By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009
A professor with his nose deep in a library archive in London has stumbled upon 47 previously unknown letters from, to and about Benjamin Franklin.
The sensational find, announced in the upcoming issue of the William & Mary Quarterly, centers on Franklin's interactions with Gen. Edward Braddock after he and his soldiers arrived on the banks of the Potomac and during their disastrous march to the Forks of the Ohio in 1755. The discovery not only adds texture to a key chapter in early American history, but it also raises the question of what else about the founding generation might be lurking out there, overlooked or miscategorized in a library, or perhaps stashed in an archive in some distant land.
The professor is Alan Houston, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego. In the spring of 2007, while researching a book on Franklin ("Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement"), he was poring over manuscripts in the British Library. Late in the afternoon of his last day in the country, he requested of the library staff a certain Volume 4478b, a collection of miscellaneous papers, including "Copies of Letters relating to the March of General Braddock."
He was shocked to see that the first such letter was a copy of one written by Benjamin Franklin to the secretary of the governor of Maryland. He had never seen this missive before. Houston believed he'd seen everything Franklin ever wrote, but he quickly checked his own files as well as the authoritative "Papers of Benjamin Franklin" and saw no mention of it. Riffling through the other letters in the volume -- of which 18 were written by Franklin -- he realized that they were all unknown to historians.
"I felt kind of a lump in my chest," Houston said. "I started to bounce. I wanted like a rocket to shoot out of my chair."
It being a library, he merely exited the room and called his wife with the news.
What Houston had found was the handiwork of Thomas Birch, secretary to the Royal Society and a famously compulsive copyist of manuscripts. Birch had dined frequently with Franklin in London during the summer of 1757. Franklin by then was famous as a scientist for his experiments with electricity, but he wanted to show his British hosts that he was also politically important in the Colonies. Thus he carried with him, as a kind of calling card, a bound book of letters written by him, to him and about him during the Braddock affair. In his autobiography, Franklin referred to carrying a "Quire Book of Letters during this Transaction." The original quire book has never been found, but Birch copied it.
"It's an extraordinary find," said Scott Casper, visiting editor of the William & Mary Quarterly. "What this find shows is that caches like this, which are under some title that doesn't include that Framer's name, which are in collections that are not specifically associated with that Framer, might come to light when someone is doing research on something else entirely."
Franklin met Braddock in 1755 shortly after Braddock's arrival in the Colonies. Franklin ostensibly was on Post Office business, but in fact he hoped to ease Braddock's violent dislike of the Colonists and of Pennsylvanians in particular. Braddock felt that he had been promised 250 wagons and 2,500 horses for his planned assault on the French at Fort Duquesne. Instead he arrived to find only a 10th that number, and felt that the Pennsylvanians (many of them Quakers who opposed war on religious grounds) hadn't been supportive.
Franklin smoothed things over. He rounded up wagons, horses, volunteers. He cut deals with farmers, using Braddock's money and much of his own. He rallied public support for Braddock's campaign. At one point Franklin wrote to his wife, complaining, "I am never to have leisure, but engage myself more and more in business, that does not properly belong to me."
The "wagon affair" is a well-known chapter in Franklin's life, but the new letters shed light on the tricky nature of the negotiations and the anxious sentiments of the Colonists at being asked to supply the imperial army.
One letter, from William Franklin to his famous father, describes the intemperate nature of the farmers: "I had much ado to pacify them, they being almost all drunk."
Houston said the letters give him a better appreciation for Franklin's genius at getting people to cooperate: "It's an example of Franklin's skill of working with people of different agendas and different concerns, appealing to their interests, appealing to their passions, appealing to their political beliefs."
None of that ultimately helped Braddock. Franklin had warned him of the threat of Indian ambush. Braddock had replied that the "savages" might threaten raw Colonial militiamen but not the king's disciplined soldiers. The rest is history: Braddock lost a thousand men in the massacre near the Forks, and he fell mortally wounded, asking an aide, "Who would have thought it?"