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Finding Franklin: A Resource Guide

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography

Introduction | Holdings: LC Manuscript, LC Print, Other Institutions | Online: LC, Other Institutions | Bibliography

Franklin Autobiography title page

[Benjamin Franklin]
The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin... Originally Written by Himself, and Now Translated from the French.
London, Printed for J. Parsons, 1793
[Catalog Record]
Rare Book & Special Collections Division
Digitial source: "Printer and Writer,"
Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words

Introduction

"Franklin gave us the definitive formation of the American Dream"
—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Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is both an important historical document and Franklin's major literary work.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.

Resources Disclaimer

Primary Holdings: Library of Congress Manuscripts

Several manuscripts related to the creation of Franklin's Autobiography are held in the Library's Manuscript Division.

Copies and translations:

Le Veillard 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 1908.

Outlines:

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 order):

Mémoires 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)

Benjamin Franklins Enskildta Lefwerne, Upsatt af Honom Sjelf och Stäldt til Hans Son. Stockholm: Anders Jac. Nordström, 1792.
(Swedish translation from the 1791 French)

Benjamin Franklin’s Jugendjahre, Von Ihm Selbst für Seinen Sohn Beschrieben. Berlin: Heinrich August Rottmann, 1792.
(German translation from the 1791 French)

The Private 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)

Works of 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:

The Life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself. Philadelphia: Benjamin Johnson, 1794.

The Life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself. New-York: T. and J. Swords, 1794.

Works 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, [1794].

Works 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.

The Life of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself. Danbury, CT: N. Douglas, 1795.

Vie de Benjamin Franklin, Écrite par Lui-même. Paris: Chez F. Buisson, an VI de la République [1798].
(multiply translated; first edition to include Part Two)

Memoirs 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)

The Works 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)

Mémoires 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)

Mémoires 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)

Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Edited from His Manuscript, with Notes and an Introduction by John Bigelow. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.; London: Trübner & Co., 1868.
(first complete printing from Franklin's original manuscript in English)

Primary Holdings: Other Institutions

Franklin's final, holographic manuscript for the Autobiography is held by The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in 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:

The "Printer 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:

Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record includes photographs of the Benjamin Franklin Birthplace Site in Boston.

The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals includes an 1868 review of Bigelow's Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin from The Atlantic Monthly.

The 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.

The 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):

B. Franklin of Philadelphia, L.L.D. F.R.S. mezzotint. Benjamin Wilson, artist and James McArdell, engraver. 1761.

B. Franklin of Philadelphia, L.L.D. F.R.S. mezzotint. Mason Chamberlin, artist and Edward Fisher, engraver. 1763-1785.

Benjamin 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, ca. 1780.

Benyamin Franklin gebohren 1706. etching and engraving. Daniel Berger, engraver. 1783.

Benjamin 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. Neale, 1847.

These subscription databases are available on site at the Library of Congress and at many research libraries:

Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800 [connect at LC]
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.

Early American Imprints, Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker 1801-1819 [connect at LC]
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 author" field 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 "Benjamin 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 edition.

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:

The Benjamin 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 plug-in required).

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 Record]

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.
[Proquest Dissertations]*

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 Record]

-----. 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 Record]

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 Record]

Seavey, Ormond. Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life. Penn State University Press, 1988.
LC call number: E302.6.F7 A23 1988 [Catalog Record]

Shurr, William H. "'Now, Gods, Stand Up for Bastards': Reinterpreting Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography." American Literature 64, no. 3 (September 1992): 435-451.
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 Record]

-----."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.

 

Susan Garfinkel
2010

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