‘All about the Benjamins’ – Special Collections celebrates Independence Day with an exciting find

Titlepage and inscription on the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (Sp Coll Bi8-f.1)

Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, titlepage & inscription (Sp Coll Bi8-f.1)

As any US schoolkid will tell you, American heroes just don’t come more celebrated than Benjamin Franklin: printer, politician and thoroughgoing polymath. He is considered one of the nation’s most important founding fathers and was signatory to several founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin spent many years of his life in Europe and even visited Glasgow twice, once in 1759 and then again in 1771. So when I discovered a presentation copy of the 1771, Philadelphia-printed, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (an organisation of which he was president and had helped to found) in our Special Collections stacks I understandably became quite excited. Might he have donated the book when he visited the University in 1771?

The volume contains a hand-written note on the back of the front flyleaf signed by secretaries to the APS Robert Strettell Jones and (Aberdeen-born) William Smith. The phrasing of the text, while polite and respectful, (for me) really conjures up a bold, self-confident ‘new world’, ready to take its seat at the big Enlightenment table:

The American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia, humbly desirous to co-operate with the University of Glasgow, in their laudable Endeavours for the Advancement of useful Knowledge, request that Learned and respectable Body to accept this Volume, as the first Fruits of their Labors in this new World.

'Advertisement' for the Transactions (Sp Coll Bi8-f.1)

‘Advertisement’ for the Transactions (Sp Coll Bi8-f.1)

The dedication is all very interesting but there is no direct mention of Franklin. I knew that the volume was printed in March 1771, sufficiently far in advance of Franklin’s November Glasgow-visit to have permitted it to reach him following even a slow trans-Atlantic voyage. Moreover, in his Benjamin Franklin in Scotland and Ireland J. Bennett Nolan reports that, while in Dublin, just a matter of weeks prior to visiting Glasgow, Franklin presented a copy of the newly-printed Transactions to the editor of the Hibernian magazine. So surely it was possible – even likely – that he presented the volume during his Scottish visit. Or was it?

I turned to the University of Glasgow’s Professor Simon Newman, an expert on 18th century America, for advice. He had some disappointing news. Well… slightly disappointing news, anyway. For it would seem that Franklin didn’t actually hand the volume over in-person but acted as go-between. He received the presentation copy some months after his Glasgow visit, and sent it on to his Scottish friend Patrick Wilson (1743-1811) for delivery to the University. Simon directed me to the voluminous The Papers of Benjamin Franklin containing a number of letters which shed light on events.

The first letter is dated 3rd May 1771, Philadelphia (see: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, v.18, p.95), and is sent from APS secretary William Smith. In it Smith describes how he has included a box of 11 copies of the new Transactions for Franklin to distribute to important people and institutions including the Royal Society, Royal College of Physicians and the Astronomer Royal. Glasgow University is not mentioned. However, Smith describes how Franklin will duly “receive another Box with Copies for the Learned Societies abroad … as soon as we can draw up Letters intended to accompany them”. Franklin subsequently departed on his tour of Scotland and Ireland, and it is (presumably!) from this first batch that the copy to the editor of the Hibernian magazine, mentioned by Bennett Nolan, was gifted.

Section of a plate depicting Philadelphia. From a 1741 work printed on Franklin's own press (Sp Coll Mu39-g.28)

Section of a plate depicting Philadelphia. From a 1741 work printed on Franklin’s own press (Sp Coll Mu39-g.28)

The next letter of interest is written almost a year later, 16th May 1772, Philadelphia (see: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, v.19, pp.146-9), and is once again from Smith. He thanks Franklin for the written acknowledgement for receipt of the first batch of the Transactions and explains away the long delay in sending the second batch on his absence from Philadelphia, the other secretaries’ neglect, and the poor weather. He goes on to say that Franklin will receive a box containing copies of the Transactions,

“for the following Societies, with a short Letter on the Blank Leaf before the Title Page for each of them viz 1 The University of Oxford; 2 Cambridge; 3 Glasgow; 4 Edinburgh; 5 St. Andrews; 6 King’s College Aberdeen; 7 Mareschal College Do. 8 Royal Acad. of Sciences, Paris; 9 Royal Acad. Stockholm; 10 Imp Soc. Petersburg; 11 Soc. at Gottingen; 12 Soc. Berne in Swisserland; 13 Acad: at Bononia; 14 Acad: at Florence; 15 Royal Acad. at Berlin; 16 Do. at Turin; 17 Academia Naturae Curiosorum; 18 Monsr. Buffon at Paris; with 9 Copies for yourself, making in all 27 Copies.”.

Smith also goes on to describe the thought process behind the text of the presentation note, (which appears to have been near identical for all copies – see the text of the Oxford University copy, the King’s College Aberdeen copy and the St Petersburg copy):

“I had drawn up the little Letter for the Blank Leaf before the Title Page in Latin; but on further Consultation, we thought as our Book was in English, the Letter should also be in English; since whoever could understand the one would understand the other. It was also thought by some that, as a Society, it would be below our Dignity to use any but our own Language, as the French write always in theirs, and we think ours equally good, and that, among the Literati, it is becoming quite universal.”

Detail from Transactions plate VII, showing Pennsylvania's planned new roads and canals (Sp Coll Bi8-f.1)

Detail from Transactions plate VII, showing Pennsylvania’s planned new roads and canals (Sp Coll Bi8-f.1)

The final letter of interest is dated August 3rd 1772 (see: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, v.19, p.228) and is sent to Franklin by Patrick Wilson, son of Alexander, the University’s Professor of Anatomy and also a celebrated typefounder (for the Foulis Press – Franklin met Alexander Wilson and the Foulis brothers during his Glasgow visit). Wilson reports that he shall “take Care and deliver the Vollume of the American Transactions to the Quaestor (i.e. treasurer responsible for new library acquisitions) of our Library”. And evidently he did, for here – we’re delighted to say – it remains!

One final note on Franklin and his 1771 Scottish tour – what did he think of it? Did he like Scotland? Well, soon after returning to London he wrote a letter to Joshua Babcock, a friend in Rhode Island (see: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, v.19, pp.6-7). He describes Scotland and Ireland in stark terms, as countries of extreme inequality of wealth. He attributes this to a system of trade and manufacture where workers are exploited and much-needed goods are exported for the profit of the few at the expense of the many. The relevant section is fascinating and thought provoking and worth quoting in full:

“I have lately made a Tour thro’ Ireland and Scotland. In those Countries a small Part of the Society are Landlords, great Noblemen, and Gentlemen, extreamly opulent, living in the highest Affluence and Magnificence : The Bulk of the People Tenants, extreamly poor, living in the most sordid Wretchedness, in dirty Hovels of Mud and Straw, and cloathed only in Rags.

I thought often of the Happiness of New England, where every Man is a Freeholder, has a Vote in publick Affairs, lives in a tidy, warm House, has plenty of good Food and Fewel, with whole cloaths from Head to Foot, the Manufacture perhaps of his own Family. Long may they continue in this Situation! But if they should ever envy the Trade of these Countries, I can put them in a Way to obtain a Share of it. Let them with three fourths of the People of Ireland live the Year round on Potatoes and Buttermilk, without Shirts, then may their Merchants export Beef, Butter, and Linnen. Let them, with the Generality of the Common People of Scotland, go Barefoot, then may they make large Exports in Shoes and Stockings : And if they will be content to wear Rags, like the Spinners and Weavers of England, they may make Cloths and Stuffs for all Parts of the World.

Farther, if my Countrymen should ever wish for the honour of having among them a gentry enormously wealthy, let them sell their Farms & pay rack’d Rents ; the Scale of the Landlords will rise as that of the Tenants is depressed, who will soon become poor, tattered, dirty, and abject in Spirit. Had I never been in the American Colonies, but was to form my Judgment of Civil Society by what I have lately seen, I should never advise a Nation of Savages to admit of Civilization: For I assure you, that, in the Possession & Enjoyment of the various Comforts of Life, compar’d to these People every Indian is a Gentleman : And the Effect of this kind of Civil Society seems only to be, the depressing Multitudes below the Savage State that a few may be rais’d above it.”

Many thanks to Professor Simon Newman for assisting me with this research. If anyone would like to come to Special Collections to view the Transactions, please do, you’re very welcome. And finally, Happy Independence Day to all our American friends!

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  1. Happy Independence Day! Celebrating Our American Heritage With Crafty Creations | Homeschoolinghelicoptermama

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