Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Edited from his Manuscript, with Notes and an Introduction, by JOHN BIGELOW. Philadelphia; J. B. Lippincott & Co.
IN his Introduction Mr. Bigelow tells us the very interesting story of the chance which gives us now, after the lapse of half a century, the autobiography of Dr. Franklin as he left it, and enables the present editor to supply eight pages of the original, wanting in the work as hitherto published, as well as to correct some twelve hundred corrections made by former editors in Franklin’s text. The story is briefly this : Franklin presented to M. le Veillard, a French gentleman of his acquaintance (Mayor of Passy and gentilhomme ordinaire du Roi), a copy of his autobiography, which passed into the hands of his widow after M. le Veillard was guillotined in 1794. William Temple Franklin, who went to London as early as 1790 to prepare an edition of his grandfather’s works for publication, and who, under circumstances bringing upon him suspicions of bribery from the British government, delayed their appearance till 1817, applied to the Widow le Veillard for this copy, as being a fair one to print from, and, in return, gave her the autograph of the memoirs bequeathed him by his grandfather. This autograph went from Madame le Veillard, at her death, to her daughter, who, in 1834, left it to M. le Senarmont, her cousin. In 1867 this gentleman transferred it to Mr. Bigelow, together with the famous pastel portrait of Franklin by Dupless is, an engraving of which adorns the present volume. The life which Mr. Bigelow now gives the world must naturally become the standard version of an autobiography which, after being first fragmentarily published in French and translated into English, was later edited in imperfect and unfaithful shape by Franklin’s grandson, and is here, at last, printed from Franklin’s own manuscript, and precisely as he wrote it.
Mr. Bigelow gives some pages, showing in parallel columns the nature of the changes made in the original text by the edition of 1817, of which he says, very justly: “ Many are mere modernizations of style, such as would measure some of the modifications which English prose has undergone between the days of Goldsmith and Southey. Some Franklin might have approved of; others he might have tolerated ; but it is safe to presume that very many he would have rejected without ceremony.” However this may be, there is profound satisfaction in having the life as written by Franklin, whose very errors and negligences have no small value to the reader of the life in illustrating the greatness and peculiarities of his career and character. Who had corrected him Mr. Bigelow does not positively Indicate ; but this will now become a matter of less importance every day to all but the mere curioso.
It is supposed William Temple Franklin never observed that the final eight pages of the autograph were wanting in the Veillard copy from which he printed; and he thus added another to the proofs already existing of his unfitness to edit his grandfather’s works,—an unfitness that had become a national reproach before ins edition appeared. Mr. Bigelow leaves to the reader the question whether or not William Temple Franklin was induced by the British government to withhold the manuscripts in his hands, and contents himself with stating the charge, and giving Franklin’s denial of its truth. It is certainly strange that he should have delayed for twenty-seven years to discharge the duty intrusted to him, and that then he should have performed it with so little care as to omit some of the most important passages from the autobiography. The grandson’s edition of the life terminates with Franklin’s arrival at London on the 27th of July, 1757, and is wanting in the account given by Franklin in the autograph and the present edition of his interview with Lord Granville, and his subsequent consultations with the Proprietaries of the Province of Pennsylvania with regard to the quarrel existing between Governor Denny and the Pennsylvania Assembly, together with the proceedings upon the Proprietaries’ petition to the king in council.
In an Appendix Mr. Bigelow gives the correspondence of William Temple Franklin with the Veiilards in reference to his grandfather’s works, as well as some letters of Franklin’s from the Veillard collection, relating to his memoirs, and other matter immediately useful and interesting to the reader of the restored autobiography. He has in all respects executed a delicate and important task with singular discretion, — not exulting too much in the fortune which permits him to connect his name permanently with Franklin’s, nor magnifying a service to letters which is self-evidently great. The reader’s interest in the subject is both awakened and satisfied, and he readily forgives Mr. Bigelow, as a sole instance of critical prodigality, the statement that the autobiography is a “ limpid narrative, gemmed all over, like a cloudless firmament at night, with pertinent anecdotes, curious observations, and sage reflections.”