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Finding Franklin
Out of a voluminous collection of papers in Sterling Memorial Library, Yale historian Edmund Morgan has fashioned a new biography of Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin lived life as it ought to be lived. As depicted in a new biography by Edmund Morgan, the Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Franklin never rested in his pursuit of the beautiful, the interesting, and the good. A highly accomplished scientist, inventor, businessman, diplomat, politician, moralist, and wit, Franklin befriended many people and had a tremendous influence on many more—from among the elites of his time, as well as the common folk—throughout the American colonies as well as in Europe. As Morgan puts it, “Franklin was the sort of man whom, had you lived during his lifetime, you would have given anything for the chance to meet him.”

Millions of public television viewers will get an introduction to Franklin—and Morgan—this month, when PBS broadcasts Benjamin Franklin, a new three-hour documentary that features Morgan as a commentator. At the same time, Morgan’s new biography, also titled Benjamin Franklin, made a splash for Yale University Press in September as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. At the age of 86, and after a long career as one of America’s greatest living scholars of Colonial America, Morgan may be on the verge of recognition outside the academy.


“It’s worthwhile reading about somebody who gives you a sense of the dignity of the human race.”

Morgan’s interest in Franklin grew out of his long association with the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a large collection of documents that since 1954 has been compiled and annotated at Yale in a suite of offices on the second floor of the Sterling Memorial Library. Morgan has served on the board of the Franklin Papers for more than 30 years.

Franklin’s association with Yale was minimal, although the College gave him an honorary degree in 1753. His papers came to Yale through the efforts of William Smith Mason, Class of 1888, a prodigious collector of material written by Franklin, to Franklin, about Franklin, and from Franklin’s time and the places Franklin lived.

Mason housed his collection at his home in Evanston, Illinois, where he employed a full-time librarian to organize it all. By the 1920s serious scholars of Franklin knew that they would have to visit Mason and study his collection if they were to have an authoritative view of the subject. When Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library was completed in 1935, Mason gave his Franklin collection to the University. It was hailed at the time as the most valuable gift ever made to Yale’s libraries.

Nearly 20 years later, a committee of scholars proposed to edit and publish a comprehensive collection of Franklin’s papers. Thanks to Mason’s gift, Yale was deemed the best place to serve as headquarters of such a project. And so the process of rounding up all the relevant writing from collectors and libraries around the world began, followed by the editing, the annotating, and the publishing of it. Nearly 50 years later, this work continues: 36 volumes have been published so far, and 10 more are expected within the next 10 to 15 years.


“Much of Franklin’s thoughts and actions are relevant to issues specific to our time and place.”

Although Morgan does not recommend his book to anyone who wishes merely to learn how better to apply our American past to our American present and future, he does acknowledge that much of Franklin’s thoughts and actions certainly are relevant to issues specific to our time and place. In light of the post-September 11 struggle between civil liberties and security, for example, Morgan recalls Franklin’s famous line written to the Pennsylvania state assembly. Sitting on the firm couch in his living room, his rambunctious young collie squirming at his feet, Morgan tries to remember Franklin’s precise statement. “‘Those who would purchase temporary safety.’” he says, his eyes closed, his head back.

Wanting to get it right, however, he stops. “I know exactly where it is.” Morgan stands and walks over to a bookshelf on the other side of the room where the 36 published volumes of Franklin’s papers occupy three wide shelves. He thinks for a moment then selects a particular volume, flips through its pages, smiles, and returns to the couch.

“‘Those who would give up essential liberties,’” Morgan says, reading, “‘to purchase temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’”

Morgan chuckles, then seems to revel quietly in Franklin’s genius. “It’s worthwhile to get acquainted with this man,” says Morgan, “simply because he gives one a hope for the human species. Reading about a guy like Franklin makes you think, ‘The fact that the human species could produce a guy like this—there has to be something good about it.’”

Morgan laughs again, then thinks for a moment and continues, speaking carefully. He has another point to make, and he wishes to make it well.

“It’s worthwhile reading about somebody who gives you a sense of the dignity of the human race,” he says, “a sense that human beings are worth studying because they’re mysterious, because they have ideas and feelings that are probably new to you, ideas and feelings that may change your life in ways that are not fully definable.

“I think that I look at things differently after reading 46 volumes’ worth of Franklin’s papers than I did before. I don’t know how. But I’m not the same person I was.”  the end


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