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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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Benjamin Vaughan, Franklin Fanboy

The Englishman who edited Benjamin Franklin’s essays for the press in 1779 was his admirer Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835). Like Franklin, he had family in Boston.

Born in Jamaica, Vaughan was a grandson of the Massachusetts merchant captain Benjamin Hallowell, Sr. (The captain’s namesake son became one of the most hated of the royal Customs Commissioners in Boston.)

Vaughan’s immediate family were Unitarians, not fitting in with either New England Congregationalists or the established church in Britain. He attended dissenting grammar schools in Britain, and his faith limited the possibilities of a university degree.

Vaughan studied science under the Quaker scholar Joseph Priestley, then law, and finally medicine when he was trying to impress his future wife’s father that he could earn a steady living. But what really excited him was politics. He became a radical, which in Britain meant a republican. Vaughan stood somewhere between activists like John Horne and more establishment figures like the Earl of Shelburne. All that was going on while he collected Franklin’s older books and circulating manuscripts and prepared them for the press in 1779.

When Shelburne became prime minister in 1782, he asked Vaughan to go to Paris and use his relationship to Franklin to create a sort of back-door channel for news and reassurances. He wasn’t officially part of the British diplomatic delegation but seems to have contributed to the peace of 1783.

Vaughan served in Parliament from 1792 to 1794. Despite coming from the left, he opposed the idea of ending slavery in the British West Indies (his own family’s fortune was of course based on slave labor). When the old rivalry between Britain and France heated up again, this time with France as a militant republic, Vaughan came under suspicion of being a French sympathizer and fled the country.

Unfortunately, he arrived in France just as the “Terror” gave way to the “Thermidor” reaction, consuming one set of leaders after another. Vaughan was locked up on suspicion of being a British spy—I can’t tell exactly when and how his treatment fit with the swift changes in the French government at the time. But after a brief stretch in prison Vaughan made it out to Switzerland, then sailed for Boston in 1795.

Vaughan soon settled for life in Hallowell, Maine, where he had inherited land through his mother. His personal library was said to contain 10,000 books, one of the largest in the country. In American politics Vaughan became a firm Federalist, thus on the right. He finally started practicing medicine and promoted the use of Francis Jenner’s smallpox vaccine. He also built up his area of Maine with mills, wharfs, and stores.

There are papers related to Vaughan and his family at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the Clements Library, and elsewhere, given his correspondence with many early American statesmen. Vaughan’s house in Maine is now a historic site, though it’s not open to tours this summer. 


John L Smith Jr said...

Hey, after Joseph Priestley, Peter Collinson, William Strahan, Richard Price and Joseph Johnson ... Benjamin Vaughan was going to be my next guess. Sort of.

J. L. Bell said...

As I said, I didn't intend for this to be a puzzle. I hadn't heard of Benjamin Vaughan before, and I'm not sure how many folks have outside of Maine. No one's ever written a biography of him, but given his life and circle of acquaintances, perhaps someone should.

JMS said...

Dear Mr. Bell - I thought Joseph Priestley was a Unitarian, not a Quaker?

J. L. Bell said...

On reflection, I think you're right. Priestley was ordained as a Socinian or Unitarian minister early in his career. He was buried in a Quaker cemetery, which led me to assume he had become a Quaker later.

Unknown said...

Was this Vaughn related to the infamous Vaughn's of the War of the Roses? Just curious and connecting some dots.

J. L. Bell said...

I have no idea. There are centuries between the Wars of the Roses and Benjamin Vaughan's birth in Jamaica, so the influence of the former on the latter seems minimal.