Chapter One: The Friends of Benjamin Franklin
A few days after Franklin's death, Thomas Jefferson wrote Ferdinand Grand that "the good old Doctor Franklin, so long the ornament of our country and I may say of the world, has at length closed h,;s eminent career." In suggesting that Franklin belonged not just to America but to the world, Jefferson sounded a theme that echoed throughout Europe and America. The next year he sent a few lines to William Smith, once Franklin's enemy but now his eulogist, in which he referred to Franklin "as our great and dear friend, whom time will be making greater while it is spunging us from it's records." Time has not erased Thomas Jefferson from its records, though it has not been so kind to William Smith. But Jefferson was right about Franklin, who seems even larger now than he did in his own century.
Fame of the sort Franklin enjoyed, even in his own day, is uncommon. It commonly prevents friendship because it keeps men at a distance. George Washington was as well known as Franklin from the Revolution on, but those who knew him--and those who did not--spoke of him in a language different from what they used in describing Franklin. Washington -was a remote figure, a legend, a monument while he lived. To most men he appeared great and mighty--and a little cold. Franklin was great, all agreed, but though he had enormous intellectual and moral power, no one thought of him as mighty, and only rarely did anyone think him cold.
Joseph Priestley, the great English chemist, noted that strangers sometimes found Franklin reserved, but such reactions were not common enough to evoke frequent comment. Not that Franklin was a hail-fellow-well-met. He could keep himself at a distance, and in fact he never showed all of himself to anyone. But very few men do, and complete openness is not necessary for friendship--indeed it might discourage it (a genial hypocrisy has its uses)--and Franklin met everyone he was not bound to distrust with directness and honesty. He was a good judge of others and normally brought a friendly and warm spirit to his exchanges with them. His curiosity about virtually everything under the sun tended to draw others out, and he was notably successful in his attempts to learn about the human as well as the natural world.
Franklin seems to have been born curious; his capacity for friendship, though appearing early in his life, was actually an acquired characteristic. He tells us in his Autobiography that as a youth he was "fond" of argument, was in fact of a "disputatious turn," a bad habit, he soon realized, "productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship." He had "caught it by reading my father's books of dispute on religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts who have been bred at Edinburgh." Giving up his taste for argument, he next "put on the humble enquirer." This role he learned first from an English grammar and then from Xenophon's Memorable Things of Socrates. The Socratic method reinforced his natural hunger for trapping his adversaries in positions they really did not wish to defend--"entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved." He liked to win-he gave no quarter even in chess--but he soon saw that scoring in this fashion was pointless. It convinced no one, and it cost him friends. He then adopted "the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence," a practice he followed all his life that, one suspects, allowed a freer expression of kits own desire to learn. It also helped draw men and women as well as children to him. And in time it became his natural style; what began in artfulness led him to what he really was.
Among other things he was a good friend to all sorts, ranks, and ages of people. He made friends all his life and with rare exceptions kept them. When he was young, they tended to come from his own class, though he soon attracted the interest of a number of men of the better sort--William Keith, for example, the governor of Pennsylvania. Shortly after he arrived in Philadelphia, Franklin formed the Junto, an organization of young craftsmen who had aspirations to rise, to talk-with others of their own kind about business and public service, and to do good. The members included Hugh Meridith, like Franklin an apprentice in Samuel Keimer's print shop. The two soon left Keimer and with the aid of Meridith's father set up on their own. Meridith's fondness for strong drink and his aversion-to work soon shattered this partnership. Franklin, however, did not abandon him but lent him money and for several years after their parting attempted to help him in business. The Junto and Franklin also attracted Joseph Breintall, a small merchant and copyist. Breintall worked on another of Franklin's favorite projects by serving as secretary of the Library Company of Philadelphia from :731 until his death in 1746. There was also William Parson, a shoemaker by trade and an original member of the Junto, who as librarian guarded the books in the company. The others were not really different: Stephen Potts, from Keimer's shop; George Webb, once a scholar at Oxford; William Maugridge, a joiner by trade; and William Coleman, a merchant's clerk.
After Franklin became well known in Europe and America, he did not scorn such men. He considered himself a printer all his life,though he did not follow his calling. Artisans everywhere recognized that in some sense he was one of their own. A group of ship carpenters, the White Oaks, came to his rescue in Philadelphia in 1766 when for a time the public believed that he favored the Stamp act, a notorious and hated measure of parliamentary taxation.
In the years of fame and reputation, Franklin naturally found most of his friends in other circles. Many were in public life, and some had reputations that rivaled his own, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for example. But his closest friends, in England and France as well as America, shared more than political interests with him.
Margaret Stevenson, Franklin's landlady in Craven Street, London, for two extended periods was one. She did not have Franklin's interest in politics, but she offered a warm family life to him. Her daughter, Mary, usually called Polly, also became Franklin's friend. Mrs. Stevenson did much to make his life comfortable. She cooked and baked for him and saw to it that his clothes were cared for, his linen clean; she worried over his health and shopped for him and for his wife, though Deborah Franklin was three thousand miles away. Soon after Franklin first came to Craven Street, in 1757, he grew fond of Margaret Stevenson. He also loved Polly Stevenson, who was eighteen years of age when he first met her.
Polly delighted him. With all the enthusiasm and happiness of the young, she displayed a lively spirit. She also impressed him with her fine intelligence, and he was soon acting as her tutor, giving advice on what to study and read and challenging her to use her gifts to the fullest. He wrote poems to her and letters when they were apart; he teased her and talked with her about things serious and frivolous. She returned his affection, responded to his questions with those of her own, teased him back, and knitted him garters. Thirty-two years later she would sit by his bedside in Philadelphia as he lay dying.
For the most part, it was an interest in science, technology, and agriculture that brought Franklin and his English friends together. They often discovered that they shared other concerns; most, for example, were liberals in politics; many were dissenting in religion. They also had aversions in common. None of them had much use for superstition and prejudice; they preferred to trust reason and evidence. They respected authority, but they did not admire the socially powerful. The corruption in English politics offended them, and only a few served in Parliament or held offices in the government.
They differed in personality, but not so greatly as to divide them. Some were bold; some, rather quiet, even meek. Almost none tried to mate a big splash in company; several bordered on the reclusive. They did enjoy spending time together, however, often in a London coffeehouse. They visited one another in their homes and businesses, and Franklin traveled with several of his friends. Perhaps most of their meetings were at supper time or at gatherings of the Royal Society.
A glimpse of Franklin's correspondence might lead one to conclude that he knew everyone in London and was friends with everyone worth knowing. But he did not consort often with literary people or with artists. He and Dr. Samuel Johnson met at least once, but Johnson, a Tory, had no desire to know Franklin better. Franklin, after all, brought a whiff of revolutionary, or at least radical, fervor with him to England. The artist Franklin knew best was Benjamin Wilson. The son of a well-fixed clothier, Wilson took surprising turns while he was still young. His father went broke, and Wilson took a place as a clerk in a business. He was frugal and he had a talent for painting. Hogarth, a much greater artist, gave him encouragement, and for a while Wilson enJoyed the patronage of several wealthy men. He became interested in electricity and published an account of hits experiments in 1750. Not surprisingly, when Franklin arrived an the London scene in 1757, the two met and became friends. Wilson painted Franklin's portrait not long after their first meeting. It was one of the few friendships Franklin made that eventually failed.
The successes were striking and much more common. Peter Collinson, born in London of Quaker parents, was one of them. Collinson, a mercer, ran a business with his brother and traded with American merchants. Business did not bring the two men together; science did. Collinson had an interest in natural history and collected American plants. Franklin seems not to have sent plants to him; he sent something even more interesting--descriptions of his electrical experiments, which Collinson read to the Royal Society. The next he began their publication in London, and Franklin's name as a scientist was made.
Franklin's friendship with William Strahan, a Scottish-born printer in London, may have been even closer. The two men took to one another as soon as they met; the year was 1757, and Franklin was on a mission for the Assembly of Pennsylvania. He spent his first night ashore with Peter Collinson and the next with Strahan. Shortly afterward Strahan was writing Deborah Franklin that "I never saw a man who was in every respect, so perfectly agreeable to me."
Franklin and Strahan talked and laughed together and for a time plotted the marriage of Franklin's daughter Sally, then six or seven years of age, to Strahan's son William, who was three years older.
Strahan found Franklin agreeable. Most people did, including Lord Shelburne, who headed the ministry that made peace with America in 1783. Few of Franklin's friends in England, however, were in the highest governing circles, or even in society. But several had great distinction, David Hume and Richard Price, for example. Most were people who are known today only because of their friendship with Franklin. One was Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph in Wales, who avoided his diocese like the plague, preferring the comfort of his family home at Twyford, near Winchester. The bishop's family took to Franklin immediately, and their warmth and admiration encouraged him to begin, in 1771, to write his memoirs. The bishop and his wife had six children; the two younger girls, Georgiana and Catherine (Kitty), evidently charmed Franklin and he them. On a trip to London with Franklin by post chaise, Kitty Shipley confessed that she preferred old men to young ones and looked forward to marrying one. Franklin suggested that perhaps she should marry a young man and make him into someone she really wanted. Kitty, who was eleven years of age, replied that she did not want to follow this course and would marry an old general so that she could become a young widow. Fifteen years later Franklin wrote The Art of Procuring Plensant Dreams for Kitty.
Franklin's friendships with children were not uncommon. But his warm connection to a bishop in the established church--or to any churchman--was. His preference for nonconformists or dissenting clergy-was clear in his choice of the Club of Honest Whigs. Religious opinion did not bring him to the meetings of tints group, a supper club that met every other week in London at St. Paul's Coffeehouse, but anything that smacked of formalism, High Church, or anything similar would have kept him away.
If the Club of Honest Whigs was not a religious club, neither was it a political group, at least in its beginnings. As the revolutionary crisis developed and reached a peak before independence, the group grew more political, supporting the American cause. But even as America was breaking away, and sympathies for it increased and anger at the ministry kept pace, the members continued to sup together, primarily because of their commitments to natural and moral science. Political agreement provided a comfortable atmosphere for meeting but not a rationale. For the members of the club had important matters to talk over, matters that stimulated their minds.
Although their conversations about science and polities were spirited and informative, they also simply enjoyed one another's company and the food and drink they consumed. Franklin was in his element in these meetings; he had long since learned the virtues of silence, but in these gatherings he spoke in a variety of ways. James Boswell, a member but not in constant attendance, remembered Franklin's asking a question that indicated how he sometimes took it upon himself to stimulate argument in the group: "Franklin asked whether infidels or Protestants had done the most to pull down Popery."
The club numbered about twenty-five in all--the largest contingent composed of dissenting clergymen and schoolmasters. The most distinguished would have stood out in any gathering, for the Honest Whigs included John Canton, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley. Franklin admired all three, valued their friendship, and gave each of them more than he received. He would have had reasons for friendship with these three-and many of the others-had the club never existed. He and John Canton came together through their fascination with electricity; both were, in the terminology of the day, electricians. Canton, the master of the Spital Square Academy in London, the son of a weaver, was self-made, a journalist in his earlier years, and during Franklin's English stay a supporter of Franklin's single-fluid theory of electricity. Franklin found Canton's own experiments stimulating and looked to him for ideas as mush as for agreement. Two years before Franklin left Philadelphia far London on his first mission for the Pennsylvania Assembly. he remarked in a letter to Peter Collinson that he planned to write "the ingenious Mr. Canton. is He was delighted, he said, by Canton's discovery confirming his own that clouds carry bath positive and negative electrical charges. Once Franklin reached England, the two men saw much of one another in the meetings of the Royal Society as well as the Honest Whigs, and they visited each other in the Spital Square Academy and at Franklin's house on Craven Street. Franklin served on the committee of the Royal Society that studied Canton's experiments on the compressibility of water and took the lead in persuading the society to award Canton the Copley Medal, given in recognition of an outstanding discovery or invention in science. In 1771, the year before Canton's death, he and Franklin went together to the Midlands, stopping to visit Joseph Priestley art Leeds.
Canton has fallen into obscurity; Priestley's fame as a chemist--the was the discoverer of oxygen--and an enlightened thinker has grown. He was born in Fieldhead, West Riding, Yorkshire, in 1733. He attended a dissenting academy at Daventry; afterward he filled various pulpits and served as a schoolmaster. At the time he met Franklin, in 1765, he was tutor in languages and belles lettres at Warrington Academy. His friendship with Franklin and Canton revolved around their interest in electricity. Priestley suggested that he might write a history of electricity and began when Franklin, Canton, and Richard Price gave him encouragement. Franklin did more by providing Priestley with books and suggestions, and Canton proved as helpful. Franklin was delighted by the result, three volumes called the History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments (London, 1767). Priestley carried out the original experiments of the title while he was writing his history. Writing about theory and finding-unsatisfactory everything already done, he attempted to discover the truth for himself. Both the History and the experiments won Franklin's approval, and he, with others equally pleased, proposed Priestley far membership in the Royal Society even before the books were published. The next year, in a curiously ineffective attempt, Franklin proposed Priestley for the Copley Medal-ineffective because Franklin's written assessment of Priestley's scientific work scanted most of the experiments. Six years later Franklin and his friends did it right, and Priestley received the prize.
Before returning to America on the eve of the war, Franklin spent his last day in London, March 19, 1775, with Priestley. The two men talked that day about the crisis and read recently arrived newspapers from America to find articles that might serve the American cause through their reprinting in London papers. Priestley remembered that Franklin wept when he read the messages sent by Massachusetts towns to Boston, which had been closed to all commerce by one of the Coercive Acts passed by Parliament as punishment for throwing the greatest tea party of the century.
Priestley shared Franklin's grief at the prospect of war. Like many British intellectuals, including members of the Club of Honest Whigs, he had watched the crisis develop, and he had argued against parliamentary measures. The year before, at Franklin's suggestion, he had written An Address to Protestant Dissenters of All Denominations, in which he held that the American colonies had never been subject to the laws of England except voluntarily. By leaving England, the colonists had removed themselves from English control and had placed themselves under the English king only out of "their regard to the country from which they came." This was radical doctrine in England, though not in America, where Thomas Jefferson had made a similar argument in his Summary View of the Rights of British America. Priestley, however, was not all radicalism and seemed to concede that Boston should compensate the East India Company, which it had "injured" when it threw the tea overboard.
At the end of the address, Priestley quoted his friend Richard Price to the effect that war with America would lead to the "public bankruptcy" of England. Price was also Franklin's friend, and he regarded the conflict between England and the colonies just about as his two friends did. He had been born in Wales, the son of a Presbyterian minister; and was educated there and in London. When Franklin first met him he was preaching at Newington Green, a few miles north of London. Price was small in size but large in spirit. His friends seem not to have been simply fond of him; many loved him. He was a gentle man devoted to his preaching and to his books. Reports on his pulpit style indicate that he did not preach with great force--his voice was weak and he did not have much eloquence. Franklin liked preachers who spoke about how life should be led and what constituted morality. Price satisfied him on these grounds and in many other ways as well. His mathematical and scientific interests intrigued Franklin--Price Wrote on what today would be called probability theory, and he also studied demographic projection. But for the most part it was Price's amiable character, his sweet personality, and his politics that drew Franklin to him.
The two men never laid eyes on one another after Franklin's departure for America in 1775, but their correspondence did not flag. Price's calm spirit deserted him when he wrote about the American crisis, and the criticism he received in the newspapers for his attacks on governmental policy made Franklin fear that he might be prosecuted. Price attempted to help American prisoners held in England during the war, end he occasionally sent Franklin intelligence about movements of ships. This action may have brought him close to treason.
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