Posted on October 21, 2013
I don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Professor Edmund Sears Morgan’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. It was a Christmas present from my mother, who had it signed by Professor Morgan. He was a family acquaintance because he had a cabin on the shores of Conway Lake.
I took his course when I was at Yale, and the summer before senior year I paddled over to his house on a Sunday morning and asked him about sources for my senior paper on the Burr Conspiracy. He was very helpful.
Professor Morgan was what we now call a national treasure who shed an insightful light on many facets of American history. He passed away in July of this year at the age of 97. At 86, when he published the book, he was still going strong, and attributed its success to “the geezer factor.”
Professor Morgan and I both worked on the editing of the Franklin papers at Sterling Library, compiling all his letters and writings, which are still being collected from all over the world. When I was there, back in 1974, it was up to 17 volumes. In 2002, it was up to 56 volumes, and Professor Morgan read them all, and he was just the guy to give us all kinds of insights about this remarkable man, who discovered the conductivity of electricity, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, devised the glass armonica, for which Beethoven and Mozart both composed music, obtained the French alliance that won the American Revolution, charted the Gulf Stream, and started the first public library in America.
Would it surprise you to learn that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations after a year of close collaboration with Ben Franklin?
One of Morgan’s greatest gifts was the ability to use seemingly mundane facts to give his readers and his students a new perspective on the people they were studying. The Puritans of New England, for example. What color did they paint their houses? Every historic district I’ve ever seen is full of houses painted white. Morgan studied the ships’ manifests from the period and found their favorite colors for house paint were red and blue.
He does the same with Franklin, leading off with Franklin’s love of swimming. Franklin crossed the Atlantic many times, and when the seas were calm he used to swim laps around the ship. He loved swimming long distances and continued well into his seventies.
Everyone should read Franklin’s Autobiography; besides the teachings of Jesus, it’s probably the best guide we have about how to be a better person. Poor Richard’s Almanac has a lot of wisdom, too. For those who love and admire Benjamin Franklin, here is a work that tells us even more about this remarkable man by one of the world’s greatest scholars.