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In preparing for the Riverside Bookshelf an edition of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, it has been the intention of the publishers to embody in a fit and adequate form the authentic narrative of Franklin. Though the story breaks off abruptly in the year 1757, when Franklin had the three most splendid decades of his life still before him, it has seemed best neither to make use of any of the continuations of the chronicle that have been constructed, nor to attempt a new one, but rather to let the Autobiography remain as it stood when the pen fell from Franklin's hand, in tantalizing but imperishable incompleteness.
Yet, considered either as a human document or as a piece of artistic construction, the Autobiography is but superficially incomplete. For many
readers, Ben Franklin the printer, provincial philosopher, and citizen of Philadelphia, is a more intimate and engaging figure than Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the diplomatist, cosmopolitan savant, and citizen of the world. The true drama of his life was enacted in the first half-century of it. At the age of fifty, when the Autobiography leaves him, his character was formed, his fate unfolded, his position assured. What followed was but further illustration, or, as it were, an elaborate sequel to a stirring tale.
As this edition includes only the actual Autobiography of Franklin, it has seemed specially desirable that the text should be printed with the utmost fidelity precisely as he wrote it. The story of the text of the Autobiography has been often told; but it remains still one of the most interesting and romantic episodes in the history of letters, and no edition of the Autobiography should be printed without some chronicle of the peculiar circumstances attending the establishment of its authentic text.
Franklin began the composition of his Autobiography in the year 1771, while he was resident in the family of Dr. Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph. During the leisure time afforded him by this visit, he completed the portion of the
Autobiography which carries the story from his birth, in 1706, to his marriage, in 1730. The work was not taken up again until Franklin became Minister of the United Colonies to France. While residing at Passy, in 1784, he undertook to continue the Autobiography, but wrote only a few pages of it in all at this time, carrying the story from the memorandum which occurs on page 126 of this edition as far as page 151. Four years went by, in which the manuscript was untouched. The third part was begun in 1788, when he had returned to Philadelphia, and this carried the story to 1757. This completes the Autobiography as it was printed up to the time of Mr. John Bigelow's first edition, in 1867. That edition contained a fourth part, consisting of a few pages written late in 1789.
Benjamin Franklin died in the spring of 1790, leaving a will by which all his papers and manuscripts were committed to the care of his grandson, William Temple Franklin; and it was at once understood that the young Franklin was preparing his grandfather's Autobiography for the press. A few months later, William Temple Franklin sailed for England, for the avowed purpose of publishing his grandfather's works. It was, however, twenty-seven years thrice the number
enjoined by Horace for the ripening of literature
before the promise was fulfilled. An ugly story was circulated widely in the periodical press that William Temple Franklin delayed the publication of his grandfather's papers and suppressed some of them entirely for the consideration of a suitable sum in hand, paid him by the British Government. Proof of the accusation, however, has always been wanting, and the trend of the evidence is to make it less than probable. Yet the first edition of the Autobiography appeared, oddly enough, in a French translation, in Paris, in 1791. This translation, which includes only the first of the four portions of the Autobiography, was quite surely made from one of the copies which Franklin is known to have sent to his friends Le Veillard and Rochefoucault of Paris and Vaughan of London, though the name of the French translator has eluded the most anxious research.
The first English version of the Autobiography appeared in 1793. This was a translation of the French edition published two years earlier, with a continuation of Franklin's life which was written by Dr. Henry Stuber and printed serially in the Columbian Magazine at Philadelphia. This, the so-called Robinson edition, was twice reprinted in