Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Abel James, [before 8 December 1782]

From Abel James9

Copy:1 Library of Congress

This letter—or at least the first part of it—is well known to readers of Franklin’s autobiography. James announced that he had found a manuscript in Franklin’s hand that appeared to be an unfinished account of his life, as well as a set of “notes” for that account. He enclosed a copy of those notes and urged Franklin to complete the project. When Franklin did resume work on the autobiography in 1784, he indicated that both this letter and Benjamin Vaughan’s of January 31, 1783, should be inserted at the beginning of Part II along with a statement that explained his continuing the narrative.2 William Temple Franklin followed those directions when he published the autobiography (through Part III) in his 1818 edition of Franklin’s writings. He printed only the relevant opening section of James’s letter, however, presumably following his grandfather’s marks on the now-missing ALS.3 Subsequent editors have followed suit.

Though James’s autograph letter has been lost, its enclosure—the copy of Franklin’s notes—is still extant. We do not print that so-called outline here, as our predecessors included the text in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, pp. 267–72. J. A. Leo Lemay and Paul M. Zall identified the copyist as Henry Drinker (IX, 436n), James’s business partner.4 The outline consists of single words and clipped phrases, ending with, “Writing for Jersey Assembly.” After receiving it Franklin made several emendations and added in red ink about fifteen more items, bringing his life up to the present. The new entries begin with “Hutchinson’s Letters,” cover his return from England to America, and end with the briefest of summaries of his life since December, 1776: “To France, Treaty, &c.”5

[before December 8, 1782]6

My dear & honored Friend.

I have often been desirous of writing to thee, but could not be reconciled to the Thoughts that the Letter might fall into the Hands of the British, lest some Printer or busy Body should publish some Part of the Contents & give our Friends Pain & myself Censure.7

Some Time since there fell into my Hands to my great Joy about 23 Sheets in thy own hand-writing containing an Account of the Parentage & Life of thyself, directed to thy Son ending in the Year 1730 with which there were Notes likewise in thy writing,8 a Copy of which I inclose in Hopes it may be a means if thou continuedst it up to a later period, that the first & latter part may be put together, & if it is not yet continued, I hope thou wilt not delay it, Life is uncertain as the Preacher tells us, and what will the World say if kind, humane & benevolent Ben Franklin should leave his Friends & the World deprived of so pleasing & profitable a Work, a Work which would be useful & entertaining not only to a few, but to millions.

The Influence Writings under that Class have on the Minds of Youth is very great, & has no where appeared so plain as in our public Friend’s Journal.9 It almost insensibly leads the Youth into the Resolution of endeavouring to become as good and as eminent as the Journalist. Should thine for Instance when published, and I think it could not fail of it, lead the Youth to equal the Industry & Temperance of thy early Youth, what a Blessing with that Class would such a Work be. I know of no Character living nor many of them put together, who has so much in his Power as thyself to promote a greater Spirit of Industry & early Attention to Business, Frugality and Temperance with the American Youth. Not that I think the Work would have no other Merit & Use in the World, far from it, but the first is of such vast Importance, that I know nothing that can equal it.

The inclosed Letters are of much Importance to our mutual worthy Friend John Strettell & myself as Executors of our deceased Friend Amos Strettell Esqr. decd. as well as his Children &c.1 which with that directed to Frederick Pigon,2 I shall be obliged to thee to forward in such Way as will be likely to reach them in Safety & charge the Expence of Postage to me. The Balance resting with thee in Payment of Stringfellow’s Right will serve for such Purpose,3 at same Time I acknowlege the many Obligations I am under, & present my best Respects to thy Grandsons, particularly Temple. I am not much in Trade yet have been very attentive to the Goods imported here from France, in examining the spining & weaving & the Quality of the Materials from which they are manufactured, & with Pleasure I can assure thee, that not only in Silks, but Cottons & Linens, say every Kind manufactured in & about Manchester, I think the spinning & weaving rather excel & the Dyes are equal. England to be sure has the Advantage in woollen & worsted as well as Iron & Steel Wares, but the latter we can easily help ourselves in, if Industry & Oeconomy prevails as I wish it. My Partner & self have brought the casting of almost all Kind of Iron ware to acknowledged great Perfection, to the Benefit of ourselves & the public at a large Work we have between this & little Egg-harbour, which could Hands be obtained at reasonable Wages, might be carried to great Extent in other Branches, I think with the Assistance of two Potters and Founders from New England we made last Year & sold near 2000 neat Tea-kettles very pleasing at this Time to the People.

I trust I need make no Apology to my good Friend for mentioning to him these Matters, believing he continues a Relish for every Exertion of the Sort, in Confidence of which I rest with great Truth & perfect Esteem his very affectionate Friend

(signed) Abel James

Dr Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9For this Quaker merchant, with whom BF had not corresponded for nearly a decade, see XI, 436n; Autobiog., p. 287; Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., Patriot -Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society (2 vols. to date, Philadelphia, 1997–), II, 5–9.

1Made by William Short for Thomas Jefferson in 1786, from a now-missing copy in Le Veillard’s possession: Jefferson Papers, IX, 483–8; and see the note below.

2BF’s draft reads, “Thus far was written with the Intention express’d in the Beginning and therefore contains several little family Anecdotes of no Importance to others. What follows was written many Years after in compliance with the Advice contain’d in these Letters, and accordingly intended for the Publick. The Affairs of the Revolution occasion’d the Interruption.

“Letter from Mr. Abel James with Notes of my Life, to be here inserted. Also Letter from Mr. Vaughan to the same purpose”: Autobiog., p. 133.

3WTF, Memoirs, I, 58–63.

4J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall, eds., The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: a Genetic Text (Knoxville, Tenn., 1981), p. 196.

5Drinker’s copy of the outline with BF’s additions is at the Pierpont Morgan Library; as BF’s original has been lost, this copy is of particular importance. Before leaving France BF permitted Le Veillard to copy it along with Abel James’s letter. Thomas Jefferson borrowed both texts from Le Veillard in 1786 and had his secretary William Short make copies of them (Library of Congress). As we noted above, Short’s copy of the James letter is the only MS version extant. His copy of the outline has been shown to have errors as compared to the Drinker copy; whether these were introduced by Short or Le Veillard is not clear. For a history and analysis of these versions, as well as annotated texts, see Jefferson Papers, IX, 486–95; Lemay and Zall, Genetic Text, pp. 196–211.

The Drinker copy bears three notations in French at the top of the sheet, squeezed into what little white space existed above and below the first line of text. These were obviously added at a later date. We differ from Lemay and Zall in our identifications of two of the handwritings. We speculate that the first notation, “Autographe très curieux de Bn. Franklin—1ere Esquisse / memorandum de ses mémoires” was made by Le Veillard’s son. Le Veillard crossed out the word “Autographe” and wrote over it, “Copie d’un Projet,” as Lemay and Zall assert. The third notation, “Les additions à l’encre rouge sont de la main de Franklin,” is in the hand of the abbé de La Roche.

6The first reference in BF’s papers to this undated letter is on Dec. 8, when Benjamin Vaughan wrote to WTF, “I wish you would give my extreme respects to your grandfather, and inform him that I have a note to send him, in favor of the papers which his quaker American friend lately sent him.” APS. Vaughan’s promised “note” turned into the lengthy letter he finally sent on Jan. 31, 1783, detailing all the reasons why BF should complete and publish the account of his life. As we remarked in the headnote, BF specified that this letter be published at the beginning of Part II of the autobiography: Autobiog., pp. 135–40.

7The British blockade of Philadelphia ended in early August; see XXXVII, 715. We suspect that James would only have felt free to write this letter as of that time.

8These MSS were among the papers BF entrusted to Joseph Galloway before sailing to France. Galloway, who defected to the British and eventually went into exile in England, evidently separated them from the rest of BF’s papers and seems to have left them to the care of his wife Grace Growden Galloway, who stayed behind to protect the family’s American properties. (The rest of BF’s papers were subsequently raided by the British during the occupation of Philadelphia, causing BF much concern: XXXII, 610; XXXV, 471.) After Grace Galloway died on Feb. 6, 1782, James, one of two executors of her estate, discovered these papers among her possessions: Autobiog., 22–5; Lemay and Zall, Genetic Text, pp. xxxvii, xxxix, 182; Raymond C. Werner, ed., “Diary of Grace Growden Galloway,” PMHB, LV (1931), 32–94.

9“Public Friend” was the Quaker term for a self-appointed minister. James is probably referring here to the journal of his father-in-law Thomas Chalkley (1675–1741), which he helped edit for publication and which Franklin and Hall printed: A Collection of the Works of Thomas Chalkley (Philadelphia, 1749). A second edition was issued in Philadelphia in 1754, and four London editions appeared between 1751 and 1766: George T. Willauer, Jr., “Editorial Practices in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia: the Journal of Thomas Chalkley in Manuscript and Print,” PMHB, CVII (1983), pp. 217, 220, 223–4, 232–3; C. William Miller, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing, 1728–1766 (Philadelphia, 1974), pp. 251–2.

1The enclosures have not been located. Amos Strettel, who campaigned against BF’s slate and had opposed him in the Pa. Assembly (XI, 390, 407), died on Jan. 13, 1780. His brother John (1721–1786) was a merchant in London: Lemay and Zall, Genetic Text, p. 184; PMHB, XIV (1890), 444. Strettel had three children, a son who was mentally incompetent to manage his own affairs, and two daughters: PMHB, II (1878), 115; Elaine F. Crane et al., eds., The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker (3 vols., Boston, 1991), II, 1415n.

2Frederick Pigou, Sr., was one of the directors of the Bank of England and the East India Company: Walpole Correspondence, XII, 36n. His son Frederick Pigou, Jr., established himself as a merchant in New York, but returned to England after the war broke out. He recommended Drinker and James to the East India Company: Katharine A. Kellock, “London Merchants and the Pre-1776 American Debts,” Guildhall Studies in London History, I (1973–74), 140.

3An allusion to a land transaction involving James and BF. John Stringfellow had held the rights to the land: XIX, 97–9, 168–9.

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