We need to also consider the question of what he leaves out, because coherence is always achieved by what you exclude as well as what you include. Franklin writes about nothing beyond his middle age. He writes nothing about the Revolution, in which he plays an enormous part by galvanizing Pennsylvania (which was the decisive state for whether there would be a Revolution or not.) If somebody hadn’t brought Pennsylvania around, the Revolution would have been a lost cause, there would have been no Declaration of Independence, and the British would just pluck off the south, pluck off the north, and that would be that. Franklin was the one to help Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, he’s the one that went off to France and secured absolutely indispensable loans, he’s the one that drafted the peace treaty, and the one who then came back to Philadelphia and played a really important role in framing the Constitution—and he writes about none of that. Why not?
In 1771, when he writes the first part, of course he doesn’t write about any of that—none of it had happened yet. But the second part was written in 1784, and American independence was already an accomplished fact. The last two parts were written after the framing and adoption of the Constitution, so the new nation and its new charter were already accomplished facts. One would think that this is the man, of all people possible, who could immortalize himself by telling this story, because nobody’s going to tell it better. Franklin was the best writer on the continent, and he always had a great phrase for whatever was going on. At the time of the revolution, he’s the one who says that we must all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately. After the Constitutional Convention is finished, he’s the one who says, “You’ve got a republic, if you can keep it.” He’s the one who says that he’s been looking at the sun on the back on Washington’s chair throughout the whole summer, wondering if it’s a rising or setting sun, and now he has the pleasure to know it’s a rising sun. He’s always got the right words. Had he written about the revolution, had he written about the Constitution, that would have been our canonical account, forever more. If he had wanted to be linked with world-shaking events, for the sake of advancing his own celebrity, his own fame and fortune, he certainly couldn’t have done better than to write about the revolution, write about the struggle for independence, write about his life in the French court, write about the women, and write about whatever all of these things that people were panting to hear.
Instead, he never gets out of the 1750s in his Autobiography. What’s that all about? Why wouldn’t he write about those things? Why does he leave it to others? He’s a very old man, he knows that John Adams hates his guts, he knows that John Adams is consumed with jealousy of Franklin. He has no reason to believe that John Adams won’t write his own story of the revolution. He must know that if Adams writes the account unopposed by anything Franklin says, that Franklin’s role will be reduced into something that’s pretty despicable and contemptible. Why doesn’t he want to write his own version of this story? Is it because in writing about the revolution, he would have to deal with the fact that he’s now estranged from his son? Is it because he wasn’t sure about the ultimate success of the American project? None of these are answerable questions.
My answer is that Franklin’s is not about telling his side of the story. What I understand this autobiography to be is not Franklin’s self-promotion, but Franklin’s legacy—Franklin’s last will and testament, if you will, his final gift to the American people. And that gift is to say, look, democracy is yours. Egalitarianism is yours, invincibly. That’s the nature of American society. It was the nature of American society when we were colonists, it will be the nature of American society now that we’re an independent nation—it’s not at issue. The big story is not the revolution. The big story is not the Constitution. For Franklin, the crucial questions facing Americans as a people is whether they will indulge in the worst possibilities of that free-wheeling democracy? Will they indulge in nothing but self-seeking and self-aggrandizement and looking out for number one? Or will they take to heart the possibilities embodied in his schemes for civic improvement and embodied in his vision for a United Party for Virtue? The question is not whether America will be a democratic society— Franklin believes that American society is so invincibly democratic that it doesn’t really matter what exact form of government you use. I think that what seems to him urgent is the lesson of his early life, the lesson of moving from self-advancement and self-promotion, to civic endeavor, to mutual benefit, to doing things for the common good.
The only thing he talks about twice in the entire Autobiography is the lending library. He’s writing the second part in 1784 and he doesn’t have the first part with him. He’s not sure whether he wrote about it or not, so he writes about it all over again—because it’s important to him in 1771 and it’s no less urgent to him in 1784 that the American people read about the lending library. It’s more important by far than reading about the revolution or the constitution, because the lending library is the essence of the legacy he wants to leave, a legacy of civic endeavor and common commitment. I think that he puts the story about the lending library in the climactic place in the first part—his private life, his marriage to Deborah is the penultimate story, it’s certainly important to him, but more important, to finish on, is the public project. The priority of public to private is constant through the Autobiography. It’s the culminating lesson of the first part and then it’s carried through in the second and beyond.
The second issue I want to tackle is the question of the uses of writing.