Founding Father Benjamin Franklin never finished his autobiography, leaving out the 33 years of his life that America remembers him for the most. Dr. Mark Skousen, a direct descendant of Franklin, recently pieced together the most influential years of Franklin’s life in “The Compleated Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.”
The book, released by Regnery, sister company of HUMAN EVENTS, was printed just in time to celebrate Franklin’s birthday 300 years from today — January 17, 1706.
To promote the book, Skousen will participate via in “Celebrity Crossover,” a fictional discussion with the Founding Father about finances. Thursday at noon he will explain Franklin’s political views at a luncheon sponsored by the Cato Institute. Last week Skousen spoke with me in an exclusive interview. He explained how he was able to complete the autobiography using Franklin’s own words, what motivated him to undertake the monumental task, and what he learned from doing so.
In your new book you have completed the original autobiography of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. How were you able to do so and have it remain an autobiography?
It was very tough. I didn’t know, when I first started out, whether I was actually going to be able to do it or not because Franklin is dead [and I didn’t know] what would he select — and I didn’t want to write a historical novel where I kind of made things up. I wanted it to be his own words and really represent his views. One of the problems is that a lot of his papers and his letters have been lost so I didn’t know how comprehensive I could be. There were some areas that were thin and required some creativity on my part to put together. You’ll notice [if you look at the sources, that] some paragraphs draw upon four, five, sometimes 10 different letters or other documents that Franklin wrote. I relied substantially [during] the majority of my work upon the official papers of Benjamin Franklin that are currently being compiled at Yale University. However, they haven’t completed the last 10 years of his life. Fortunately, I received from Ellen Cohn, the current editor of the Yale papers, a CD-ROM that contains almost all of the documents that haven’t been published that had been typed in by various staff members over the years. I was able to use that material to finish off the last 10 years of his life. So I relief on both the published and the unpublished papers of Benjamin Franklin and when it was all through I was just really amazed that Franklin had left us enough material in letters and journals and short essays and so on to complete his autobiography.
There was one area in particular that was a little bit difficult and that was — believe it or not — 1776. Franklin did not write hardly a thing on that. He was so busy that he only had a few letters that have survived where he talks about it. As a matter of fact, he never does talk about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. What I had to do there was rely on some secondary sources, including a letter that Arthur Lee, one of the commissioners to France, had written a couple years later where he said he sat down for two hours in the evening where Dr. Franklin reminisced about the last two years and the miracle in human affairs that was accomplished in this, the greatest revolution in the history of the world. What I did is that I took that — it was almost like Arthur Lee was a secretary writing down word for word what Franklin was saying in his letter — [and] I simply changed the phrasing from “Dr. Franklin said” to “I said.” So I was able to fill in the gap there. Without that, it would have been difficult to finish it. I’m really pleased with the end product and I’m getting some very good response from historians find it very accurate and definitely in Franklin’s own words.
I understand you have a familial connection to Benjamin Franklin?
Right. It’s an old family tradition on my mother’s side that we’re direct descendants of Ben Franklin. About 20 years ago I decided to see exactly if we could confirm this long-standing family tradition. So I went to Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute and did the genealogy and discovered the direct line. [There’s] eight generation’s between me and Franklin.
How did that connection fuel your desire to help finish a book he never completed?
It was kind of a long-standing desire on my part because I had read the autobiography several times and I always felt frustrated. If you read the original you’re reading along there and it just ends — suddenly. He’s arriving in England as a colonial agent and you’re saying, “Oh my gosh, he just embarking on the most important political and diplomatic service of his life.” All of the last 33 years of his life is what made Franklin famous and he hasn’t written about it so I felt very frustrated.
I started collecting the papers of Benjamin Franklin — I have all the volumes — and as I was reading through them it just dawned on me: “Look, maybe it’s possible that I could complete his autobiography myself drawing upon his papers.” Essentially [I was] using the same format that Franklin himself used because there was one part where he said, “Well, I was planning to finish off my autobiography but I left all my papers in Philadelphia so I can’t do it now.”
Now I see these are the papers he was going to use so I tried to put myself in the “Franklin mode.” And, as a result, I was able to come up with the entire 33 years of his life.
In completing this huge project, is there something you learned about your grandfather that you didn’t know before?
I wrote a little piece on Franklin in that regard listing some seven things that I learned about Franklin that I didn’t know before.
1. His gift of prophecy: He had a remarkable vision that we would win the war. He was one of the first to predict permanent separation between Britain and America. Throughout the 10-year-war he knew we were going to win and when the war was over he said, “America’s destined to be a great and populace nation.” He was very optimistic and with good reason.
2. His huge influence in the American Revolution: I learned was that he really was instrumental — indispensable — in the American Revolution; that he deserves to be the co-father of our nation — along with Washington — because Washington won the war at home but Franklin really won the war abroad. To me it was so important to recognize that he was instrumental in raising a billion dollars — a very large amount of money — from the French in military and financial aid that was essential to achieving American independence from the British. Without the French help the Americans would have floundered and maybe taken another 10 years to win the war.
3. His personal trials: Franklin suffered huge personal and financial setbacks. His life was threatened on many occasions from illness, from imprisonment [and] major financial setbacks — he lost a lot of money but nevertheless died a very rich man.
4. His thoughts on war: He changed his mind about war. Like everybody, he was romanticizing war and so on, but after the war he was just fed up with the whole thing and how destructive it was and how many of his friends became enemies as a result of the war. His own son (William) abandoned him in favor of the British. He said, “There’s never a good war or bad peace.”
His thoughts on government: Franklin was very much a devoted follower of laissez-faire — of Adam Smith’s model of limited government and favored free trade, open immigration — but he wasn’t an anarchist. He believed the government played an important role in educating youth and a fair tax — everyone paying their share of taxes and so on.
6. His sexual activity: I learned that Franklin was — well, most people knew he was very much a ladies’ man — but I came across a number of letters that indicated that he was still sexually active in his 70s — that was kind of fun where he talks about his relationships with French women in France so my book does have some views on that.
7. His religious views: Last but not least, Franklin changed his mind on religion. He became a more religious man because of the war. He recognized, as well as other Founders, that God intervened in the affairs of men in favor of the American cause. At the end he never really feared death. He was actually kind of curious of the next life and lived to be the grand old age of 84. Overall I greatly admire the man for living a very full and good life. In fact, he said: “I want it to be remembered, most importantly in life, that: He lived usefully. Rather than: He died rich.”
In the book “The 100,” which ranks the 100 most influential people in the world, Franklin is listed as “the most versatile genius of all time.” He was an inventor, scientist, public servant, publisher, diplomat, Founder of a country — the list goes on and on.
What are you hoping now, as readers pick up this “Compleated Autobiography,” that they’ll take away from it?
I think that this reinforces the views that the Founding Fathers were a unique set of men who were indispensable in creating a great nation. They were a generation set apart. They always talk about the “greatest generation” — whether it’s WWII veterans or what have you — but most historians agree that there’s never been a set of men as unique as the Founding Fathers, in terms of their setting up a government that has lasted. Franklin, I think, has been underestimated as to how important his role was. He seems to be an absolutely indispensable role — equal to, if not superior to General Washington. Franklin is really “the founder of America’s growth machine,” and what I mean by that is Franklin was the rags-to-riches story that [is] “the American dream.”
The American dream is [where] you have no connections with anybody — [and] just through a good education, through your own entrepreneurial effort, through your own courage, your own industry, your own frugality — you can raise yourself up and be a great person and achieve your goals in life. That’s the American dream and Franklin embodied that more than anyone. He taught that through the “Autobiography” and it comes out in total fruition in “The Compleated Autobiography” — how he was able to achieve success and pass that on to others.
Of all the Founding Fathers, Franklin is really the only one that the average American would enjoy sitting down with. They would not be intimidated by Franklin because he would make you feel relaxed and he would sit down and have a beer with you. He said, “I love a chat, a song, a drink, to sit around and listen to the conversation of old wise men.” You look at the others — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams — they’re either very aloof or somewhat dogmatic and argumentative. Franklin was not that way. He was just a relaxed, good guy that you would really enjoy sitting down with. That’s his legacy. It’s a very powerful one. He’s every man; he’s every American. Everyone can relate to Franklin.