Friday, April 24, 2009

Alan Houston discovers new Benjamin Franklin letters

This is very cool (gated Chronicle article):

It sounds like a scene out of Possession: In the waning hours of a research trip to the British Library, an American scholar stumbles on a cache of letters overlooked for 250 years. It's the stuff of scholarly romance, and it happened to Alan Houston, a professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, who made what he describes as the find of a lifetime—47 letters written by, to, and about Benjamin Franklin, and never before seen by scholars.

Mr. Houston had traveled to England to round up material for his book Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement (Yale University Press, 2008). On the last day of his visit, he was in the library's Manuscripts Reading Room looking at material on the French and Indian War.

He asked to see a volume of papers that had belonged to Thomas Birch, secretary of the Royal Society from 1752 to 1765. The volume was described simply as "Copies of Letters Relating to the March of General Braddock," referring to the ill-starred venture of a British general dispatched in 1755 to capture Fort Duquesne, in present-day Pittsburgh, from the French.

"The first thing in it was a letter from Benjamin Franklin to the secretary of the governor of Maryland," Mr. Houston said this week. "I looked at the first sentence and said, 'This doesn't sound familiar.' Then I got kind of nervous and bouncy in my chair." [...]

For two years, Mr. Houston has kept his find a secret from almost everyone else, except for a handful of Franklin experts whom he consulted to help him verify the documents.[...]

The letters will finally see the light of day this month in an issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, along with an essay by the discoverer on what Mr. Houston calls "the wagon affair of 1755."

Houston's new Franklin book is high on my summer reading list.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Far out. So stuff like that can really happen!

Anonymous said...

I reviewed Houston's book Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement for the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (pub date: July 2009). It is a 'must read' for anyone working in the area of history of political thought and interested in Ben Franklin's ideas about political economy, population growth and slavery. He is a first rate scholar.

Sean said...

Events like that are fascinating, but it's kind of unsettling upon reflection that such discoveries are dependent upon information being organised in inefficient ways to begin with.