Unpublished Letters of Franklin to Strahan

A correspondence between the Founding Father and a fellow bookseller reveals much about eighteenth century printing—and Benjamin Franklin's character.
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There is no department of literature more fascinating to the general reader than biography. When a well-known character himself relates the story of his life, the interest is greatly increased. But when through his correspondence we obtain unpremeditated glimpses of his heart or the development of his career, we reach a mine that yields profit not only of interest, but sometimes of incalculable historic value. The exigencies of the rapid life of this century are rendering these sources of historic record more and more rare. Johnson said, “We travel no more; we only arrive at places.” Thus we of the nineteenth century may say in turn. “We correspond no more; we only telegraph.”

It is therefore a matter of growing importance to preserve the correspondence of the men of past ages, and to welcome heartily every newly discovered addition to a class of historic and intellectual wealth that erelong will reach the limit of accretion. Among great representative Americans, no one has left behind him so voluminous a correspondence as Benjamin Franklin. This is doubtless due in part to his methodical habits and thorough mastery of his powers, and in part, most likely, to the fact that during his long and busy career he followed with success a number of entirely distinct pursuits, each of which brought him into relations with a separate class of the world’s workers. But voluminous as are the epistolary remains of Franklin, they are yet of such value and importance that his countrymen are eve ready to welcome additions to these inestimable biographical archives, whereby to increase our knowledge of one of the most extraordinary men America has produced. Naturally, the supply is drawing near its final limit; there was indeed reason to conclude that this limit had already been reached when a group of letters, in Franklin’s own hand, recently came to light in England. These letters were long kept in the family of Mr. Strahan, and for some unexplained reason were finally placed in the hands of a London bookseller, for sale. They were shown immediately after that to an American gentleman, who purchased them and brought them to this country last summer. What adds to the value and interest of this “find” is the fact that these letters represent a very large portion of the correspondence of Franklin with his friend William Strahan. As both were printers and booksellers, these relics of Franklin give us very interesting glimpses at the condition of letters and the practice of the art of printing in the American Plantations at that period.

This friendship of over forty years, sprung from a mere casual business transaction, ripened into a sincere respect and a warm affection on both sides, and seems to have called into action the best qualities of Franklin’s character. One cannot rise from a perusal of these documents without entertaining a higher regard for Benjamin Franklin as a man of feeling. He is generally considered to have been one in whom excess of intellectual activity and Yankee shrewdness overbalanced the exercise of his emotional nature. That he was capable of warm and enduring friendship, however, becomes at once apparent in these genial letters, written by the American printer to his brother print across the seas.

We all know what Franklin was. If we hear less of Strahan, it must yet be conceded that, although no such remarkable genius as Franklin, he was a man of mark and integrity, whose success as a bookseller and publisher won him a place in Parliament. Thus, Franklin could discuss both books and politics with him, and while still a humble printer and postmaster in a distant colony could anticipate the proud position he was destined to occupy among the foremost statesmen of the age. Strahan’s disposition and social standing are further indicated by his intimacy with Dr. Johnson, whom he often befriended, acting as his banker, and drawing his pension for him. In 1771, he strongly urged the nomination of Johnson to the House of Commons.

The letters in question number seventy-three, including a very rare letter of Mrs. Franklin’s and a few duplicates, which were sent by different ships to insure safety from the perils of the sea, of which the most hazardous were the French cruisers swarming on the high seas during that century. We present here a selection of those which bring out most fully Franklin’s relations to the intellectual development of the colonies and the friendship of the correspondents, beginning with the first of the series, and closing with the last one. The correspondence began in a casual manner, by the following letter from Franklin to Strahan, which explains itself; Franklin being at the time resident in Philadelphia, in the triple capacity of printer, postmaster, and publisher of The Pennsylvania Gazette.

S. G. W. Benjamin


Philada July 10, 1743.

Sir,—Mr. Read has communicated to me part of a Letter from you, recommending a young Man whom you would be glad to see in better Business than that of a Journeyman Printer. I have already three Printing Houses in three different colonies, and purpose to set up a fourth if I can meet with a proper Person to manage it, having all Materials ready for that purpose. If the young Man will venture over hither, that I may see and be acquainted with him, we can treat about the Affair, and I make no doubt but he will think my Proposals reasonable; If we should not agree, I promise him however a Twelve months Good Work, and to defray his Passage back if he enclines to return to England. I am, Sir,

Your Humb. Servt. unknown
B Franklin

In the letter following this, Franklin gives us a fine insight to his literary tastes, and suggests as well those of the colonies. The allusion to Ward doubtless refers to Edward Ward, a longwinded imitator of Hudibrastic verse, who kept a genteel public house in London, and found a wide sale for his cheap verses in the Plantations, a fact to which Pope alludes in the Dunciad, in the lines,—

“Nor sail with Ward, to ape and monkey climes,
Where vile mundungus trucks for viler rhymes.”

Sir,—I received your Favour p Mr. Chew dates Sept. 10, and a Copy via Boston. I received also Mr. Middleton’s Pieces. I am pleased to hear that my old Acquaintance Mr. Wygate is promoted, and hope the Discovery will be compleated. I would not have you be too nice in the Choice of Pamphlets you send me. Let me have everything, good or bad, that makes a Noise and has a Run: for I have Friends here of Different Tastes to oblige with the Sight of them. If Mr. Wharburton publishes a new Edition of Pope’s works, please to send me as soon as ’t is out, 6 Setts. That Poet has many Admirers here, and the Reflection he somewhere casts on the Plantations as if they had a Relish for such Writers as Ward only, is injurious. Your authors know but little of the Fame they have on this Side the Ocean. We are a kind of Posterity in respect to them. We read their Works with perfect Impartiality, being at too great a Distance to be byassed [sic] by the Fashions, Parties and Prejudices that prevail among you. We know nothing of their personal Failings; the Blemishes in their character never reach us, and therefore the bright and aimiable part strikes us with its full Force. They have never offended us or any of our Friends, and we have no Competitions with them, and therefore we praise and admire them without Restraint. Whatever Thomson writes, send me a Dozen Copies of. I had read no Poetry for several years, and almost lost the Relish of it, till I met with his Seasons. That charming Poet has brought more Tears of Pleasure into my Eyes than all I ever read before. I wish it were in my Power to return him any Part of the Joy he has given me—I purpose to send you by a Ship that is to sail shortly from this Port a Bill, and an Invoice of Books that I shall want for Sale in my Shop, which I doubt not you will procure as cheap as possible; otherwise I shall not be able to sell them, as here is one who is furnished by Oswald that sells excessively low; I cannot conceive upon what terms they deal.—The Pamphlets and Newspapers I shall be glad to receive by way of N York and Boston, when there is no Ship directly hither; If you direct them for B. F. Boston and Philada they will come directly to hand from those Places.—Mr. Hall is perfectly well and gains ground daily in the Esteem of all that know him.—I hope Caslon will not delay casting the English Fount I wrote to you for, so long as he has some that have been sent me. I have no doubt but Mr. Hall will succeed well in what he undertakes. He is obliging, discreet, industrious but honest; and when these Qualities meet, things seldom go amiss. Nothing in my Power shall be wanting to serve him.—I cannot return your Compliments in kind; this Quaker plain Country producing none. All I can do is, to demonstrate, by a hearty Readiness in serving you when I have an Opportunity, or any Friend you recommend, that I do truly esteem and love you, being Sir,

Your obliged humb Servt
B Franklin

Philad. Feb. 12, 1744, 5.

P.S. Please continue the Political Cabinet.

In the next letter, bearing date of July 4, 1744, Franklin reminds us, by the allusion to Dobb’s Piece, of an affair which created much discussion in England at the time. In 1741, Captain Christopher Middleton, who is also mentioned in this letter, was sent in command of an expedition to discover a passage through Hudson’s Bay. Naturally, he failed to find what did not exist. He sailed some distance up the Wagner River, and finding it to be a river, reported that the Hudson’s Bay was an inland sea, and nothing more. Arthur Dobbs, who had accompanied the expedition, came out with a virulent pamphlet, probably the one which Franklin mentions, and asserted that Middleton had been bribed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to make the report he did. The controversy became so hot that a second expedition was sent out, under Captain William Moore, which confirmed the statements of Middleton. But the results of the second expedition had evidently not reached the colonies at the time of Franklin’s letter.

The two letters following this one are of great value as indicating the character of the books then most in demand in the Plantations, and as showing the business relations of the two printers ripening into friendship.

Philada July 4, 1744.

Sir,—I received your Favour p Mr. Hall, who arrived here about two weeks since, and from the short Acquaintance I have had with him, I am persuaded he will answer perfectly the Character you had given of him. I make no doubt but his Voyage, tho’ it has been expensive, will prove advantageous to him. I have already made him some Proposals, which he has under Consideration, and as we are like to agree on them, we shall not, I believe, differ on the Article of his Passage Money.

I am much obliged to you for your Care and Pains in procuring me the Founding-Tools; tho’ I think, with you, that the Workmen have not been at all bashful in making their Bills. I shall pay a Proportion of the Insurance, &c. to Mr. Read, and send you a Bill of Exchange by the very next Opportunity.

I thank you for Mr. Dobbs’s Piece. I wish that publick-spirited Gentlemen may live to enjoy the Satisfaction of hearing that English ships sail easily through his expected Passage. But tho’ from the Idea this Piece gives me of Capt. Middleton, I dont much like him, yet I would do him the Justice to read what he has to say for himself, and therefore request you to send me what is published on his Side of the Question. I have long wanted a Friend in London whose Judgement I could depend on, to send me from time to time such new Pamphlets as are worth Reading on any Subject (Religious Controversy excepted) for there is no depending on Titles and Advertisements. This Favour I take the Freedom to beg of you, and shall lodge Money in your Hands for that purpose.

We have seldom any News on our Side the Globe that can be entertaining to you on yours. All our Affairs are petit. They have a miniature Resemblance only of the Grand Things of Europe. Our Governments, Parliaments, Wars, Treaties, Expeditions, Factions, &c. tho’ Matters of great and serious Consequence to us, can seem but Trifles to you—Four Days since our Naval Force received a terrible Blow. Fifty Sail of the Line destroyed would scarce be a greater loss to Britain than that to us. And yet ’t was only a new 20 Gun Ship sunk, and about 100 Men drowned, just as she was going out to Sea on a privateering Voyage against the King’s Enemies. She was overset by a Flaw of Wind, being built too sharp, and too high masted.—A Treaty is now holding at Newtown in Lancaster County, a Place 60 Miles west of this City, between the Governments of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, on one Side, and the united Five Nations of Indians on the other. I will send you an Account of it when printed, as the Method of doing Business with those Barbarians may perhaps afford you an Amusement.

We have already in our Library Bolton’s & Shaw’s Abridgements of Boyle’s Works. I shall, however, mention to the Directors the Edition of his Works at large; possibly they may think fit to send for it.

Please to remember me affectionately to my old … Friend Wigate, to whom I shall write p next opportunity. I am, Sir

Your most obliged humb Servt
B. Franklin

Philada April 14, 1745.

Sir,—I wrote to you lately via New York, and sent a Copy via Maryland, one or other of which I hope may come to hand. I have only time now to desire you to send me the following Books, viz.

1 Doz Cole’s Eng. Dictionaries
3 Doz. Mathers Young Man’s Compan’n
2 Doz Fishers Ditto
2 Quarter Waggoners for America
6 Echard’s Gazetteer
4 Doz Grammars with Const. Book
1 Doz Clark’s Corderius
1 Doz London Vocabulary
1 Doz Bailey’s English Excercises
6 Clark’s Introduction
6 Esop’s Fables, Latin
1 Doz Accidences
6 Brightland’s English Grammar

I am, Sir,
Your most humb Servt
B. Franklin.

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