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My Life with Benjamin Franklin

My Life with Benjamin Franklin

Claude-Anne Lopez
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    My Life with Benjamin Franklin
    Book Description:

    This delightful book is a collection of incidental pieces that reveal little-known aspects of the life and personality of Benjamin Franklin. Written by the doyenne of Franklin scholars, it conveys Franklin's humor, resiliency, courage, and intelligence, and his faith in a better future.The selections are based on Claude-Anne Lopez's research in the treasure trove of nearly thirty thousand documents on Franklin assembled at Yale University. They include a detailed refutation of an anti-Semitic forgery attributed to Franklin and currently circulating on the Internet; three mini-detective stories showing Franklin on the fringes of the espionage world; discussions of Franklin's efforts to outfit Washington's army and to choose the first dinner set for the Foreign Service; and the tale of the misadventures of a French utopian scheme he sponsored. The only piece of fiction in the book is an imaginary party during which, on the first anniversary of his death, six illustrious Frenchmen discuss Franklin's influence on their country. Lopez has provided brief personal introductions to each of the pieces, giving her reasons for writing them and in the process threading the essays together.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14763-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A Chronology of Franklin’s Life and Curiosity
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Benjamin Franklin Enters My Life
    (pp. xv-xxii)

    Franklin, you have been my passport to America. To be sure, I held interesting jobs during the war years—in the Office of War Information, as staff member of the Belgian delegation to the first United Nations Conference in San Francisco—but I hardly ever met what we French-speaking émigrés referred to as “des vrais Américains,” that enviable species born and bred in this country.

    When at the end of the war I married Robert Lopez, an Italian-born medievalist, and moved to New Haven, where Yale had offered him a teaching position, I found myself plunged into the midst of...

  5. Part I: Some Facets of Franklin’s Personality

    • 1 Franklin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the Internet
      (pp. 3-16)

      I ended my Introduction by thanking Franklin for having given me an interesting life. This seems like the right time to prove my gratitude by coming to the defense of his reputation, which has recently been sullied on the Internet, where he has been represented as a rabid anti-Semite.

      As I was wondering how to proceed, I received a request from Sandro Gerbi, a freelance journalist in Milan who is a lifelong friend of our family. He needed a quotation from a book that I would surely find at the Yale Library. The book in question, Morris Kominsky’sThe Hoaxers...

    • 2 The Only Founding Father in a Sports Hall of Fame
      (pp. 17-23)

      It has long been my dream to present on educational television some of Franklin’s scientific accomplishments in a manner that would interest adolescents—to show students the thrill of discoveries achieved in an atmosphere of warm international comradeship, as they were in the eighteenth century, rather than in the secrecy imposed today by the competition for prizes or grants.

      In order to create a framework for Franklin’s scientific inquiries and those of his colleagues, I proposed to divide them into broad categories such as water, fire, air, and earth, with Franklin, as narrator, conversing with his contemporaries. The account of...

    • 3 Three Women, Three Styles
      (pp. 24-37)

      In Europe, Franklin has always been considered an extraordinary figure—in science, diplomacy, writing talent, humor, and philanthropy. The bicentennial of his death was celebrated in France in 1990 in a variety of ways, including with sumptuous brochures underwritten by corporations—one of which was, appropriately, France-Electricité.

      The popular image of Franklin in his own country is—regrettably—quite different. While a great symposium (“Reappraising Franklin”) was orchestrated in Philadelphia on the bicentennial by Professor Leo Lemay, the local papers filled their pages with salacious tales about the supposedly inexhaustible sexual drive of the man being remembered, as if there...

    • 4 Grandfathers, Fathers, and Sons
      (pp. 38-58)

      When Miss Jane Persis Burn-Murdoch died in Florence almost forty years ago, she left among the papers bequeathed to her nephews and nieces some old letters that had belonged to her father, long-time minister of the Church of Scotland at Nice. Among them was a bundle contained in a wrapper addressed to her father’s own father, a man whose life spanned the first half of the nineteenth century.

      Almost twenty years elapsed before the heirs opened the bundle, which turned out to contain ten mysterious and apparently unrelated letters dating back to 1782. One of them, addressed to “my dear...

  6. Part II: Enigmas and Tricks

    • 5 The Man Who Frightened Franklin
      (pp. 61-72)

      My involvement with this bizarre episode proceeded backwards. Since my work entails almost exclusively transcribing and interpreting documents in French, my first inkling of a potential story came from the Truffé letter that appears toward the end of the essay. There was something so poignant about that letter that my curiosity was piqued, as it always is when I sense a human drama buried among the commercial, legal, diplomatic, or purely routine topics that constitute the bulk of the Franklin Papers. What kind of a husband would abandon a wife and baby in such a callous way—penniless, in a...

    • 6 Franklin and the Unfortunate Divine
      (pp. 73-87)

      Franklin is not at the center of the two next enigmas. But in both cases, I became so fascinated by the mystery involved and the personality of the main character in them that I tried to learn as much as I could about the events and Franklin’s role. To be sure, the rise and fall of the Reverend Dodd has been described more than once, but previous historians were unaware of a relevant document in our treasure trove at Yale, and they did not know that in his hour of crisis, just before the act that would doom him, he...

    • 7 Franklin’s Most Baffling Correspondent
      (pp. 88-104)

      Brilliant spy or shameless blackmailer? Astute diplomat or embarrassing loose cannon? Sophisticated collector of books or debt-ridden raving paranoid? Valorous dragoon or pathetic subject ordered to retire to a convent? Poignant or ludicrous? Man or woman? Who was this creature?

      This creature was the unfathomable chevalier d’Eon, whose name has given rise to what psychiatrists call “eonism,” meaning a transsexual personality. Enormous numbers of books, memoirs, forgeries, confessions, novels, serious publications, and titillating fantasies have been written about him for two centuries and keep on being published. The reason for his appearance in this book is that one more facet...

    • 8 Franklin and the Mystery Turk: The Morals of Chess
      (pp. 105-113)

      Why would a non-chess player like me choose to write on such a well-known facet of Franklin’s life? Because of two new elements I would like to add to the chess legend developed around him. The first, a delightful period piece, shows the fascination with automata, as pervasive in the eighteenth century as our worship of electronic marvels is today. The second, following the story of that endearing Turk, contrasts Franklin’s utopian view of the game, as expressed in hisMorals of Chess, with the more realistic appraisal of his friend Dr. Barbeu-Dubourg, a fervent admirer for once turned critic....

    • 9 Franklin and Mesmer: A Confrontation
      (pp. 114-126)

      In this case, as in the previous one, I was lucky enough to find in the French archives a document hitherto unknown to the American public: the report in French of the Académie Royale des Sciences on their investigation of Mesmer. I thought it psychologically fascinating and wrote the following paper, which appeared in theYale Journal of Biology and Medicine66 (July 1993). Fifteen foreign scholars asked me for a reprint, which led me to believe that the piece, with minor revisions, might be of interest to readers of this book.

      In the year 1784, the population of Paris...

  7. Part III: His Country’s Envoy

    • 10 Outfitting One’s Country for War: A Study in Frustration
      (pp. 129-139)

      My first piece of original writing after I joined the Franklin Papers dealt with the best way to prevent copper saucepans from poisoning their users. I happened to notice that the man who gave Franklin sound advice on the subject, a man whose name had been read in all previous editions as Lavinier, was in reality Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the celebrated “father of modern chemistry.” His advice was to use pure tin totally devoid of lead and to employ a skilled—even if expensive—boilermaker to do the plating.

      This modest contribution to a bit of domestic technology was published...

    • 11 Franklin’s Choice of a Dinner Set
      (pp. 140-147)

      I became obsessed with this quest for well over a year because of a dream: the dream that some day, when a state dinner was given at the White House, the tableware would be ever so simple, pure white, with no more ornamentation than a sprig pattern in relief around the rim—and, on each table, a little card would tell the guests that they were to be served on reproductions of the dinner plates that Benjamin Franklin had chosen while he was minister plenipotentiary to France. Franklin’s popularity is such, all around the world, that the room would soon...

    • 12 Franklin and the Nine Sisters
      (pp. 148-157)

      This piece is based on a talk I gave in French at a Masonic lodge in Liège, Belgium, on an occasion when women were invited. The apprehension I felt at finding myself in such an unfamiliar milieu was soon dissipated by the custom of universal hugging and kissing that preceded the talk. And luckily, I had been warned not to expect applause at the end, but two minutes of respectful silence, to be followed by questions.

      It was Franklin’s custom, when he reached a problematic point in life, to make a list of pros and cons, what he called his...

    • 13 The Duchess, the Plenipotentiary, and the Golden Cap of Liberty
      (pp. 158-163)

      Franklin’s admirers—and they are legion across the country as well as in Europe—take pleasure in seeing objects he owned; they even try to touch them if the owner or curator is not looking. Imagine then the even greater thrill of discovering an object of Franklin’s that is described in the letters but everyone thought had disappeared.

      Ellen Cohn and I had gone to the Butler Library of Columbia University with a completely different purpose in mind when we stumbled upon a tiny piece of paper in a scrapbook. It showed an elegant silver pitcher with the following caption:...

    • 14 Franklin Plays Cupid
      (pp. 164-167)

      This slight, amusing little story intrigued me because it shows that despite his love of France and his rapid assimilation to the country, Franklin did not have a real grasp of the formality that underlay, like a rock, the charming surface of social intercourse. His unawareness of this fundamental fact of French life—that tradition played a larger role than human emotions—led him to make the same psychological mistake when he proposed a marriage between Temple and the daughter of his close friends, the Brillons. His suggestion was based on the attraction that the young people obviously felt for...

    • 15 Was Franklin Too French?
      (pp. 168-182)

      A symposium was held in Philadelphia in 1990 to mark the two hundredth anniversary of Franklin’s death. Its theme, “Reappraising Franklin,” gave me a new impetus to explore one part of his life that I feel needs reconsideration: his final years. In most biographies, this period is presented as the glorious climax of a great career: Franklin signing the Constitution, just as he had signed the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris. A good journalist who was always there when history took a turn.

      But what I see in Franklin’s letters is an old man whose private dreams...

  8. Part IV: Back at Home

    • 16 Innocents on the Ohio: The American Utopia of Dr. Guillotin
      (pp. 185-195)

      When I heard, a few years ago, that a symposium on utopia was to be held in Pisa, Italy, I promptly submitted a paper in French that involved Franklin, Dr. Guillotin, and a utopian scheme. The reason for my alacrity was the hope that my Italian in-laws, who live in Tuscany, would attend.

      After listening to a full day of theories about an impressive variety of utopias—with every speaker going well beyond the allotted fifteen minutes—I was informed that my paper, postponed until the next morning, did not qualify to be presented. Why not? Because the termutopia,...

    • 17 Franklin and Slavery: A Sea Change
      (pp. 196-205)

      When the Macmillan Reference Company decided to publish theEncyclopedia of World Slavery, they asked me to write the entries on Franklin and Condorcet. After re-reading the chapter on slavery that my coauthor Eugenia Herbert, a historian of Africa, had contributed toThe Private Franklin, I felt that the only new element I could bring was the influence that the French Enlightenment—especially in the person of Condorcet—had on Franklin’s thinking. I submitted a joint entry on both men’s crusade for the abolition of slavery. It was accepted, but in a radically abridged version. What I offer here is...

  9. Epilogue: Around the Table, They Remember Franklin
    (pp. 206-228)

    I was invited in 1990 to deliver the Penrose Lecture at the American Philosophical Society. What, I wondered, could I possibly tell those eminent scholars and scientists that they did not already know? After considering and rejecting several topics, I decided that the only facet of Franklin’s life on which I have some special expertise has to do with the French Enlightenment, which over there they call les Lumières, the lights. How much was he influenced by it, and vice versa?

    And what about the format? I wanted the substance of this talk to be solid, but the presentation lively...

  10. Abbreviations
    (pp. 229-232)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 233-252)
  12. Index
    (pp. 253-261)