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Benjamin Franklin’s Political Arithmetic

The Libraries latest published Dibner Library lecture is Benjamin Franklin's Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity by Joyce E. Chaplin, the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. Dr. Chaplin received her B. A. at Northwestern University, her M. A. and Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University, and was a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom in 1985-86. Her most recent book, The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies. She is currently writing a history of around-the-world travel, from Magellan the Spanish explorer to Magellan the GPS.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

We would like to present the first of a few excerpts from the published lecture to pique your interest. if you would like to receive the lecture in print, please contact the Dibner Library. If you can't wait for the next installment, you may also view the PDF.

Benjamin Franklin's Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity

by Joyce E. Chaplin

BE A BEAST, Benjamin Franklin counseled his panic-stricken friend, Oliver Neave, when the poor man was trying to learn how to swim. Neave had to put the dangers of deep water out of his mind-the less conscious reflection, the better. "Though we value ourselves on being reasonable knowing creatures," Franklin warned, "reason and knowledge seem on such occasions to be of little use to us; and the brutes to whom we allow scarce a glimmering of either, appear to have the advantage of us." Franklin offered his advice in the 1760s, when comparing humans to brute animals was for him an old habit. The seriousness with which he took the comparison is apparent in his grammatical lapse: "brutes to whom" rather than "brutes to which." Many aspects of Franklin's scientific thought are well-known but not, surprisingly, his materialist implication that people, no less than animals or even plants, were physical bodies embedded in nature, whose so-called higher qualities were overrated.

It was a radical idea. Perhaps because Franklin took little interest in the eighteenth century's other materialist conception of humans – that they (like animals) were mere collections of mechanical phenomena, virtual machines – his opinion has been little noted. Yet it mattered. The conventional belief among Franklin's contemporaries was that humans and animals were different because the former had souls, reason, and finer emotions. Throughout his life, Franklin was skeptical that any of that was true.

After brashly advertising his skepticism in his youth, he thereafter masked it. He nevertheless managed to make it into the centerpiece of his political arithmetic, his analysis of population dynamics in British America, which eventually underpinned his boldest objections to the centralized governance of the British empire. Scholars have noted the importance of Franklin's political arithmetic to the development of the human sciences, as well as its impact, via Thomas Malthus, on the Victorian evolutionists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. But to appreciate that impact fully, we should see how Franklin's political arithmetic was read and circulated and see that his efforts were not only part of the human sciences, but part of the natural science within which Wallace and Darwin worked, not least because his assessment, like theirs, daringly assimilated humans to other living creatures.

Stay tuned for our next installment! —Elizabeth Periale


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