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Benjamin Franklin, Intellectual history
The tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth (1706–2006) prompted an extraordinary amount of activity that provided gifts for students of [End Page 117] Franklin and his place in early American history. The years leading up to the tercentenary saw the appearance of several new biographies, the most important of which were the first two volumes of J. A. Leo Lemay’s then keenly awaited colossal study. (Lemay died in October 2008, the same year in which the third of his seven projected volumes was published.) Numerous specialized volumes addressed an eclectic range of topics such as Franklin’s friendships, sex life, dietary habits, scientific achievements, morality, politics, and historical legacy. Yale University Press, in collaboration with the Packard Humanities Institute, created www.franklinpapers.org, a website where readers can time-travel in forty of the projected forty-seven volumes of Yale’s The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary Commission, established by an Act of Congress in 2002, sponsored various projects aimed at educating the general public about Franklin’s enduring legacy. The most significant of these was www.benfranklin300.org, an outgrowth of a massive exhibition, Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, which premiered in Philadelphia and then toured five major cities between 2006 and 2008. This website contains a wealth of information about Tercentenary events, new scholarly publications on Franklin, bibliographies, new elementary and high school curricula, and links to a number of other Franklin-related websites.
The collection of ten papers in Benjamin Franklin’s Intellectual World is a useful addition to the Franklin scholarship that has been accumulating in the early twenty-first century. It features several pieces that developed out of a conference hosted by the University of Cambridge at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities, in March 2007. Its editors and most of its contributors seem to share three common points of departure. To begin with, they recognize that Franklin has meant many things to many people. And in trying to resolve who Franklin truly was, they accept that his variety, in itself, is their major problem; so they try in numerous ways to understand that subject. The second commonality is the belief that they are writing about his life and writings with new information and sophistication, and in the process encourage us to believe that the Franklin of the twenty-first century will turn out to be a more cosmopolitan, better informed, and more highly articulate figure than the relatively provincial Franklin-as-avatar-for-American-greatness who dominated celebrations fifty years ago. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly for readers of this journal, they see Franklin as the world-renowned intellectual figure he was understood to be [End Page 118] during his own lifetime. In their view, Franklin’s cultural and intellectual world was expansive and trans-Atlantic, and they assign him a prominent place as a leader in the more globalized study of early American history
Within this framework, a variety of topics are addressed. Four examples will suffice here. Michael Zuckerman sees Franklin’s long public career as a succession of brilliant, self-conscious performances. Franklin fit successfully into the courtly worlds of both London and Paris, Zuckerman argues, because he knew that the former required an aristocratic sensibility and the latter an almost pietistic one. Carla Mulford, on the other hand, argues that Franklin’s frequent encounters with the inconsistencies of eighteenth-century British colonial policies and thinking led him “to identify and speak to the glaring inconsistencies in a system that yoked colonialism to liberalism and called it freedom” (40). In a paper previously published in the Journal of American Studies, and arguably the most substantial piece in the book, Simon Newman focuses attention on Franklin’s largely forgotten working-class identity as a Philadelphia printer, showing that of all America’s founding generation, “none were so readily identified with the leather apron and the life and identity of...