The ensuing Autobiography finishes in the year 1757, with the arrival of Franklin in England, whither he was sent by the Assembly of Pennsylvania to insist upon the rights of the province to tax the proprietors of the land still held under the Penn charter for their share of the cost of defending it from hostile Indians and others. In this mission he was completely successful. Indeed, big services were found to be so valuable that he was appointed agent also for the provinces of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Georgia. While in England he was honoured with the degree of Doctor of Laws by the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews. He was also made an Associate of the Academy of Paris.
These honours were granted chiefly on account of his contributions to the advancement of electrical science, as described, though briefly, in the following pages. These important researches in electricity were commenced in 1746, and in the course of a few years gave him rank amongst the most illustrious natural philosophers. He exhibited in a more distinct manner than had hitherto been done the theory of positive and negative electricity by means of his well-known experiment with a kite. He demonstrated also that lightning and electricity are identical; and it was he who first suggested the lightningrod as a means of protecting buildings.
In 1762 Franklin returned to America; but two years afterwards he was again sent to England—this time to contest the pretensions of Parliament to tax the American colonies without representation. The obnoxious Stamp Act was threatened, and he was examined before the House of Commons in regard thereto. The act was passed—to be repealed, however, in the following year. Meanwhile the differences between the British government and the colonies in regard to the prerogatives of the Crown and the powers of Parliament became more and more grave in consequence of the home government still claiming the right to tax. The dispute quickly grew from bad to worse, and in 1773 officers sent to New England were resisted in the performance of their duty. To such a pass did matters now speedily come that in 1775 Franklin decided, as well from patriotic motives as from a regard to his personal safety, to return to America. He was immediately elected a delegate to the congress convened by the thirteen provinces or states to concert measures for their common defence, and which at once declared in favour of dissolving the political connection with Great Britain.
Franklin soon became one of the most active men in the contest between England and the Colonies, which resulted in the declaration of independence, July 4, 1776, and in the establishment of what has since been known as the Republic of the United States. Towards the end of 1776 he was sent as special envoy to France to negotiate a treaty of alliance. His fame as a philosopher and statesman had already preceded him, and he was received with every mark of consideration and respect. His mission to France was successful, and in February, 1778, he signed a treaty of alliance, offensive and defensive, between France and the United States. This produced war between England and France, which lasted for several years. However, in September, 1783, the British government recognized the independence of the United States, and Franklin signed the treaty of peace between the mother country and her revolted colonies.
He continued to discharge the duties of minister plenipotentiary to France until 1785, when, in consequence of his advancing age and infirmities, he was relieved of the post at his own request. Reaching Philadelphia in September of that year, he was elected almost immediately president of the State of Pennsylvania. To this office he was twice unanimously re-elected. During the period of his service as president he was sent as a delegate from his state to the convention which framed the constitution of the United States. In 1788, that is, at the end of his third term as president of the Supreme Council, Franklin retired into private life, after having spent upwards of forty years in the public service of his country. He died at Philadelphia, full of years and honours, at the age of eighty-four, on the 17th of April, 1790.
After his death a general mourning of two months was ordered by Congress as a tribute to the memory of one who had done so much by his wisdom and his activity in establishing the Republic.
In addition to his political, miscellaneous, and philosophical compositions, Franklin wrote several papers in the American Transactions, and two volumes of Essays, all of which have been carefully collected and edited. In all his writings is evidenced his wonderful gift of shrewd common-sense and practical wisdom. These are seen from end to end of his Autobiography. His "weather eye" is always open — upon himself as well as upon others; and while he neither deceives himself nor allows others to deceive him, so he takes care not to deceive his readers. He tells us that he sets some things down out of vanity, and that though his pride may be scotched, it cannot be killed, He holds, indeed, that these qualities are right in their place; but he tries to keep them in their true place and subjection. His revelation of himself is a very frank one—almost the frankest that has ever been written; and it is full of wise hints for those who know how to take them. Goethe wrote his life, but he called it "Truth and Poetry" (Wahrheit und Dichtung), and Renan tells us that when men write their lives it is mostly poetry they set down. Franklin seems to have written only the truth, leaving out the poetry; and yet there is not wanting a fine and even a grand thread of poetry running through that active and ever-striving life, that began as a printer’s boy and ended as one of the foremost makers of a nation, who, despite his political occupations, ranked also among the leading philosophical and scientific men of his time.
Not the least remarkable point in Franklin’s career is the fact that, notwithstanding the scientific eminence he attained, he was able to devote but seven, or eight years in all to his scientific researches before his talents were required in the more active sphere of politics. Yet in that time he not only made his famous electrical discoveries, but instituted those researches into the course of storms across the American continent which mark an epoch in the science of meteorology, and have greatly aided in the development of land and ocean telegraphy. His name is also connected with our knowledge of the course of the most important characteristics of the Gulf Stream. He likewise gave much time to the inquiry as to the diverse powers of different colours to absorb solar heat, and arrived at many important results.
Not the least of his many services to mankind was the practical wisdom which, during the time that he was a printer and the publisher of a newspaper, he was forever throwing broadcast amongst the poor colonists, pointing out the way to wealth and independence, and thus doing much towards making them what they soon became, a patient, persevering, and self-reliant people. His essays in the Pennsylvania Gazette are mines of wealth in this respect. The following, taken from an article entitled "Necessary hints to those who would be rich," will serve as a specimen of his prudential counsels:
"The use of money is all the advantage there is in having money.
"For six pounds a year you may have the use of one hundred pounds, provided you are a man of known prudence and honesty.
"He that spends a groat a day idly, spends idly about six pounds a year, which is the price for the use of one hundred pounds.
"He that wastes idly a groat’s worth of his time per day, one day with another, wastes the privilege of using one hundred pounds each day.
"He that idly loses five shillings’ worth of time loses five shillings, and might as prudently throw five shillings into the sea.
"He that loses five shillings, not only loses that sum, but all the advantages that might be made by turning it in dealing, which, by the time that a young man becomes old, will amount to a considerable sum of money."
This may be, and has been characterized by some as, very worldly wisdom; but as Franklin himself has pointed out, it is a wisdom that lies necessarily at the root of much that is better and higher. It exhibits, moreover, only one phase of that general and practical wisdom with which he viewed every department of life, from the lowest to the highest.
Reference is made in the Autobiography to one or two of Franklin’s inventions, but nothing is said of the debt we owe to him in respect to the harmonica or musical glasses. He possessed considerable skill in music; and if he did not actually invent, he so far improved the harmonica as to develop it from a toy into an available instrument of music.
Franklin began to write the following account of his life in the form of a letter to his son, the Governor of New Jersey, in 1771, when on a visit to his friend, Dr. Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph. At this time be brought the Autobiography down to the period of his marriage. Nothing more was added until 1784, when he wrote another chapter while living at Passy. The remainder was written some four years later, at which time he had returned to Philadelphia, and was eighty-two years old.
While Franklin was in France as United States minister, he showed a copy of his Autobiography to some of his friends there, one of whom, M. Le Veillard, translated it into French. Shortly after Franklin’s death this translation was published in France. It was then retranslated into English and appeared in London, and was for a long time accepted both in England and the United States as though it were the author’s original work. Finally, however, the Autobiography was published by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin, from the original manuscript, and it is from this oopy, edited by Jared Sparks, that the present edition has been prepared.