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In his time Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was the most famous American in the world. Even those personally unacquainted with the man knew him as the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, as a pioneer in the study of electricity and a major figure in the American Enlightenment, as the creator of such life-changing innovations as the lightning rod and America’s first circulating library, and as a leader of the American Revolution. His friends also knew him as a brilliant conversationalist, a great wit, an intellectual...
In his time Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was the most famous American in the world. Even those personally unacquainted with the man knew him as the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, as a pioneer in the study of electricity and a major figure in the American Enlightenment, as the creator of such life-changing innovations as the lightning rod and America’s first circulating library, and as a leader of the American Revolution. His friends also knew him as a brilliant conversationalist, a great wit, an intellectual filled with curiosity, and most of all a master anecdotist whose vast store of knowledge complemented his conversational skills. In Franklin in His Own Time, by reprinting the original documents in which those anecdotes occur, Kevin Hayes and Isabelle Bour restore those oft-told stories to their cultural contexts to create a comprehensive narrative of his life and work.
The thirty-five recollections gathered in Franklin in His Own Time form an animated, collaborative biography designed to provide a multitude of perspectives on the “First American.” Opening with an account by botanist Peter Kalm showing that Franklin was doing all he could to encourage the development of science in North America, it includes on-the-spot impressions from Daniel Fisher’s diary, the earliest surviving interview with Franklin, recollections from James Madison and Abigail Adams, Manasseh Cutler’s detailed description of the library at Franklin Court, and extracts from Alexander Hamilton’s unvarnished Minutes of the Tuesday Club. Franklin’s political missions to Great Britain and France, where he took full advantage of rich social and intellectual opportunities, are a source of many reminiscences, some published here in new translations. Genuine memories from such old friends as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as opposed to memories influenced by the Autobiography, clarify Franklin’s reputation. Robert Carr may have been the last remaining person who knew Franklin personally, and thus his recollections are particularly significant.
Each entry is introduced by a headnote that places the selection in its historical and cultural contexts; explanatory notes provide information about people and places; and the editors’ comprehensive introduction and chronology detail Franklin’s eventful life. Dozens of lively primary sources published incrementally over more than a hundred years illustrate the complexity of the man, his mind, and his mannerisms in a way that no single biographer could.
Pehr Kalm (1716–1779), a Swedish botanist, received an excellent education at the University of Uppsala, where he studied with both Anders Celsius and Linnaeus. After taking his doctorate in economics and natural history at Åbo Academy, Kalm became its first professor of economics the following year. With the Academy's support, he visited North America in 1748 and traveled around the continent for three years. During his sojourn, he met many notable Americans, including Benjamin Franklin. Kalm's record of their time together in November 1748 presents a vivid portrayal of Franklin in his forties. Recognizing Kalm's dedication to the study of natural history, Franklin shaped his conversation accordingly and related many pertinent stories about minerals and animal life. Greatly impressed with Franklin, Kalm became an important correspondent of his as he continued exploring North America upon leaving Philadelphia. In a letter to Franklin dated September 2, 1750, Kalm wrote one of the earliest descriptions of Niagara Falls. Returning to Sweden in 1751, he resumed his academic duties and prepared his American diary for publication. It appeared as En Resa til Norra America (1753–1761), which Franklin's friend Johann Reinhold Forster translated into English as Travels into North America (1770–1771). Recognized as a major contribution to the study of natural history, Kalm's Travels has since been reprinted numerous times.
MR. FRANKLIN TOLD ME that in that part of New England, where his father lived, two rivers fell into the sea, in one of which they caught great numbers of herrings, and in the other not one. Yet the places where these rivers discharged themselves into the sea, were not far asunder. They had observed that when the herrings came in spring to deposit their spawn, they always swam up the river where they used to catch them, but never came into the other. This circumstance led Mr. Franklin's father who was settled between the two rivers, to try whether it was not possible to make the herrings likewise live in the other river. For that purpose he put out his nets, as they were coming up for spawning, and he caught some. He took the spawn out of them, and carefully carried it across the land into the other river. It was hatched, and the consequence was, that every year afterwards they caught more herrings in that river; and this is still the case. This leads one to believe that the fish always like to spawn in the same place where they were hatched, and from whence they first put out to sea; being as it were accustomed to it.
The following is another peculiar observation. It has never formerly been known that codfish were to be caught at Cape Hinlopen: they were always caught at the mouth of the Delaware; but at present they are numerous in the former place. From hence it may be concluded, that fish likewise change their place of abode of their own accord.
A captain of a ship who had been in Greenland, asserted from his own experience, that on passing the seventieth deg. of north lat. the summer heat was there much greater, than it is below that degree. From hence he concluded, that the summer heat at the pole itself, must be still more excessive, since the sun shines there for such a long space of time, without ever setting. The same account with similar consequences drawn from thence, Mr. Franklin had heard of the ship captains in Boston, who had sailed to the most northern parts of this hemisphere. But still more astonishing is the account he got from Captain Henry Atkins, who still lives at Boston. He had for some time been upon the fishery along the coasts of New England. But not catching as much as he wished, he sailed north, as far as Greenland. At last he went so far, that he discovered people, who had never seen Europeans before (and what is more astonishing) who had no idea of the use of fire, which they had never employed; and if they had known it, they could have made no use of their knowledge, as there were no trees in the country. But they eat the birds and fish which they caught quite raw. Captain Atkins got some very scarce skins in exchange for some trifles....
Mr. Franklin related, that he had, when a boy, seen two of the animals which they call Moose-deer, but he well remembered that they were not near of such a size as they must have been, if the horns found in Ireland were to fit them: the two animals which he saw, were brought to Boston, in order to be sent to England to Queen Ann. The height of the animal up to the back was that of a pretty tall horse; but the head and its horns were still higher....
Mr. Franklin gave me a piece of a stone, which on account of its indestructibility in the fire, is made use of in New England for making melting furnaces and forges.
It consists of a mixture of Lapis Ollaris, or Serpentine stone, and of Asbest. The greatest part of it is a grey Serpentine stone, which is fat and smooth to the touch, and is easily cut and worked. Here and there are some glittering speckles of that sort of asbest, whose fibres come from a center like rays, or Star Asbest. This stone is not found in strata or solid rocks, but here and there scattered on the fields....
The mountain flax, or that kind of stone, which Bishop [Johan] Browallius calls Amiantus fibris separabilibus molliusculis, in his lectures on mineralogy, which were published in 1739, or the amiant with soft fibres which can easily be separated, is found abundantly in Pensylvania. Some pieces are very soft, others pretty tough: Mr. Franklin told me that twenty and some odd years ago, when he made a voyage to England, he had a little purse with him, made of the mountain flax of this country, which he presented to Sir Hans Sloane. I have likewise seen paper made of this stone: and I have likewise received some small pieces of it, which I keep in my cabinet. Mr. Franklin had been told by others, that, on exposing this mountain flax to the open air in winter, and leaving it in the cold and wet, it would grow together, and more fit for spinning. But he did not venture to determine how far this opinion was grounded. On this occasion he related a very pleasant accident which happened to him with this mountain flax: he had, several years ago, got a piece of it, which he gave to one of his journeymen printers, in order to get it made into a sheet at the paper mill. As soon as the fellow brought the paper, Mr. Franklin rolled it up, and threw it into the fire, telling the journeyman he would see a miracle, a sheet of paper which did not burn: the ignorant fellow asserted the contrary, but was greatly astonished, upon seeing himself convinced. Mr. Franklin then explained to him, though not very clearly, the peculiar qualities of the paper. As soon as he was gone, some of his acquaintance came in, who immediately knew the paper. The journeyman thought he would shew them a great curiosity and astonish them. He accordingly told them that he had curiously made a sheet of paper, which would not burn, though it was thrown into the fire. They pretended to think it impossible, and he as strenuously maintained his assertion. At last they laid a wager about it; but whilst he was busy with stirring up the fire, the others slyly besmeared the paper with fat: the journeyman, who was not aware of it, threw it into the fire, and that moment it was all in flames: this astonished him so much, that he was almost speechless; upon which they could not help laughing, and so discovered the whole artifice.
In several houses of the town, a number of little Ants run about, living under ground, and in holes in the wall. The length of their bodies is one geometrical line. Their colour is either black or dark red: they have the custom of carrying off sweet things, if they can come at them, in common with the ants of other countries. Mr. Franklin was much inclined to believe that these little insects could by some means communicate their thoughts or desires to each other, and he confirmed his opinion by some examples. When an ant finds some sugar, it runs immediately under ground to its hole, where having stayed a little while, a whole army comes out, unites and marches to the place where the sugar is, and carries it off by pieces: or if an ant meets with a dead fly, which it cannot carry alone, it immediately hastens home, and soon after some more come out, creep to the fly, and carry it away. Some time ago Mr. Franklin put a little earthen pot with treacle into a closet. A number of ants got into the pot and devoured the treacle very quickly. But as he observed it, he shook them out, and tied the pot with a thin string to a nail which he had fastened in the ceiling; so that the pot hung down by the string. A single ant by chance remained in the pot: this ant eat till it was satisfied; but when it wanted to get off , it was under great concern to find its way out: it ran about the bottom of the pot, but in vain: at last it found after many attempts the way to get to the ceiling by the string. After it was come there, it ran to the wall, and from thence to the ground. It had hardly been away for half an hour, when a great swarm of ants came out, got up to the ceiling, and crept along the string into the pot, and began to eat again: this they continued till the treacle was all eaten: in the mean time one swarm running down the string, and the other up.
[Extracts from the Diary, 1755]
Upon emigrating from England in 1750, Daniel Fisher (fl. 1720–1755) settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he entered the mercantile trade, selling groceries, imported tea, and other general merchandise. He also briefly operated a tavern. Fisher kept his retail store going through 1752 with little success. In May 1755, he left Williamsburg for Philadelphia in search of work. Given his experience, he hoped to find employment in the Philadelphia mercantile trade. Initially thwarted in his quest, he wrote Franklin to ask for help. Such self-introductions violated contemporary etiquette; ideally a mutual friend should have introduced two unacquainted parties. Unphased by Fisher's breach in etiquette, Franklin magnanimously invited him to tea and offered to do what he could. He hired him to do some clerical and secretarial work in June, which Fisher continued sporadically into early August. Franklin also suggested the possibility of a teaching position at the English school of the Academy of Philadelphia, which never materialized. The last week of July Fisher began lodging and boarding with the Franklins. As his diary reveals, he was impressed with Benjamin Franklin's kindness and indulgence. He was less taken with Deborah Franklin, whom he found petty, jealous, and vindictive. Fisher's portrayal is one of the fullest yet least flattering depictions of Mrs. Franklin, which, as J. A. Leo Lemay suggests in his Life of Benjamin Franklin, must be tempered with recourse to other contemporary accounts of her. Fisher left Philadelphia to return to Virginia in August. Before leaving, he purchased some clothing, several yards of fine linen, and other goods to sell in Williamsburg, but the hapless Fisher was robbed on the road to Virginia (Virginia Gazette, 5 September 1755).
Excerpts from Fisher's diary appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography in 1893, which has been an important source for Franklin's biographers. But actually, Louise Pecquet du Bellet edited and printed the entire diary as part of her four-volume opus, Some Prominent Virginia Families (1907). The complete diary helps to correct several errors that Franklin's biographers have perpetuated. Lemay, for example, depicts Fisher as a young man at the start of his career, but the full diary shows that Fisher was married with children and had operated his own business in Williamsburg for many years. Pecquet du Bellet's edition provides the source for the present text, which has been silently modernized and regularized to make it more reader friendly.
JUNE 1ST AND 2ND I spent very melancholy hearing nothing from Col. [William] Hunter whom I was cautious of teasing, til on the 3d. I was informed he that morning set out to Virginia. So whether he had any talk with Mr. [William] Allen convinced was I never. The circumstances, in a kind of despair, entered my romantic head to communicate my unhappy condition to Mr. Franklin, a Gentleman in good esteem here and well known to the philosophical world. I without reserve laid the whole of my affairs before him, requesting his aid if such a thing might be without inconvenience to himself. This in writing I sent to him June 4th. Early in the morning, about the same day I received a note by a servant under a wafer in these words, "Mr. Franklin Compliments to Mr. Fisher and desire the favor of his Company to drink tea at five o'clock this afternoon." I went at the time; and in my imagination met with a humane, kind reception. He expressed a concern for my affliction, and promised to assist me into some business provided it was in his power. In returning from Mr. Franklin's, a silversmith in the neighborhood to Mr. Franklins, Seeing me come out that Gentleman House, Spoke to me as I was passing his door, and invited me to sit down. This man's name was [Samuel] Soumien. I had been several times in his Company at My Inn, and Considered him as a very inquisitive Person, Craving a knowledge of other Peoples affairs, tho' no ways concerning himself. I accepted his offer of sitting at his door, and he soon began to fish for my business with Mr. Franklin by asking whether I had any previous knowledge or acquaintance with him; not obtaining a thorough information of all he wanted to know, and knowing I wanted a private Lodging, he made me an offer of his, which I gladly accepted. We agreed at Twelve shillings a week, and I came thither the same Evening. The Family consisted of, himself, his Wife, and a daughter of hers, a Young Woman about 13 years of age, a Negro Man, and two Negro Wenches. I was very well pleased to observe that this Family seemed to be acquainted with Mr. Franklin's.
June 5th: Thursday — As I was coming down from my chamber this afternoon, a Gentlewoman was sitting upon one of the lowest Stairs which was but narrow, and there not being room enough to pass, She arose up and threw herself immediately upon the Floor and sat there. Mr. Soumien and his Wife greatly entreated her to arise and take a Chair, but in vain; She would keep her Seat, and kept it I think the longer for their entreaty. This Gentlewoman whom (tho' I had seen before) I did not know, appeared to be Mrs. Franklin. She assumed the Airs of extraordinary Freedom, and great humility. Lamented heartily the misfortune of those who were unhappily infected with a too tender or benevolent disposition, said she believed all the world claimed a privilege of troubling her Pappey (So she usually Calls Mr. Franklin) with their Calamities and distresses, giving us a general history of many Such wretches and their impertinent applications to him.
Mr. Franklin's moral character is good, and he and Mrs. Franklin live irreproachably as Man and Wife.
Friday June 6th: I kept my Chamber, being very ill with my old disorder the cholic but was relieved by taking some drops of Castor and laudanum the next morning. The first rain fell last night that had been since a long time, which greatly refreshed the Earth.
Received an invitation from Mr. Franklin to dine with him to morrow.
Sunday June 8th about half an hour after nine this morning, I went to the Quakers' meeting on Society Hill. It proved a Silent one, except one old Man in the Gallery, who spoke about two minutes. What he said was not very edifying, nor had he the approbation of the Friends themselves. Some of them in my hearing, esteeming him a Babbler. I dined to day with Mr. Franklin and went afterwards to the Dutch Churches.
The Lutheran Church has an Organ and a good Performer. The Calvinist Church has an Organ and a good Performer, both 9th and 10th Employed in writing Letters to my Wife and Mr. [Nathaniel] Walthoe.
Wednesday llth so very cold for this two nights past, that many People required Fires in their Parlours as in Winter.
Excerpted from FRANKLIN in His Own Time Copyright © 2011 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Speaking about Natural History, 1748 Pehr Kalm 1
Extracts from the Diary, 1755 Daniel Fisher 5
House of Commons, The Examination of Doctor Benjamin Franklin (1767) 12
Science, Religion, and Politics in London, 1769, 1795, 1802 Joseph Priestley 39
Franklin in London, 1774-1775 Josiah Quincy, Jr. 46
Franklin as a Congressman and a Diplomat, 1775-1778 John Adams 52
Franklin in Boston and Paris, 1775 and 1784 Abigail Adams 68
Two Conversations with Benjamin Franklin, 1777-1778 Philip Gibbes 71
Extracts from the Journal, 1777 Arthur Lee 78
Franklin at Passy, 1778 William Greene 83
Franklin at Passy, 1783 John Baynes 86
This Venerable Nestor of America, 1785 Andrew Ellicott 99
The Wisdom and Experience of Mellow Old Age, 1785-1789, 1805, 1806 Benjamin Rush 101
My Dinner with Franklin, 1786 Winthrop Sargent 108
A Visit to Franklin Court, 1787 Manasseh Cutler 110
Franklin during the Constitutional Convention, 1787 James Madison 116
"Closing Scenes of Dr. Franklin's Life: In a Letter from an Eye-Witness" (1790) Mary Stevenson Hewson 119
"Short Account of Dr. Franklin's Last Illness by His Attending Physician" (1790) John Jones 121
"On Franklin" (1800) Louis Lefebvre de La Roche 123
Anecdotes of Doctor Franklin, 1818 and 1821 Thomas Jefferson 132
Anecdotes Relative to Dr. Franklin, 1818 William Temple Franklin 141
A Conversation with Franklin's London Friends, 1821 Robert Aspland 145
Memories of Franklin, 1821 André Morellet 147
A Short Account of Benjamin Franklin, 1825 Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis 153
The Sawdust Pudding Supper: Two Versions, 1835 and 1875 Roberts Vaux Canadian Numismatist 169
Memoir of Dr. George Logan of Stenton, 1839 Deborah Norris Logan 174
"Personal Recollections of Benjamin Franklin" (1864) Robert Carr 178
Works Cited 185