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Franklin's Purloined Letters
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CHRISTOPHER LOOBY Franklin's Purloined Letters In history, this is my hypothesis, epistolary fictions multiply when there arrives a new crisis of destination. —Jacques Derrida Benjamin franklin's understanding of the discursive dimension of revolutionary action was formed, in part, by his experience in one of the most charged episodes of his political career, the affair of the so-called Hutchinson letters. What he discovered during this affair was that the political tie that subsisted between Great Britain and the colonies was a tie constructed of words. There was, in the eighteenth century, no other way for an imperial power to govern far-flung dominions except by the protracted and uncertain means of messages sent on ships across oceans. Such messages were long in transit, dangerously susceptible to diversion, and equally susceptible to misconstruction when they reached their destination. Such messages, for example instructions to royally-appointed governors, might miss their mark for various reasons: perhaps, for instance, the issues they addressed might be already irrelevant by the time the circuit of communications was completed. Despite such problems, however, there was no other route for power to take than that of language stretched over time and space. (Franklin's first encounter with the patronage politics of the Empire involved trouble with the transatlantic mail. William Keith, proprietary governor of Pennsylvania—who "sometimes disregarded" the "Instructions " sent him from the Proprietors in Great Britain, as Franklin later noted in his Autobiography [Writings 1345]—offered to sponsor him in setting up a printing shop in Philadelphia, by sending "Letters ofCredit" Arizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 2, Summer 1990 Copyright © 1990 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 16 10 Christopher Looby and "Letters recommendatory to a Number of his Friends" in the London -bound ship with the 17-year-old Franklin [Writings 1342], and then by giving him the public printing contracts upon his return. The letters were never sent, and Franklin's chance at his first function in the communicational circuit of imperial-colonial power was unrealized.) If words were the form that the exercise of imperial power had to take, then resistance to that power also necessarily took the form of linguistic performance. Franklin's interference, in the affair of the Hutchinson letters, with the transmission of messages between colony and crown is a promising site for the examination of these issues. The editors of the Franklin Papers, it seems, recognize implicitly that this is so when they repeatedly refer, in their annotations of documents having to do with this episode, to the missives in question as "purloined" letters, and to their mysterious deviation from their proper itinerary as their "purloining" {Papers 19: 399, 402, 405; 21: 38). This adjective and gerund allude, it seems, to Poe's famous tale, and characterize the enigmatic qualities of this episode in Franklin's public career by borrowing some of the glamour of Poe's story of senders, receivers, and displacements. But Franklin's modern editors take the adjective, as it happens, directly from Thomas Moffatt, the Rhode Island loyalist, some of whose letters were among the stolen correspondence, and who wrote on a copy of a letter of Franklin's that came into his possession (a letter discussing the Hutchinson letters affair) that the correspondence was "purloined from the Collection of the late Mr. Whately" (Papers 19: 399?). A point Franklin would make in extenuation of his role in the theft of the letters was that his own correspondence had been stolen, too, and Moffatt's notation confirms this. The symmetry of thefts can be taken as a figure of reciprocity: the reciprocity of miscommunication. For as I shall try to show, the deviation of a letter in its travels from writer to addressee acts, in the variety of texts that record this event, as a figure for the uncertainty of communication between imperial sender and colonial receiver (and vice versa). It was characteristic of Franklin to conceive of the political relationship as a communicative or linguistic relationship, and of course that is what it largely was; so the affair of Hutchinson's letters functions metonymically, one instance of imperial-colonial miscommunication standing for political miscommunication in general. Franklin s Purloined Letters...