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Franklin in His Own Time

A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates

Kevin J. Hayes

Publication Year: 2011

In his time Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was the most famous American in the world. Even those personally unacquainted with the man knew him as the author of Poor Richard’s Almanack, as a pioneer in the study of electricity and a major figure in the American Enlightenment, as the creator of such life-changing innovations as the lightning rod and America’s first circulating library, and as a leader of the American Revolution. His friends also knew him as a brilliant conversationalist, a great wit, an intellectual filled with curiosity, and most of all a master anecdotist whose vast store of knowledge complemented his conversational skills. In Franklin in His Own Time, by reprinting the original documents in which those anecdotes occur, Kevin Hayes and Isabelle Bour restore those oft-told stories to their cultural contexts to create a comprehensive narrative of his life and work.
The thirty-five recollections gathered in Franklin in His Own Time form an animated, collaborative biography designed to provide a multitude of perspectives on the “First American.” Opening with an account by botanist Peter Kalm showing that Franklin was doing all he could to encourage the development of science in North America, it includes on-the-spot impressions from Daniel Fisher’s diary, the earliest surviving interview with Franklin, recollections from James Madison and Abigail Adams, Manasseh Cutler’s detailed description of the library at Franklin Court, and extracts from Alexander Hamilton’s unvarnished Minutes of the Tuesday Club. Franklin’s political missions to Great Britain and France, where he took full advantage of rich social and intellectual opportunities, are a source of many reminiscences, some published here in new translations. Genuine memories from such old friends as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as opposed to memories influenced by the Autobiography, clarify Franklin’s reputation. Robert Carr may have been the last remaining person who knew Franklin personally, and thus his recollections are particularly significant.
Each entry is introduced by a headnote that places the selection in its historical and cultural contexts; explanatory notes provide information about people and places; and the editors’ comprehensive introduction and chronology detail Franklin’s eventful life. Dozens of lively primary sources published incrementally over more than a hundred years illustrate the complexity of the man, his mind, and his mannerisms in a way that no single biographer could.


Published by: University of Iowa Press

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pp. vii-xxxii

In his time Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American in the world. Those personally unacquainted with him knew Franklin as the inventor of the Pennsylvania fireplace; the author of The Way to Wealth, a pithy book of financial advice; a pioneer in the study of electricity; the inventor of the lightning rod; and a leader of the American Revolution. Those who were ...


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pp. xxxiii-xxxix

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Pehr Kalm, [Speaking about Natural History, 1748]

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pp. 1-4

Mr. Franklin told me that in that part of New England, where his father lived, two rivers fell into the sea, in one of which they caught great numbers of herrings, and in the other not one. Yet the places where these rivers discharged themselves into the sea, were not far asunder. They had observed that when the herrings came in spring to deposit their spawn, they ...

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Daniel Fisher, [Extracts from the Diary, 1755]

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pp. 5-11

Upon emigrating from England in 1750, Daniel Fisher ( fl . 1720–1755) settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he entered the mercantile trade, selling groceries, imported tea, and other general merchandise. He also briefly operated a tavern. Fisher kept his retail store going through 1752 with little success. In May 1755, he left Williamsburg for Philadelphia in search of work. ...

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House of Commons, The Examination of Doctor Benjamin Franklin (1767)

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pp. 12-38

The Stamp Act forms the subject of Franklin’s fullest interview. After the law passed in 1765, protests erupted throughout colonial America. Parliament had greatly underestimated colonial opposition to the Stamp Act. In February 1766, the House of Commons met to consider what to do. They called several witnesses, the principal one being Benjamin Franklin, who came be- ...

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Joseph Priestley, [Science, Religion, and Politics in London, 1769, 1795, 1802]

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pp. 39-45

Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), a prolific writer, brilliant scientist, and founder of the Unitarian Church, was one of Benjamin Franklin’s best friends in England. The two shared a similar educational philosophy. Both recognized the importance of books and reading. In terms of religion, both refused to accept the dogma of the past and sought new ways of looking at fundamental be-...

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Josiah Quincy, Jr., [Franklin in London, 1774–1775]

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pp. 46-51

The son of Benjamin Franklin’s friend Josiah Quincy (1710–1784), Josiah Quincy, Jr. (1744–1775) was a prominent young radical in Revolutionary Boston. He graduated with his Bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1763. The Stamp Act crisis in 1765 radicalized Quincy. When he took his master’s degree at Harvard the following year, he delivered the commencement ad- ...

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John Adams, [Franklin as a Congressman and a Diplomat, 1775–1778]

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pp. 52-67

As a delegate to the Continental Congress, John Adams (1735–1826) finally had the opportunity to meet Benjamin Franklin. Though Adams had heard much about Franklin beforehand, he was not disappointed upon meeting him. In the letters he wrote during the time he and Franklin worked together in the Continental Congress, Adams had nothing but praise for him. To ...

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Abigail Adams, [Franklin in Boston and Paris, 1775 and 1784]

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pp. 68-70

As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Franklin actively served on numerous committees. In October 1775, for example, he served on a committee to confer with George Washington at his Massachusetts headquarters. His responsibilities for this committee let him indulge his love of travel. While in Massachusetts, he took the opportunity to renew old friendships ...

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Philip Gibbes, [Two Conversations with Benjamin Franklin, 1777–1778]

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pp. 71-77

The oldest son of Philip and Elizabeth Gibbes, Philip Gibbes (1731–1815) descended from a family that had settled in Barbados during the early seventeenth century. On February 1, 1753, he married Agnes Osborne, the daughter and heiress of Samuel Osborne, another prominent Barbados planter. Together they had two sons and two daughters. In 1774, Gibbes was made ...

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Arthur Lee, [Extracts from the Journal, 1777]

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pp. 78-82

Arthur Lee (1740–1792) came from a distinguished Virginia family, several members of which became active in the American Revolution. He took his MD from the University of Edinburgh in 1764 and returned to Virginia to practice medicine. He went back to Great Britain in 1768 to read law. In 1770, he became the London agent for Massachusetts. With the establishment of ...

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William Greene, [Franklin at Passy, 1778]

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pp. 83-85

Friday, May 8, as soon as dresst we sent to the coffee house for breakfast. A man brought coffee, bread, butter, and cost us sixteen sous each. We then discharged our lodging, at the amazing price of eight livres each for two nights, we took coach to Passy to visit Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams when we reach’d Passy we called on Mr. [Jonathan Loring] Austin and ...

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John Baynes, [Franklin at Passy, 1783]

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pp. 86-98

When his friend Samuel Romilly (1757–1818) began planning a trip to France and Switzerland in 1783, John Baynes (1758–1787) jumped at the chance to accompany him. The two had been good friends ever since reading law together at Gray’s Inn. Baynes, an award-winning student, had previously attended Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his BA in 1777, being elected to ...

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Andrew Ellicott, [This Venerable Nestor of America, 1785]

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pp. 99-100

December 1st 1785. . . . spent the evening with my Friend David Rittenhouse at the celebrated Dr. Benjamin Franklins the present Governour of this State — the old Gentleman tho infirm in body possesses the former Vigour of his mind— 2. This Evening attended the Meeting of our Philosophical Society we had a proposal of Dr. Magellans laid before us; it was a donation of 200 ...

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Benjamin Rush, [The Wisdom and Experience of Mellow Old Age, 1785–1789, 1805, 1806]

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pp. 101-107

Born in rural Pennsylvania just outside of Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) traveled to Edinburgh to study medicine in the 1760s. During his time in Great Britain, he became acquainted with Franklin and even dedicated to him his medical dissertation, De coctione ciborum in ventriculo (Wolf and Hayes, no. 2964). In the late 1760s Rush returned to Philadelphia, where ...

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Winthrop Sargent, [My Dinner with Franklin, 1786]

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pp. 108-109

Pass’d the whole of the 29th [of June] in Philadelphia and dined with his Excellency President [of Pennsylvania] Franklin. This dignified Character [who] is distinguished in the literary and political world is very much the Object of my Wonder and Admiration. He is now advanced beyond four Score and yet seems perfectly in full Exercise of all his mental Abilities. ...

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Manasseh Cutler, [A Visit to Franklin Court, 1787]

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pp. 110-115

The Reverend Dr. Manasseh Cutler (1742–1823) was an ardent patriot, having served as chaplain to the American forces in Massachusetts during the late 1770s. After the war he turned his interests toward botany, compiling the first systematic compendium of New England flora. Cutler’s “Account of Some of the Vegetable Productions, Naturally Growing in This Part of America” ap- ...

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James Madison, [Franklin during the Constitutional Convention, 1787]

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pp. 116-118

I did not become acquainted with Dr. Franklin till after his return from France and election to the Chief Magistracy of Pennsylvania. During the Session of the Grand Convention, of which he was a member and as long after as he lived, I had opportunities of enjoying much of his conversation, which was always a feast to me. I never passed half an hour in his company ...

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Mary Stevenson Hewson, “Closing Scenes of Dr. Franklin’s Life: In a Letter from an Eye-Witness” (1790)

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pp. 119-120

Though I am almost exhausted with writing letters, I will not let this opportunity pass without one of my friends at Blackfriars. As bad news flies swift, if it is important, I suppose my letter will not be the first information you will have of Dr. Franklin’s death. Yes, we have lost that valued, that venerable, kind friend, whose knowledge enlightened our minds, and whose philanthropy warmed our hearts. But we have the ...

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John Jones, “Short Account of Dr. Franklin’s Last Illness by His Attending Physician” (1790)

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pp. 121-122

The stone, with which he had been afflicted for several years, had for the last twelve months, confined him chiefly to his bed; and during the extremely-painful paroxysms, he was obliged to take large doses of laudanum to mitigate his tortures. Still, in the intervals of pain, he not only amused himself with reading and conversing chearfully with his family, and...

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Louis Lefebvre de La Roche, “On Franklin” (1800)

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pp. 123-131

Louis Lefebvre de La Roche (1738–1806) is remembered nowadays, if at all, as the editor of Helvétius’s and Montesquieu’s complete works, published in 1795. Helvétius had left him all his papers, an index of his trust and friendship, but Lefebvre de La Roche did not serve him well, as he shortened some of the works, and even forged some letters of Helvétius to Montesquieu. ...

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Thomas Jefferson, [Anecdotes of Doctor Franklin, 1818 and 1821]

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pp. 132-140

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) was aware of Benjamin Franklin’s reputation as an important scientist long before the two men ever met. Speaking of Franklin in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson observed, “No one of the present age has made more important discoveries, nor has enriched philosophy with more, or more ingenious solutions of the phaenomena of nature.” ...

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William Temple Franklin, [Anecdotes Relative to Dr. Franklin, 1818]

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pp. 141-144

Benjamin Franklin’s grandson William Temple Franklin (c. 1760–1823) was the illegitimate son of William Franklin and an unknown mother. Temple, as he was called, attended James Elphinston’s school in Kensington, visiting his grandfather occasionally on Craven Street in London during the late 1760s and early 1770s. Temple came to Philadelphia with his grandfather when he ...

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Robert Aspland, [A Conversation with Franklin’s London Friends, 1821]

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pp. 145-146

During his London years, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed the company of several men who met every other Thursday at St. Paul’s Coffeehouse and, after 1772, at the London Coffeehouse. He referred to the group as his “Club of Honest Whigs.” The men who formed this club shared an interest in scientific experimentation, but, as Franklin’s name for the club suggests, they also shared ...

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pp. 147-152

Abbé André Morellet (1727–1819) can be described as a polygraph. He published a great many pamphlets on a whole range of subjects, including political economy, a topic on which he shared Franklin’s ideas; both could discuss politics and economic reform with Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, baron de l’Aulne, who was finance minister from 1774 to 1776, and whose ideas, had...

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Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, [A Short Account of Benjamin Franklin, 1825]

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pp. 153-168

The son of a lawyer and a farmer, Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757–1808) loved reading the classics and John Locke. At sixteen, he became for two years secretary to a Polish gentleman whom he accompanied to his country. Then, as he needed to make a living, he decided to study medicine. Being of delicate health, in 1778, he chose to live in Auteuil, where he met Mme. ...

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Roberts Vaux and a Canadian Numismatist, [The Sawdust Pudding Supper: Two Versions, 1835 and 1875]

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pp. 169-173

The story of the sawdust (i.e., bran) pudding, which dates back to when Benjamin Franklin was editor and proprietor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, is one of his best-loved anecdotes. It exists in countless versions, though Frankin himself apparently never wrote it down. Isaiah Thomas’s History of Printing in America (1810) contains the earliest known published version (Zall, no. 216). ...

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Deborah Norris Logan, [Memoir of Dr. George Logan of Stenton, 1839]

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pp. 174-177

After he [George Logan] left Scotland he visited several parts of England and Ireland, and, crossing over to the continent, travelled through Holland, to France, Germany, and Italy. He made the longest stay in France, where he attended the anatomical lectures. Dr. Franklin was then resident at the French Court and was extremely kind and friendly to his ...

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Robert Carr, “Personal Recollections of Benjamin Franklin” (1864)

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pp. 178-182

Born near Belfast, Ireland, Robert Carr (1778–1866) came to Philadelphia with his parents in 1784. They lived near Franklin Court, and he became friends and playmates with Sarah Franklin Bache’s younger children. After Benjamin Franklin returned to Philadelphia in 1785, Carr had the chance to see him regularly. Carr apprenticed in Benjamin Franklin Bache’s printshop ...


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pp. 183-184

Works Cited

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pp. 185-186


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pp. 187-196

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299834

Page Count: 196
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Statesmen -- United States -- Biography.
  • Inventors -- United States -- Biography.
  • Printers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790.
  • Franklin, Benjamin, 1706-1790 -- Friends and associates.
  • Scientists -- United States -- Biography.
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