New Jersey and the Albany Congress


Jonathan Belcher

Some 18th-century history today:

Yesterday I was reading the minutes of the Spring 1754 meeting of the New Jersey General Assembly held in Perth Amboy.

The meeting opened with a message from royal governor Jonathan Belcher urging the Assembly to send a delegation to Albany, New York in June 1754 to participate in the Albany Congress.

Belcher wrote: 

I… earnestly recommend to your most deliberate and mature Consideration, these extraordinary Proceedings [in Albany]; and then I shall not doubt your doing every Thing in your Power, in Aid and Assistance with the rest of the English Colonies: I say, I hope you will cheerfully unite with them, to ward off from yourselves and your Posterity, the fatal Consequences that must attend the present unjustifiable Violences and Insults of the French (in Conjunction with the Indians).

As Belcher notes, the Albany Congress was called to discuss the mutual defense of the British colonial frontiers against French and native American invasion. (It is best known, however, for Ben Franklin’s so-called “Albany Plan of Union“).

The New Jersey Assembly responded to Belcher’s call in the negative. They refused to participate in any plan of mutual colonial defense until other colonies–especially Pennsylvania and Maryland– committed first:

it does not appear that Schemes are concerted by the several Governors of the Colonies, for preventing the Incroachments of the French, upon His Majesty’s Dominions; nor does it appear, that the Colonies of Maryland and Pennsylvania, have yet done any Thing in that Affair; though they are situated much nearer to the French Forts: That his House is of Opinion with your Excellency, that there should be strict Union amongst all his Majesty’s Colonies, on this Important Affair: But as this Colony, have never been Parties to any Treaties with the Five Nations; and their Allies, nor Partakers of the Benefits of the Indian Trade, and consequently quite unacquainted with the Interest and Trade of those Indians; they therefore hope it will not be taken as a Neglect of the Common Cause at this Time, to leave the Management of the Treaty to the Colonies that are accustomed to carry on those Negotiations.

In other words, the New Jersey Assembly said that the French and Indian threat on the frontier was not really their problem. They were happy to help, but only after other colonies more susceptible to French and Indian raids stepped-up.

The Assembly also commented on Virginia’s attempts at fortifying western forts in Ohio country:

They are of Opinion from Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie’s Letters to your Excellency that Nothing appears in them more than a Design to build a Fortification in the Forks of Ohio, in order to check the Incroachments of the French and to protect the Indians in Alliance with Great Britain, in that Part of the Country: And from the Time these Things have been in Agitation in the Colony of Virginia, they are in Hopes they are, before this Time, happily completed: However, the Duty and Loyalty of the good People of this Colony, sufficiently appears by their Conduct on former Expeditions.

In other words: “we would love to help, but:

This Colony, though lying under a great Load of Debt, by assisting his Majesty in the late Wars against Spain and France, are, however, willing chearfully to contribute towards the Assistance of the other Colonies, in what is necessary towards preventing the Incroachment of the French on his Majety’s Dominions  ,but at present, are not of Ability to do it; having no Money in the Treasury, nor any Funds upon which it can be raised.” 

Sorry. No money.

Needless to say, Belcher was not happy about this response. First, he corrected the Assembly by informing them that Pennsylvania and Maryland had indeed agreed to send representatives to Albany in June. Second, he said that the New Jersey colony would benefit from peaceful relations with the Indians, especially on the “Northern Boundary of this Province.”

Belcher thought that the Assembly was acting selfishly. If they really wanted to do their part for the British Empire they could raise money through taxes. (This would become a heated political issue down the road).

Moreover, by refusing to participate in the conversations at Albany, New Jersey might lose “his Majesty’s Favour.” Belcher makes an interesting point here. Some have interpreted the Albany Congress–the first attempt to bring all the colonies together for a common purpose–as a forerunner to the American Revolution. These historians point to the fact that the Albany Plan of Union, proposed by Ben Franklin at the meeting, was invoked by the First Continental Congress in Fall 1774 as a model for political union amid the imperial crisis. But that is not what was happening here in 1754. Belcher, a representative of the Crown, makes it clear that New Jersey’s failure to send delegates to Albany would hurt their standing in the British Empire.

On June 5, after a committee of assemblymen considered Belcher’s response, the body seemed to be more open to working with their neighbors. The committee concluded:

That a strict Union among his Majesty’s Colonies is absolutely necessary, to prevent the unjust Encroachments of the French on his Majesty’s Dominions; and that the House ought to join with the rest of his Majesty’s Colonies in the Expence of any well-concerted Scheme for that purpose.

The Assembly voted 18-3 in favor of considering support for their neighbors as soon as a “well-concerted Scheme” was in place. 

Belcher thought this was a weak response:

I have this Session laid before you, the Necessity of your enabling me to send Commissioners to meet at the present Congress at Albany, and also to make a suitable Present to the Indians, to continue them our Allies and Friends. I have also recommended to you, your doing something to strengthen the Forces raised in Virginia, to repel the French out of the King’s Dominions on the River Ohio; but to all this you have turned a deaf ear: Neither the Expectations of his Majesty, his Honour and Dignity, and Peace, Happiness, Safety, and Lives of his Subjects, in these his Dominions, have moved you; but rather than to give a helping Hand, you seem willing to suffer the French to enter into, and possess themselves of, a great Tract of Land (undoubtedly belonging to the Crown of Great Britain) and tamely permit a most cruel and barbarous Enemy, to have it in their Power, at their Will and Pleasure, to murder and destroy Hundreds of Families in this and the neighbouring Colonies; which more certainly will be the Case, if the French are allowed to continue on the Lands of the Ohio.”

Belcher railed against the Assembly’s unwillingness to send representatives to Albany until the delegates who attended this meeting put forth a “well-concerted Scheme.” He wrote: “Can this be judged any Thing but an intended Evasion? Do you expect to be consulted in the Scheme, or Plan of Operation?” Belcher wanted New Jersey to have a seat at the table in Albany.

He concluded:

Your Conduct has rendered it absolutely my Duty, for the Honour of his Majesty, and the future Well-being of his Colony, to dissolve this present Assembly; thereby putting it in the Power of the good People of this Province, to show how they stand affected in the Choice of their future Representatives, for the Good of the great and common cause, recommended to you this Sessions.

Would New Jersey send a delegation to the Albany Congress?

Stay tuned! (Or go look it up).

“A republic, if you can keep it”: The Elizabeth Powel side of the story


Some of you may recall court evangelical Eric Metaxas’s book A Republic, If you Can Keep It.  The book is riddled with historical problems and I reviewed it in a series of blog posts.  You can read it here.

Lately, both Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch have also invoked Ben Franklin’s famous phrase.

But as historian Zara Anishanslin notes, most people who use the phrase “A republic, if you can keep it” forget that Ben Franklin uttered these words to a Philadelphia woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel.

Here is a taste of her piece at The Washington Post:

Last month, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, she used a familiar anecdote to back her arguments. As Pelosi told it, “On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when our Constitution was adopted, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall to await the news of the government our founders had crafted. They asked Benjamin Franklin, ‘What do we have, a republic or a monarchy?’ Franklin replied, ‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Our responsibility is to keep it.”

Franklin’s “a republic, if you can keep it” line is as memorable as it is catchy. It is a story that appeals across partisan lines. The same month Pelosi referenced it, Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch released a book titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It.” It’s a recognizable national origin story with broad appeal; Pelosi was savvy to use it.

But she got the story wrong. So did Gorsuch. 

Read the entire piece here.

Benjamin Franklin’s Thoughts on Germans


Here is a taste Franklin’s Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind. We talked about this letter today in my Colonial America course.

23.  In fine, A Nation well regulated is like a Polypus; take away a Limb, its Place is soon supply’d; cut it in two, and each deficient Part shall speedily grow out of the Part remaining. Thus if you have Room and Subsistence enough, as you may by dividing, make ten Polypes out of one, you may of one make ten Nations, equally populous and powerful; rather, increase a Nation ten fold in Numbers and Strength.

And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion f ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by theEnglish, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

24.  Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Compexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.

Read the entire document here.


Ben Franklin’s Faith

FranklinIf you are following our #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm this weekend @johnfea1 ( a tweet every 30 minutes!), you know that we have not said much yet about Ben Franklin. Stay tuned. We will have a lot to say about him tomorrow.

In the meantime, check out Thomas Kidd‘s recent piece at The Washington Post: “How Benjamin Franklin, a deist, became the founding father of a unique kind of American faith.”

Here is a taste:

Franklin adhered to a religion that we might call doctrineless, moralized Christianity. This kind of faith suggests that what we believe about God is not as important as living a life of love and significance. Franklin grew up in a devout Puritan family in colonial Boston, but by his teen years the bookish boy began to doubt key aspects of his parents’ Calvinist faith. Abandoning Christianity altogether, however, was not a realistic option for someone as immersed as Franklin in the Bible’s precepts and the habits of faith.

Although Franklin did at times toy with some radical anti-Christian beliefs, he settled on the conviction that Christianity was useful because of the way it fostered virtue. Franklin wearied of how colonial Americans incessantly fought about theological minutiae. But he still believed that Christianity represented a preeminent resource for benevolence and charity, qualities he considered essential to any worthwhile religion.

Read the rest here.

Kidd has just published a religious biography of Franklin.  Some of you may recall his recent visit to The Author’s Corner to discuss it.

The Author’s Corner with Thomas Kidd

FranklinThomas Kidd is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.  This interview is based on his new book Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Ben Franklin?

TK: This book is a sort of follow-up to my 2014 biography of George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the eighteenth century. Franklin was the key publisher of Whitefield’s journals and sermons in America, but they also became close friends. They were two of the biggest celebrities in the Anglo-American world, yet the faiths of the evangelical Whitefield and the “thorough deist” Franklin would seem to have been worlds apart.

In researching Franklin’s religious journey, however, I came to believe that Franklin’s Puritan background exercised a major influence on his adult life. Although Franklin maintained doubts about basic Christian beliefs, the deep imprint made by his parents’ piety and his thorough knowledge of the King James Bible hardly dissipated when he discovered deism as a teenager.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Ben Franklin?

TK: Franklin arguably represented the American epitome of the “Enlightenment,” with his scientific discoveries, incessant charitable projects, and worldly-wise skepticism. But as Franklin’s long life proceeded, his skepticism was restrained by the weight of his Puritan background, by ongoing relationships with evangelicals like Whitefield and Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom, and by the seemingly providential events of the American Revolution.

JF: Why do we need to read Ben Franklin?

TK: If all we know of Franklin’s religion is the Autobiography’s description of how he jettisoned his parents’ faith and became a deist, we miss the extraordinary religious depth of his life and writings. Franklin not only published a great deal of religious material as a printer, but even as an author he seems to have published more on religious topics than any other eighteenth-century American layperson. Some of Franklin’s writing on religion, especially in the 1730s, displayed an amazing sophistication and polemical edge, even on complex topics like the imputed righteousness of Christ.

JF: You are a very productive scholar.  Any writing tips for us mere mortals?

TK: I frequently write about productivity and the writing process in my weekly newsletters. The advice I keep coming back to, however, is the importance of making daily writing progress, even if it is only a couple hundred words. Writers get in trouble when they let their projects languish for weeks and months at a time.

JF: What is your next project?

TK: I am writing a two-volume American History textbook for B&H Academic, which (Lord willing) should be out by 2019.

JF: Thanks, Tommy!

"Spectral Historical Revisionism" or Andrew Jackson Apologizes For His Entire Life

What if the ghosts of famous dead people–George Washington, George Fox, Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun– were to communicate with us and offer advice about moral improvement?  And what if Ben Franklin edited this collection of communications? 

In 1852, Hicksite Quakers Isaac and Amy Post wrote (or maybe “compiled” is a better word) Voices from the Spirit World.

Over at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, Brooke Palmieri explains what it is all about:

In it, the ghosts of famous dead people contact the authors, who then translate the “spirit rappings” they receive into a series of letters from the spirit world with advice for the living. “Benjamin Franklin” is the editor, who writes in the preface in typical Ben Franklin fashion that “Spirit life would be tiresome, without employment.” Franklin is also credited with contacting the other luminaries of public life, although Thomas Jefferson complains: “I find more difficulty in arranging my communication than when embodied.” The purpose of these spectral communications is, again, in typical Ben Franklin fashion, improvement. “Let no man claim that he has made great improvements in the arts and sciences, unassisted by spirit friends …. It is our object to spread light in the pathway of those who have been blinded by their education, traditions, and sectarian trammels. We come not to blame any; we present these truths, that man…may realize what he is, and what he is to be; to tell him by what he is surrounded.”

It is an incredibly literal way to enact the basic truth that history does offer precedents that can be built off of in the name of progress. But the aims of Voices from the Spirit World go deeper still: Franklin claims his purpose is that “death will have no terrors” for the living who are aware of the spiritual world. That is the best that the Spiritualist Movement had to offer: it was about facing death without fear, it was about ensuring that those who had died had not done so in vain, that their lives could offer wisdom and guidance in times of difficulty. The table of contents is a mixture of founding fathers, famous thinkers, Quaker leaders (the Posts were Quakers), close personal friends, and anonymous ghosts moved to speak…

But overwhelmingly the spirits speak with one voice: they denounce war, the slave trade and women’s inequality from cover to cover. In a “Communication from G[eorge] Washington. July 29, 1851” the first president condemns slavery: “I regret the government was formed with such an element in it…I cannot find words to express my abhorrence of this accursed system of slavery.” A communication, surprisingly, from John C. Calhoun admits: “It is very unexpected to me to be called upon by Benjamin Franklin, informing that you desired to hear from me…It seems to me unaccountable that my mind should have been so darkened, so blinded, by selfishness, as to live to spread wrong, while I endeavored to persuade myself I was doing right.” Andrew Jackson publishes an apology for his entire life: “I was wrong in almost everything.”

Read the rest here.  HT: Tony Grafton, via Facebook

Ebenezer Kinnersley

When I was a graduate student I had a colleague named Kevin who was interested in the history of science in early America.  Kevin finished his Ph.D shortly after I did.  I think he had a few academic appointments and eventually left the historical profession for greener pastures.  I lost touch with him after we left Stony Brook and he moved back to his home state of Texas.

Kevin’s story would make for a great “So What CAN You Do With a History Major” post, but I am writing about him today because he loved to talk about Ebenezer Kinnersley

Who is Ebenezer Kinnersley?  

He was a Baptist minister who opposed the First Great Awakening and later became a promoter of Benjamin Franklin’s work on electricity.  If I remember correctly, Kinnersley was an important figure in Kevin’s dissertation.

I am not sure what happened to Kevin’s research on Kinnersley.   I know he was working on Kinnersley before the appearance of James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America hit print and introduced us to the life of this Baptist pastor-turned itinerant science lecturer.

I thought about Kinnersley the other day after reading Thomas Kidd’s post at The Anxious Bench.  It appears that this Baptist clergymen will make an appearance in Kidd’s new religious biography of Franklin. 

Here is a taste of his post:

Kinnersley was born in Gloucester, England, the same hometown as Franklin’s friend George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth-century revivals. As a three-year-old, Kinnersley came with his family to Pennsylvania the same year, 1714, that Whitefield was born. His family was Baptist, and Kinnersley became an assistant at Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church. Unlike the senior minister of the church, Kinnersley opposed the revivals because of the “enthusiastic ravings” of Whitefield and other itinerant preachers. He aired this opinion in Franklin’s newspaper, and it cost Kinnersley his job.

Franklin took the unemployed Kinnersley under his wing and would later help him become a professor of English and oratory at Franklin’s new College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania). In the meantime, Franklin encouraged Kinnersley to expand upon his interest in Franklin’s experiments in electricity by preparing public lectures and demonstrations that Kinnersley could take on the road. And take to the road he did, traveling to more far-flung places in the colonies than did Whitefield (Kinnersley even went to Caribbean locations such as Barbados).

The former pastor would charge well-to-do audiences five shillings to get in, and dazzled them with displays of electricity. In one favorite demonstration, he would have an audience member volunteer to sit on an insulating stool and channel electricity through the volunteer’s body and into a metal chain. A second volunteer would extend a hand toward the first, and a visible spark would jump between them.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Carla Mulford

Carla J. Mulford is Associate Professor of English at Penn State University (University Park) and the Founding President of the Society of Early Americanists. This interview is based on her new book, Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire (Oxford University Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  My book originated from an interest in Franklin’s writings on the Haudenosaunees (called the Iroquois or Six Nations, by the settlers). In thinking about Franklin’s ideas about Indians, I was led to ask myself the question: If Franklin’s views about Native peoples shifted across time and became more humanitarian, did a similar shift occur with regard to people of African descent? Contemplating the answer to this question led to an even larger question about Franklin’s views about the British Empire, its expansion into North America, India, and Ireland, and its fostering of a slave trade intended to benefit people back in Britain but leave British Americans unable to pursue “handicraft” (artisan) labor, improve their living standards, and develop their own systems of internal trade in the colonies of North America. To learn more, I studied early modern and early American economy, the histories of the peopling of North America, European imperial political economies, and the history of international legal views on sovereignty. This work dovetailed with my work as a Penn State professor. I began offering courses in literature related to early American environmental and social history and in historical and contemporary writings by Native peoples. The result, nearly twenty years later, is Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire, a book based in twenty years of reading and a decade of writing. Several pieces that didn’t make it into the book have been published as stand-alone arguments.

Franklin began his professional life working to shore up the British Empire in North America by supporting economic measures that would help colonists thrive financially and physically while also supporting the greater British Empire in the Atlantic world. Beginning in the 1750s, Franklin wrote a series of briefs – written in the form of letters to William Shirley, then governor of Massachusetts – articulating a platform of alliance with Britain but allowing for the colonies’ political and financial self-determination, because imperial policies were hampering the colonists’ abilities to build self-supporting enterprises and develop networks for mutual defense against the other European imperial efforts in North America. In the 1760s, as Franklin attempted to negotiate with British ministers about American matters, he was forced to deal with the clear indifference of Britons in England to the life situation of Britons in North America. He developed a legal argument supporting the original sovereignty of colonial Americans, and he finally relinquished any effort to retain an alliance with the Empire. He argued from the 1750s onward that the ends of any empire ought to be in supporting the wellbeing of all its peoples, wherever they happened to be living.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  Franklin believed in the ideals of freedom embodied in the early modern liberalism he imbibed as a tireless and voracious young reader aspiring to learn more about the British Empire. His experiences as printer, writer, politician, and diplomat taught him that if he really wanted to see the liberal values he admired – values said to have descended as the freedoms articulated in England’s Magna Carta – at work in North America, then the American colonies needed to break from Britain and form their own political, financial, commercial, and labor goals.
JF: Why do we need to read Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire?
CJM:  My book attends to materials that many who study Franklin have given little comprehensive attention to: his readings as a youth (and what he might have learned from them and held onto as ideals); his theories of fiscal, social, and political economy; his concerns about the British Empire in India and Ireland; his changing concerns about Native American and African peoples; and his views on land title and sovereignty. Contrary to many historians who place Franklin’s turn against the British Empire in the mid-1770s, when he was denounced in the Cockpit by Alexander Wedderburn, my book shows that Franklin’s turn against Britain’s imperial system began in the middle 1750s and were articulated in a number of documents from that era onward.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CJM:  I believe I have always been fascinated about the impact of past events on present times. I can’t imagine living a life devoid of historical knowledge. How would we know why and how we got to the complicated place where we are, without a roadmap – roadmaps, really – of our past? And how would we understand how fully constructed historical stories have been, without a recognition of “spin culture” in our lives today?

As a student of early American literature, I studied the writings of people whose works were not very well known to the current generation of students, however well known they were in the era in which they were written. I helped to reform the established canon of literature by seeing that students of early materials would have available to them writings by women, Native peoples, Africans and African Americans, and laboring people – those who were not typically written about in the literary histories of the twentieth century.

My work on Franklin extends this trajectory of my interests by exploring understudied writings by a major American author. Among literary scholars, Franklin’s autobiography is often considered his sole piece of important writing. In Franklin studies, I wanted to show that the qualities of writing associated with his autobiography, a late-in-life writing, were available from the very beginning, not just in “literary” materials but in his writings on economics, politics, and society.
JF: What is your next project?

CJM:  My next monograph, titled Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy, takes up a line of argument tangential to Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire. Benjamin Franklin’s Electrical Diplomacy shows how Franklin attempted to use his scientific fame to influence political policy. Planned as a much shorter and complementary book, this new work embraces several fields, including the history of the circulation of books and manuscripts, the history of science, and the history of eighteenth-century British and French imperial decision-making. 

JF: Thanks, Carla!

The Human Side of the Liberal Arts

Franklin’s Junto

For many college students, liberal arts courses are the courses that they need to “get out of the way” in order to get on to the important courses in their professional-oriented major–business, education, engineering, nursing, etc…  For administrators and the gurus of higher education who write for the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, the liberal arts are just another piece of the curriculum–something that needs to be delivered as part of a complete college education.

But in the past few weeks–really in the past few days–I have been reminded that the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, are about people engaging ideas in community.  The questions about the meaning of life raised by the study of the liberal arts are often asked in the context of friendship, sociability, and conversation.  The liberal arts are about human beings.  And they are best cultivated by human beings in relationship with other human beings. 

Here are three real-life examples:

1,  This semester I am teaching a course on Pennsylvania history.  A couple of weeks ago I introduced my students to Benjamin Franklin’s Junto–a society of artisans and tradesmen who gathered together in Philadelphia for the mutual improvement of its members.  The Junto members sharpened their intellect and sense of civic responsibility through discussions of the major issues facing Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and British provincial society.  

As I often do when talking about the Junto, I got on my soapbox for a few minutes and challenged my students to form their own Juntos–to gather together in their dorms or over a meal together in the college dining hall, to discuss the things that matter, the so-called “first things.” These kinds of regular conversations, coupled with formal college coursework, just might result in an education.

2.  This week I had the honor of serving as an outside reader on a doctoral dissertation defense in early American history.  I was not able to be present for the defense, so I spent most of the two-hour session with the phone on my ear until I was given my fifteen-minute opportunity to grill the candidate.  The next-to-last person to question the candidate was the professor who served as the candidate’s doctoral adviser. She began her comments by saying that it was a privilege  to work with this young historian. After spending so many years working closely with this doctoral student, conversing about history and other things that matter, and developing a friendship with the student, the adviser seemed sad to see it all come to an end.  She described her work with this student as one of the highlights of her life. As I sat quietly on the end of the phone, I found myself deeply moved by these remarks.  It was clear to me that the adviser’s relationship with the student–a friendship forged over the ideas that stemmed from their high-level engagement together with the past–should serve as a model for the transformative power of the liberal arts when practiced in community with others.

3.  This morning I read an op-ed in my local newspaper by my friend Eric Miller, a history professor at Geneva College.  The piece is a moving reflection on the life of Eric’s friend and Geneva colleague Howard Mattson-Boze, who recently passed a way.  Here is a taste of that piece:

In the liberal arts Howard was a master.  He knew the lineage that had formed him so finely, and delighted in it. 

A conversation with Howard took one from ancient Athens through medieval Paris to nineteenth century London in ten minutes flat. He dipped into Kierkegaard in the spirit of a boy playing baseball in spring. 

As he spoke, whether across the table or behind a lectern, his eyes gleamed with contagious purpose.

When he died this past January many former students remembered the discussions he and his wife hosted through the years, evenings spent on “the deep questions of life,” as one, now himself a professor, put it. 

Howard taught, in the words of another, “the classical liberal ideas that we live by today.”

This was simply what college was for, to Howard. More particularly, it was what he thought our college was for, despite countervailing winds. The ideals that spark our way do not live by books alone, he knew, but through people–people living in places structured for their preservation and advance. 

Howard believed that without generosity of mind and depth of spirit this world is a harsher place. About the ideas themselves, about their truth, we might–we will–disagree. 

But apart from a foundation of respect for ideas and their centrality in our lives, all debates about their worth, and about the world itself, move from incivility to hostility to worse. And the great hope of liberal society, of a place where we live together in honor of the dignity of life, fades like fall. 

The liberal arts aren’t the only pathway toward our highest ends, to be sure.  But they have aided decisively all pathways we’ve ever known, keeping them clear, straight, and manifest. 

The darkness many of us feel today, in an age marked by so vicious and spurious a form of “realism,” may in part be the fruit of the liberal arts fading among us, leaving us, inevitably, less free.

I know what counsel Howard would offer.  He would urge deep, costly institutional commitments to preserve and prosper liberal learning. 

Do we have the will to heed it?  

The liberal arts are about people.

The Declaration of Independence Defeats Franklin’s *Autobiography* to Win the Junto March Madness Tournament

I must admit that I was a little disappointed when Philip Vickers Fithian got knocked out of the Junto March Madness Tournament in the first round, but I continued to do my civic duty by voting for the best primary source from early America in the subsequent rounds of what has become an annual tradition in the history blogosphere.

In case you have not heard, in the championship final the Declaration of Independence (59%) scored a comfortable victory over Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (41%).  I am particularly pleased to announce that three of the final four documents–the Declaration, Franklin’s Autobiography, and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative–are staples in my United States History survey course at Messiah College.

I also may bring this up today in my Pennsylvania History class since both the Declaration of Independence and Franklin’s Autobiography have strong Pennsylvania connections.

Did Benjamin Franklin Believe in Purgatory?

 Over at American Creation blog Jon Rowe cites a letter from Benjamin Franklin to “Mrs. Partridge” on the death of one Ben Kent.  The letter is dated November 25, 1788:

“You tell me our poor friend Ben Kent is gone, I hope to the regions of the blessed; or at least to some place where souls are prepared for those regions! I found my hope on this, that though not so orthodox as you and I, he was an honest man, and had his virtues. If he had any hypocrisy, it was of that inverted kind, with which a man is not so bad as he seems to be. And with regard to future bliss, I cannot help imagining that multitudes of the zealously orthodox of different sects, who at the last day may flock together, in hopes of seeing each other damned, will be disappointed, and obliged to rest content with their own salvation. Yours, &c. B. Franklin.”


How Loud Was George Whitefield?

I have a loud voice.  My voice just seems to carry.  I once broke a speaker system lecturing at the David Library of the American Revolution.  When I whisper to my wife in church to make a semi-critical remark about the sermon she insists that I can be heard by everyone in the sanctuary. My seminar-mates in graduate school used to say that my voice was loud and it would get even louder when I was trying to make a point.  I am pretty sure my students make fun of me for the same reason, but I have no proof. (Does anyone want to admit this?  Students?) I have a regular gig speaking at a local retirement home.  One day a resident told me that I was her favorite speaker because I was the only one she could hear from the back row without her hearing aid.

I may have some volume to my voice, but I don’t think I can hold a candle to George Whitefield, the eighteenth-century revival preacher best known for leading the eighteenth-century religious movement known by historians as the “First Great Awakening.”  (Mandatory Jon Butler scare quotes included. Sorry, but only my early American historian friends will get that one, though I am happy to explain).

Whitefield appears several times in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (which I teach every year). My favorite reference to Whitefield is the passage in which Franklin tries to calculate the number of people that can hear Whitefield’s booming voice.  Here is Franklin describing Whitefield:

He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly, that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observ’d the most exact silence. He preach’d one evening from the top of the Court-house steps, which are in the middle of Market-street, and on the west side of Second-street, which crosses it at right angles. Both streets were fill’d with his hearers to a considerable distance. Being among the hindmost in Market-street, I had the curiosity to learn how far he could be heard, by retiring backwards down the street towards the river; and I found his voice distinct till I came near Front-street, when some noise in that street obscur’d it. Imagining then a semi-circle, of which my distance should be the radius, and that it were fill’d with auditors, to each of whom I allow’d two square feet, I computed that he might well be heard by more than thirty thousand. This reconcil’d me to the newspaper accounts of his having preach’d to twenty-five thousand people in the fields, and to the antient histories of generals haranguing whole armies, of which I had sometimes doubted.

As this passage indicates, Franklin estimated that Whitefield could be heard, without a microphone, by 30,000 people.

It turns out his estimation was correct.  Recently two researchers at New York University’s Music and Audio Research lab reproduced Franklin’s experiment and generally confirmed his conclusions.

Here is a small taste of this fascinating report:

As can be seen from the results, in the Moorfields and Mayfair areas, the largest reported crowd sizes would not have been able to hear Whitefield’s voice even under optimistic acoustic conditions, and if the crowd was noisy or Whitefield was feeling hoarse, the maximum number of listeners would decrease sharply. However, at Kennington Common, the most wide-open of the three sites, it is projected that the largest reported crowd of 50,000 could have heard Whitefield’s voice under optimal conditions.

It will be noted that if Franklin’s more generous density figure is used, these crowd size estimates will be more than doubled. However, Franklin’s maximum intelligible area calculation yields about 23,000 square meters, which is close to the values simulated here for some of the sites. This shows that Franklin’s overall method of estimating the acoustic range of the voice was actually fairly accurate. His primary error was his overly large density calculation, which would have predicted a crowd size of about 125,000 listeners. A crowd of that size packed so densely would probably find it difficult to be silent and might even run the risk of a stampede.

However, Franklin reported a more modest figure of 30,000 listeners, possibly because he believed that the higher estimate was far-fetched, and also because the majority of Whitefield’s crowds were reported as 30,000 or fewer. The largest crowds were only reported during the summer of 1739 in London, after which Whitefield’s celebrity waned somewhat. Similarly, these computer simulations are also useful for evaluating the more modest crowd sizes that were reported: most of his large crowds in Britain and America were estimated at 20,000 to 30,000, and based on these simulations those numbers seem acoustically reasonable. Without a time machine, we will never know these crowd sizes exactly, but by applying scientific techniques to historical data we can still discover new pieces of the past that had previously been lost.

Ben Franklin’s "Pennsylvania Gazette" is Rolling Off the Press Again

Get your copy of the October 6, 1743 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, the first edition published by Benjamin Franklin, at the Independence National Historic Park printing office before December 18, 2013.  From the National Park Service:

Philadelphia – For the first time since the printing office opened in Franklin Court, park rangers at Independence National Historical Park are printing a copy of Benjamin Franklin’s original Pennsylvania Gazette. The Gazette of October 6, 1743 will be featured on the Franklin Court printing presses until December 18, 2013. Copies are available for purchase by park visitors.
Franklin took over the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729 when it was still an ailing paper, dull and poorly managed. Franklin applied his signature wit, intelligence and determination and soon the Gazette was recognized throughout the colonies as an informative and entertaining paper. Franklin’s publishing credits went beyond the news, as he innovated the publishing industry. He used cartoons and maps to illustrate his articles. He printed his political theories to gain public support. He shared his witty and wise sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac. While Franklin’s printing office at 2nd and Market no longer stands, visitors to Franklin Court can see what his office might have looked like and see demonstrations of 18th century printing.
Using a replica 18th century printing press, park rangers are recreating the October 6, 1743 Gazette owned by the Library Company of Philadelphia. Along with local news and advertisements, the Gazette features a letter from a lieutenant on board HMS Centurion with news about Commodore George Anson’s circumnavigation of the globe in pursuit of enemy ships and Spanish treasure.
Thanks to the craftsmanship of Richard Hopkins of Hill & Dale Typefoundry in Terra Alta, WV, rangers are printing from type almost identical to Franklin’s original.Using equipment that had been disposed of by other typefoundries as “obsolete,” Hopkins hand crafted each piece of type into the Caslon font. The font used to print the Dunlap broadside (the first printed edition of the Declaration of Independence), Caslon was a font favored by Franklin and is still available in some programs today.
The Gazette is a complete printing of all four pages included in the original. Due to the staffing and resource intensive nature of the work, the park does not usually recreate entire newspapers. This unique creation will only be printed through December 18, 2013 at which time the printing office will once again produce copies of the Declaration of Independence and famous Franklin quotes.

What Should Christians Think of Benjamin Franklin?

When I teach Benjamin Franklin’s
Autobiography to Christian students at Messiah College I am always amazed at how much they have bought into Franklin’s ideal of the self-made man.  While there is much about Franklin’s commitment to hard work, civic virtue, and personal morality that is compatible with the Christian faith, it seems that his overall philosophy of life does not always stand up to the teachings of Jesus.

If Franklin and Jesus ever met, I wonder what they would talk about?  I have wondered this so much that I have contemplated writing a book on the subject.

I was reminded of the way Christians think about Benjamin Franklin, the idea of the self-made man, and the so-called “American Dream” after reading Jay Case’s “Are You a Self-Made Man or Woman?”  Writing from a Christian perspective, Case argues that there is no such thing as a “self made man or woman.”  Speaking theologically, I would have to agree.  Here is a taste:

We Americans sure like the idea.  We have embraced it ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography that explained how he accomplished everything through his own wits, hard work and moral character.   And the idea is still alive and well today.  A few years ago I noticed the following inspirational poster on the wall of a middle school:   “Everything a person achieves and everything they fail to achieve is a direct result of their own thoughts.”  There it is.

This idea is flawed because it is based on bad theology and bad theology does not reflect how the world really works.   It is flawed because the “self-made man” completely discounts the idea that God might be at work amidst human activity.

What do you think?  Is there such a thing as a self-made man or woman? Could you answer “no” to this question without appealing to theology?

The Soul of the American Reader

As some of you know, it is possible to highlight e-books on your Amazon Kindle.  What some of you may not know is that Amazon collects all of your highlights and ranks them. I learned about this today from reading Noreen Malone’s piece at The New Republic on the soul of the American reader.

It looks like American readers are obsessed with The Hunger Games triology (19 out of the top 25 highlights), Jane Austen, the Bible (the most highlighted book), Steve Jobs, habits of highly effective people, and evangelical spirituality (especially David Platt and William P. Young).

Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography makes several appearances in the top 100 (debuting at #66) highlights.  3880 Kindle users highlighted his famous passage about moral improvement and the cultivation of virtue:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. 2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. 3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. 4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. 5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing. 6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

I wonder if these are college students who have been assigned The Autobiography in class?

The highest ranked highlighted quote from a history book is Laura Hildebrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionThis quote comes in at #161:

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. 

Other observations:

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, first appears at #264.  1677 Kindle users highlighted this quote: In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

1651 Kindle users highlighted this quote from G.K. Chesteron’s Orthodoxy: “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

The first quote from the Bible comes in at #376.  It is Philippians 4:6-7
do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

The second most highlighted Bible passage is–you guessed it–John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  It comes in at #468.

Franklin, Whitefield, and the University of Pennsylvania

Over at The Anxious Bench, Thomas Kidd reminds us of the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield.  The two giants of the eighteenth century worked together in establishing the academy that would eventually become the University of Pennsylvania.  Here is a taste:

One of the most fascinating exchanges between them came in 1750, when Whitefield replied to Franklin’s plans for the Philadelphia Academy, the forerunner to the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin and the academy trustees had recently acquired the “New Building,” a spacious venue which Whitefield’s supporters had originally erected for the itinerant’s preaching. Now Franklin sent Whitefield a copy of his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749), which made a powerful case for liberal arts education in a time when the colonies still only had four colleges (Harvard, Yale, the College of New Jersey, and William and Mary), and Philadelphia had none. Whitefield was delighted with the plan, and happy to have the New Building put to such a use (especially if it remained available for preaching).

The main problem Whitefield had with Franklin’s proposals – a problem that reflected the fundamental spiritual divide between the men – was that Christianity seemed to be an afterthought. Franklin did note that students would receive instruction in the value of public and private religion, “and the excellency of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION above all others.” But this brief reference came only on page 22 of a 32 page document, and to Whitefield, this was not enough. In the excerpts below from the itinerant’s lengthy letter to Franklin in February 1750, Whitefield cast his own vision for Christian liberal arts education. But Franklin was more concerned with nonsectarianism than evangelicalism, and his vision ultimately won out, making Penn America’s first university with no denominational commitment.

In addition to their work together on the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin and Whitefield also envisioned the establishment of a colony in Ohio Territory.

I am looking forward to Kidd’s forthcoming biography of George Whitefield.

This Guy Sounds Just Like Benjamin Franklin

I don’t know much about Stephen Fry, but a quick Internet search tells me that he is a British actor, playwright, comedian, activist, and humanist.  I found a lot to agree with in this interview (below), and a lot to disagree with.

As a historian, I was struck by the fact that Fry sounds a lot like Benjamin Franklin.  (My British Colonial America students wrestled with the ideas in the Autobiography this semester during our unit on the Enlightenment).  He does not like limits or organized religion, wants to do good for his fellow human beings, seeks opportunities for networking and conversation, and thinks that education happens in Junto-like communities. (Although he seems a lot less self-centered than Franklin). This video is worth watching and thinking about.

HT: Ryan Cordell at Profhacker