Library of Congress Puts Papers of Benjamin Franklin Online

B-Franklin-of-Philadelphia-Portrait.jpgThe papers of American scientist, statesman and diplomat Benjamin Franklin have been digitized and are now available online for the first time from the Library of Congress. The Library announced the digitization today in remembrance of the anniversary of Franklin’s death on April 17, 1790.

The Franklin papers consist of approximately 8,000 items mostly dating from the 1770s and 1780s. These include the petition that the First Continental Congress sent to Franklin, then a colonial diplomat in London, to deliver to King George III; letterbooks Franklin kept as he negotiated the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War; drafts of the treaty; notes documenting his scientific observations, and correspondence with fellow scientists.

The collection is online at: loc.gov/collections/benjamin-franklin-papers/about-this-collection.

“Benjamin Franklin made history and won respect around the world as a diplomat, publisher, scientist and scholar,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “We are thrilled to make this collection of documents by one of the nation’s founding fathers available to highlight his unique role in American history.”

Highlights of the Franklin papers include:

  • Two copies of the petition the First Continental Congress sent to Franklin to present to King George III in 1774 “to lay our grievances before the throne.”
  • Franklin’s scientific speculation on the speed of ships in 1775 while on board a vessel returning from England to America just before the Revolutionary War.
  • Correspondence with John Adams, King George III, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington, among others.
  • Franklin’s Craven Street letterbook, one of the few pre-Revolutionary letterbooks from Franklin to survive, documenting his life as a colonial diplomat in London.
  • Letters exchanged with his wife, Deborah Read Franklin, and his son, loyalist William Franklin, before their estrangement.
  • Franklin’s drawing of bifocal glasses, which he is credited with inventing.
  • Franklin’s letter explaining the effects of lightning on a church steeple.

The Franklin papers have been at the Library of Congress for more than 100 years but had a turbulent history. Many of Franklin’s early papers were scattered and damaged, though he accumulated many more. When he died in 1790, Franklin left his papers to his grandson, William Temple Franklin, who published some of them as the “Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin” in 1817-1818. Some of the papers Temple Franklin published were later found cut up in a London tailor shop. The papers were eventually returned to the U.S., purchased by the U.S. government and kept at the U.S. State Department until the early 20th century, when they were transferred to the Library of Congress.

Additional Franklin papers are held by the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania, both of which Franklin founded in Philadelphia.

The digitization of the Franklin papers is part of a larger effort to make historical materials available online. Other newly digitized collections include the papers of U.S. Presidents James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James K. Polk, and the papers of Alexander Hamilton, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Image: This print shows Benjamin Franklin seated at a desk, looking to his right at an electrical device. In his left hand are papers upon which he is taking notes, and visible through a window to his left is lightning striking a building. (Edward Fisher, engraver, after a painting by Mason Chamberlin, 1763. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Auction Guide