The 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is the occasion for an unprecedented display of one the greatest treasures at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens -- the autograph manuscript of Franklin's renowned Autobiography.
"The Art of Virtue: Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography” will appear in the West Hall of the Library from Dec. 17, 2005, through March 26, 2006. For the first time in nearly 200 years, the manuscript will be partially disassembled to allow visitors to see a series of pages at one time. (Because the book originally was a collection of loose papers, disassembling, or disbinding, it was a simple, noninvasive process undertaken by Huntington conservators. The loose pages originally had been glued to strips of paper known as tabs; the tabs were then sewn together. Conservators sliced through the tabs – not the pages of the book – to take the pages apart.)
“The experience of seeing this extraordinary document in this way should give visitors a deeper understanding of what makes this such an iconic, celebrated American testament,” says John Rhodehamel, Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at The Huntington.
The exhibition focuses on the central idea of the book -- what Franklin called "the Art of Virtue." The attainment of virtue was key to his plan for finding happiness through self-improvement and service to others.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is a cornerstone of American literature, one of the most popular and enduring books ever written. Never out of print since its initial publication in 1791, it has been translated into every major world language. "The influence of these few hundred pages is matched by no other American book," the late historian Clinton Rossiter once said.The book's author was a most remarkable figure. The scientist, statesman, and man of letters was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706, the 15th child and youngest son of a poor but industrious candlemaker. The boy's brilliance was conspicuous from early childhood. Apprenticed to his brother James, a printer, at age 12, Benjamin not only became a master printer, but began publishing essays that attracted widespread attention. Unhappy with his brother's "harsh & tyrannical" treatment, he abandoned his apprenticeship and ran off to Philadelphia, where he soon started his own printing shop. Franklin quickly became a leading citizen of his adopted city. In 1732, he began publishing annual editions of the enormously popular Poor Richard's Almanack, little books packed with weighty maxims still familiar to millions (“A penny saved is a penny earned.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”)
But it was as a scientist that the "American Newton" won international fame. His unveiling of the secrets of lightening and electricity excited the admiration of Europe. Franklin was the first colonial American to achieve an international reputation. Acclaim for Franklin the scientist enabled Franklin the diplomat to help win the American Revolution by cementing the alliance with France that alone assured victory over mighty Britain. Elected to the Continental Congress, he had served on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Later that year, Congress sent him to Paris as American minister; he remained until 1785, also working to draft the treaty of peace with England.
Left unfinished at his death was the Autobiography. Franklin had only managed to carry the story up to the year 1757, omitting many of the achievements for which he is best remembered. While we may lament the loss, the Autobiography is much more than an unfinished life story. It is a guide to the Art of Virtue. Franklin was still in his 20s when he embarked on "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection." He had little use for organized religion. But he believed in God, the immortality of the soul, and reward and punishment in a future state. And he was sure that the "most acceptable Service of God was the doing Good to Man." But how could a person do good? He set out to find the most important virtues and devise a plan for realizing them.
On some of the pages displayed, visitors will see the list of 13 virtues Franklin thought were behind his own success and happiness – temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility.
Other pages show his approach to making moral behavior "Habitual." Still other pages are exhibited to illustrate particularly important milestones in Franklin's life.
Alongside approximately 20 of these pages, which form the core of the exhibition, visitors will also see related works from the Huntington’s collections, including an 18th century edition of John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (a book Franklin refers to in his Autobiography), first editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack, printed words on Franklin’s electrical experiments, early views of Philadelphia, and some of the imprints he produced in his printing shop.
Related to the exhibition: In celebration of Franklin’s birthday, the distinguished American historian Gordon Wood will give a free public lecture at The Huntington entitled “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin” at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 11. And Huntington research scholar Paul Zall will discuss and sign his new book, Benjamin Franklin’s Humor (University Press of Kentucky; $27.95 hardcover) at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 24. (Franklin’s birthday falls on Jan. 17).