Part One of the Autobiography is addressed to Franklin's son William, at that time (1771) Royal Governor of New Jersey. While in England at the estate of the Bishop of St Asaph in Twyford, Franklin, now 65 years old, begins by saying that it may be agreeable to his son to know some of the incidents of his father's life; so with a week's uninterrupted leisure, he is beginning to write them down for William. He starts with some anecdotes of his grandfather, uncles, father and mother. He deals with his childhood, his fondness for reading, and his service as an apprentice to his brother James Franklin, a Boston printer and the publisher of the New England Courant. After improving his writing skills through study of the Spectator by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, he writes an anonymous paper and slips it under the door of the printing house by night. Not knowing its author, James and his friends praise the paper and it is published in the Courant, which encourages Ben to produce more essays (the "Silence Dogood" essays) which are also published. When Ben reveals his authorship, James is angered, thinking the recognition of his papers will make Ben too vain. James and Ben have frequent disputes and Ben seeks for a way to escape from working under James.
Eventually James gets in trouble with the colonial assembly, which jails him for a short time and then forbids him to continue publishing his paper. James and his friends come up with the stratagem that the Courant should hereafter be published under the name of Benjamin Franklin, although James will still actually be in control. James signs a discharge of Ben's apprenticeship papers but writes up new private indenture papers for Ben to sign which will secure Ben's service for the remainder of the agreed time. But when a fresh disagreement arises between the brothers, Ben chooses to leave James, correctly judging that James will not dare to produce the secret indenture papers. ("It was not fair in me to take this Advantage," Franklin comments, "and this I therefore reckon one of the first Errata of my life.") James does, however, make it impossible for Ben to get work anywhere else in Boston. Sneaking onto a ship without his father's or brother's knowledge, Ben heads for New York, but the printer William Bradford is unable to employ him; however, he tells Ben that his son Andrew, a Philadelphia printer, may be able to use him since one of his son's principal employees had just died.
By the time Ben reaches Philadelphia, Andrew Bradford has already replaced his employee, but refers Ben to Samuel Keimer, another printer in the city, who is able to give him work. The Governor, Sir William Keith, takes notice of Franklin and offers to set him up in business for himself. On Keith's recommendation, Franklin goes to London for printing supplies, but when he arrives, he finds that Keith has not written the promised letter of recommendation for him, and that "no one who knew him had the smallest Dependence on him." Franklin finds work in London until an opportunity arises of returning to Philadelphia as an assistant to Thomas Denham, a Quaker merchant; but when Denham takes ill and dies, he returns to manage Keimer's shop. Keimer soon comes to feel that Franklin's wages are too high and provokes a quarrel which causes the latter to quit. At this point a fellow employee, Hugh Meredith, suggests that Franklin and he set up a partnership to start a printing shop of their own; this is subsidized by funds from Meredith's father, though most of the work is done by Franklin as Meredith is not much of a press worker and is given to drinking.
They establish their business, and plan to start a newspaper, but when Keimer hears of this plan, he rushes out a paper of his own, the Pennsylvania Gazette. This publication limps along for three quarters of a year before Franklin buys the paper from Keimer and makes it "extremely profitable." (The Saturday Evening Post traces its lineage to Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette.) The partnership also receives an appointment as printer for the Pennsylvania assembly. When Hugh Meredith's father experiences financial setbacks and cannot continue backing the partnership, two friends separately offer to lend Franklin the money he needs to stay in business; the partnership amicably dissolves as Meredith goes to North Carolina, and Franklin takes from each friend half the needed sum, continuing his business in his own name. In 1730 he marries Deborah Read, and after this, with the help of the Junto, he draws up proposals for Library Company of Philadelphia. At this point Part One breaks off, with a memo in Franklin's writing noting that "The Affairs of the Revolution occasion'd the Interruption".
The second part begins with two letters Franklin received in the early 1780s while in Paris, encouraging him to continue the Autobiography, of which both correspondents have read Part One. (Although Franklin does not say so, there had been a breach with his son William after the writing of Part One, since the father had sided with the Revolutionaries and the son had remained loyal to the British Crown.)
At Passy, a suburb of Paris, Franklin begins Part Two in 1784, giving a more detailed account of his public library plan. He then discusses his "bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection", listing thirteen virtues he wishes to perfect in himself. He creates a book with columns for each day of the week, in which he marks with black spots his offenses against each virtue. Of these virtues, he notices that Order is the hardest for him to keep. He eventually realizes that perfection is not to be attained, but feels himself better and happier because of his attempt.
Beginning in August 1788 when Franklin had returned to Philadelphia, the author says he will not be able to utilize his papers as much as he had expected, since many were lost in the recent Revolutionary War. He has, however, found and quotes a couple of his writings from the 1730s that survived. One is the "Substance of an intended Creed" consisting of what he then considered to be the "Essentials" of all religions. He had intended this as a basis for a projected sect but, Franklin says, did not pursue the project.
In 1732, Franklin first publishes his Poor Richard's Almanac, which becomes very successful. He also continues his profitable newspaper. In 1734, a preacher named Rev. Samuel Hemphill arrives from County Tyrone Ireland; Franklin supports him and writes pamphlets on his behalf. However, someone finds out that Hemphill has been plagiarizing portions of his sermons from others, although Franklin rationalizes this by saying he would rather hear good sermons taken from others than poor sermons of the man's own composition.
Franklin studies languages, reconciles with his brother James, and loses a four-year-old son to smallpox. Franklin's club, the Junto, grows and breaks up into subordinate clubs. Franklin becomes Clerk of the General Assembly in 1736, and the following year becomes Comptroller to the Postmaster General, which makes it easier to get reports and fulfill subscriptions for his newspaper. He proposes improvements to the city' watch and fire prevention regulations.
The famed preacher George Whitefield arrives in 1739, and despite significant differences in their religious beliefs, Franklin assists Whitefield by printing his sermons and journals and lodging him in his house. As Franklin continues to succeed, he provides the capital for several of his workers to start printing houses of their own in other colonies. He makes further proposals for the public good, including some for the defense of Pennsylvania, which cause him to contend with the pacifist position of the Quakers.
In 1740 he invents the Franklin stove, refusing a patent on the device because it was for "the good of the people". He proposes an academy, which opens after money is raised by subscription for it and it expands so much that a new building has to be constructed for it. Franklin obtains other governmental positions (city councilman, alderman, burgess, justice of the peace) and helps negotiate a treaty with the Indians. After helping Dr. Thomas Bond establish a hospital, he helps pave the streets of Philadelphia and draws up a proposal for Dr. John Fothergill about doing the same in London. In 1753 Franklin becomes Deputy Postmaster General.
The next year, as war with the French is expected, representatives of the several colonies, including Franklin, meet with the Indians to discuss defense; Franklin at this time draws up a proposal for the union of the colonies, but it is not adopted. General Braddock arrives with two regiments, and Franklin helps him secure wagons and horses, but the general refuses to take Ben's warning about danger from hostile Indians during Braddock's planned march to Frontenac (now Kingston, Ontario). When Braddock's troops are subsequently attacked, the general is mortally wounded and his forces abandon their supplies and flee.
A militia is formed on the basis of a proposal by Benjamin Franklin, and the governor asks him to take command of the northwestern frontier. With his son as aide de camp, Franklin heads for Gnadenhut, raising men for the militia and building forts. Returning to Philadelphia, he is chosen colonel of the regiment; his officers honor him by personally escorting him out of town. This attention offends the proprietor of the colony (Thomas Penn, son of William Penn) when someone writes an account of it in a letter to him, whereupon the proprietor complains to the government in England about Franklin.
Now the Autobiography discusses "the Rise and Progress of [Franklin's] Philosophical Reputation." He starts experiments with electricity and writes letters about them that are published in England as a book. Franklin's description of his experiments is translated into French, and Abbé Nollet, who is offended because this work calls into question his own theory of electricity, publishes his own book of letters attacking Franklin. Declining to respond on the grounds that anyone could duplicate and thus verify his experiments, Franklin sees another French author refute Nollet, and as Franklin's book is translated into other languages, its views are gradually accepted and Nollet's are discarded. Franklin is also voted an honorary member of the Royal Society.
A new governor arrives, but disputes between the assembly and the governor continue. (Since the colonial governors are bound to fulfill the instructions issued by the colony's proprietor, there is a continuing struggle for power between the legislature and the governor and proprietor.) The assembly is on the verge of sending Franklin to England to petition the King against the governor and proprietor, but meanwhile Lord Loudoun arrives on behalf of the English government to mediate the differences. Franklin nevertheless goes to England accompanied by his son, after stopping at New York and making an unsuccessful attempt to be recompensed by Loudoun for his outlay of funds during his militia service. They arrive in England on July 27, 1757.
Written sometime between November 1789 and Franklin's death on April 17, 1790, this section is very brief. After Franklin and his son arrive in London, the former is counselled by Dr. Fothergill on the best way to advocate his cause on behalf of the colonies. Franklin visits Lord Granville, president of the King's Privy Council, who asserts that the king is the legislator of the colonies. Franklin then meets the proprietaries (the switch to the plural is Franklin's, so apparently others besides Thomas Penn are involved). But the respective sides are far from any kind of agreement. The proprietaries ask Franklin to write a summary of the colonists' complaints; when he does so, their solicitor for reasons of personal enmity delays a response. Over a year later, the proprietaries finally respond to the assembly, regarding the summary to be a "flimsy Justification of their Conduct." During this delay the assembly has prevailed on the governor to pass a taxation act, and Franklin defends the act in English court so that it can receive royal assent. While the assembly thanks Franklin, the proprietaries, enraged at the governor, turn him out and threaten legal action against him; in the last sentence, Franklin tells us the governor "despis'd the Threats, and they were never put in Execution".