Imágenes de páginas

tell the Franklin story fully and without tediousness or vain repetitions.

Like all the modern biographers of Franklin, I have depended mainly upon the precious collection of his writings and correspondence, published by Mr. Sparks in 1836–1840. I was fortunate enough, a few years since, to obtain some valuable details of his later days, in a collection of his letters addressed to M. Le Veillard, an account of which, and of the original manuscript from which the autobiography, down to 1757, was printed,* will be found in the history which immediately follows of the “fortunes and misfortunes" of that unique autograph.

Franklin's narrative, as I have arranged it, is at once so full and consecutive that there has been small occasion for editorial interference; but whenever an allusion is made that might not be intelligible to the general reader, or a stitch is dropped in the web of the narrative, I have endeavoured to supply what was lacking in foot-notes, leaving the Franklin text entirely unbroken-a continuous diary-up to the later stages of his last illness.

To the obvious objection that the material for this biography was already mostly in print, I answer that the like objection might be made with equal propriety

* This manuscript was first printed in 1868. See “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, edited from his Manuscript, with Notes and an Introduction, by John Bigelow." Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1868.

to quite the best biography of Franklin which has yet appeared. I refer, of course, to Mr. Parton's.

In the second place, the collection of Franklin's writings by Mr. Sparks has been many years out of print, and has become the exclusive property of the few who have the taste and the ability to own very rare and costly books.

In the third place, that work was always too voluminous and expensive for popular circulation. There probably were never more than five thousand copies printed, if so many; which were absorbed more than thirty years ago. It is quite safe to say that, of the forty millions of the present generation of Americans, not one in a thousand has ever opened a copy of the Sparks collection.

And, finally, the autobiographical portions of Franklin's writings are scattered through ten bulky volumes, to be mastered only by a perusal of the whole. It is unnecessary to say that, in these days of abundant if inferior reading, very few of those who are fortunate enough to possess these volumes have the leisure, or perhaps the inclination, to purchase a familiarity with Franklin's life at so high a price. Hence it happens that the bulk of Franklin's letters, which constitute as fine a body of English prose as was produced in the last century, is as if it had never been printed, to more than ninety per cent. of the present generation of his countrymen, not to speak of the reading world beyond

the Atlantic, where he still enjoys a fame and respect never accorded to any other American.

A nation has no possessions so valuable as its great men, living or dead; for they inspire it with noble impulses to noble achievements. When such possessions cease to be estimated by us at their proper value, or to awaken the enthusiasm of the young and the pride of the mature of a nation, we may be sure that we are yielding to a lower grade of impulses and are declining in power and influence. The cock in the fable preferred the grain of corn to the guinea, because he was a cock, and did not know that with the guinea he could have bought a year's supply of corn.

When we become indifferent to the fame and the teachings of those who have headed the procession of civilizing influences in their day, we commit the folly of the cock, without the cock's excuse. It was when the trophies of Miltiades kept Themistocles from sleeping that Greece was in her glory.

I do not see, and I hope I may never see, any evidence of this kind of degeneracy in our country. It is certainly true that Franklin is relatively less read now than earlier in this century, and, as a natural consequence, the proportion of young men who order their daily life and conversation in accordance with his precepts and example, in the main singularly wise and commendable, is diminished; but that, I would fain believe, is due rather to the comparative inaccessibility

of his more practical writings than to any change of taste, or to any decline of esteem for their author.

Mr. Sparks performed a very useful work in collecting and placing beyond the possibilities of loss or destruction the great mass of Franklin's writings, but it may be doubted whether his publication has not thus far rather tended to diminish than to cultivate a popular acquaintance with them, by discouraging the publication of compendious selections adapted to the different tastes and means of the numerous varieties of readers he addressed. To assist in restoring to Franklin's writings and teachings their proper influence among us—and it was never more needed perhaps than at this moment—is the primary purpose of this unambitious work, in which I have tried to condense everything he left behind him that any one not pursuing special investigations now cares to read about the most eminent journalist, philosopher, diplomatist, and statesman* of his time. Few who have written

* Franklin's wonderful achievements in other directions seem to have blinded the public, as by an excess of light, to his merits as a statesman. Bryant, than whom it would be difficult to name a higher living authority upon any subject on which he offers an opinion, has been the first, I believe, of our public oracles fitly to recognize this additional title of Franklin to our admiration and gratitude. In a recent discourse before the printers of New York, at their celebration of the one-hundred-andsixty-eighth anniversary of the birthday of Franklin, he said:

" The illustrious printer and journalist whose birth we this evening commemorate is often spoken of with praise as an acute observer of nature and of men, as a philosopher, as an inventor, as an able negotiator, and as a


so much, have written so little not worth reading as Franklin; and, while it might be claimed that nothing came from his that did not bear upon it some trace of a master's hand, I hope it will not be thought presumption in me to say that a reader may come as completely under his influence, and enter as fully into the light of his capacious understanding, by the perusal of portions of his writings as by the perusal of all.

It is but justice to myself to say, in conclusion, that these volumes are not intended to displace or to replace any other of the many biographies of Frank


statesman. In this latter respect, however, he has not received all the praise which is his due. For he saw, as it seems to me, further into the true province and office of a free Government, and the duties of its legislators, than any man of his time. He saw and pointed out the folly of governing too much. He saw that it is not the business of a Government to do what can possibly be done by individuals. He saw that what the Government had to do was to restrain its citizens from invading each other's rights, and compel them to respect each other's freedom. therefore condemned the Corn laws-the laws against the importation of grain-a hundred years before the people of Great Britain became convinced of their folly and repealed them. He held also that it was not the policy of a State to put any limitations on paper credit--in other words, he was for free banking, believing that the intermeddling of the Government with that branch of commercial business could only lead to mischief. Franklin saw also the wisdom and humanity of mitigating the calamities of war by allowing trading-vessels to pass and repass unmolested on the high seas in time of war, and before he returned from Europe in 1785 he negotiated a treaty with Prussia, which contained an article against privateering. Thus he anticipated by more than half a century the proposition which our Government since made to Great Britain."

« AnteriorContinuar »