News | May 8, 2015

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries Acquires Rare Book Printed by Benjamin Franklin

PHILADELPHIA, PA—The University of Pennsylvania Libraries is delighted to announce that it has acquired a copy of Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg’s Petit Code de la raison humaine, a book printed in France by Benjamin Franklin in 1782. It is one of only four known surviving copies of the book, and it is believed to be the last full-length book Franklin ever printed. 

Penn Libraries: A Leader in Collecting Franklin’s Printings

Scholars today know of around 900 surviving works printed by Benjamin Franklin. Of those, about 30 come from Passy, France, where Franklin established his final printing press.  Many of Franklin’s surviving works, especially the more ephemeral, exist in only one or two copies. The Penn Libraries currently holds more than 330 of these, making Penn’s collection of Franklin’s printing among the most important in the world. Most of Penn’s holdings came to the University in 1920 as a gift from the Curtis Publishing Company. Additional purchases and generous gifts from Penn alumni have added to the Franklin printing collection over the years. Penn also holds an array of material relating to Franklin’s time at Passy. The newly arrived, pristine copy of Barbeu-Dubourg’s Petit Code provides another key jewel in this crown.   It is fitting that Penn has become the final home for this remarkable work, in which Franklin reproduced the words of his friend, encouraging the education of young people by “…inspiring without restriction their body, spirit, and soul, their pursuit of the arts, passion for the sciences, and sensitivity towards their neighbors.”

Benjamin Franklin’s Printing Legacy

When Benjamin Franklin helped to found what is now the University of Pennsylvania in 1740 he was primarily known as a Philadelphia printer.  In his printing office, located on Market Street, he produced everything from colonial Pennsylvania’s laws, to speeches encouraging smallpox inoculation, to almanacs and various newspapers.  An information broker par excellence, Franklin was an integral part of connecting the young city of Philadelphia with the wider world.  After signing the Declaration of Independence and “retiring” in 1766, Franklin traveled to England and France, making friends among the scientific and diplomatic elite.  Soon after, he took up the crucial post of ambassador to France, making the Paris suburb of Passy his home for nine years.  From this post, Franklin lobbied for the young nation, continued his patronage of the arts and sciences and resumed his love of printing.

In Passy, Franklin’s small, private printing press produced printed passports for the wartime United States, broadsides of various kinds, and two full-length books.  One, a work by Pierre-André Gargaz, entitled A Project of Universal and Perpetual Peace was completed in July 1782. The other, printed in December 1782, was a work by Franklin’s friend Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg (1709-1779), called the Petit Code de la raison humaine, ou Exposition succincte de ce que la raison dicte à tous les hommes pour éclairer leur conduite et assurer leur bonheur  (“A short code of  human reason, or a succinct proof that reason is given to all men to guide their conduct and ensure their happiness”).  It was the last book Franklin ever printed, and clearly reflected his passion for experimental political thought and debate and for the distribution of new knowledge. 

The Petit Code

Barbeu-Dubourg, who dedicated his Petit Code to Franklin, was a staunch supporter of the cause of the America’s, spending his own money freely in their aid. A scientist, doctor, and widely-read scholar, Barbeu-Dubourg was an early proponent of American arts and letters and, in 1773, published a two volume set of Franklin’s works translated into French providing a vast audience in Europe access to Franklin’s works. 

Barbeu-Dubourg’s Petit Code, first written in the late 1760s and continued until his death in 1779, outlined 102 principles on the nature of moral and political life. The book was censored in France thanks to its commitment to the rights of man and its support for revolutionary changes in the political order. Franklin was so enamored with the work that he had an earlier draft printed in England in both French and English, though no known copies of the English translation by Mary Hewson survive today. In Passy, Franklin printed The Petit Code in a beautiful, custom typeface for a small number of friends.  Only four known copies survive today, and, until now, only one of those copies had been in a publically accessible collection. The copy now at the Penn Libraries is in exquisite condition and showcases Franklin’s skill and eye for the art of printing.  Penn faculty, students, alumni and visitors can view this new addition to the Library’s Franklin print collection in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.