Friends of Benjamin Franklin

THE PIVOTAL FRIENDS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

"Be slow in choosing a friend, slower in changing."

—Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, one of the leading figures of early American history and the Enlightenment era, had a vast array of friendships that spanned continents and crossed various fields, from politics to science, and from business to philosophy.

These relationships provided not only personal solace but also played an instrumental role in shaping his ideas and the very foundations of the emerging American nation.

From his early years in Philadelphia, Franklin valued the power of collective thought and camaraderie. This is best exemplified by his formation of the Junto Club in 1727, a group of like-minded young men who met regularly to discuss moral, political, and scientific topics.

Through mutual discussions and debates, members benefited from each other's insights, with Franklin often at the helm guiding the discourse.

As his fame and influence grew, so did Benjamin Franklin’s circle of friends and acquaintances.

GEORGE WHITEFIELD

portrait of George Whitefield
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George Whitefield, a pivotal figure of the Great Awakening, was renowned for his dynamic sermons that captivated audiences across both the American colonies and Britain in the 18th century.

This religious revival, which emphasized personal salvation and emotive spirituality, stood in contrast to Benjamin Franklin's more rationalistic and Deistic inclinations. Deism, popular among Enlightenment thinkers like Franklin, posited a universe governed by reason, with God as a distant creator rather than an active, intervening force.

On the surface, Whitefield and Franklin represented two divergent worldviews.

However, beyond these theological differences, the two men found common ground.

Their initial interactions were rooted in business, with Franklin printing many of Whitefield's sermons and journals. This collaboration proved financially beneficial for both, as Whitefield's writings were in high demand and Franklin's printing press had a wide reach. Moreover, Franklin was deeply impressed by Whitefield's oratorical prowess, even if he did not subscribe to all the preacher's religious sentiments.

The mutual respect between the two was palpable.

Whitefield, in one instance, even sought Franklin's advice on a project to build an orphanage in Georgia. In return, Franklin, ever the pragmatist, admired Whitefield's ability to mobilize and inspire masses.

Their correspondence, which spanned a decade, paints a portrait of a friendship that transcended theological boundaries, emblematic of the broader interplay between Enlightenment rationalism and religious fervor in colonial America.

DAVID HUME

Portrait of David Hume
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Benjamin Franklin and David Hume, stand as emblematic representations of the transatlantic intellectual exchange that characterized the 18th century. Their relationship, though not as extensively documented as some others in Franklin's life, is particularly intriguing given their respective contributions to the annals of thought.

While in London, serving as a colonial agent for Pennsylvania in the 1750s and 1760s, Benjamin Franklin frequently engaged with the intellectual elite.

David Hume, by this period, had already cemented his reputation as one of the most influential philosophers of his time, particularly with his skepticism and inquiries into human understanding. The two found themselves in overlapping social circles, and their interactions were marked by mutual admiration.

Their correspondence, though limited, provides a glimpse into their shared worldviews.

Franklin, ever the experimenter, once humorously mentioned to Hume his attempt to "command" a whirlwind into a bottle, a metaphorical nod to the challenges he faced in the political climate. Hume's response was one of warm camaraderie, coupled with an acknowledgment of the complexities of colonial politics.

Their discussions also delved into matters of philosophy, particularly Hume's ideas on empiricism, skepticism, and the nature of knowledge.

Franklin, with his pragmatic and scientific bent, would have found much to ponder in Hume's assertions. Conversely, Hume expressed admiration for Franklin's scientific pursuits, particularly his groundbreaking experiments with electricity.

Moreover, their shared interests extended to societal observations. Both men were deeply concerned with the moral and ethical dimensions of society, leading them to exchange thoughts on topics such as education, governance, and the evolving nature of the Atlantic world.

THE VOLATILE FRIEND OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: JOHN ADAMS

portrait of John Adams
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John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, two towering figures of the American Revolution, found themselves navigating the intricate corridors of French diplomacy during a pivotal moment in history.

Their shared mission in France, aimed at securing support for the nascent United States, forged an alliance between two men of contrasting temperaments.

Adams, with his puritanical New England upbringing, often appeared reserved and serious, while Franklin, ever the Philadelphian polymath, exuded charm and wit that endeared him to the French court.

However, their differences occasionally led to tensions.

Adams, at times, found Franklin's relaxed approach and close relationships with French elites potentially compromising to their mission. Franklin, on the other hand, viewed Adams as somewhat rigid and lacking the finesse required for courtly diplomacy.

These disagreements reached their zenith when Adams openly critiqued Franklin's management of finances and diplomatic affairs.

Yet, amidst these tensions lay moments of genuine camaraderie.

A famous anecdote recounts them sharing a single bed at a crowded inn, leading to a humorous debate over the merits of open-windowed sleeping.

Beyond such light-hearted instances, their mutual respect was undeniable. Both recognized the immense responsibilities they bore, and despite their differences, collaborated effectively to ensure France's critical support during the Revolutionary War.

JOSEPH PRIESTLEY

Portrait of Joesph Priestly
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The late 18th century was a crucible of intellectual fervor, and at the center of this maelstrom were figures like Benjamin Franklin and the English theologian and chemist, Joseph Priestley.

Both men were polymaths in their own right, each straddling the worlds of science, religion, and public service. Priestley, renowned for his discovery of oxygen and contributions to chemistry, found in Franklin a kindred spirit, sharing a mutual love for experimentation and empirical inquiry.

Their interactions, which began when Franklin was stationed in London as a colonial agent, were marked by a vibrant exchange of ideas.

Franklin's groundbreaking work on electricity, including his iconic kite experiment, was of particular interest to Priestley. The Englishman subsequently chronicled these findings in his work "History and Present State of Electricity," significantly popularizing and contextualizing Franklin's experiments for a European audience.

However, their relationship was not merely one-sided.

Priestley's own observations and inquiries provided Franklin with fresh insights and avenues for exploration. Together, they navigated the shifting sands of the scientific frontier, pushing the boundaries of contemporary knowledge.

Despite the Atlantic Ocean between them after Franklin's return to America, their correspondence continued, highlighting a deep mutual respect. Through letters, they not only discussed scientific curiosities but also pondered the philosophical and theological implications of their findings.

MADAME BRILLON

A portrait of Madame Brillon
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During the vibrant period of the late 18th century in Paris, amidst the backdrop of revolutionary ideals and Enlightenment discourse, an intimate friendship blossomed between Benjamin Franklin and Anne-Louise d'Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy, commonly referred to as Madame Brillon.

As the American envoy to France, Franklin was swiftly enmeshed in Parisian salon culture, and it was in this milieu that he met Madame Brillon, a hostess of one of the most distinguished salons in Paris.

Madame Brillon, a gifted musician and harpsichordist, connected with Franklin over their mutual love for music. Their shared evening performances became a hallmark of their relationship, with Franklin often playing his glass armonica, an instrument he invented, while she graced the keys of her harpsichord.

But their bond extended beyond just musical collaboration.

Their correspondence, which spans almost a decade, offers a glimpse into a deep and affectionate relationship. Letters exchanged were often punctuated with playful banter, philosophical musings, and expressions of genuine fondness.

Franklin, in his letters, often referred to her as his "good and dear friend," while she affectionately dubbed him "Papa."

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Thomas Jefferson eating mac & cheese
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Two intellectual giants, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, forged a relationship that was as multifaceted as the era itself.

Both were integral members of the committee assigned to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a testament to their shared commitment to the cause of liberty. However, this collaboration belied the contrasts in their respective worldviews.

Franklin, by the time of the Revolution, was an elder statesman, seasoned by years of diplomacy and scientific inquiry.

His experiences in Europe, particularly in France, had given him a pragmatic approach to governance and international affairs. Jefferson, on the other hand, was younger and deeply influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, often envisioning a republic of agrarian virtue and emphasizing the perils of centralized power.

Their differences came into sharper focus during the French Revolution.

While Jefferson expressed enthusiasm for the revolutionary fervor in France, viewing it as a continuation of the American struggle for liberty, Franklin approached it with more caution, wary of its violent excesses and the instability it might bring.

Yet, amidst these ideological divergences, there existed a profound mutual respect. Franklin admired Jefferson's eloquence and depth of thought, often praising his literary prowess.

Jefferson, in turn, held Franklin in high esteem, once referring to him as "the greatest man and ornament of the age and country in which he lived."

DR. JOHN FOTHERGILL

A portrait of Dr. John Fothergill
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Among the intellectual luminaries with whom Franklin forged a connection was a distinguished English physician. Their friendship, based on mutual curiosity and a desire to better the human condition, solidified their roles as contemporaries pushing the boundaries of medical science.

Franklin, ever the inquisitive polymath, had long held interests in health and well-being, penning his observations on topics ranging from lead poisoning to the benefits of fresh air.

In the English physician, he found a kindred spirit. Their discourse often gravitated towards understanding diseases that affected large swaths of the population, notably the common cold.

Collaborating on studies and experiments, they sought to demystify the causes, transmission, and potential remedies for this ailment.

Their joint endeavors not only deepened medical understanding but also facilitated public awareness. Recognizing the importance of disseminating their findings, they utilized the burgeoning print culture, ensuring that both the educated elite and the common man had access to their insights.

While their names might not be as synonymous with medical innovation as others from their era, their collaboration undoubtedly played a pivotal role in the evolution of public health knowledge.

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