An outstanding letter, revealing the genesis of "the most widely read of all American autobiographies" (Grolier/American 21).
Benjamin Franklin's autobiography has been said to "hold the essence of the American way of life," and it was a text that Franklin long labored over. He completed the manuscript for the early years of his life (though 1731) in 1771, but his many other interests—and the American Revolution—conspired to prevent him from taking the story further. A request from publisher Charles Dilly for a new uniform edition of Franklin's works, however, caused the polymath to consider again taking up his autobiography:
"I received your kind Letter of September 5, informing me of the intention Mr. Dilly has of printing a new Edition of my Writings, and of his Desire, that I would furnish him with such Additions as I may think proper. At present all my Papers and Manuscripts are so mixt with other things, by the Confusions occasioned in sudden and various Removals during the late Troubles, that I can hardly find any thing. But, having nearly finished an Addition to my House, which will afford me Room to put all in Order, I hope soon to be able to comply with such a Request; but I hope Mr. Dilly will have a good Understanding in the Affair with Henry and Johnson, who, having risqu'd the former Impressions, may suppose they thereby acquired some Right in the Copy. As to the Life propos'd to be written, if it be by the same hand who furnish'd a Sketch to Dr. Lettsom, which he sent me, I am afraid it will be found too full of Errors for either you or me to correct: And having been persuaded by my Friends, Messrs. Benja Vaughan, M. Le Veillard, Mr. James of this Place, and some others, that such a Life, written by myself, may be useful to the rising Generation, I have made some Progress in it, and hope to finish it this Winter; so I cannot but wish that Project of Mr. Dilly's Biographer may be laid aside. I am nevertheless thankful to you for your Friendly Offer of correcting it."
Unfortunately, Franklin's projection of a completion date was too optimistic. His 1771 manuscript first appeared in Paris 1791 in an unauthorized French translation that was wedded to a translation of Wilmer's Memoirs of Franklin for the period after 1731 (see lot 58). The English text first appeared in 1793, and although its author never formally completed it, Franklin's Autobiography has indeed been very useful to later generations.
Franklin was very familiar with all of the publishers that he mentions here. David Henry and Johnson had both previously published volumes by Franklin, and in 1787, Dilly did issue the new edition of Franklin's Philosophical and Miscellaneous Papers, which Franklin alludes to in this letter. (Dilly was later to publish the first edition of James Boswell's Life of Johnson.)
In his closing paragraph, Franklin turns to "Public Affairs," predicting a bright future for the youthful United States, despite some festering factionalist disputes, including the recently quelled Shay's Rebellion in Massachusetts: "it is long since I gave over all Expectations of a Commercial Treaty between us and Britain; and I think we can do as well, or better, without one than she can. Our Harvests are plenty, our Produce fetches a high Price in hard Money, and there is in every Part of our Country incontestible Marks of public Felicity. We discover, indeed, some Errors in our general and particular Constitutions; which it is no Wonder they should have, the time in which they were formed being considered. But these we shall mend. The little Disorders you have heard of in some of the States, rais'd by a few wrong Heads, are subsiding, and will probably soon be extinguish'd. My best Wishes, and those of my Family, attend you."
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