, with a cumulative
index through volume 36 provided online. (Printed volumes are available
for use in Library of Congress reading rooms.) Full text of the Franklin Papers is provided online by the Packard Humanities Institutute,
including rough transcriptions for materials that have
not yet been published in Papers volumes.
Find it Online: Library of Congress
Please see this guide's more general Library of Congress Resources section for additional digitized resources related to Benjamin Franklin. Those specific to his life and memoir include:
and Writer" section of the Library of Congress's Benjamin
Franklin exhibit features the title
page of the 1793 English-language edition of the Autobiography.
Benjamin Franklin's life is featured in the January
17 entry of the Library's Today
in History Web site.
Several of the Library's American
Memory Collections include items related to Franklin's
life story and his memoir:
in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic
American Engineering Record includes photographs
of the Benjamin
Franklin Birthplace Site in Boston.
Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals includes
an 1868 review
of Bigelow's Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin from The Atlantic Monthly.
Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress includes
a letter from Thomas
Jefferson to Robert Walsh, Jr., December 4, 1818, with
Anecdotes about Benjamin Franklin, as well as a draft of Jefferson's unpublished memoir, which was inspired by Franklin's Autobiography.
James Madison Papers, 1723-1836 includes a Verse
about Benjamin Franklin: "Inscription
on a curious chamber stove...".
Correspondence to and from Benjamin Franklin is found
in the George
Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 and The
Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress.
Franklin letters are also published in Letters
of Delegates to Congress.
The Library's Prints & Photographs
Online Catalog (PPOC) includes many portraits
of Franklin, created during his lifetime and afterwards.
Search on Benjamin Franklin portrait to
find them. Examples include (in chronological order):
Franklin of Philadelphia, L.L.D. F.R.S. mezzotint.
Benjamin Wilson, artist and James McArdell, engraver.
Franklin of Philadelphia, L.L.D. F.R.S. mezzotint.
Mason Chamberlin, artist and Edward Fisher, engraver.
Franklin, né à Boston le
17 janvier 1706. engraving. Anna Rosalie Filleul,
artist and Louis Jacques
Cathelin, engraver. Paris: Chez M. Boquet rüe
Comtesse d'Artois vis-à-vis celle Mauconseuil,
Franklin gebohren 1706. etching and engraving.
Daniel Berger, engraver. 1783.
Franklin, Born in Boston, Jany. 17th 1706—Died
in Philadelphia, April 17th 1790. mezzotint.
Tompkins Harrison Matteson, artist and Henry S.
Sadd, engraver. New York City: Printed by J.
These subscription databases are available on site at the Library of Congress and at many
American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 [connect
This database includes digitized copies of more than 36,000
items (2.3 million pages), comprising almost all materials published in North
America before 1800. Search on Benjamin Franklin in
the "in author" field to
find over 60 items written by Franklin; search on Benjamin Franklin in
the "in publisher" field to
find over 600 items printed or published by him.
Downloads are available in PDF or TIFF image format.
American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker 1801-1819 [connect
An important supplement to Series I, this database includes
digitized copies of more than 36,000 items (4 million
pages) published in North America between 1801 and 1819.
Search on Benjamin Franklin in the "in
to find over 40 editions of items written by Franklin.
Especially useful databases for identifying
scholarly articles on Franklin's life and his Autobiography include America:
History and Life [connect
at LC], MLA International Bibliography [connect at LC],
and JSTOR [connect
at LC] for references, and for full text as available.
Find it Online: Other Institutions
The Library Company of Philadelphia's online exhibit
Franklin, Writer and Printer" includes an illustrated
section titled "From
Memoirs to Autobiography" that outlines the early
publication history of Franklin's autobiographical work. This is continued by "Publishing
the First Complete 'Autobiography': Paris 1828,"
profiling the unusual survival of a printer's working
copy used for publication of the 1828 French-language
The full text of Franklin's Autobiography is
available online at a variety of Web sites. Due
to the work's complex translation and publication
history, versions may vary in wording. Sources include:
Franklin Tercentenary Web site includes Ben
Franklin: A Timeline, profiling Franklin's life
by decade. A multi-media timeline, Franklin's
Interactive Lifetime, is also available (Flash
J. A. Leo Lemay's
extensive Web site, Benjamin
Franklin: A Documentary History, provide a detailed chronology of
Franklin's life by year.
Bibliography: For Further Reading
Please see this guide's Bibliography section for inclusive works on Benjamin Franklin, many of
which discuss his life story as well as his Autobiography.
Some specific books and essays include:
Aldridge, Alfred Owen. "The First Published
Memoir of Franklin." William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 24, no. 4 (October 1967): 624-28.
LC call number: F221 .W71 [Catalog Record] [JSTOR]*
Fiering, Norman S. "Benjamin Franklin and the Way
to Virtue." American Quarterly 30, no. 2
(Summer 1978): 199-223.
LC call number: AP2 .A3985 [Catalog Record] [JSTOR]*
Forde, Steven. "Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography
and the Education of America." American Political
Science Review 86, no. 2 (June 1992): 357-68.
LC call number: JA1 .A6 [Catalog Record] [JSTOR]*
Green, James N., and Peter Stallybrass. "Making and
Remaking Benjamin Franklin: The 'Autobiography.'"
In Benjamin Franklin: Writer and Printer, 145-70.
New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2006.
LC call number: Z232.F8 G74 2006 [Catalog
Hartsock, Pamela A. "'Tracing the Pattern Among the Tangled Threads': The Composition and Publication History of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri-Columbia, 2000.
Kushen, Betty. "Three Earliest Published Lives of Benjamin Franklin, 1790-93: The Autobiography and its Continuations." Early American Literature 9, no. 1 (March 1974): 39-52.
LC call number: PS501 .E2 [Catalog Record] [Academic Search Complete]*
Lemay, J. A. Leo, and P. M. Zall, eds. The Autobiography
of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee Press, 1981.
LC call number: E302.6.F7 A2 1981b [Catalog
-----. Benjamin Franklin's
Autobiography: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Criticism.
A Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1986.
LC call number: E302.6.F7 A2 1986a [Catalog
Additional essays included in the Lemay and Zall Norton edition:
Lemay, J. A. Leo. "Franklin's Autobiography and
the American Dream," 349-60.
Levin, David. "The Autobiography of Benjamin
Franklin: The Puritan Experimenter in Life and Art,"
335-49. Previously published in Yale Review 53 (Winter 1964): 258-75.
Sanford, Charles L. "An American Pilgrim's Progress,"
300-13. Previously published in American Quarterly 6 (1954): 297-310.
Sayre, Robert Freeman. "The Worldly Franklin and
the Provincial Critics," 313-25. Previously published
in Texas Studies in Literature and Language 4 (1963): 512-24.
Lemay, J. A. Leo. "The Life of Benjamin Franklin."
In Benjamin Franklin: In Search
of a Better World, ed. Page Talbott,
1-15. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
LC call number: E302.6.F8 B485 2005 [Catalog
Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin:
The Autobiography and the Life. Penn State University
LC call number: E302.6.F7 A23 1988 [Catalog
Shurr, William H. "'Now, Gods, Stand Up for Bastards':
Reinterpreting Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography." American Literature 64, no. 3 (September 1992):
LC call number: PS1 .A6 [Catalog Record] [JSTOR]*
Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiographical
Writings. New York: Viking Press, 1945.
LC call number: E302.6.F7 A2 1945 [Catalog Record]
Zall, P. M. Franklin's Autobiography: A Model Life.
Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
LC call number: E302.6.F7 Z93 1989 [Catalog
-----."The Manuscript and Early Texts of Franklin's 'Autobiography.'" Huntington Library Quarterly 39, no. 4 (August, 1976): 375-84.
LC call number: Z733.S24 Q [Catalog Record] [JSTOR]*
Zuckerman, Michael. "Anatomy of an Autobiography."
Edited transcript of a lecture delivered on April 5, 2006, at the McNeil Center for Early American
Studies, Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Lecture Series. [PDF (48 KB)]**
*Note: Subscription digitized resources are available on site at the Library of Congress, and at many research libraries.
**Note: Requires free Adobe Reader software.