The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
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The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
WITH INTRODUCTION AND NOTES
EDITED BY CHARLES W ELIOT LLD
P F COLLIER & SON COMPANY, NEW YORK (1909)
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN was born in Milk Street, Boston, on January
6, 1706. His father, Josiah Franklin, was a tallow chandler who
married twice, and of his seventeen children Benjamin was the youngest
son. His schooling ended at ten, and at twelve he was bound apprentice
to his brother James, a printer, who published the "New England
Courant." To this journal he became a contributor, and later was for
a time its nominal editor. But the brothers quarreled, and Benjamin
ran away, going first to New York, and thence to Philadelphia, where
he arrived in October, 1723. He soon obtained work as a printer,
but after a few months he was induced by Governor Keith to go to
London, where, finding Keith's promises empty, he again worked as a
compositor till he was brought back to Philadelphia by a merchant
named Denman, who gave him a position in his business. On Denman's
death he returned to his former trade, and shortly set up a printing
house of his own from which he published "The Pennsylvania Gazette,"
to which he contributed many essays, and which he made a medium for
agitating a variety of local reforms. In 1732 he began to issue his
famous "Poor Richard's Almanac" for the enrichment of which he borrowed
or composed those pithy utterances of worldly wisdom which are the
basis of a large part of his popular reputation. In 1758, the year
in which he ceases writing for the Almanac, he printed in it "Father
Abraham's Sermon," now regarded as the most famous piece of literature
produced in Colonial America.
Meantime Franklin was concerning himself more and more with
public affairs. He set forth a scheme for an Academy, which was
taken up later and finally developed into the University of Pennsylvania;
and he founded an "American Philosophical Society" for the purpose
of enabling scientific men to communicate their discoveries to one
another. He himself had already begun his electrical researches,
which, with other scientific inquiries, he called on in the intervals
of money-making and politics to the end of his life. In 1748 he
sold his business in order to get leisure for study, having now
acquired comparative wealth; and in a few years he had made discoveries
that gave him a reputation with the learned throughout Europe. In
politics he proved very able both as an administrator and as a
controversialist; but his record as an office-holder is stained by
the use he made of his position to advance his relatives. His most
notable service in home politics was his reform of the postal system;
but his fame as a statesman rests chiefly on his services in connection
with the relations of the Colonies with Great Britain, and later with
France. In 1757 he was sent to England to protest against the
influence of the Penns in the government of the colony, and for five
years he remained there, striving to enlighten the people and the
ministry of England as to Colonial conditions. On his return to
America he played an honorable part in the Paxton affair, through
which he lost his seat in the Assembly; but in 1764 he was again
despatched to England as agent for the colony, this time to petition
the King to resume the government from the hands of the proprietors.
In London he actively opposed the proposed Stamp Act, but lost the
credit for this and much of his popularity through his securing for
a friend the office of stamp agent in America. Even his effective
work in helping to obtain the repeal of the act left him still a
suspect; but he continued his efforts to present the case for the
Colonies as the troubles thickened toward the crisis of the Revolution.
In 1767 he crossed to France, where he was received with honor; but
before his return home in 1775 he lost his position as postmaster
through his share in divulging to Massachusetts the famous letter of
Hutchinson and Oliver. On his arrival in Philadelphia he was chosen
a member of the Continental Congress and in 1777 he was despatched
to France as commissioner for the United States. Here he remained
till 1785, the favorite of French society; and with such success did
he conduct the affairs of his country that when he finally returned
he received a place only second to that of Washington as the champion
of American independence. He died on April 17, 1790.
The first five chapters of the Autobiography were composed in
England in 1771, continued in 1784-5, and again in 1788, at which
date he brought it down to 1757. After a most extraordinary series
of adventures, the original form of the manuscript was finally printed
by Mr. John Bigelow, and is here reproduced in recognition of its
value as a picture of one of the most notable personalities of Colonial
times, and of its acknowledged rank as one of the great autobiographies
of the world.
TWYFORD, at the Bishop of St. Asaph's,<0> 1771.
<0> The country-seat of Bishop Shipley, the good bishop,
as Dr. Franklin used to style him.--B.
DEAR SON: I have ever had pleasure in obtaining any little
anecdotes of my ancestors. You may remember the inquiries I made
among the remains of my relations when you were with me in England,
and the journey I undertook for that purpose. Imagining it may be
equally agreeable to<1> you to know the circumstances of my life,
many of which you are yet unacquainted with, and expecting the enjoyment
of a week's uninterrupted leisure in my present country retirement,
I sit down to write them for you. To which I have besides some
other inducements. Having emerged from the poverty and obscurity
in which I was born and bred, to a state of affluence and some
degree of reputation in the world, and having gone so far through
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, and therefore fit to be imitated.
<1> After the words "agreeable to" the words "some of" were
interlined and afterward effaced.--B.
That felicity, when I reflected on it, has induced me sometimes
to say, that were it offered to my choice, I should have no objection
to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking
the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults
of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some
sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable.
But though this were denied, I should still accept the offer.
Since such a repetition is not to be expected, the next thing
most like living one's life over again seems to be a recollection
of that life, and to make that recollection as durable as possible
by putting it down in writing.
Hereby, too, I shall indulge the inclination so natural in old men,
to be talking of themselves and their own past actions; and I shall
indulge it without being tiresome to others, who, through respect
to age, might conceive themselves obliged to give me a hearing,
since this may be read or not as any one pleases. And, lastly (I may
as well confess it, since my denial of it will be believed by nobody),
perhaps I shall a good deal gratify my own vanity. Indeed, I scarce
ever heard or saw the introductory words, "Without vanity I may say,"
&c., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike
vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves;
but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded
that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others
that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases,
it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his
vanity among the other comforts of life.
And now I speak of thanking God, I desire with all humility
to acknowledge that I owe the mentioned happiness of my past
life to His kind providence, which lead me to the means I used
and gave them success. My belief of this induces me to hope,
though I must not presume, that the same goodness will still be
exercised toward me, in continuing that happiness, or enabling
me to bear a fatal reverse, which I may experience as others
have done: the complexion of my future fortune being known
to Him only in whose power it is to bless to us even our afflictions.
The notes one of my uncles (who had the same kind of curiosity
in collecting family anecdotes) once put into my hands,
furnished me with several particulars relating to our ancestors.
From these notes I learned that the family had lived in the
same village, Ecton, in Northamptonshire, for three hundred years,
and how much longer he knew not (perhaps from the time when the name
of Franklin, that before was the name of an order of people,
was assumed by them as a surname when others took surnames
all over the kingdom), on a freehold of about thirty acres,
aided by the smith's business, which had continued in the family
till his time, the eldest son being always bred to that business;
a custom which he and my father followed as to their eldest sons.
When I searched the registers at Ecton, I found an account
of their births, marriages and burials from the year 1555 only,
there being no registers kept in that parish at any time preceding.
By that register I perceived that I was the youngest son of the
youngest son for five generations back. My grandfather Thomas,
who was born in 1598, lived at Ecton till he grew too old to
follow business longer, when he went to live with his son John,
a dyer at Banbury, in Oxfordshire, with whom my father served
an apprenticeship. There my grandfather died and lies buried.
We saw his gravestone in 1758. His eldest son Thomas lived in
the house at Ecton, and left it with the land to his only child,
a daughter, who, with her husband, one Fisher, of Wellingborough,
sold it to Mr. Isted, now lord of the manor there. My grandfather
had four sons that grew up, viz.: Thomas, John, Benjamin and Josiah.
I will give you what account I can of them, at this distance from
my papers, and if these are not lost in my absence, you will among
them find many more particulars.
Thomas was bred a smith under his father; but, being ingenious,
and encouraged in learning (as all my brothers were) by an Esquire
Palmer, then the principal gentleman in that parish, he qualified
himself for the business of scrivener; became a considerable man
in the county; was a chief mover of all public-spirited undertakings
for the county or town of Northampton, and his own village,
of which many instances were related of him; and much taken notice
of and patronized by the then Lord Halifax. He died in 17O2,
January 6, old style, just four years to a day before I was born.
The account we received of his life and character from some old
people at Ecton, I remember, struck you as something extraordinary,
from its similarity to what you knew of mine.
"Had he died on the same day," you said, "one might have supposed
John was bred a dyer, I believe of woolens. Benjamin was bred a silk
dyer, serving an apprenticeship at London. He was an ingenious man.
I remember him well, for when I was a boy he came over to my father
in Boston, and lived in the house with us some years. He lived
to a great age. His grandson, Samuel Franklin, now lives in Boston.
He left behind him two quarto volumes, MS., of his own poetry, consisting
of little occasional pieces addressed to his friends and relations,
of which the following, sent to me, is a specimen.<2> He had formed
a short-hand of his own, which he taught me, but, never practising it,
I have now forgot it. I was named after this uncle, there being
a particular affection between him and my father. He was very pious,
a great attender of sermons of the best preachers, which he took
down in his short-hand, and had with him many volumes of them.
He was also much of a politician; too much, perhaps, for his station.
There fell lately into my hands, in London, a collection he had
made of all the principal pamphlets, relating to public affairs,
from 1641 to 1717; many of the volumes are wanting as appears
by the numbering, but there still remain eight volumes in folio,
and twenty-four in quarto and in octavo. A dealer in old books
met with them, and knowing me by my sometimes buying of him,
he brought them to me. It seems my uncle must have left them here,
when he went to America, which was about fifty years since.
There are many of his notes in the margins.
<2> Here follow in the margin the words, in brackets, "here
insert it," but the poetry is not given. Mr. Sparks
informs us (Life of Franklin, p. 6) that these volumes
had been preserved, and were in possession of Mrs. Emmons,
of Boston, great-granddaughter of their author.
This obscure family of ours was early in the Reformation,
and continued Protestants through the reign of Queen Mary,
when they were sometimes in danger of trouble on account of their
zeal against popery. They had got an English Bible, and to conceal
and secure it, it was fastened open with tapes under and within
the cover of a joint-stool. When my great-great-grandfather read
it to his family, he turned up the joint-stool upon his knees,
turning over the leaves then under the tapes. One of the children
stood at the door to give notice if he saw the apparitor coming,
who was an officer of the spiritual court. In that case the stool
was turned down again upon its feet, when the Bible remained concealed
under it as before. This anecdote I had from my uncle Benjamin.
The family continued all of the Church of England till about the end
of Charles the Second's reign, when some of the ministers that had been
outed for nonconformity holding conventicles in Northamptonshire,
Benjamin and Josiah adhered to them, and so continued all their lives:
the rest of the family remained with the Episcopal Church.
Josiah, my father, married young, and carried his wife with three
children into New England, about 1682. The conventicles having
been forbidden by law, and frequently disturbed, induced some
considerable men of his acquaintance to remove to that country,
and he was prevailed with to accompany them thither, where they expected
to enjoy their mode of religion with freedom. By the same wife he
had four children more born there, and by a second wife ten more,
in all seventeen; of which I remember thirteen sitting at one time
at his table, who all grew up to be men and women, and married;
I was the youngest son, and the youngest child but two, and was born
in Boston, New England. My mother, the second wife, was Abiah Folger,
daughter of Peter Folger, one of the first settlers of New England,
of whom honorable mention is made by Cotton Mather in his church
history of that country, entitled Magnalia Christi Americana,
as 'a godly, learned Englishman," if I remember the words rightly.
I have heard that he wrote sundry small occasional pieces,
but only one of them was printed, which I saw now many years since.
It was written in 1675, in the home-spun verse of that time and people,
and addressed to those then concerned in the government there.
It was in favor of liberty of conscience, and in behalf of the Baptists,
Quakers, and other sectaries that had been under persecution,
ascribing the Indian wars, and other distresses that had befallen
the country, to that persecution, as so many judgments of God
to punish so heinous an offense, and exhorting a repeal of those
uncharitable laws. The whole appeared to me as written with a good
deal of decent plainness and manly freedom. The six concluding lines
I remember, though I have forgotten the two first of the stanza;
but the purport of them was, that his censures proceeded from
good-will, and, therefore, he would be known to be the author.
"Because to be a libeller (says he)
I hate it with my heart;
From Sherburne town, where now I dwell
My name I do put here;
Without offense your real friend,
It is Peter Folgier."
My elder brothers were all put apprentices to different trades.
I was put to the grammar-school at eight years of age, my father
intending to devote me, as the tithe of his sons, to the service
of the Church. My early readiness in learning to read (which must
have been very early, as I do not remember when I could not read),
and the opinion of all his friends, that I should certainly make a
good scholar, encouraged him in this purpose of his. My uncle Benjamin,
too, approved of it, and proposed to give me all his short-hand
volumes of sermons, I suppose as a stock to set up with, if I would
learn his character. I continued, however, at the grammar-school
not quite one year, though in that time I had risen gradually
from the middle of the class of that year to be the head of it,
and farther was removed into the next class above it, in order to go
with that into the third at the end of the year. But my father,
in the meantime, from a view of the expense of a college education,
which having so large a family he could not well afford, and the mean
living many so educated were afterwards able to obtain--reasons that
be gave to his friends in my hearing--altered his first intention,
took me from the grammar-school, and sent me to a school for writing
and arithmetic, kept by a then famous man, Mr. George Brownell,
very successful in his profession generally, and that by mild,
encouraging methods. Under him I acquired fair writing pretty soon,
but I failed in the arithmetic, and made no progress in it.
At ten years old I was taken home to assist my father in his business,
which was that of a tallow-chandler and sope-boiler; a business he
was not bred to, but had assumed on his arrival in New England,
and on finding his dying trade would not maintain his family,
being in little request. Accordingly, I was employed in cutting wick
for the candles, filling the dipping mold and the molds for cast candles,
attending the shop, going of errands, etc.
I disliked the trade, and had a strong inclination for the sea,
but my father declared against it; however, living near the water,
I was much in and about it, learnt early to swim well, and to
manage boats; and when in a boat or canoe with other boys, I was
commonly allowed to govern, especially in any case of difficulty;
and upon other occasions I was generally a leader among the boys,
and sometimes led them into scrapes, of which I will mention
one instance, as it shows an early projecting public spirit, tho'
not then justly conducted.
There was a salt-marsh that bounded part of the mill-pond,
on the edge of which, at high water, we used to stand to fish
for minnows. By much trampling, we had made it a mere quagmire.
My proposal was to build a wharff there fit for us to stand upon,
and I showed my comrades a large heap of stones, which were intended
for a new house near the marsh, and which would very well suit
our purpose. Accordingly, in the evening, when the workmen
were gone, I assembled a number of my play-fellows, and working
with them diligently like so many emmets, sometimes two or three
to a stone, we brought them all away and built our little wharff.
The next morning the workmen were surprised at missing the stones,
which were found in our wharff. Inquiry was made after the removers;
we were discovered and complained of; several of us were corrected
by our fathers; and though I pleaded the usefulness of the work,
mine convinced me that nothing was useful which was not honest.
I think you may like to know something of his person and character.
He had an excellent constitution of body, was of middle stature,
but well set, and very strong; he was ingenious, could draw prettily,
was skilled a little in music, and had a clear pleasing voice,
so that when he played psalm tunes on his violin and sung withal,
as he sometimesdid in an evening after the business of the day was over,
it was extremely agreeable to hear. He had a mechanical genius too,
and, on occasion, was very handy in the use of other tradesmen's tools;
but his great excellence lay in a sound understanding and solid
judgment in prudential matters, both in private and publick affairs.
In the latter, indeed, he was never employed, the numerous
family he had to educate and the straitness of his circumstances
keeping him close to his trade; but I remember well his being
frequently visited by leading people, who consulted him for his
opinion in affairs of the town or of the church he belonged to,
and showed a good deal of respect for his judgment and advice:
he was also much consulted by private persons about their affairs
when any difficulty occurred, and frequently chosen an arbitrator
between contending parties.
At his table he liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible
friend or neighbor to converse with, and always took care to start
some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend
to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned
our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct
of life; and little or no notice was ever taken of what related
to the victuals on the table, whether it was well or ill dressed,
in or out of season, of good or bad flavor, preferable or inferior
to this or that other thing of the kind, so that I was bro't up