Reason, inclination: Franklin at Philadelphia, 1762–1764

Blake Darlin, William (2016) Reason, inclination: Franklin at Philadelphia, 1762–1764. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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Abstract

Summer, 1762.
England and Prussia are at war with France and Spain. There are fronts in Europe
and the colonies in Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. On the southern coast
of England, Dr Benjamin Franklin is about to return home to Philadelphia. He is 56
years old, a retired printer, a published scientist, but at London he is better recognised
as a low-born statesman from Pennsylvania with a reputation for causing trouble with
the establishment. His mission was as simple as it was outrageous: oust Penn’s sons
from their inherited rule and transfer the colony’s governance to the Crown.
He has been wildly unsuccessful. In five years he’s done little more than to strengthen
his enemies, multiply his own vulnerabilities, and nearly bankrupt his employers. But
despite these professional failures he has discovered the metropolis to be extremely
suited to his moral, cultural, and philosophical interests – and to his infinite ambition.
It’s almost three decades since his first attempts at Philadelphia to nurture the local
citizenry out of ignorance, superstition, low morals. In England he has discovered a
country where, to his delight, there are ‘in every neighbourhood more sensible, virtuous
and elegant minds than we can collect in ranging a hundred leagues of our vast forests’.
When he sets sail, half-reluctantly, it is with the promise to cross over again as soon as
he can … and if he can convince his wife to make the dangerous voyage … to settle in
London forever.
I interpret this moment as a turning point for Franklin, a final attempt against
increasing personal and political friction to realise his elusive dream of uniting in one
place his family, his career, and the activities that lent meaning to his life. The three
chapters bound here comprise the first half of that story.
At Philadelphia he would meet with a horrorshow: deadly fever, failed harvests,
reports of vicious murders on the western frontier, a terrorist insurgency amassing on
the outskirts of Philadelphia, the ruthless partisanship of Pennsylvania politics. The next
two years – 1762 to 1764 – contained an almost brutal panorama of colonial American
life. The contrast to the stability and intelligent bustle of London was as stark as it was
dispiriting, and Franklin’s letters reveal how near the edge of the world he felt himself
to be during this time. How would Poor Richard fare, haunted by a sense of futility and
the inescapable reality of isolation?
Here I have pursued Franklin in the midst of the culture and intrigue of his
Georgian London, through the storms and progress of his colonial Philadelphia. It seems as though he understood these cities to be not just landscapes of sights and
sounds and smells, some more wonderful and magnificent than others – not just sets,
but actors, too. It was the talking, thinking element that could finally evoke for him two
ways of being, scenes and stages and indeed whole theatres upon which one’s interests
and insecurities might be shaped and his ambition played out.
And as such, two places could evoke for Franklin two different dimensions of
himself, a distinction so profound that in a moment rich with finality he even named
them: Reason (America), and Inclination (London). This Franklin, unable to quite
reconcile these twin spirits, is not the man whom I have encountered in prior portraits.
He is more agitated, more conflicted, hypochondriac, and sometimes almost paranoid.
He is a great reader, but sometimes not a careful one. He is given to escape into endless
experiments with an ever-larger scientific apparatus. He is a frugal tinkerer, a playful
refiner, a conjurer of agreeable little shocks. He is susceptible to fits of intensity and
melancholy, to spells of vindictiveness, and to sustained, probably displaced antagonism
towards the authority of the Church.
He could never quite accommodate that far-flung American stage. And after five
years in London, he was even less able to readjust to what became for him a set of
confinements – intellectual, material, spiritual, and social.

II

So I have come to believe that the pivot of Franklin’s life, the essential tension, is
expressed in the continual self-enhancement that led him back into London society.
Partly because it was also expressed in the two versions of his memoirs that tension has
come to frame, under different guises, Dr Franklin’s afterlife. To erase it, or resolve it, as
many biographers have attempted to do, and therefore to claim Franklin for one side of
the water or the other, is no way to recover his experience. Biographers must consider
carefully the nature of a record so charged with national identity as Franklin’s in its
preservation, presentation, and editorial interpretation. The Prologue, in tracing early
Franklin life-writing and the publication of his memoirs, exposes and explores some of
these problems.
I wrote the Prologue – ‘The Life of the Life of Dr Franklin’ – not so much as an
introduction to the biographical chapters but rather as a companion or parallel
commentary to them. Its creative footing owes a good deal to such modern/historical
split narratives as those by Dava Sobel (Longitude) and Josephine Tey (The Daughter of
Time), and also to some of the ideas of self and memory explored in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. The setting is a time in the not very distant future, when the United States,
as a nation, is become so removed from the pretended innocence of its original ideals
that the mythologies surrounding its foundation and its so-called Founding Fathers are
no longer the darlings of biographers but rather curiosities for the amusement of
antiquarians. Such are the protagonists, two men neither young nor old corresponding
across the Atlantic, each possessed of the right amount of time and eccentricity for
making enquiries of a bygone age. Indeed, the two voices, though opposed in some ways
(Cladentweed the donnish foil to the footstepper’s stumbling independence), both
appear to call out to the past – or even from it.
The reader whom the Prologue will benefit most will be familiar with Franklin’s
autobiography and the correspondence he inserted into it. Dr Farrand’s introduction to
the Parallel Text edition, cited early on in the footnotes, and also Henry Stevens’s
history of the lost holograph of the autobiography are especially helpful in tracing its
journey into and out of obscurity. Both pieces of scholarship provide a remedial dose for
the misconception of the historical record as a set of involuntary footprints, a lucky trail
left by the human passage through a natural forest of events. A third source, informative
(with reservations) and rewarding in its own way, is the account by John Bigelow – the
U. S. minister to France under Lincoln – of locating and editing the lost holograph in
the years just following the American civil war.
It was when reading Bigelow’s memoirs that I wondered how he had come to the
conclusion that the draft he possessed was more authentic than the text published by
Temple Franklin in 1817 – in short, that the differences he found between holograph
and printed edition were to be put down to Temple himself, and not to a later, lost draft
made by Franklin. Two copies of the holograph are known (and were then known) to
have been made. And Franklin’s letters confirm that the copies were made under his
personal instruction. (These letters were also published well before 1866, in numerous
editions.) If the changes attributed to Temple were found to be present in the copies, it
would almost certainly indicate that Franklin was aware of them, that Bigelow’s
‘Bohemian’ ‘mutilations’ were nothing more offensive than Franklin’s own corrections:
his turns of phrase become less colloquial and his grammar more syntactic in the
twenty years between first and second drafts.
But neither copy has been found. (Why not? Where are they? One was almost
certainly destroyed at the print house. I tracked the other as far as rural Maine, but
there the scent is lost.) Lacking one of these copies, it is impossible to know for certain
just what Temple Franklin changed or did not change.
Nevertheless, my initial question was possible to answer: had John Bigelow ever
considered that these second drafts of the manuscript made by Franklin, from which
Temple made his edition, might have been different to the holograph? No, he did not.
And yet the pieces of the puzzle which had entered public circulation were already
adequate to have led him to entertain the possibility of it. Why, then, couldn’t he see the
evidence in front of him? Or why wouldn’t he say so, if he did?
But perhaps Bigelow, after all, was merely continuing the long tradition among
Franklin’s nineteenth century editors of harbouring an ungodly suspicion towards prior
editors of the Founder’s papers, which could cross at times into bare hostility. On the
extreme end of this, Franklin had become the embodiment of a new kind of order, and
the fact of his public service in life meant that his papers, in death, should become
public property. (Not to publish all was to withhold or suppress.) And what might they
contain? Some exposé of how the powerful secretly worked against the interests of
ordinary people; some irreproachable justification for the violence of the war of
independence; or, just dirt to smear on the memories of celebrated Englishmen. By no
editor, however, was any of this delivered, and in consequence there arose doubts of the
material’s authenticity.
While these early editions of Franklin attracted all sorts of criticism – inaccurate
copyediting, poor selection, belated delivery, etc. – it was the charge of inauthenticity
that turned out to be the critics’ sharpest weapon. As I got to know all the inventive
edges of that weapon I could detect a peculiar leaning or roughness on the surface of
what then constituted Franklin’s biographical tradition – scar tissue, where the weapon
had left a mark. For what mattered to those early life-writers was not only the
documentation itself but also the circumstances of its path to publication. The editorial
tardiness; the perceived concealment; the inexplicable gaps; the eventual uncovering of
new material – this contextual picture, even, had been made a kind of biographical
foundation in a way I had not before considered. The record was anything but
involuntary. It seemed rather purposeful, in fact, in its handling; and – maybe – such
handling was itself capable of influencing the memory of Franklin’s life? Of causing
Bigelow to believe a manuscript to be something it probably was not?
The authorship of Temple Franklin’s text is the central mystery of Franklin’s
autobiography. It is against that backdrop, more or less, that the Prologue’s fictional
correspondents examine the construction of Franklin’s early afterlife – or, as one of
them puts it, the ‘creation, migration, collection, exegesis, evaluation, transcription,
translation, and often transformation’ of an important part of his biographical record.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Literature and Creative Writing
Depositing User: Katie Miller
Date Deposited: 04 Jul 2017 13:42
Last Modified: 31 May 2020 00:38
URI: https://ueaeprints.uea.ac.uk/id/eprint/64004
DOI:

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