One scholar writes, "In another moment of history, they might never have met." For today's episode, we examine the brief, yet important relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who came from two different worlds and generations, yet helped forge a new nation together.
Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.
Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.
Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.
Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.
Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.
For today’s podcast, we focus on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, their work together throughout the American Revolution, and the fond regard they had toward one another.
As scholar George W. Boudreau writes, “In another moment of history, they might never have met.” Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, 1706. Thomas Jefferson was born on the Virginia frontier in 1743. Boudreau continues:
“Franklin was a man of towns; Jefferson an inhabitant of plantations. Yet in their different times, locations and levels of wealth, the two men embraced both an expanding mental world of natural philosophical inquiry and a concomitant comprehension of humanity’s rights in the natural world. That perspective resulted in their fateful meeting in Philadelphia in 1775.”
And by the time Jefferson and Franklin first met one another, Jefferson was 32 years old and Franklin was 69. Franklin, by this point, had founded the American Philosophical Society, had considerable success as a printer and publisher in Philadelphia, had published Poor Richard’s Almanack, had served as a postmaster for the British American colonies, had traveled across Europe and spent many years in London, and had become internationally famous for his scientific experiments in electricity. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date for their first meeting, Jefferson was likely familiar with Franklin and his accomplishments when they encountered each other in 1775 Philadelphia. Both had been appointed members of the Second Continental Congress meeting in the city, and it was this body that would ultimately decide that thirteen American colonies would break from the British Empire.
Franklin likely had heard of Jefferson too. A year earlier in 1774, Jefferson had written A Summary View of the Rights of British America, and in September of that year, Franklin received a letter from a friend who included with the letter a copy of Jefferson’s Summary. His friend wrote, “I inclose a small pamphlet, said to be written by a Mr. Jefferson, of Virginia. If you have not seen it, I believe it will please you.” While Jefferson did not argue for independence from Great Britain, his pamphlet nevertheless captured a growing revolutionary spirit in the American colonies. Jefferson explained in it that he hoped his thoughts would ultimately reach King George III:
“That an humble and dutiful address be presented to his majesty, begging leave to lay before him, as chief magistrate of the British empire, the united complaints of his majesty’s subjects in America; complaints which are excited by many unwarrantable encroachments and usurpations, attempted to be made by the legislature of one part of the empire, upon those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.”
Franklin, like Jefferson, understood that British Americans were growing frustrated with the British King and Parliament, and, also like Jefferson, would use his pen to make these thoughts known. In 1773 while abroad in London, Franklin wrote a satirical essay titled “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One,” which was printed in the city as well as Philadelphia. Rule #1: “In the first Place, Gentlemen, you are to consider, that a great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges. Turn your Attention therefore first to your remotest Provinces; that as you get rid of them, the next may follow in Order.
Ultimately, these tensions between empire and colonies would not be resolved easily. The Battles of Lexington and Concord had already taken place when Franklin and Jefferson gathered in 1775 as members of the Second Continental Congress to see what the next steps might be for the thirteen colonies. It was a remarkable environment: Jefferson wrote that “a phrenzy of revenge seems to have seized all ranks of people,” yet in the midst of this, many of Franklin’s colleagues in the Congress noticed his behavior. Franklin biographer H. W. Brands writes, “He struck no lightning bolts of rhetoric, preferring to sit silent while others orated.” In fact, some began to think Franklin might be the enemy within: William Bradford wrote to James Madison that “I can […] inform you that they begin to entertain a great suspicion that Dr. Franklin came rather as a spy than as a friend, & that he means to discover our weak side.” Eventually these rumors subsided as many came to realize, as Brands writes, “that on the subject of resistance to British tyranny, none was more determined than Franklin.” To this point, it began to affect Franklin’s relationships with friends. Franklin wrote, yet did not send, a letter to William Strahan:
“Mr. Strahan, you are a member of Parliament, and one of that majority which has doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends; you are now my enemy, and I am yours.”
Famously, the ongoing conflict would lead to Franklin breaking all connections with his only surviving son, William Franklin, the last Royal Governor of New Jersey, who chose the British cause when the Revolutionary War broke out.
It might not be surprising, therefore, that when the question of independence was brought before the Continental Congress, the body chose Franklin to join a committee tasked with drafting a potential declaration of independence. The other members were John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. The group began their work on June 11, 1776, but Jefferson ultimately wrote the first draft. Jefferson’s first recorded letter to Franklin might have included Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence, but we do know that Jefferson sought out Franklin’s thoughts on what he had written and a number of Franklin’s suggestions were included in the final draft of the document. After the draft Declaration was submitted to Congress, though, Jefferson became quite irritated at the host of edits made, how his text was “mutilated” by members of the Congress; this led to Franklin trying to cheer up his colleague. And so he told Jefferson a funny anecdote:
“‘I have made it a rule, said he, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. when I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice Hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. his first concern was to have a handsome sign-board, with a proper inscription. he composed it in these words ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats. for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined. but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. the first he shewed it to thought the word ‘Hatter,’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats’ which shew he was a Hatter. it was struck out. the next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. if good & to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. he struck it out. a third said he thought the words ‘for ready money,’ were useless as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. every one who purchased expected to pay. they were parted with, and the inscription now stood ‘John Thomson sells hats.’ ‘sells hats’ says his next friend? why nobody will expect you to give them away. what then is the use of that word? it was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather, as there was one painted on the board. so his inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thomson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.’”
After more than eighty edits, the Declaration of Independence was ultimately approved and ratified by the Congress on July 4, 1776. Franklin was then sent to France a few months later by the Congress to act as an American ambassador to the nation and appeal for French support.
As a diplomat, Franklin was charming and creative. To set himself apart, he wore a fur hat instead of a powdered wig. When socializing, he usually deferred to others in conversation to mask the fact that he was learning French. Franklin ultimately was treated like a celebrity. Jefferson wrote that “when Dr. Franklin went to France, on his revolutionary mission, his eminence as a philosopher, his venerable appearance, and the cause on which he was sent, rendered him extremely popular. […] he was therefore feasted and invited to all the court parties.” A Parisian further explained, “The crowd chased after [Franklin] in parks and public places; hats, canes, and snuffboxes were designed in the Franklin style, and people thought themselves very lucky if they were invited to the same dinner party as this famous man.”
Eventually, Franklin was able to secure a military alliance with France that proved indispensable to the United States’ cause. The combined French and American forces at Yorktown in 1781 led to the British surrendering, and in 1783 Franklin, along with his colleagues John Adams and John Jay, signed the Treaty of Paris formally ending the Revolutionary War.
As negotiations were proceeding, Franklin heard that Jefferson would eventually arrive in France as a diplomat, but there were considerable delays. In 1782, he wrote to Jefferson, “I was in great Hopes when I saw your Name in the Commission for treating of Peace, that I should have had the Happiness of seeing you here, and of enjoying again in this World, your pleasing Society and Conversation. But I begin now to fear that I shall be disappointed.” Six months later Jefferson wrote to Franklin that he had reached Philadelphia, but was late for his voyage to France.
Jefferson reached Paris in August 1784. He and Franklin would only remain in the city together for less than a year, but Jefferson made sure to utilize Franklin to improve his own stature among the French. He hoped, for example, that certain introductions made by Franklin would open “doors of admission for me.”
In time, the United States government saw fit that Jefferson replace Franklin as chief diplomat in France after his many years of service there on behalf of the national cause. Jefferson explained:
“The succession to Dr. Franklin at the court of France, was an excellent school of humility. On being presented to any one as the Minister of America, the common-place question, used in such cases, was […] ‘It is you, Sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?’ I generally answered ‘no one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.’”
Jefferson, in fact, understood that the United States’ reputation abroad hinged in many ways on Franklin’s reputation. A few days before Franklin departed for home, Jefferson wrote to James Monroe that “Europe fixes an attentive eye on your reception of Doctr. Franklin. He is infinitely esteemed.” Franklin was received well when he arrived in Philadelphia, having been greeted by a “crowd of people with huzzas.”
For so much of the time they knew one another, circumstance kept Franklin and Jefferson apart only to briefly meet like two ships passing on the ocean. These short moments, however, were important for both individuals, and the last such occasion occurred in the spring of 1790. Jefferson wrote, “At Philadelphia I called on the venerable and beloved Franklin. He was then on the bed of sickness from which he never rose.” They spoke about the French Revolution and Franklin’s unfinished autobiography. Franklin would pass away on April 17, 1790.
Jefferson wrote a eulogy for Franklin that was delivered to Reverend William Smith. He offered these thoughts:
“I feel both the wish and the duty to communicate […] whatever, within my knowledge, might render justice to the memory of our great countryman Dr. Franklin, in whom Philosophy has to deplore one of it’s principal luminaries extinguished.
“These small offerings to the memory of our great and dear friend, whom time will be making greater while it is spunging us from it’s records, must be accepted by you, Sir, in that spirit of love and veneration for him in which they are made.”
Years later, Jefferson would remark on his friend and colleague, describing him as “the greatest man & ornament of the age and country in which he lived.”
Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.
Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org.