US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British Library for 250 Years

April 26, 2009

(ChattahBox)—A diligent Ben Franklin scholar from the University of California, San Diego, was in London to research his latest Franklin tome and found a veritable treasure trove of 47 copies of Benjamin Franklin letters, never before published, which sat undiscovered on the dusty shelves of the British Library for 250 years. Alan Houston, fifty-one years old, a professor of political science, was on the last day of his overseas research trip in 2007, when he made the discovery of an historian’s lifetime and rushed out of the library in a decidedly undignified British way, to phone his wife back home to tell her his big news.

Houston’s discovery has remained a secret for two years while he had the documents verified for authenticity. All 47 letters, with an explanatory forward by Houston will appear in April’s issue of The William and Mary Quarterly.

Like many great discoveries, it almost never happened. Houston woke that morning, planning a day of R&R with friends, perhaps including a pint or two later at a London pub. But he says his “protestant work ethic” won out and he dutifully made his way back to the comfortable quiet of the reading room of the British Library, putting off that pint for later, as he searched one last time for Ben Franklin manuscripts dealing with the Seven Year’s War.

Houston was at the end of his extensive research for his book on Ben Franklin, “Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement,” and he had yet to find that one hidden away document, that would lead to an “ah ha!” moment, which would add more color to the portrait of Ben Franklin’s 18th century social and political thought. Perhaps a dry subject to some, Houston planned to rely on personal correspondence of Franklin’s to make the great American thinker and inventor come alive to his readers.

After an unproductive afternoon, nose deep in manuscripts over 200 years old, perhaps thinking about that pint by now, Houston was about to call it quits when he spotted an innocuous sounding manuscript in the library catalogue entitled, “Copies of Letters relating to the March of General Braddock” by Thomas Birch. Thinking it may contain some reference to Franklin’s involvement in the Seven Year’s War, he cavalierly handed in his request slip to the librarian, thinking it would turn out to be just another archival dead end.

As the librarian handed Houston the bound tome of 47 letters, he immediately began to perk up, putting on his detective cap, hopeful this collection of letters may contain a much needed source for his book. He soon realized, he had never seen these particular manuscripts before. The letters were all copies transcribed by Thomas Birch, a noted British transcriber and historian, a sort of human copy machine of the period. Franklin used his services while staying in London. Birch was also a member of the Society of Antiquaries of London and secretary of the Royal Society.

As Ben Franklin spent a total of 18 years in England during his lifetime; Houston thought these copies just might contain some information about Ben Franklin. He also knew from his previous research that Franklin corresponded with British General Braddock.

As Houston opened the binder of letters, his eyes weary from poring over antique documents written in colonial longhand, and he read the contents of a letter from Benjamin Franklin to General Edward Braddock, dated 1755, referencing wagons and horses during the period of the French and Indian War, he knew immediately he had found the lost “wagon affair” letters. Ben Franklin in his autobiography, made reference to a “quire” of letters concerning the “wagon affair,” but no one has ever found it and it was presumed lost.

Houston excitedly turned page after page of the bound manuscript, realizing all the letters were from the spring and summer of 1755, during General Braddock’s ill fated campaign against French and Indian forces at Fort Duquesne, who threatened the Colonies. The French Indian War was the precursor to the Seven Year’s War.

To make absolutely sure he had indeed stumbled onto the Holy Grail of Ben Franklin scholarship, Houston consulted the definitive source for all things Ben Franklin, quickly opening the pages of Yale University’s “The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” to see if the “wagon affair” letters had been referenced. They weren’t. At that precise moment Houston realized he serendipitously discovered something extraordinary, barely able to contain his excitement.

Scores of historians must have turned the pages of that bound tome of Ben Franklin letters over the past two centuries, not realizing how significant it was. It took the intrepid mild mannered political scientist professor, Alan Houston, to realize the monumental significance of the letters. Houston came across individual Ben Franklin letters in past research, but never before had any researcher, including Houston, discovered 47 letters together at one time.

Houston is known for his near obsessive research, tracking down every known reference to an issue he is researching, and his diligence paid off with the discovery of a lifetime, something every historian and scholar dreams of during their largely unsung careers, as they spend years in dusty libraries.

The 47 letters, include letters to and from Franklin’s son William; letters to and from Braddock or his secretary, William Shirley Jr.; a letter to Franklin’s wife, Deborah;(supposedly a “hot” one) and a letter from the governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley Sr.

The letters shed light on the whole “wagon affair,” leading up to the revered British General Braddock’s unexpected death and defeat at Fort Duquesne by a rag tag force of French soldiers and Indians. The letters reveal a fact unknown until now, detailing how the French and Indian forces used coins and buttons in their guns, when they ran out of ammunition.

The whole so called “wagon affair,” involved around the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, promising General Braddock 2,500 horses and 250 wagons for his 250-mile trek to Fort Duquesne, in what is now present day Pittsburgh. However, the colonies only came up with a paltry 20 wagons and 200 horses, making Braddock furious. Ben Franklin intervened, to calm the tinderbox situation, offering wagons and horses from his colony of Pennsylvania, dispatching his son William out to persuade farmers to part with their own horses and wagons to outfit the campaign.

Many of the letters detail Ben Franklin’s efforts to procure supplies and transportation for Braddock. Franklin’s autobiography paints the whole “wagon affair” as a group of helpful and virtuous Pennsylvanian farmers stepping in to help the King. Well, the newly discovered letters detail the reality of the relationships between the British Empire and ordinary colonists at the time and it wasn’t as rosy as originally believed. The colonists didn’t just hand over their valuable wagons and horses with a smile and a handshake.

The letters with their now quaint formality, offer insight into how preoccupied Ben Franklin was with the whole “wagon affair” during the spring and summer of 1755. One letter to William Shirley Jr., speaking of his son William’s efforts to secure supplies dated May 7 1775 said: “he had this day completed the number 0f 150 waggon; and could, he, supposed, have engaged as many more, if wanted; but of horses he had only 259, but heard that many were gone or going to be offered at Will’s Creek.”

A postscript from another letter, from Ben Franklin to Shirley. Dated two days earlier on May 5 says: “P.S. The waggons began their march on Friday and Saturday next in two Divisions. Each waggon will have 30 or 40 bushels of oats, when they [go] from hence.”

The colonists only let their horses and wagons go after intense persuasion from Ben Franklin’s son William, offering whiskey and other inducements. Once the colonists realized how desperately Braddock was to get his hands on the horses and wagons, they later upped their price and insisted on Britain providing insurance policies to protect their investments, in case of defeat. Which in hindsight, as most of Braddock’s forces were massacred, turned out to be a very good idea.

Braddock’s disasterous campaign to Fort Duquesne, aided by pioneer Daniel Boone and General Washington, ended badly under Braddock’s command, when the French and Indian forces staged a surprise attack a few miles away from the fort. Many of the British forces perished by friendly fire. General Washington rallied the surviving soldiers, fighting their way out of a near massacre to live to fight another day. Only 500 out of 1,500 soldiers survived the attack that day.

One letter doesn’t deal with the subject of the “wagon affair” at all. In the sole letter in the group from Franklin to his wife Deborah, Houston hints that Ben Franklin’s words were quite amorous and ardent, as he pined for his wife’s comfort, not in keeping with the staid behavior of relations between a man and his wife at the time. One can only imagine how the hand of transcriber, Thomas Birch must have shook as he copied the impassioned words of Ben Franklin towards his wife.

The story of Alan Houston’s discovery has all the makings of a Hollywood movie akin to Dan Brown’s historic thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Although Houston didn’t have to traverse the globe for his discovery, like Robert Langdon, the historian-detective character in the Da Vinci Code, just having to cross the pond over to England, his discovery is no less astounding.

Source


Comments

6 Responses to “US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British Library for 250 Years”

  1. Topics about Hollywood » US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British… on April 26th, 2009 7:19 pm

    […] nobody@flickr.com (mondomuse) placed an interesting blog post on US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British…Here’s a brief overview(ChattahBox)—A diligent Ben Franklin scholar from the University of California, San Diego, was in London to research his latest Franklin tome and found a veritable treasure trove of 47 copies of Benjamin Franklin letters, never before published, which sat undiscovered on the dusty shelves of the… […]

  2. Topics about Hollywood » US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British on April 26th, 2009 7:33 pm

    […] Tudor Q and A created an interesting post today on US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in BritishHere’s a short outlineBen Franklin scholar from the University of California, San Diego, was … Alan Houston’s discovery has all the makings of a Hollywood movie akin […]

  3. Topics about Los-angeles » Blog Archive » US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in … - on April 26th, 2009 9:17 pm

    […] Fat Loss Tips added an interesting post on US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in … -Here’s a small excerptProfessor reveals discovery of copies of Benjamin Franklin letters Los Angeles Times. Trove of Benjamin Franklin letters discovered Chicago… […]

  4. Topics about Buckingham-palace | US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British… on April 27th, 2009 4:59 am

    […] nobody@flickr.com (mystroh) created an interesting post today on US Historian: Discovers Rare Ben Franklin Letters Sitting in British…Here’s a short outline(ChattahBox)—A diligent Ben Franklin scholar from the University of California, San Diego, was in London to research his latest Franklin tome and found a veritable treasure trove of 47 copies of Benjamin Franklin letters, never before published, which sat undiscovered on the dusty shelves of the… […]

  5. Jan Marshall on May 14th, 2009 8:05 pm

    Dearest Alan Houston. I love your work and your luck with Ben. I discovered one more piece of history on Mother’s Day of all times.and it was a letter from his mom. After reading it, I no longer appologize for being a nag!
    Jan Marshall,
    author of “Still Hanging In There; Confessions of a Totaled Woman”
    —————————————————————————————————-
    Ben Franklin’s Mom Was a Nag, Too
    By Jan Marshall (View Profile) and other articles on divinecaroline.com
    ————————————————————————————————————
    Lest you think nagging is a new phenomenon, see the following historical document recently discovered in Laguna Woods, California:

    To: Ben Franklin, Private and Personal

    From: Mom

    July 4, 1776

    Dear Benji,

    Why haven’t I heard from you? You know I worry. If you had time to sign all those declarations, while you had the quill out couldn’t you drop me a line? Sure I received your thank-you note for the Chinese urn I sent, but I was hoping for a real letter. Not that your letters are always cheerful, believe me. Why do you still resent being one of fifteen children? So you had to wear hand-me-downs. So? Your sister isn’t that much bigger than you. If you’re so smart, why didn’t you tell your father that an ounce of prevention was worth—well, never mind.

    Benji, there are a couple of things I want to talk to you about and as your mother I have a right. My friend said you were seen in Congress last week wearing those stupid tiny spectacles called Granny Glasses? Are you a Granny? No! So stop it! Get something more fashionable. She also mentioned that she saw you flying something in the sky that looked like Speedos! Honestly, Benji, I thought you were over that little fetish of yours. You’re lucky they don’t put you away. Speaking of luck, you are pushing yours. Everyone here has heard about your little escapades, and if you’re not careful, your wife—what’s-her-name—is sure to find out. I’ve learned about the new one you’ve been sneaking around with, Penny Worthington. Ben, listen to your mother, I’m telling you for your own good. The next time you are with her and you hear your wife approaching, you’d better hide her in the vase. Believe me, a Penny urned is a Penny saved. Oh, stop groaning.

    About the stove you shipped me. You know I’m proud that you made it yourself, but to tell you the truth, I find I get much more use out of the little Hibachi I got at Sears. It was a nice thought, though and in return, I’m going to do something nice for you. I’m sending you a hair-dryer, and a picture of an artichoke. It will help you disguise that bald spot that troubles you. It is so easy. After you wash your hair, you blow it dry and brush it all toward the front.
    All the men in Washington are doing it. Even that egotist who puts his name on every bit of property to prove he exists (I truly believe he has low self esteem-I mean, why does he do that)? He brushes forward, then wiggles and jiggles and back combs and blow dries and … ah what the use. I need to get back to you. Let his mother worry. So brush forward Benjamin. Once you grow used to it, you’ll look smashing.

    Speaking of smashing, that’s exactly what I wanted to do to your nose after I read your latest remark, “When man and woman die as poets have sung, his heart’s the last that moves; her last the tongue.” That was so typically choov … Chauvin … shavinis—well, you know what I mean. One more slur like that and you’ll have to change the name of your almanac to “Poor Benny’s.” By the way, there is no k in the word almanac, sweetheart. I admit I am sounding a bit angry, but you know I don’t mean it. You are my darling bubie but I am concerned.

    Why are you always coming out with those silly little expressions for no apparent reason? What in the world does “snug as a bug in a rug” mean? You pull those statements out of the air when no one’s even talking to you. And if you say “Time is money, time is money” one more time, you’ll get punched in your printing press!

    Mostly, I suppose, I’m worried about your instability. Look, you’ve been a cartoonist, a printer, an editor, an inventor, a scientist, a philosopher, a statesman … I mean, how do you think that looks on your employment application in these tough times? Sometimes I feel your parentheses are going the wrong way. Frankly, Benji, I think you need counseling which is the actual purpose of this letter.

    I just heard about a wonderful new therapy group. I’m sure you’ll benefit from it. In fact, a couple of the people attending may be in worse shape than you, believe me, so you needn’t be shy. One of them is a woman called Marie Curie who insists on being called Madame, of all things. Anyway, her husband persuaded her to attend the meeting because she can’t cook worth a darn. He says every time she goes into the kitchen he hears pots rattling and things bubbling on the fire, but when he asks “What’s for dinner?” she says “Nothing!” It is driving him nuts. Then there’s a man named Morse. What a nervous Nelly he is! Can’t sit still for a minute without tapping his fingers—on tables, chairs, anything he gets his hands on. Just don’t sit next to him unless you need a massage.
    All in all, I think this twelve stepper would be good for you. Listen, Benji, I only want you to find yourself—to be happy. Perhaps if you listen to your mother, you’ll amount to something. Most of all remember what you yourself told me. “If a man empties his purse into his head, no one can take it from him …” Need I say more? Get help!

    Love, Mummy

  6. laser hair removal nyc on April 17th, 2010 12:40 pm

    I am sure that i will come back here. Well written articles !

Got something to say? **Please Note** - Comments may be edited for clarity or obscenity, and all comments are published at the discretion of ChattahBox.com - Comments are the opinions of the individuals leaving them, and not of ChattahBox.com or its partners. - Please do not spam or submit comments that use copyright materials, hearsay or are based on reports where the supposed fact or quote is not a matter of public knowledge are also not permitted.