Unpublished Letters of Franklin to Strahan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.

Of our two next selections the first is interesting, for its curious list of books as well as for its clear, beautiful chirography, and the second for the feeling allusion to Franklin’s domestic cares and duties.

Philada April 28, 1754.

Dear Sir,—The above is Copy of mine p Reeve   Two Ships are since arrived in New York, but I hear nothing yet of the things expected, tho’ possibly they may be come. I enclose Mr. Steven’s second Bill for 20£ Sterling.

Please to send the following Books, viz.

2 Familiar Letters p Charles Halifax—12mo—Baldwin.
2 Nelson on the Government of Children—8Vo—Dodsley.
3 Treatise on Cyder making—Cave
Supplement to Chamber’s Dictionary 2 Vols. Folio.
Letter from a Russian Officer, with some Observations by Arthur Dobbs Esqre—Linde
The Nut Cracker, by F. Foot Esqre—Cooper
The Book of Conversation and Behaviour—Griffiths.
Seeds Sermons.
Mother Midnight’s Works compleat 3 Vol.—Carnan
Matho—2 Vol. 8vo.—

I am Dear Sir very affectionately

Your most humble Servant,

P.S. I am not certain whether I before wrote you for the following, viz

2 Green’s Maps of America
Philosophical Principles of Nat. & Revd Religion p Ramsay
Astronomical Rotula, a Print, p Ferguson.
2 Fry & Jesserford’s Maps of Virginia. Maryland, etc.

Philada Augt. 8, 1754.

DR Sir.—The above is a Copy of my last. Not receiving the Printing House as expected last Spring, has been a considerable Disappointment; but I am more concern’d to hear that you and yours have had so much Sickness. I hope before this time you are all perfectly recover’d. I inclose a Bill for 20£ Sterling, drawn by Mrs. Mary Steevens on Alex Grant Esqe; which wne paid you will pass to my Crt.

With sincere Respect and Affection,

I am, Dr. Sir
Your most humb Sert
B. Franklin

Philada Oct. 7, 1755.

Dear Sir,—Mr. Hall has wrote to you for a Fount of English and a Fount with a Long primer Face on a smaller Body of the Gazette, on my Acct. Inclosed is a Bill for £109, 8, 4 Sterling, drawn on the Revd Mr. Saml, Chandler, which I doubt not will be readily paid. I know not well how my Account stands with you, & should be glad to see it: But suppose this Bill will leave a Balance in your Hands, after paying for those Founts; so have taken the Freedom to draw a small Bill on you, payable to Nathl Voogdt and Co Merchts London for £2, 17, 6 sterlg which they are to remit to Germany on a particular Occasion.

My Compliments to Mrs. Strahan, and to your promising Son, perhaps one day mine. God send our Children, however, good & suitable Matches; for I begin to feel a Parent’s Cares in that Respect, and fondly wish to see them well settled before I leave them.

Adieu, my dear Friend, and believe me to be

Your most affectionately,
B. Franklin

P. S. The enclosed Pamphlet is lately printed in Boston. You will find a Number of interesting Facts in it. At the end a little Piece of mine.

The next letter, aside from its references to B. Mecom, the son of Franklin’s sister, whom he had established in the West Indies as a bookseller, is of special interest for its account of the introduction of the Gentleman’s Magazine among the cultivate families of the colonies. This now venerable magazine, which was changed last year from an antiquarian periodical to a disseminator of light literature, was founded by Edward Cave in 1731, and was subsequently edited by David Henry and John Nichols. It is a point worth nothing why this magazine should have been already taken by the gentlemen of Virginia, as Franklin shows, before it had found subscribers in the Northern States. In these letters we find allusions to public libraries already existing at Trenton and Philadelphia, while even at the present day public libraries are excessively scarce at the South; and yet the Gentleman’s Magazine, a periodical appealing especially to the educated, was read there before it appeared in Boston or Philadelphia. The brief, quaint letter immediately following this bears date only of Saturday, June 14; but the handwriting, as well as the evidence that Franklin was in England at the time, points to its having been written in 1762. After many hopes and disappointments, Franklin at last revisited England during that year, and the two friends, after nearly twenty years of correspondence, saw each other face to face. The increased intimacy and friendship which resulted was shown by Franklin in addressing Strahan as “Dear Straney,” on arriving home again.

The last letter written by Franklin to Strahan during this visit to England, while he was waiting at Portsmouth for a fair wind, is given next, and shows what a strong grip old England had gained on the affections of one who, not many years later, was among the foremost to wrest the colonies from their allegiance.

Philada Nov. 27, 1755.

Dear Sir,—I have yours of Oct. 3, Bolitha being just arrived, the Things not yet come on Shore.

By the Acct sent, I find I was then £59, 4, ½ in your Debt. I hope you have since received the Bills I sent you p Jay and Budden for £109, 8, 4 sterlg, which will leave a Balance in my Favour.

I do not at all approve of B. Mecom’s being so much in your Debt, and shall write to him about it. The People of those Islands expect a great deal of Credit, and when the Books are out of his Hands, if he should die, half would not be collected; this I have learnt by Experience in the Case of poor Smith whom I first settled there. I am glad therefore that you declin’d sending him the other Things he wrote for. Pray write to him for the Pay & make him keep Touch; that will oblige him to dun quick & get in his Debts; otherwise he may hurt himself, and you in the End. Remember I give you this Caution, and that you venture on your own Risque.—

I shall be glad to be of any Service to you in the Affair you mention relating to the Gent’s Magazine; and our Daughter, (who already trades a little to London) is willing to undertake the distributing them p Post from this Place, hoping it may produce some Profit to herself. I will immediately cause Advertisements to be printed in the Papers here, at New York, New Haven and Boston, recommending that Magazine, and proposing to supply all who will subscribe for them 13s this Currency a Year; the Subscribers paying down the Money for one Year beforehand; for otherwise there will be a considerable Loss by bad Debts. As soon as I find what this Subscription will produce, I shall know what Number to send for. Most of those for New England must be sent to Boston. Those for New York, Connecticut, Pensilvania [sic] & Maryland, must be sent in to New York or Philadelphia as Opportunities offer to one Place or the other. As to Virginia, I believe it will scarce be worth while to propose it there, the Gentlemen being generally furnisht with them by their Correspondents in London. Those who incline to continue, must pay for the second Year three Months before the first expires, and so on from time to time. The Post Masters in those places to take in the subscription money, & distribute the Magazines, &c. These are my first Thoughts. I shall write farther. That Magazine has always been in my opinion by far the best. I think² … never wants Matter both entertaining & instructive, or I might now & then furnish you with some little Pieces from this Part of the World.

My Wife & Daughter join in sincerest good Wishes of Prosperity to you and all yours, Dr. Sir,
Your most obedient humble Servant
B. Franklin

My respects to Mr. Newberry, of whom you give so aimiable a Character.

Mr. Franklin’s Compliments to Mr. Strahan, and out of pure Kindness to him offers an Opportunity of exercising his Benevolence as a Man and his Charity as a Christian—One Spencer, formerly a Merchant of Figure and Credit in North America, being by various Misfortunes reduced to Poverty, is here in great Distress, and would be made happy by any Employment that would only enable him to Eat, which he looks as if he had not done for some Time.—He is well acquainted with Accompts, and writes a very fair Hand, as Mr. S. may see by the enclosed Letter. His Expectations that brought him over, which are touched on in that Letter, are at an End. He is a very honest Man, but too much dispirited to put himself forward.—Cannot some Smouting, (sic) in the writing way, be got for him? or some little Clerkship? which he would execute very faithfully.—He is at Mr. Cooper’s, at the Hat & Feather, Snow Hill. Mr. F. has done what he could to serve him (to little purpose indeed) and now leaves him as a Legacy to good Mr. Strahan.

Saturday, June14.

Portsmouth, Monday, Augt. 23, 1762.

Dear Sir,—I have been two Nights on Board expecting to sail, but the Wind continuing contrary, am just come on Shore again, and have met with your kind Letter of the 20th. I thank you even for the Reproofs it contains, tho’ I have not altogether deserved them. I cannot, I assure you, quit even this disagreeable Place without regret, as it carries me still farther from those I love, and from the Opportunities of hearing of their Welfare. The Attraction of Reason is at present for the other Side of the Water, but that of Inclination will be for this Side. You know which usually prevails. I shall probably make but this one Vibration and settle here forever. Nothing will prevent it, if I can, as I hope I can, prevail with Mrs. F. to accompany me; especially if we have a Peace. I will not tell you, that to be near and with you and yours, is any Part of my Inducement: it would look like a Compliment extorted from me by your Pretences to Insignificancy. Nor will I own that your Persuasions and Arguments have wrought this change in my former Resolutions: tho’ it is true that they have frequently intruded themselves into my Consideration whether I would or not. I trust, however, that we shall once more see each other and be happy again together, which God, &c.

My love to Mrs. Strahan, and your aimiable & valuable Children. Heaven bless you all, whatever becomes of
Your most obliged & affectionate Friend
B. Franklin

The friendship between the two correspondents continued uninterruptedly until the culmination of colonial affairs which brought about the opening of hostilities. Above all things a patriot, in a crisis of such a tremendous character, Franklin, under the overpowering excitement of the occasion, dashed off his famous letter to Strahan, showing how unreservedly he cast all his hopes and energies into the fortunes of the revolted colonies. ³

It is a remarkable proof of the deep and genuine sentiment which drew these friends together that, notwithstanding that such a letter passed between them, it produced no permanent rupture or lessening of their regard, for their relations were renewed even before the close of hostilities, when Franklin revisited Europe in a diplomatic capacity; and some of the most interesting, nay touching, expressions used by Franklin were addressed to Strahan in the closing years of life, while Franklin was residing in France, engaged in duties that prevented the venerable statesman from accepting the urgent and repeated invitations of Strahan to visit him once more. Four of these letters are included in this collection, possibly all that Franklin was then able to write to his friend. The handwriting of these final letters shows plainly the gathering shadows of night dimming the mind which had stolen the electric fires from heaven, and harnessed them for the service of man.

Passy Jan. 24, 1780.

Sir,—I received yours of Dec. 31. By this Time you are probably satisfied that the Subject of it was a Mistake, & therefore requires no Answer. I congratulate you on the Marriage of your Daughter, which I lately heard of. My ancient Regard for her is undiminished, and my best wishes attend her. Please to present to Mrs. Strahan the Respects of

Your long affectionate humble Servant
B Franklin

The next letter is exceedingly valuable as showing that the two friends, now on the borders of the grave, had not yet lost their taste for books or their interest in the trade which gave origin to their friendship. The facts stated regarding the condition of the art of printing on the Continent at the time immediately preceding the French Revolution, and the opinion of such an expert as Franklin, are of historic importance.

Passy, Dec. 4, 1781.

Dear Sir,—Not remembering precisely the Address of Mrs Strange, I beg Leave to request you would forward the enclosed to her, which I received under my Cover from America.

I formerly sent you from Philadelphia Part of an Edition of Tully on Old Age, to be sold in London; and you put the Book, if I remember right, into the Hands of Mr. Becket for that Purpose. Probably he may have some of them still in his Warehouse, as I never had any Account of their being sold. I shall be much oblig’d by your procuring and sending me one of them.

A strong Emulation exists at present between Paris and Madrid, with regard to beautiful Painting. Here a M. Didot l’ainé has a Passion for the Art, and besides having procured the best types, he has much improved the Press. The utmost Care is taken of his Presswork; his Ink is black, and his Paper fine and white. He has executed several charming Editions. But the Salust and the Don Quixote of Madrid are thought to excel them. Didot however improves every Day, and, by his Zeal & indefatigable Application bids fair to carry the Art to a high Pitch of Perfection. I will send you a Sample of his Work, when I have an Opportunity.

I am glad to hear that you have married your Daughter happily, and that your Prosperity continues. I hope it may never meet with any Interruption, having still, tho’ at present divided by public Circumstances, a Remembrance of our ancient private Friendship.

Please to present my affectionate Respects to Mrs. Strahan, and my Love to your Children.

With great Esteem and Regard, I am, Dear Sir,
Your most obedient and most humble Servant
B. Franklin

The next letter bears no date, but evidently refers to the daughter of Mr. Strahan, to whose marriage Franklin alludes in the letter of January 24, 1780. It probably precedes the final letter, the last one of this collection and possibly the last written by Franklin to Strahan, fitly coming at the close of one of the most remarkable examples of friendship of modern times. We think that it needed these letters to give the world a complete understanding of the complex character of Benjamin Franklin.

Oh! my dear Friend!—I never was more surpris’d than on reading your Note. I grieve for you, for Mrs. Strahan, for Mr. Johnston, for the little ones, and your whole Family.—The Loss is indeed a great one! She was everything that one could wish, in every Relation.—I do not offer you the common Topics of Consolation. I know by Experience how little they avail; that the natural Affections must have their Course; and that the best Remedy of Grief is Time.—Mrs. Stevenson joins her Tears with mine.—God comfort you all.

Yours most affectionately
B Franklin
Wednesday morng

Passy, July 29, 1783.

My dear old Friend,—Whom I shall probably never have the Pleasure of seeing again; You some Time since recommended Miss Beckwith to me; I in consequence recommended her to my Children in Philadelphia; the enclos’d will give you some Information of her present Situation. I hope you and yours continue well, as does

Your affectionate Friend & humble Servant

B Franklin
Wm. Strahan Esqr

Merchant in London.

Word torn out here.

As that famous letter gains additional force by comparison with the friendly correspondence we have been considering, we give a copy of it here:—
July 5, 1775.

Mr. Strahan,—You are a member of Parliament, and one of that majority which has doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look on your hands, they are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends; you are now my enemy and I am yours.

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