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The Portable Benjamin Franklin

Celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin with Penguin Classics and Larzer Ziff

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, established himself in Philadelphia, a city that is inseparable from his presence, and lived for significant periods of his career in London and in Paris. He was, that is, an urbanite, and as such dedicated to the belief that individual advancement and civic advancement were interdependent. Every step of his own development from an impecunious adolescent to a merchant and tradesman who could contemplate retiring while still in his forties was accompanied by his working toward the establishment of institutions, such as hospital, university, and library, and of civil services, such as street lighting, street cleaning, and fire companies, that would improve life for all citizens. On a wider scale, as statesman and diplomat he took a principal role in advancing the best interests of the American colonies and then of the United States and participated in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the drawing up of the Treaty of Paris (which ended the American Revolution), and the writing of the Constitution. The selections in the Penguin Classic The Portable Benjamin Franklin represent all of these aspects of his genius.

In June of 1755, Franklin wrote from Philadelphia to Peter Collinson in London. He said that in an accompanying packet he was sending his paper on whirlwinds and waterspouts for publication if Collinson thought it would be welcomed; sample sheets of asbestos; some superior grease-free candles and a few cakes of American soap, "best in the world for shaving and washing fine linens;" notations describing the North American woodchuck or groundhog; a worm found in a woman's liver; and ten copies of his piece on the stove he had invented. In the letter itself he reported on his activities in the Pennsylvania Assembly and on plans to establish settlements further west, discussed politics in America and England, outlined the condition of the library company he had founded, described his mistaken efforts to mend a broken thermometer—"I only tell you this, that you and Mr. Bird may divert yourselves with laughing at me," and requested that Collinson send him a copy of Johnson's dictionary and his wife sufficient satin for a gown, "somewhat darker than the enclosed pattern."

The wide scope of the interests and activities contained in that letter, from scientific observations through practical inventions to small articles that enhance the pleasures of living the everyday life, and his readiness to laugh at his mistakes and offer them for the amusement of others, combine to provide a condensed tour of Benjamin Franklin's mind and temperament. The Portable Benjamin Franklin expands that tour through science, politics, inventions, and civic improvement, led by Franklin himself.

There are accounts of his electrical experiments and his inventions, together with the drawings with which he illustrated them, satires on England's treatment of its American colonies, and humorous observations on the war between the sexes. Here are Poor Richard, whose maxims achieved world-wide circulation, Polly Baker who so persuasively argues her case for having borne illegitimate children that one of the judges before whom she appeared married her, and the earliest American teller of tall tales who insists that all the claims on behalf of the wonders of his country are true: "The very Tails of the American Sheep are so laden with Wooll, that each has a little Car or Waggon on four little Wheels, to support & keep it from trailing on the Ground." Included also are Franklin's views on religion as expressed both directly in pamphlets and letters and indirectly in letters of advice; for example, the response to a town's request that he send a bell for its meeting house, in which he wrote that he would send books instead, "Sense being preferable to Sound."

A self-educated tradesman, he called himself a "leather-apron man," Franklin came from the working people and always maintained a respect for their intelligence. He knew them capable of understanding ideas as well as practices so long as they were presented in uncluttered prose, and as a printer and journalist he recognized print's capacity to stretch beyond the educated minority who had the leisure time for books to reach the population of self-taught, industrious persons who were to become the shapers of democratic society. His writings are marked by an extraordinary clarity, be they in explanation of social issues such as demographic change or the circulation of currency, of scientific theories about the nature of electricity, of useful inventions such as bifocal glasses, or of principles of personal conduct. Providing a generous display of Benjamin Franklin's sweeping intellect, The Portable Benjamin Franklin also exhibits the prose mastery that made him a founding father of American literature as well as of America.

Marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Franklin, The Portable Benjamin Franklin contains a greater range of the writings of this multi-faceted genius than is available in any comparable anthology: the classic Autobiography, followed by essays, journalism, letters, political pamphlets, scientific observations, proposals for the improvement of civic and personal life, satires, bagatelles, and private musings—each presented in its entirety.

Unlike John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush and other of his great contemporaries who wrote memoirs or extensive notes on their lives, intended for the use of their children—to serve , as Benjamin Rush said, "as a patent of nobility" to their descendants "to the end of time"—in his Autobiography, Franklin did not aim at producing a patent of nobility for his descendants but at providing an account of his life that could assist them and all youthful readers in the conduct of their lives. He regarded as undemocratic any effort to have family members continue to enjoy privileges simply because they were descended from a distinguished personage, reacting with scorn to the news that officers who had served in the Revolution were founding a hereditary society to mark their descendants as special. He called it a flagrant breach of the principles for which the war had been fought and an affront to the good sense of the American people. The theme that runs throughout the Autobiography is that it is not what or where you were at birth but what you make of life's opportunities regardless of place of birth that marks a worthy life. To read the Autobiography is to witness the birth of modern society.

—Larzer Ziff, author of the introduction to The Portable Benjamin Franklin

Also available from Penguin Classics: The Autobiography and Other Writings

The Portable Benjamin Franklin
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