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Benjamin Franklin’s Political Arithmetic – 3

Here is a third excerpt from the Libraries' Dibner Library lecture publication, 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. If you would like to receive the lecture in print, please contact the Dibner Library. If you missed the first two installments, or can't wait for the next one, you may also view the PDF. The publication has also been getting positive notice from the blogosphere.

Benjamin Franklin's Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity by Joyce E. Chaplin

He encouraged the readers of Poor Richard to see for themselves the “remarkably entertaining Objects” to be seen under “that admirable Instrument the MICROSCOPE” The device would show them the tiny “Animalcules to be found…in the Infusions of Pepper, Senna, Pinks, Roses, Jessamin, Tea, Raspberry From Adams’s Micrographia illustrata . Stalks, Fennel, Sage, Melons, sour Grapes, Wheat, Hay, Straw, and almost all vegetable Substances.” A microscope would also display a polyp, the tiny aquatic creature that Trembley had described. “What is wonderful, and almost beyond Belief,” Franklin said of the creature, “is, that it will live and feed after it is turned inside out, and even when cut into a great many Pieces, each several Piece becomes a compleat Polype.” Thus inspired to think of colonists as fennel plants and of the first British empire as a many-headed minihydra, Franklin also marveled that the teeming hordes within the microscopic world greatly outnumbered the inhabitants of the human world. “In the [s]melt of a single Cod-fish,” he explained, “ten Times more living Creatures are contained than the [human] Inhabitants of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, taking it for granted, that all Parts of the World are as well peopled as Holland, which is very far from being the Case.” He explained how another animalcule was so tiny that “three Millions of them, or three Times the Number of the Inhabitants of London and Westminster, would not equal the Bulk of a Grain of Sand.”

George Adams, Micrographia illustrata:or, The microscope explained..., 1771
George Adams, Micrographia illustrata: or, The microscope explained…, 1771

It was interesting to Franklin that animalcules might outnumber Britons, but crucial for him that colonists would eventually do so. He quickly turned his prediction that Americans doubled their numbers every twenty years into the cornerstone of his criticism of British government of the colonies. His was a powerful voice. Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, first published in 1751, made him the best-known British American of his day. In that magnum opus and all his other work in science, Franklin was careful never to favor one side in any argument. Thus he had not, in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, cited any of the other theorists who considered humans to be mere components of the material world, even though that idea had gained some ground since his youth. He did not mention Carolus Linnaeus’s controversial decision, in Systema naturae (1758), to classify humans alongside the other animals. Nor did he cite Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s conclusion, published in 1748, that the human body was, like the rest of nature, a mechanical construction whose material foundation meant humans might well be described as machines.

Stay tuned for our next installment! —Elizabeth Periale

One Comment

  1. Fantastic post. I love exploring this blog and finding all the interesting tidbits you post. Keep up the great work.

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