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  • Benjamin Franklin and Science, Continuing Opportunities for Study
  • Joyce E. Chaplin (bio)

The books about Benjamin Franklin keep piling up, each fat tome ample evidence that the famous early American continues to fascinate people. Do we now know everything about the man? Probably not, and definitely not when it comes to his work in science, which remains the elephant in the room. Science was the most important part of Franklin's life, but, quite oddly, it is the least thoroughly and systematically examined part of that sprawling and eventful life.

Franklin is the biographer's delight and despair, not least because of his range of accomplishments—he seemed to do, see, or at least comment on everything. Several new catalogue-of-a-life biographies copiously document Franklin's impact and accomplishments; other studies focus on his specific contributions to many—almost too many—events and activities in the eighteenth century. Franklin wrote and published on nearly every topic imaginable. He took an active political role from the 1740s until his death in 1790; he was warrior, diplomat, peacemaker. He had strong yet, in the end, reverent opinions on religion. He was client of several men, then himself patron to many men and women. He was devoted to some members of his family but neglected others; he had many friends, but also enemies. He did brilliant experimental work on electricity, then left experimentation to others. He is ubiquitous and changingly meaningful, our eighteenth-century Zelig.

Yet it is all old news. The benchmark comprehensive biography of Franklin appeared in 1938, with Carl Van Doren'sBenjamin Franklin. And comparably definitive work on Franklin's electrical experiments appeared with 1941 in I. Bernard Cohen's scholarly introduction to Benjamin Franklin's Experiments: A New Edition of Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity, followed by Cohen's massively learned Franklin and Newton: An [End Page 232] Inquiry into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof (1956). Van Doren and Cohen had between them, by 1956, sketched out the contours of professional historiography on Franklin.

Interest in Franklin continued after 1956, but interest in his science has faded. Why? To a large extent, it is because general-interest writers as well as scholars in the field of early American history—precisely the authors who still write about Franklin—have lost interest in science. (Meanwhile, historians of science have not paid much attention to the American colonies.) Scholarship on Franklin's science seems poised for a comeback but it will have uphill work to do to catch up with and rejoin the larger field of the history of science. It is a good moment, therefore, to review just exactly what studies of Franklin's science have accomplished and what opportunities remain for scholars eager to tackle the topic.

When Van Doren and Cohen published their analyses of Franklin, theirs was, to a large extent, a recovery operation. By the early twentieth century, Franklin was, like other colonials, regarded with faint contempt. Those earnest, high-minded, improving early Americans seemed to be cardboard figures, too stiff and self-righteous to be true, and destined to be eclipsed by the eventfully thoughtful (albeit agonized) characters of Abraham Lincoln's Civil War era. If early Americans had any depth, it was as hypocrites and hysterical bigots. H. L. Mencken related a popular view that a "Puritan" was best understood as a person who feared that someone, somewhere might be happy. Colonists were people of faith (if not superstitious belief in witchcraft) rather than of science. Even the nation's founders, who lived in the fabled Enlightenment or Age of Reason, were not above suspicion. The progressive historians of the early twentieth century, especially Charles Beard, emphasized what they perceived as the calculated self-interests behind the Founders' political rhetoric (Hoffman 1949; Novick 1988 92–97).

It is interesting that American historians were thus rejecting (or perhaps unaware of) scholarship that valorized the early modern European culture which had produced the American colonists. The foremost example of this trend was Max Weber'sProtestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated into English in 1930. Franklin was in fact Weber's...


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pp. 232-251
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