The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Biography IV.


By Professor Chester Noyes Greenough

IN ALL the literature of fact—as distinguished from the literature of fiction—hardly any kind of book surpasses a good biography in its power to interest and instruct. It combines the suspense of the novel with the actuality of history. It fills in the detail without which history would be too impersonal, and it shows us how people, not at all points unlike ourselves, have ordered their lives what their guiding principles have been, and how principles have sometimes been modified to meet circumstances. Especially in the case of autobiography is all this true, for here we have the pleasure of feeling that the record is both authentic and intimate. The best of biographers, however learned, vivid, or philosophical, leaves between us and the past an interval which only a good autobiography can span. Such an autobiography may possess great historical value if its author was intimately connected with significant events and had some capacity to perceive their causes and their effects. But if the writer happens to be earnest about his career, free from self-consciousness, and blest with a good prose style, we have sufficient reasons for valuing the record of his life even though the historical importance of it may be quite secondary. Such is the basis of our permanent regard for autobiographies like those of Benjamin Franklin[1] (1706-1790) and John Woolman[2] (1720-1772).


Neither Franklin nor Woolman would have been at home among the makers of the literature which is most significant of America before their time. The latter as a Quaker, the former as a person whose general attitude may be indicated by his casually uttered remark[3] that he was usually too busy to go to church, would have been either punished or cast out (if not both) by most New England communities, who acquiesced in the banishment of some and the whipping or execution of others, in order that by uniform obedience to the theocratic ideal the purpose of the founders might be fulfilled.

But in the eighteenth century there began to be a change. The growing interest in science, the influence of such writers as John Locke, the rise of other learned professions than the ministry, the advance of the merchant class, the increasing concern about political relations with the mother country, the founding of other churches than the Congregational ones which hitherto had virtually constituted an Establishment—all of these influences make American life and letters in the eighteenth century radically different from the century of colonization. Strikingly unlike each other as Franklin and Woolman are in most respects, they agree in representing aspects of the American mind that could hardly flourish in American literature until in the eighteenth century that literature began to move out of New England and its intolerant church.


The career of Franklin well illustrates these changes. He finds himself cramped in Boston and moves to Philadelphia. He pays the most careful attention to the matter of writing well,[4] because he sees that it pays to consult the convenience of the reader. In his writing he employs the secular arts of humor and irony and takes particular care to "forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertions of [his] own."[5] He seeks the convenience of mankind also by various mechanical improvements and by the better organization of certain departments of the public service. His experiments in pure science mark him as patient, observant, and logical to an unusual degree. But most of his attention—in business, science, and public service—is given to matters of immediate utility.


In politics he was eminently successful, though probably not entirely uncorrupt. He managed delicate affairs of state with conspicuous coolness and skill. He was particularly useful to the colonies in explaining abroad the actual condition and views of the average American. His solid merits and unusual tact made him a great favorite in France, where, as commissioner for the colonies, he attained a personal popularity which was of the greatest advantage to his country. In spite of some loss of reputation from the suspicion that he had not always used his privileges unselfishly, Franklin returned to America to spend his last years in a position of honor not much below that of Washington himself.


Such eminence was not achieved without the most careful management. Indeed, the fact that most strongly impresses a reader of Franklin's "Autobiography" is the astonishing degree to which he regulated his acts and developed his character by a system of what, in the language of our day, might almost be termed "scientific management." For example, he drew up,[6] as many others have done, a list of virtues and of precepts for attaining them. Then, apparently untroubled by any suspicion that what he was doing was at all funny, he kept a tabular record which showed, week by week, how good a score he was making in the important game of living a moral life. His entire attitude toward life was of this prudential sort. Sins which would have prostrated a Puritan in the fear of eternal torment are to Franklin a matter of regret because of their expense and their injurious effect upon his health. Virtue he seems to have regarded chiefly as a means to the favor of man. The favor of God, which the Puritan implored in fasts and vigils, Franklin tranquilly expected as the outcome of a life regulated by prudence and virtue. "Having experienced the goodness of that Being in conducting me prosperously through a long life," he wrote to President Stiles of Yale, "I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness."


Strikingly different in almost every respect are the life and aims of John Woolman. "There was a care on my mind," he writes, "so to pass my time that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the true Shepherd."[7] This is the guiding principle of a life so inconspicuous in its outward circumstances and immediate rewards that we cannot possibly apply to it that somewhat worldly and dubious word "career," yet so steadily and unconsciously holy as to deserve our most affectionate regard. Even as a young man Woolman began to be troubled by his own sins and by the dissolute life of many around him. Sometimes he felt moved to speak to others of their manner of life; oftener he concerned himself only with his own shortcomings and found that although "nature was feeble," yet "every trial was a fresh incitement to give himself up wholly to the service of God."[8] From the humility of Woolman's utterances one can hardly doubt that his own sins were less grave than he felt them to be, or that his warnings to others had no touch of the pharisaical about them, but came from a heart that unaffectedly desired the good of all men.


Having learned the trade of a tailor, and having perceived that large possessions are an unnecessary temptation and trouble, Woolman began to journey about and to "pursue worldly business no further than as truth opened [his] way."[9] He presently began to be much concerned about the evils of slavery, at that time practiced by Quakers as by others, and quietly set his face against an institution which he believed was destined to be "grievous to posterity."[10] To act upon his convictions in this matter was not always easy or profitable, as we see from the account[11] of his refusal to write the will of a certain Quaker slaveholder. Woolman felt regret at the loss of the employment and at the necessity of giving offence. But far more deeply he felt "that acting contrary to present outward interest, from a motive of Divine love and in regard to truth and righteousness, and thereby incurring the resentment of people, opens the way to a treasure better than silver, and to a friendship exceeding the friendship of men."[12]

The temper shown in this incident is typical of the entire journal, and it inclines one to believe that such beautiful serenity and modesty as Woolman's are perhaps more rare, as they are certainly more lovely, than mere avoidance of sin. Woolman's care was not to be seen of men, but to be prompted by "the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart."[13] A man taught, as he was, "to wait in silence, sometimes many weeks together,"[14] until he hears God's voice, is not likely to offend by an appearance of self-seeking or self-praise.

Yet it would be a mistake to leave these two interesting and instructive autobiographies with the feeling that one is the record of a pure and exalted spirit, the other a story of mere self-seeking. Woolman, though both in deed and in temper, far above this world, wrought no small part of a great practical reform. If Franklin's life seems earthy in comparison, it should be remembered that, whatever his motives, he did manage to confer upon his country such benefits in science, in literature, diplomacy, practical arts, and public welfare as should entitle him to a respect which we may well deny to many of his rules for practicing the art of life. We could spare the practical advantages of having had among us a man like Franklin only if it were necessary to do so in order that the inner light which guided John Woolman might not be extinguished.

  1. Harvard Classics, i, 5ff.
  2. H. C., i, 1698ff.
  3. H. C., i, 16, 17.
  4. H. C., i, 16.
  5. H. C., i, 87.
  6. H. C., i, 79 ff.
  7. H. C., i, 180.
  8. H. C., i, 176.
  9. H.C., i, 177.
  10. H. C., i, 183.
  11. H. C., i, 188, 189.
  12. H. C., i, 189.
  13. H. C., i, 175.
  14. H. C., i, 176.