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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Monday, June 06, 2016

Yale and Benjamin Franklin’s Good Name

Yale Magazine recently reported on how editors at the Papers of Benjamin Franklin project spotted a letter from William Franklin providing new details about his estrangement from his father.

The magazine stated:
William Franklin remained loyal to England, and by the time he moved to London in 1782, he and his father had been estranged for years. In 1784, however, William wrote his father suggesting reconciliation. The effort failed. Historians have assumed it collapsed because of the political differences—but recent research has provided new insight. As in many family squabbles, money was also involved.

Yale’s Papers of Benjamin Franklin project has discovered a 1788 document by William previously unknown to scholars. (The project is editing all of Franklin’s papers for publication.) The document, in the UK National Archives, was digitized by Ancestry.com. In it, William described a financial arrangement Benjamin had proposed in 1785: William could repay a debt he owed his father by giving some land he owned in New York and New Jersey to his own son—Benjamin’s beloved grandson. Instead, William gave his son the New York land and sold him the New Jersey land. Benjamin never again replied to William’s letters.

“This changes what we know about [Benjamin] and about his relationship with William,” says Robert Frankel, an associate editor at the project. The document also says it was actually Benjamin who had initiated the 1784 reconciliation: he had told a mutual acquaintance that people who’d taken opposite sides in the war should be able to make peace once it was over. “He basically invited William to extend an olive branch,” Frankel says.
But the elder Franklin also basically wanted to dictate the terms of that reconciliation.

This story might hint at a new wrinkle in how scholars “discover” documents in archives. Not only has an archivist often looked at each document before, but now a digitizer might have done so as well.

Also this year, Yale announced that one of its two new residential colleges (undergraduate dormitories) will be named after Benjamin Franklin. This caused some puzzlement, here at Boston 1775 and elsewhere. The Franklin Papers project has been located at the university for decades, but does Yale have any other tie to Franklin? Initial reports pointed only to the college giving Franklin an honorary degree and him later donating some books to its library.

Then someone on Twitter provided the answer: the alumnus providing the huge donation for those new buildings is a big Franklin fan, naming his investment firm after the man. There’s no evidence he asked for a Franklin College, but that name appears to have been the university’s gesture of gratitude.


meryka said...

Hi John,

Franklin was also a good friend of Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College.

J. L. Bell said...

True, there's an extensive correspondence between Franklin and Stiles. But both men carried on extensive correspondences with lots of learned men, so I didn't see that as distinctive.