By GERARD GAWALT
The Library of Congress, which houses the second largest collection of Benjamin Franklin papers in the world, is celebrating the tercentenary of the statesman's birth with an exhibition titled "Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words."
This display will occupy the central portion of the larger "American Treasures" exhibition and will be on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday in the Southwest Gallery of the Thomas Jefferson Building through June 17, 2006.
The display features more than 60 items drawn from the more than 8,000 documents in the Benjamin Franklin Collection in the Library's Manuscript Division and other Franklin manuscripts in the Thomas Jefferson and George Washington papers.
Also included in the display are books from Franklin's personal library,
his own publications, newspapers, maps and other visual materials provided
by the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections, Geography and Map, Music,
and Photographs divisions. The exhibition will be accessible
online at www.loc.gov/exhibits/.
"A penny saved is a penny earned." "Honesty is the best policy." "A small leak can sink a great ship." "Eat to live, not live to eat." "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."
Benjamin Franklin's life was far more complex, creative and accomplished than can be suggested by his many clever quotations. Before Franklin's long life and multiple careers were finished, he had achieved fame as a printer, author, philanthropist, inventor, scientist, politician, diplomat and abolitionist. The Library's exhibition, "Benjamin Franklin: In His Own Words," reveals the depth and breadth of Franklin's public and professional accomplishments through important documents, letters, books, broadsides and cartoons housed in the Library's collection.
Printer and Writer: "Diligence Is the Mother of Good Luck"
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on Jan. 17, 1706. The 10th son of Josiah, a candle maker, and Abiah Folger, Franklin was educated at Boston Grammar School. He apprenticed with his father and then his half-brother, Peter, a printer in Boston. Young Franklin struck out on his own in 1723 and eventually found employment as a journeyman printer in Philadelphia. By 1730, he controlled his own printing shop, including the newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, fathered a son, William, and married Deborah Read Rogers.
While working as a printer in London, Franklin published his first pamphlet at the age of 19. In "A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain" (1725), a reply to William Wollaston's "The Religion of Nature Delineated," Franklin argued that if God was infinite wisdom and goodness, vice and virtue were empty distinctions. After distributing a few copies to his friends, Franklin became disenchanted with his reasoning and destroyed all remaining copies but one, which is on display in the exhibition. Several years later, Franklin documented his own personal liturgy in a 1728 manuscript titled "Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion." Not formally printed, the manuscript was purportedly intended to be read by Franklin on Sundays, in lieu of attending formal church services.
Franklin's fame as a writer and printer rests on "Poor Richard's Almanack," which is commonly recognized for the wit and wisdom spun by Franklin under the pseudonym "Richard Saunders." But Franklin's accomplishments as a printer were far greater, albeit less known. In addition to the 1739 edition of "Poor Richard's Almanack" (which Franklin printed from 1732 to 1757), the Library's display includes Franklin's 1744 copy of Marcus Tullius Cicero's "Cato Major," or "His Discourse of Old-Age," which is generally considered to be the finest example of printing in Colonial America. This work by the Roman philosopher and statesman is the first classic work translated and printed in North America.
Soon after establishing himself as an independent printer, Franklin was awarded the "very profitable Jobb" of printing Pennsylvania bills of credit, partly because he had written and published a pamphlet on the need for paper currency in 1729. He was similarly employed by New Jersey and Delaware. Aware of the threat from counterfeiters, Franklin devised the use of mica in the paper and leaf imprints as ways to foil counterfeiters. Both of these methods can be seen in samples of currency on display in the exhibition.
Franklin's views on making money were not limited to the business of printing currency. His humorous treatise, "The Art of Making Money Plenty in Every Man's Pocket" teaches that honesty, industry and frugality are the keys to full pockets. Another work, "The Way to Wealth," which Franklin wrote and published in the 25th edition of "Poor Richard's Almanack," argues that those seeking prosperity and virtue should diligently practice frugality and industry. Translated into many languages, this piece is the most extensively reprinted of all of Franklin's writings.
Inventor and Scientist: "The Doors of Wisdom Are Never Shut"
Franklin achieved fame as an inventor and scientist before he began his political career. His experiments in electricity – such as those performed with a kite and key – are well documented and have been depicted in many children's books. But in his day, Franklin was eminent in scientific circles. In 1753 he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society for his contributions to the knowledge of lightning and electricity. Moreover, his experiments led to the invention of the lightening rod, which is still in use today to protect structures from the damaging effects of an electrical storm.
But Franklin's interest in science was not limited to electricity. During his trips to England, he became intrigued by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean. The exhibition contains the Franklin-Folger Chart of the Gulf Stream, printed in London in 1768. He was also fascinated by the mystery of the "Northern Lights," which he observed on his voyages across the North Atlantic to England. On display is a manuscript titled "Suppositions and Conjectures on the Aurora Borealis" (1778), in which he posits that the shifting lights are a result of a concentration of electrical charges in the polar regions, which are intensified by the snow and other precipitation.
Several of Franklin's other inventions and "improvements" are also represented in the Library's display, including "An Account of the New Invented Pennsylvanian Fire-Places" (Franklin stove) and his sketch of bifocal glasses, which appeared in a 1785 letter to his friend George Whatley. "I understand the French better by the help of my Spectacles," wrote Franklin, who explained that he finds the bifocal glasses particularly useful at dinner in France, where he could see the food he was eating and interpret the facial expressions of those seated at the table.
Franklin's experiments with drinking glasses led him to make improvements on Richard Puckeridge's musical glasses or "armonica." By fitting a series of graduated glass discs on a spindle laid horizontally in a case and revolving the spindle by a foot treadle, Franklin could create bell-like tones by touching his wet fingers to the revolving glasses. Franklin's armonica became popular in Europe, with Mozart and Beethoven composing music for it.
Diplomat and Statesman: "Where Liberty Is, There Is My Country"
Franklin's career as a diplomat and statesman began in 1757 when he went to London as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly and became an absentee deputy British postmaster for North America. There he remained, except for a brief return to Philadelphia, until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, serving as an American provincial agent and pursuing his interests as an inventor, scientist and author. It was in London that Franklin made his transition from supporter of a royal takeover of the Pennsylvania proprietorship to an American revolutionary.
Prior to the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Franklin hoped to persuade the American Colonies to unite their governments to protect themselves from the French and their Native American allies, but he thought this unification would come within the British Empire. On display is a woodcut, which Franklin designed and printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette, depicting America as a divided snake, with the slogan "Join or Die."
Franklin also initially supported the Stamp Act of 1765, by which Parliament levied a new tax on British Colonies. However, he became an opponent of the legislation when he learned of fervent Colonial opposition. Franklin's transition can also be seen in the multiple annotations he made on a British pamphlet titled "Reflections Moral and Political on Great Britain and Her Colonies," which supports taxation of the Colonies. In the margins of the pamphlet, Franklin carries on a heated debate with the author, Matthew Wheelock, quarreling with his ignorance of American life and arguing that Parliament has no right to tax the Colonies. After Franklin's death, Thomas Jefferson acquired this among several volumes from Franklin's library and was especially pleased to receive these "precious reliques of Doctor Franklin," which he valued "not only [for] the intrinsic value whatever came from him, but [also because] of "my particular affection for him."
As tensions mounted between the American Colonies and England, Franklin was branded a "true incendiary" and the "prime conductor" in the agitation against the British government. These accusations were largely due to a belief that Franklin leaked the inflammatory letters of Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), filled with advice on how to subdue the colonists by restricting their liberties. His defense, "Tract Relative to the Affair of Hutchinson's Letters," is on display in the Library's exhibition, along with the 1774 petition for a redress of grievances to the King of Great Britain. signed by 51members of the Continental Congress.
When Franklin returned to Pennsylvania in 1775, he was under suspicion on both sides of the Atlantic. American radicals doubted Franklin's commitment to revolution. Franklin countered their skepticism by carefully orchestrating a circulation of letters, such as his July 5, 1775, letter to his old friend and member of Parliament, William Strahan (1715-1785), in which he declared. "You are now my enemy, and I am yours." Franklin never actually sent the letter to Strahan, but circulated it among friends in Philadelphia before returning it to his personal papers.
Franklin later served as a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and created a seal for the United States with the motto "Rebellion Against Tyrants Is Obedience to God."
Because of his international experience, Franklin was chosen by the Continental Congress as one of its first ministers to France. Franklin reached his peak of fame in Paris, becoming the focal point for a cultural phenomenon among the French intellectual elite that can only be described as "Franklin-mania." When not attending social functions or witnessing the world's first balloon flights, Franklin busied himself raising money for the American cause, securing an alliance with the French government in 1778, sending French officers, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, to fight in America and ultimately negotiating the 1783 Treaty of Paris with Great Britain, which ended the American Revolutionary War and secured for the United States a vast territory between the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi River. A letter book copy of the Treaty of Paris is on display in the exhibition.
Franklin returned to the United States in 1785 to a hero's welcome and was promptly elected president of Pennsylvania, a lucrative but largely ceremonial position. Despite having brought two slaves to England in 1757, Franklin worked strenuously for the abolition of slavery later in his life and became president of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. On display is a letter to Anthony Benezet, a Philadelphia abolitionist, in which Franklin appeals for public support of a humanitarian plan to not only emancipate slaves, but to educate free blacks and their children and to facilitate their progress toward good citizenship.
Franklin, who supported a strong central government, eagerly served in the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787. He spoke out in favor of proportional representation (illustrated in his draft speech of June 11, 1787), an issue that was heatedly debated among the convention's delegates. As the eldest delegate at the convention, Franklin acted on several occasions to restore harmony. In a letter dated Oct. 14, 1787, Franklin enclosed a copy of the new federal constitution and sent it to Thomas Jefferson, then American minister to France. At the conclusion of the struggle to form a new government, Franklin wrote to George Washington on Sept. 16, 1789, rejoicing that suffering through two years of "excruciating Pain" had enabled him to enjoy "the growing Strength of our New Government" under the administration of President Washington.
Epitaph: "One Day Is Worth Two Tomorrows"
Death came slowly and painfully to Franklin as he suffered through gout, kidney failure and the general deterioration of old age. A year before his death, Franklin was still at work on his benevolent causes, such as the education of the youth and citizens of Philadelphia. In a 1789 essay titled "Observations Relative to the Intentions of the Original Founders of the Academy of Philadelphia," he discussed his efforts to found a public subscription library and the establishment of the Philadelphia Academy (later the University of Pennsylvania). When he died, Franklin left substantial bequests to fund public education in Philadelphia and Boston. The remaining funds, totaling more than $7 million, were distributed to schools and scholarship funds as recently as the 1990s.
Franklin died on April 17, 1790, just one month before Rhode Island became the last state to ratify the Constitution. After his death, Franklin was honored by members of the U.S. House of Representatives, who wore black crepe for a month. The U.S. Senate declined to follow suit, many of its members believing that Franklin was too closely allied with France. However, Franklin was publicly eulogized by many, such as the Rev. William Smith, whose words of praise quoted Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. Jefferson wrote that there was "more respect and veneration attached to the character of Doctor Franklin in France than to that of any other person in the same country." James Madison, who, at the time of Franklin's death was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia, noted, "I never passed half an hour in his company without hearing some observations or anecdote worth remembering."
But perhaps the best summation of his life came from Franklin himself. In 1728, at the age of 22, Franklin penned his own epitaph:
"The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms. But the Work shall not be wholly lost; For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more, In a new & more perfect Edition."
Gerard Gawalt is a manuscript historian and curator of presidential papers in the Library's Manuscript Division.