J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Benjamin Franklin’s “Present Hostile Character”

Yesterday’s posting mentioned almost in passing that Benjamin Franklin’s Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces was published in London in 1779. Think about that.

At that time, Franklin was the rebel American states’ minister to Paris, doing his best to increase French aid, recruit Continental military talent, and thwart British espionage. His last major public appearance in London was being castigated in front of the Privy Council for helping to leak confidential letters on Massachusetts politics.

Yet Dr. Franklin’s major essays were collected and published in the capital of the British Empire. And with his participation: he reviewed the early printed pages and provided an appendix of “Addenda & Corrigenda.”

Many eighteenth-century books came out anonymously, but this collection didn’t hide its author’s identity or status. A profile of Franklin appeared opposite the title page, the author bio identified him as “Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of Paris for the United States of America,” and the contents listed essays on “American Politics before the Troubles” and “American Politics during the Troubles.”

The 1779 collection was not an inexpensive venture: it filled nearly 600 pages, and the editor commissioned special type to reproduce Franklin’s phonetic alphabet in print for the first time. That required a type cutter to carve the new symbols and cast them, and the printers to go to extra trouble in setting those pages.

The editor’s preface addresses Franklin’s status in the British Empire directly:
Can Englishmen read these things and not sigh at recollecting that the country which could produce their author was once without controversy their own!—Yet he who praises Dr. Franklin for mere ability, praises him for that quality of his mind which stands lowest in his own esteem. Reader, whoever you are and how much soever you think you hate him, know that this great man loves you enough to wish to do you good:

His country’s friend, but more of human kind.
The Monthly Review reprinted those words about Franklin in a positive review of the book that started by acknowledging “the present hostile character he bears to this country.”

TOMORROW: Who edited and published Franklin’s essays in 1779?


Anonymous said...

If I were a betting man, I'd say it was Thomas Paine.

J. L. Bell said...

In 1779 Paine was in America, having arrived five years earlier with a letter of recommendation from none other than Benjamin Franklin.

Anonymous said...

...which is why I'm not a betting man. :)

I should know better, I just read "Common Sense" a month ago. I was alarmed at how much of it is still applicable today.

John L Smith Jr said...

My guess might be his friend and London bookseller William Strahan. Secondary runner-up guesses would be Peter Collinson or Joseph Priestley? We'll assume it wasn't Lord of the Cockpit Wedderburne.

J. L. Bell said...

I hadn’t actually planned to make the editor a mystery. But he’s someone with a link to Priestley, and a link to Massachusetts.

John L Smith Jr said...

Joseph Johnson?