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Benjamin Franklin on American Independence, Freedom of Commerce vs Civil Liberty, & More
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“People are almost unanimous in being satisfied with the Revolution... the enthusiastic Joy with which the Day of the Declaration of Independence is everywhere annually celebrated, are indisputable Proofs of this Truth.”

With four full pages of excellent content on his return home after 9 years of serving as America’s Minister to France, this is acknowledged as one of Franklin’s finest letters.

Franklin responds to the abbé André Morellet with a delightful and intimate letter that shares his thoughts on a wide range of subjects, from the comfort of being home (after 9 years as America’s minister to France), to the best methods of collecting taxes in sparsely populated but growing nation, to the primacy of economic over political liberty, to pockets of unrest in America, and the sustained interest in the Revolution and Declaration of Independence.

 “I am of the same Opinion with you respecting the Freedom of Commerce, in Countries especially where direct Taxes are practicable. This will be our Case in time when our wide-extended Country fills up with Inhabitants.... Nothing can be better express’d than your Sentiments are on this Point, where you prefer Liberty of Trading, Cultivating, Manufacturing, &c. even to political civil Liberty, this being affected but rarely, the others every Hour.”

These issues were certainly on Franklin’s mind. A few weeks after he wrote this letter, delegates started to gather for the Constitutional Convention. Franklin joined the convention on May 28, right after a quorum was achieved, and brokered compromises at several crucial moments.

An amazing Founders letter. Leonard W. Labaree, the inaugural editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, considered this “one of Franklin’s best, written in his most delightful vein of intimate conversation with a dear friend.”

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN. Autograph Letter Signed, to the abbé André Morellet. Philadelphia, Pa., April 22, 1787. 4 pp., 8¼ x 13¼ in.

Inventory #23840       PRICE ON REQUEST

Transcript

                                                                                    Philada. April 22—87.

My very dear Friend,

I received, tho’ long after they were written, your very agreable Favours of Oct. 30—85, and February 9.—86, with the Pieces enclos’d, Productions of the Auteuil Academy of Belles Lettres. Your kind and friendly Wishes and Congratulations are extremely obliging. It gives me infinite Pleasure to find that I still retain a favourable Place in the Remembrance of the worthy and the Good, whose delightful & instructive Society I had the Happiness of enjoying while I resided in France.

But tho’ I could not leave that dear Nation without Regret, I certainly did right in coming home. I am here in my Niche, in my own House, in the Bosom of my Family, my Daughter and Grandchildren, all about me, among my old Friends or the Sons of my Friends who equally respect me; and who all speak and understand the same Language with me; and you know that if a Man desires to be useful by the Exercise of his mental Faculties, he loses half their Force when in a foreign Country, where he can only express himself in a Language with which he is not well acquainted. In short I enjoy here Every Opportunity of doing Good, and every thing else I could wish for, except Repose; and that I may soon expect, either by the Cessation of my Office, which cannot last more than 3 Years, or by ceasing to live.

I am of the same Opinion with you respecting the Freedom of Commerce, in Countries especially where direct Taxes are practicable. This will be our Case in <2> time when our wide-extended Country fills up with Inhabitants. But at present they are so sparsely settled, often 5 or 6 Miles distant from one another in the back Counties, that the Collection of a direct Tax is almost impossible the Trouble of the Collector’s going from House to House, amounting to more than the Value of the Tax.— Nothing can be better express’d than your Sentiments are on this Point, where you prefer Liberty of Trading, Cultivating, Manufacturing, &c. even to political civil Liberty, this being affected but rarely, the others every Hour. Our Debt occasion’d by the War, being heavy, we are under the Necessity of using Imposts, and every Method we can think of to assist in raising a Revenue to discharge it; but in Sentiment we are well disposed to abolish Duties on Importation as soon as we possibly can afford to do so.

Whatever may be reported by the English in Europe, you may be assured that our People are almost unanimous in being satisfied with the Revolution. Their unbounded Respect for all who were principally concern’d in it, whether as Warriors or Statesmen, and the enthusiastic Joy with which the Day of the Declaration of Independence is every where annually celebrated, are indisputable Proofs of this Truth.—  In one or two of the States there have been some Discontents on partial & local Subjects; these may have been fomented, as the Accounts of them are exaggerated, by our antient Enemies; but they are now nearly suppress’d and the rest of the States enjoy Peace & good Order, and flourish amazingly.— The Crops have been good for several Years past, the Price of Country Produce high from Foreign Demand, and it fetches ready Money; Rents are high in our Towns, which increase fast by new Buildings, Labourers & Artisans have high Wages well paid; and vast Tracts of new Land are continually clearing and render’d fit for Cultivation.<3>  

Your Project of Transporting, rather than drowning, the good Lady’s eighteen Cats, is very humane. The kind Treatment they experience from their present Mistress, may possibly cause an Unwillingness to hazard the Change of Situation; but if they are of the Angora Breed, and can be inform’d how two of their Tribe brought over by my Grandson are caress’d and almost ador’d here, they may possibly be induc’d to transport themselves rather than risque any longer the Persecution of the Abbé’s, which sooner or later must end in their Condemnation. Their Requéte [petition] is admirably well-written; but their continually Increasing in Number will in time make their Cause insupportable: Their Friends should therefore advise them to submit voluntarily either to Transport= or to Castr= ation.    

The Remarks of a Grammarian on the Particle on, are full of Wit, and just Satire. My Friends here who understand French have been highly entertain’d with them. They will do good if you publish them. They have had some Effect upon me, as you will see in this Letter: For when I spoke of the prosperous State of our Affairs here, fearing you might suppose that I thought all well because I myself had a profitable Place, I found it proper to add other Reasons.—

Your taking the Pains of Translating the Addresses, is a strong Mark of the Continuance of your Friendship for me, which gave me as much Pleasure as the Addresses themselves had done, & that you may well believe, was not a little: For indeed the Reception I met with on my Arrival far exceeded my Expectation. Popular Favour, not the most constant Thing in the World, still continues with regard to me, my Election to the Presidentship for the second Year being unanimous. Whether it will hold out to the End of the third, is uncertain. A Man in high Place has so many Occasions, which he cannot avoid, of disobliging, if he does his Duty; and those he disobliges have so much more Resentment, than <4> those he obliges have Gratitude, that it often happens when he is strongly attack’d he is weakly defended. You will therefore not wonder if you should hear that I do not finish my political Career with the same Eclat that I began it.

It grieves me to learn that you have been aflicted with Sickness. It is as you say the Condition of living, but it seems a hard Condition. I sometimes wonder that all good Men and Women are not by Providence kept free from Pain & Disease. In the best of all possible Worlds, I should suppose it must be so; and I am piously inclin’d to believe that this World’s not being better made was owing merely to the Badness of the Materials.

Embrase for me tenderly the good Dame whom I love as ever. I thought to have written to her and to Mr. Cabanis by this Pacquet, but must defer it to the next for want of Time. I am, my Dear Friend, with sincere Esteem & Affection, Yours ever

                                                                                                B. Franklin

Please to Present my Respects to M. LeRoy and others of the Wednesday’s Dining Party, and Love to the Stars, and to your Family—My Grandsons join me in best Wishes—

M. l’Abbé Morellet

Historical Background

In London representing Pennsylvania interests against the proprietary Penn family in the 1750s and 1760s, Franklin dressed in the finery appropriate to Whitehall politics. As minister to France from 1776 to 1785, on the other hand, he dressed in furs and other rustic clothing to capitalize on the impression of Americans as a kind of New World intellectual or “noble savage.” Charming Parisians with his wit, intellectual and scientific accomplishments, literary abilities, and political and diplomatic skills, Franklin was instrumental in securing the critical 1778 Franco-American alliance, and in negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

When Franklin arrived back in Philadelphia in mid-September of 1785, he was greeted by ebullient crowds of admirers, laudatory addresses, and public celebrations. Though the 79-year-old statesman had every intention of retiring, in October, he was elected president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council, an office that he held for three years. He also served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (he was elected the day after writing this letter), and as a delegate to the 1787 Federal Convention, where he helped draft the U.S. Constitution.

Franklin kept up correspondence with many of his close friends in France, including the writer and philosopher abbé André Morellet. In response to Morellet’s letters of October 30, 1785 and February 9, 1786, Franklin here expresses his “infinite Pleasure” in being remembered by “the worthy and the Good” – his friends at Auteuil, which included the abbé, as well as Madame Helvétius (a patroness of the arts and sciences) and her secretary Cabanis (an editor, philosopher, and physician), among others. He is sure, however, that he was right to return to America, where he is “in my Niche, in my own House, in the Bosom of my Family … among my old Friends or Sons of my Friends who equally respect me…”

Morellet had observed in his October letter that, if the United States continued to hold to its founding values, Europe would look to the fledgling nation as an example of how to revive its own prosperity. He considered the importance of free and unfettered commerce to be as critical to national happiness as political freedom. Franklin, who had served as one of the commissioners to conclude treaties of commerce with the major European nations during his closing years in France, responds that he is “of the same Opinion with you respecting the Freedom of Commerce,” and proceeds to discuss the commercial situation in the United States, and taxation and imposts.

In a stirring passage, Franklin assures Morellet that American enthusiasm for Revolution and Independence has not waned: “our People are almost unanimous in being satisfied with the Revolution. Their unbounded Respect for all who were principally concern’d in it, whether as Warriors or Statesmen, and the enthusiastic Joy with which the Day of the Declaration of Independence is everywhere annually celebrated, are indisputable Proofs of this Truth.”

With liberty comes the right to take a contrarian view, and Franklin admits that there is some of that about, but argues that the strength and growth of the American economy is further proof of the success of the Revolution. The “Discontents” he cites are no doubt references to Shays’s Rebellion, the 1786-87 armed uprising in Massachusetts over economic injustices, as well as an upsurge in the Yankee-Pennamite War, a long-term dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania settlers over land grants.

In a lighter vein, Franklin plays along with a joke about the eighteen cats of Mme. Helvétius. Inspired by Franklin’s now lost piece thanking Morellet “for the flies in your rooms, after the destruction of the spiders ordered by Our Lady,” Morellet returned the favor with the “Humble Petitions presented to Madame Helvetius by her Cats.” Just as Franklin had observed in his essay “On Peopling Countries,” the petition notes that the cats increased in proportion to the means of subsistence. It suggests that they be shipped to America to live off the plentiful squirrels and rats, but worries that since the U.S. had not yet finalized its commercial treaty with France, the import duties might prove problematic. Franklin purrs back, complementing the Cats’ petition, but warning that “their continually Increasing in Number will in time make their Cause insupportable. Their Friends should therefore advise them to submit voluntarily either to Transport—or to Castr—ation.”

The Cats’ petition was discovered amongst Franklin’s papers after his death, and first published erroneously as his rather than Morellet’s work. It is now published in full, correctly credited, based on Morellet’s own translation.

When Franklin and his grandson returned from France in 1785, their two tons of baggage included two angora cats, probably acquired from Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d’Autricourt. Madame Helvetius famously kept 18 angoras “always bedecked with silk ribbons and doted on.... When his cherished Ludlow died, Franklin had the animal stuffed and presented it to artist Charles Willson Peale’s natural sciences museum.” (http://www.oldcitydistrict.org/media-coverage-old-city/2014/03/12/old-city-factoids-3-12-2014). This was reportedly the first specimen collected by Peale for his Philadelphia Museum.

Approaching the end of this letter, Franklin mentions his reception upon his return from France; in fact, his reputation was second only to Washington’s as a champion of independence. His comments display a deep understanding of the normally fleeting nature of public popularity, especially in politics. “A man in high place has so many Occasions, which he cannot avoid, of Disobliging, if he does his Duty; and those he Disobliges have so much more resentment, than those he obliges, have Gratitude, that it often happens, when he is strongly attack’d, he is weakly defended. You will therefore not wonder if you should hear that I do not finish my Political Career with the same Éclat that I began it.”

In closing, Franklin philosophically commiserates with Morellet on his ill health: “I sometimes wonder that all good Men and Women are not by Providence kept free of Pain and Disease. In the best of all possible Worlds, I should suppose it must be so; and I am piously inclin’d to believe that this World’s not being better made was owing merely to the badness of the Materials.”

Franklin was elected a third time to the presidency of Pennsylvania, and little over a month after writing this letter, capped off his career by helping to craft the U.S. Constitution.  “I enjoy here every opportunity of doing Good, and everything else I could wish for, except Repose; and that I may soon expect, either by the Cessation of my Office, which cannot last more than 3 years, or by ceasing to live.” In fact, the term of Franklin’s life ran virtually concurrent with that of his office: he died on April 17, 1790, a few days shy of three years after writing this letter.

André Morellet (1727-1819) was a French philosopher, economist, and writer highly active in French literary society. He took vows following a Jesuit education, but did not take them terribly seriously. Voltaire called him “L’Abbé Mords-les” (“Father Bite-them”) due to his quick and acerbic wit. His most notable works were an answer to Palissot’s play Les Philosophes, which led to a short stay in the Bastille for libel. Morellet was a contributor to the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) published in France between 1751 and 1772. His satirical translation of the Directorium Inquisitorum, an early treatise on sorcery and the rooting out of witchcraft that had become the handbook of the Spanish Inquisition, influenced the Catholic Church to abandon some of its inquisitorial practices. Morellet was elected a member of the Académie française in 1785.  His Mémoires sur le XVIIIe siècle et la Révolution (Memoirs of the 18th Century and the Revolution, 1821) appeared posthumously. He and Franklin developed a close friendship during the latter’s tenure in France.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was one of the first great American renaissance men, succeeding as a statesman, scientist, writer, printer and diplomat. Born in Boston, his father planned for him to become a minister, but ran out of money after he received only two years of formal education. In 1718, at the age of twelve, Franklin was sent to work as an apprentice to his half-brother, who had founded a newspaper, the New England Courant.

After spending a short time in London, Franklin settled in Philadelphia and established his own printing business in 1728.  In 1732, he published the first edition of his Poor Richard’s Almanac, an entertaining combination of traditional almanac material and maxims taken from around the world.  His witty sayings fueled the popularity of the book in America and in Europe. During the 1740s, he developed an interest in science, invented the Franklin stove, and performed a series of key experiments on electricity.  In 1757, he returned to England as Pennsylvania’s representative in a tax dispute and successfully negotiated a settlement. 

In 1764 he again found himself in England, this time arguing (unsuccessfully) against a proposed Stamp Act.  In the following years, he was retained as a colonial agent in London by Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. When the tension between England and the American colonies increased, he returned home and served as a member of the Second Continental Congress, where he organized a new postal system and helped draft the Declaration of Independence.  He negotiated for military and financial assistance in France during the War for Independence, and arranged the commercial and strategic alliance with that country in 1778.  Franklin played an integral role in the Treaty of Paris (September 3, 1783), settling peace between the U.S. and Britain. 

He remained active into his old age, serving as Ambassador to France, President of Pennsylvania, and delegate and elder statesman to the Constitutional Convention, while continuing his scientific investigations: at the age of 83, he invented bifocal glasses. Benjamin Franklin remains one of the great intellectual and political figures in American history.

Provenance:

Ex- Nathaniel E. Stein and Frederick Nederlander Collections.


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