Memoir: Benjamin Franklin

(Benjamin Franklin's Autobiographical Writings)

The famous book which Franklin called his Memoirs but which the rest of the world has long known as his Autobiography brings the story of his life to July, 1757.

His amazing first period has as a rule been presented only, or chiefly, as he remembered it in his old age, with a singular neglect of the scientific interests which absorbed him before 1757 as they never quite did afterwards.

Franklin was an autobiographer by instinct and by habitual practice and only a few excerpts have been included of his many writings in this presentation.

Benjamin Franklin writing his memoirs.
—Painting of Benjamin Franklin by David Martin
from The White House Collection.

A modest editor takes over the Pennsylvania Gazette, October 2, 1729, and announced certain changes he proposed to make

There are many who have long desired to see a good newspaper in Pennsylvania; and we hope those gentlemen who are able will contribute towards the making this such. We ask assistance, because we are fully sensible that to publish a good newspaper is not so easy an undertaking as many people image it to be.

The author of a gazette (in the opinion of the learned) ought to be qualified with an extensive acquaintance with languages, a great easiness and command of writing and relating things clearly and intelligibly, and in few words; he should be able to speak of war both by land and sea; be well acquainted with geography, with the history of the time, with the several interests of princes and states, the secrets of courts, and the manners and customs of all nations.

Men thus accomplished are very rare in this remote part of the world; and it would be well if the writer of these papers could make up among his friends what is wanting in himself.

Upon the whole, we may assure the public that as far as the encouragement we meet with will enable us, no care and pains shall be omitted that may make the Pennsylvania Gazette as agreeable and useful an entertainment as the nature of the thing will allow.

Premature epitaph written by Benjamin Franklin

Epitaph written 1728.
The Body of
B Franklin Printer,
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn out
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding)
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost;
For it will, (as he believ'd) appear once more,
In a new and more elegant Edition
Revised and corrected,
By the Author.

Franklin's last written speech before the Convention in Philadelphia, 1787

Of Franklin's speeches in the Constitutional Convention, the most famous is the one which he wrote for the final day, September 17, 1787; and which was read for him by James Wilson of the Pennsylvania delegation.

The text, as preserved by James Madison, and printed in Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, II, 641-43, is probably nearest to what the Convention actually heard and it is here reprinted just as it was punctuated then.

The only changes included in this presentation are the paragraphs which have been made shorter; and therefore, more numerous, for easier reading on this internet site.

MR. PRESIDENT: I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them; for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.

It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error.

Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the Pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong.

But, tho many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady who, in a dispute with her sister, said: "I don't know how it happens, Sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right"—Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison.

In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.

I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our counsels are confounded like those of the builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.

Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good.

I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die. If every one of us, in returning to our constituents, were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partisans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favour among foreign nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity.

Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, on the general opinion, of the goodness of that government, as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its governors.

I hope, therefore that for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of our posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress and confirmed y the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

A request that his memoirs be read and checked and suggestions for corrections be made; Philadelphia, November 13, 1789

Franklin's letter (shown below) is just as it was written by him including spellings, punctuations, and paragraph formats.

On November 13, 1789, Franklin wrote La Rochefoucauld d'Enville a letter: "As the bearer, Mr. Sentris, is not acquainted with our friend Mr. Le Veillard, I take the liberty of inclosing for him, under your cover, the Memoirs which he has so long and earnestly demanded of me. I think your character will be a protection to them, and that under it they will be more likely of getting safe to hand."

Franklin hoped that La Rochefoucauld would consult with Le Veillard about the advisability of publishing the Memoirs at all, or during the author's lifetime.

On that same day Franklin wrote also this letter to Le Veillard. Franklin's hope, expressed to both these friends, that the troubles in Paris were settled, was ironically premature because Le Veillard was guillotined and La Rochefoucauld d'Enville was assassinated during the French Revolution.

Philadelphia, November 13, 1789.

Dear Friend: This must be but a short letter, for I have mislaid your last and must postpone answering them till I have found them; but to make you some amends I send you what is done of the Memoirs, under this express condition however, that you do not suffer any copy to be taken of them, or of any part of them, on any account whatever, and that you will, with our excellent friend the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, read them over carefully, examine them critically, and send me your friendly, candid opinion of the parts you would advise me to correct or expunge; this in case you should be of opinion that they are generally proper to be published; and if you judge otherwise, that you would send me that opinion as soon as possible, and prevent my taking further trouble in endeavouring to finish them. I send you also the paper you desire respecting our payment of old English debts.

The troubles you have had in Paris have afflicted me a great deal. I hope by this time they are over, and everything settled as it should be, to the advantage both of the King and the nation.

My love to good Mme. Le Veillard and your children, in which Sec'y Benjamin joins; and believe me as ever, your affectionate friend. . . .

—The information for this Benjamin Franklin memoir
came from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiographical Writings,
Selected and Edited by Carl Van Doren,
Published by the Viking Press, New York, 1945.

Memoirs Directory for additional narratives of lives and experiences.