75. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

The Lost Manuscript

What happened to Franklin’s manuscript of his autobiography, how it was tragically lost and mysteriously found many decades after his death, is itself an international adventure story worthy of its hero. Having begun his “letter to his son” in England in 1771, Franklin carried the manuscript about with him for nearly twenty years, continuing to write and revise it during three short periods when he could find time away from his duties. His will left the unfinished manuscript to his grandson William Temple Franklin, who promised to see to its publication. Instead, the first edition of the Autobiography appeared in 1791, in French, translated from an incomplete earlier copy. From this, the first English edition was produced in 1793, a retranslation from the French. William finally published an edition in 1817, again incomplete and set from another copy of the manuscript. Then for more than a half-century the life story of Benjamin Franklin was disseminated around the world, in several languages, but not in the form he left it.

The remedy was an edition based on the manuscript, with its revisions and additions indisputably in Franklin’s hand. But where was Franklin’s manuscript? It had been given to his closest French friend and Passy neighbor, Louis Guillaume Le Veillard, who was executed at the guillotine. (Franklin’s revered friends le Rochefoucauld, Condorcet, and Lavoisier would also lose their lives in the Revolution by 1794.) This manuscript was considered lost until 1867, when the American ambassador to France, John Bigelow, came across Le Veillard’s descendants. Bigelow’s pursuit and purchase of the manuscript is described in a series of witty and suspenseful letters, published as a keepsake accompanying each copy of the Arion Press edition of the Autobiography.

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