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Finding Benjamin Franklin: A Resource Guide

Franklin's Autobiography


The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin...Originally Written by Himself, and Now Translated from the French. London, Printed for J. Parsons, 1793. Featured in the Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words exhibition.

"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Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is both an important historical document and Franklin's major literary work.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.

Please note: bibliographies and/or links to the items mentioned here are available in other sections of this guide: