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, October 08, 2013

Franklin’s Library for Franklin

The Boston Globe just reported on “an old-fashioned turf war” between the city of Franklin’s public library and the private non-profit group that sells used books to benefit that library. I suspect the roots of that dispute might be related to last year’s report of the city cutting its library budget so much that it was decertified by the state.

Franklin claims to have the “oldest public lending library in the country,” dating back to 1792, but that, too, was a matter of dispute. The Darby Free Library in Pennsylvania also claims to be the nation’s oldest, dating from 1743. And Boston says it has “The nation's oldest public library system, established in 1848.”

What’s the basis for Franklin’s claim? As the town website explains, in 1778 the Massachusetts General Court approved the formation of new town that had grown out of Wrentham. Originally it was to be named Exeter, but that name changed to Franklin to honor the eminent statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin. And then the inhabitants hit up the man for money.

Working through Franklin’s great-nephew Jonathan Williams (1751-1815), Franklin the town asked Franklin the man for a donation toward a bell for the town’s church. Benjamin Franklin, as so often, thought he had a better idea. On 18 Mar 1785, he wrote from Passy, France, to his friend Richard Price (1723-1791, shown above), a British dissenting clergyman with connections to political radicals and supporters of America:
My Nephew, Mr. Williams, will have the honour of delivering you this Line. It is to request from you a List of a few good Books to the Value of about Twenty-five Pounds, such as are most proper to inculcate Principles of sound Religion and just Government. A new Town in the State of Massachusetts, having done me the honour of naming itself after me, and proposing to build a Steeple to their Meeting House if I would give them a Bell, I have advis’d the sparing themselves the Expence of a Steeple at present, and that they would accept of Books instead of a Bell, Sense being preferable to Sound. These are therefore intended as the Commencement of a little Parochial Library, for the Use of a Society of intelligent respectable Farmers, such as our Country People generally consist of. Besides your own Works I would only mention, on the Recommendation of my Sister, [Samuel] Stennet’s Discourses on personal Religion, which may be one Book of the Number, if you know it and approve of it.
(Franklin’s sister, Jane Mecom, is the subject of a new biography by Jill Lepore.)

Price wrote back on 3 June 1785 saying that Williams had visited him:
I have, according to your desire, furnished him with a list of such books on religion and government as I think some of the best, and added a present to the parish that is to bear your name, of such of my own publications as I think, may not be unsuitable. Should this be the commencement of parochial libraries in the States, it will do great good.
This is said to be a list of the titles Franklin’s money went to—plus several of Price’s own works:
Clark’s Works; Hoadley’s Works; Barrow’s Works; Ridgeley’s Works; Locke’s Works; Sydney’s Works; Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws; Blackstone’s Commentaries; Watson’s Tracts; Newton on the Prophecies; Law on Religion; Priestley’s Institutes; Priestley’s Corruptions; Price and Priestly; Lyndsey’s Apology; Lyndsey’s Sequel; Abernethy’s Sermons; Duchal’s Sermons; Price’s Morals; Price on Providence; Price on Liberty; Price’s Sermons; Price on the Christian Scheme; Needham’s Free State; West & Lyttleton on the Resurrection; Stennet’s Sermons; Addison’s Evidences; Gordon’s Tacitus; Backus’s History; Lardner on the Logos; Watts’s Orthodoxy and Charity; Doddridge’s Life; Fordyce’s Sermons; Life of Cromwell; Fulfilling of the Scriptures; Watts on the Passions; Watts’s Logic; Christian History; Prideaux’s Connections; Cooper on Predestination; Cambridge Platform; Burkett on Personal Reformation; Barnard’s Sermons; History of the Rebellion; Janeway’s Life; American Preacher; Thomas’s Laws of Massachusetts; American Constitutions; Young’s Night Thoughts; Pilgrim’s Progress; Life of Baron Trench; Erskine’s Sermons; The Spectator, etc.
For Britain, that might have been a pretty radical set of theologies. But for New England, it was well in line with Calvinist thinking.

In 1786, the young town’s minister, the Rev. Nathaniel Emmons (1745-1840), preached about the newly arrived books. His sermon was published as “The dignity of man: A discourse addressed to the congregation in Franklin, upon the occasion of their receiving from Dr. Franklin, the mark of his respect in a rich donation of books, appropriated to the use of a parish-library.” Read it here; Emmons gets onto the value of reading and study about halfway through.

TOMORROW: But was that a public library?

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