While I was away last weekend, Boston 1775 reader Guy Curtis kept me up to date with this C.N.N. report on a recent discovery of copies of lost letters by Benjamin Franklin. Actually, they weren’t lost; they were apparently in the repository’s catalogue. But scholars didn’t recognize their significance until Prof. Alan C. Houston visited London to research his upcoming book Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement. (Franklin’s thoughts on a peculiarly Boston use of the verb “improve” are back here.)
Houston, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, discovered the letters on the last day of his last research trip to London, just before the library’s closing time.The thrill of discovery can indeed be levitating. The letters documented Franklin’s role in securing wagons for Gen. Edward Braddock during his 1755 campaign against Fort Duquesne—a campaign that ended in disaster, but not for want of wagons.
“The first item was a letter from Benjamin Franklin to the secretary of the governor of Maryland, and I looked at it and I started to read, and I thought, ‘This doesn’t look familiar,’” Houston told CNN. “I’ve read everything Franklin ever wrote.”
Houston said he quickly began to realize he had uncovered something previously unknown to historians.
“I swear, I just about shot through the ceiling I was so excited,” he said.
When Franklin was sent to London in 1757 as a representative of the [Pennsylvania] assembly, he brought with him a collection of letters detailing that success. It was proof of his political value to Great Britain and that the assembly’s loyalties had been on the right side.The modern equivalent might be a copy of someone’s emails copied onto a forgotten hard drive. The text of these letters will appear in an upcoming issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.
This collection of letters, which Franklin referred to in his autobiography as his “quire book,” was never found, however—until now.
Houston said he believes the documents he read at the British Library are copies of that collection. They were made by Thomas Birch, an industrious and obsessive transcriber of historical documents who copied anything he could get his hands on.
(The thumbnail Norman Rockwell image of Franklin above links to the Benjamin Franklin House in London.)