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Though the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin has been for over a hundred years a familiar and accepted English classic, this is the first occasion on which an edition1 containing the authentic text of this celebrated work has been given to the world by an English publishing house. This will seem strange news to most readers; and indeed there is a long and interesting story to tell in connection with it. That story fills very pleasantly some eighty prefatory pages in Mr. Bigelow's Life of Franklin; but here our generosity must be more frugal, our entertainment more hurried.
It was in 1771, in the seventh year of his second mission to England, and while spending a holiday at the country-seat of his friend, Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, that Franklin set about writing some Recollections of his family and his own early life. The composition was addressed to his son William, at that time Governor of New Jersey, and was not intended to come under the eyes of the general world at all. The work, needless to say, gained a great deal by having thus originated as a sort of holiday gaiety, a long retrospective chat, a budget of personal and moral memoranda, written for the gratification and the uses of his own folk at home. It does not appear that he had any thought of carrying the story further than the point which he brought it down to—namely, as far as page 84 of the present volume—in the course of this holiday labour. Apparently, he sent it to his son not long after, and thought no more about it. And, indeed, he soon had plenty to think about; for the difficult and troublous course of the public business with which he was presently
1 The edition of 1905 issued by the present publishers, and from whose text this is reprinted.
connected was matter enough to engage his whole attention. Then came his return to America, and the vivid and laborious days of the commencing Revolution. We next see him, with scarce a breathing space allowed, spirited back into the Old World to take up a new career of labours, difficulties, and anxieties, almost without parallel. But toward the end of this time an extraordinary thing happened; the manuscript which he had written at the Bishop of St. Asaph's some twelve years earlier, was returned to him from America by a Pennsylvanian Quaker, Mr. Abel James, into whose hands it had fallen. Through what adventures it had passed in the interval we do not know, but assuredly they were not without peril to a small sheaf of papers. At the beginning of the war the Governor of New Jersey had, as became his office, if not his birth, stood for the King against both his father and his country, and had behaved with so much provocation and defiance that his career, until he finally found his way to England, was, to say the least, not a comfortable one. There was a good deal of imprisonment; a good deal of hustling from this place to that; and, of course, confiscation, with the impounding or the scattering and destroying of papers. However, this paper, as the reader will see on turning to page 85, found its way into very good hands.
The desire so seriously expressed by Mr. James that this " so pleasing and profitable work " might be " continued up to a later period" was fully shared by the friends, both French and English — Mr. Benjamin Vaughan and Dr. Price, M. le Veillard, the Due de la Rochefoucault, and others — to whom Franklin now showed the recovered manuscript. From this moment these were insistent in their demands upon him, their entreaties, that he would recognise the finishing of these Memoirs as the chief duty which he owed to the world. So in 1784, when a greater work to which he had set his hand at a later time had just been happily concluded— when Independence was won, and peace negotiated, and his country accepted by all the world as a nation among the rest—he now yielded to the instance of these friends and set about to complete the Memoirs of his Life. What he was able to add at this time, however, while still residing at Passy, only amounts to eighteen pages (pp. 92-110) of the present volume. In the following year he returned to America; and his enthusiastic friends in Europe were compensated a little for the loss of his company by the hope that now he would be able to complete those Memoirs at last. But again his country forbade. In spite of age and intense physical sufferings, never long intermitted, he was dragged again into the conflict and toil of public life; so that for three years his European friends, ceaselessly importuning him in the same old cause, got little comfort in return except his promises and his hopes. During that time public affairs claimed practically every hour which was rendered effective by the intermissions of his malady. At last, in the late summer of 1788, he was able to take up the long interrupted work and made such headway that he brought the account down to page 199 as it is here printed. But after this, there was never again such an interval. The crushing pressure of pain was harder upon him than heretofore and left him fewer moments in which he could have the confidence to take up again a work requiring such a command of material and so many powers of the mind. Towards the end of the following year, the old man, reluctantly yet uncomplainingly, surrenders the last hope of ever being able to finish the work now. But he tells M. le Veillard that his grandson is making a copy, as far as it goes, which shall be sent to him. Another copy was sent about the same time to Benjamin Vaughan, but what became of it is unknown. Franklin died in the following April, and the bulk of his books, papers, and manuscripts, including the Autobiography, was bequeathed to his grandson, William Temple Franklin.
Already, it will be seen, the Autobiography affords an instance of the adage habent et sua fata libelli. As a manuscript, it has had its strange fortunes. As a book, it is to have more. And even of its history as a manuscript, we shall find, there is something further to tell when the last word seems to have been said.
Seldom has an unpublished book been expected with so intense an interest, been waited for with such impatience, as Dr. Franklin's Memoirs of his Life: for so the work was generally called. The world wanted it at once, and seemed to count the days till it should be published. It had to count so many, that a great percentage of the enumerators died at their post. It is true that young Temple Franklin showed a lively sense of the value of the bequest which his grandfather had left him, and that within a month after his grandfather's death he wrote to M. le Veillard of his intention to bring out a complete edition of the Works and Correspondence at an early date. Nay more; he came to England a few weeks later, expressly to arrange this publication. But then a wonderful thing occurred. Though still apparently bent on bringing out the edition, and still exceedingly anxious lest M. le Veillard should permit his MS. copy of the Memoirs to come into the hands or under the eyes of any one else, who might purloin or pirate the same, and so impair the value of the bequest for him—he yet suddenly engages himself for three or four months (at a salary, he says) in some mysterious business to which all other interests have to be postponed, and by which he earns, in that time, a clear £7000, for what services no man knows.
Now the fact may not mean much, but it is at least a curious fact that from the moment when he has concluded this most remunerative and mysterious engagement, he begins to display an indifferent zeal in regard to the business which had brought him to England, the publication of his grandfather's works. To M. le Veillard, who is dissatisfied with the reasons for this delay and is privileged to say so, he answers more pertly than is quite becoming in the grandson of his grandfather to such a friend; but tells him (Feb. 28, 1792) that "I am now almost entirely employed in bringing forward the English edition. ... A few months will, I hope, satisfy your impatience and the public curiosity." But after that there is silence. M. le Veillard, Gentilhomme ordinaire du Roi, died on the revolutionary scaffold in 1794. By his demise it was doubtless rendered easier