“If it were left to my choice,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography, “I should have no objections to go over the same life from its beginning to the end: requesting only the advantage authors have, of correcting in a second edition the faults of the first.”
Mark Skousen, a business professor and an eighth-generation grandson of Franklin, released The Compleated Autobiography last month, on the occasion of Franklin’s 300th birthday. Skousen certainly cannot correct the course of the great Founder’s life; rather, he usurps the “author’s advantage” of his ancestor, so as to correct the faults in Franklin’s famous tome.
These, in my opinion, are two. First, Franklin died before finishing it. He only told his story through 1757, when he was but 51 years old. He lived until age 84.
Second, viewed from a perspective of modern conventions, Franklin’s efforts to become Colonial America’s answer to Aristotle or da Vinci can come across as tedious, even insufferable.
“It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection,” he wrote, as he established a system to evaluate himself in 13 virtues, every day of the week.
Because the narrative is cut short, the reader never witnesses the fruits that these early efforts toward discipline, industry and study would bear in the arenas of diplomacy and statecraft.
Skousen’s task is to fill in Franklin’s years from 1757 to 1790 — “the political Franklin,” as he puts it in his introduction. And this he does exclusively in Franklin’s own hand, by surgically snipping and sewing together excerpts from his public and private papers into a cohesive narrative.
As in the original work, Skousen’s Franklin recalls his various pursuits of the mind, from new musical instruments to mathematical “magic squares” to the development of lightning rods. He also turns inward when appropriate, telling of his unrequited romance with a married woman in Paris, the death of his wife and his falling out with his loyalist son.
But Franklin’s attentions are turned mostly outward here, as he provides a riveting first-person account of the Founding period, often with himself at the center of events.
In Britain in 1766, he gave Parliament its first official indication that all was not well in the new world. Prior to the Stamp Act, he said, the colonists “were led by a thread. They had not only a respect but an affection for Great Britain.”
“And what is their temper now?” came the examiner’s follow-up.
“Oh, very much altered,” Franklin said.
Franklin provided the first draft of what became the Articles of Confederation. The next year, he assisted in drafting the Declaration of Independence, replacing the words “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident,” so the famous passage now reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” And 11 years later, he would be a respected elder voice at the Constitutional Convention in his home of Philadelphia, suggesting the eventual structure of our bicameral Congress.
Franklin rode the emotions of war, revolution and constitutional crises, often on a very personal level. Look no further than a letter he wrote, but never sent, to his friend William Strahan, a member of Parliament: “You are a member of Parliament, and one of that majority which has doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends: You are now my enemy, and I am yours.”
He recalls, from his perch in France, his angst at Washington’s defeat on Long Island, his anxiety at the colonies’ near bankruptcy and his glee at the surprise victory at Saratoga, among many other peaks and valleys in the fortunes of his new country.
Yet Franklin frequently reveals his considerable wit, even on serious matters. After observing the effects of the Townsend Acts and the Intolerable Acts on the Colonies, he was asked by an Englishman what would satisfy the states: “I answered that it might easily be comprised in a few Re’s: -call your forces, -store Castle William, -pair the damage done to Boston, -peal your unconstitutional acts, -nounce your pretensions to tax us, -fund the duties you have extorted; after this -quire, and -ceive payment for the destroyed tea, with the voluntary grants of the colonies, and then -joice in a happy -conciliation.”
Not everything Franklin proposed was on the mark. Skousen includes Franklin’s argument for his famously silly idea to make the turkey America’s national bird. He also pressed to adorn the great seal with a depiction of Moses reaching out over the Red Sea.
These are but amusing distractions, however, in a book that is a valuable resource for any fan of our most colorful Founding Father.