Kenneth Silverman, ed.
Having emerg'd from the Poverty & Obscurity in which I was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World, and having gone so far thro' Life with a considerable Share of Felicity, the conducing Means I made use of, which, with the Blessing of God, so well succeeded, my Posterity may like to know, as they may find some of them suitable to their own Situations, & therefore fit to be imitated.
I might have bought this book after visiting Benjamin Franklin's house and printing shop in Philadelphia, back in 2000. It is an amazing historic site, which I'd love to visit again someday. I know it inspired me to buy a biography of him, which I never read. Or I might have bought this several years later, when the Museum of Natural Science here in Houston hosted a really cool exhibit on him. Jill Lepore's book on his sister Jane Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, which is almost a dual biography of the sister and brother, reminded me that I had this still to read. But it was really my plan to read the books that have been longest on my TBR shelves that finally led me to pick this up. Once I started, I found it and its author so fascinating that I am making lists for further reading. I even put off reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder autobiography that finally arrived!
Benjamin Franklin had such an amazing life. I knew the outline of it already. He was born in Boston in 1706, the youngest son of seventeen children. He had only a year of formal schooling but managed to educate himself, in large part by borrowing books, which he studied at night. Apprenticed to an older brother as a printer, he learned not just to compose type but also words and arguments. He ran away at seventeen to Philadelphia, where he found work as a printer, eventually opening his own shop and starting a newspaper. His business did so well that he could retire in his early 40s, to focus on scientific experiments, reading and writing. His scientific work brought him international acclaim, honorary doctorates and court honors. He was instrumental in founding the first library, hospital, fire company, militia, and university in Philadelphia, which was becoming the most important city in the colonies. Franklin also was appointed or elected to a variety of public offices. This led to a post as Pennsylvania's agent in Britain, where he also represented three other colonies. Fiercely loyal to the British Crown, his conversion to the cause of independence made him a key figure in the struggle. When he was named "minister plenipotentiary" to France, he became the darling of French society, with his face appearing on all kinds of china. He helped frame the Declaration of Independence, and his was the closing speech at the Constitutional Convention. There is simply no one else like him in the whole of American history.
Franklin began his autobiography in 1771, writing it for his son William. He was later angered and grieved by his son's decision to remain loyal to Britain in the war for independence, which left them estranged for the rest of his life. The final two sections of the autobiography are more impersonal but just as interesting. It is not a full account of his life, however. It breaks off in 1757, when Franklin was in London representing the Pennsylvania assembly in a dispute with its "proprietaries," the descendants of its founder William Penn.
As I said elsewhere, reading this book felt like opening a door and stepping into 18th-century America, traveling with Franklin from Boston through New York to Pennsylvania, and eventually to England. I found his style very readable, once I got used to the Capital Letters that always Look so Strange at first in documents from that time. Franklin had a great story to tell, full of ups and downs, successes and even a few failures. As the editor points out, it is a carefully curated story, but isn't that true of most autobiographies? And clearly it only skims the surface of a very complicated and sophisticated man, but again, that isn't uncommon in autobiography, and even biography.
The Penguin edition that I read includes a brief miscellaneous collection of short pieces and excerpts from his letters. Of course it features a selection from his famous "Poor Richard" almanacs. In introducing this section, the editor writes that they "are included here to show aspects of his character and career that the Autobiography muffles or ignores." The Autobiography does not mention for example that Franklin owned slaves, but later in life he became an abolitionist. I wasn't surprised to find a document he signed as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He probably ended up the president of every group he joined.
I will be looking for a biography of Benjamin Franklin on my next trip to the library, and recommendations would be very welcome. (I wish I could remember which one I bought and abandoned.) It's a little daunting to see that the published Papers of Benjamin Franklin have now reached 40 volumes. Reading this book has also reminded me how much I have forgotten about early American history. I have the letters of Abigail and John Adams already on the TBR shelves, which may help fill in some gaps.