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Benjamin Franklin and the sea

Everyone knows about Benjamin Franklin. His revolutionary electrical experiments made him famous, and the image of the kite-flying inventor spouting aphorisms have kept him so for more than two centuries. His Autobiography could be considered a founding document of the idea of America, the story of a poor but bright young indentured servant who eventually became so famous he appeared before kings and on our money. Printer, journalist, community organizer, natural philosopher, satirist, diplomat—Franklin’s skill with language and his ability to shape it to personal, national, and scientific purposes are unparalleled in American history.

But we don’t often think about Benjamin Franklin in his nautical context, as someone who drew inspiration and much of his expressive framework from the sea, though we should.

He had been born in maritime Boston on 6 January 1705 (old style), and professed in his Autobiography to having “a strong Inclination for the Sea” from an early age. Part One of his Autobiography, written in 1771, is filled with stories of young Franklin in and around the water, where he “learnt early to swim well, and to manage Boats, and when in a Boat or Canoe with other Boys…was commonly allow’d to govern, especially in any case of Difficulty.” His father, however, having already lost one son at sea, made sure to indenture Ben in a land-based trade to his brother, James, a Boston printer. Nevertheless, Franklin’s first published writing took the form of broadside poems about the recent capture of Blackbeard the pirate and the drowning of lighthouse keeper George Worthylake and his family.

He eventually fled from Boston to Philadelphia in 1723, and the next year found himself on another ship bound for London, where he would spend the next 18 months working in large printing houses, meeting writers and natural philosophers, and sketching out a plan for his life. Though he considered staying in London to open a swimming school (one of the great historical “what-ifs” of all time), he decided to return to Philadelphia in 1726, and he kept a daily journal of that voyage. It is a fascinating portrait of young Franklin trying on the persona of a gentleman traveler, and it is an excellent indicator of how the sea would shape his interests in natural philosophy, travel writing, and his own self-fashioning.

The journal is filled with keen observations on marine wildlife, including several varieties of birds, sharks, flying fish, and dolphins. Though not detached, Franklin’s style is objective, mimicking his heroes Bacon and Newton—he describes the bodies and behaviors of these creatures in minute detail.

Franklin also uses the picturesque language of travel literature to describe his departure: “And now whilst I write this, sitting upon the quarter-deck, I have methinks one of the pleasantest scenes in the world before me […] On the left hand appears the coast of France at a distance, and on the right is the town and castle of Dover, with the green hills and chalky cliffs of England.” He described the ships in Portsmouth harbor, and the castles and churches and cemeteries on the Isle of Wight, which Franklin toured while the Berkshire waited for favorable winds. Perhaps most importantly, he contrasted the illegible tombstones at the church of St. Thomas of Canterbury with the self-inscribed statue of Sir Robert Holmes, which Franklin approved as “a monument to record his good actions and transmit them to posterity.” He was no doubt beginning to think in terms of a maxim he later included in Poor Richard’s Almanac: “If you wou’d not be forgotten/ As soon as you are dead and rotten,/ Either write things worth reading,/ Or do things worth the writing.”

Throughout his life, nautical references dot his massive correspondence and nautical metaphors power some of his most compelling rhetorical performances. In his 1747 pamphlet Plain Truth, for example, Franklin transforms the literal project of building a ship to defend Philadelphia against French privateers into a political metaphor, calling on the pacifistic Quaker party to “quit the Helm to freer Hands during the present tempest.” In 1750 he admonished his friend and fellow natural philosopher Cadwallader Colden to place public responsibility over the private satisfactions of experiments: “Had Newton been Pilot of but a single common Ship, the finest of his discoveries would scarce have excus’d, or atton’d for his abandoning the Helm one Hour in Time of Danger; How much less if she had carried the Fate of the Commonwealth.”

Engraving of Captain Teach, also known as Blackbeard the Pirate, 1736. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Engraving of Captain Teach, also known as Blackbeard the Pirate, 1736. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Franklin’s mind never seemed to be far from water in some form. He exchanged numerous letters with his scientific colleagues hypothesizing about the relationship between the ocean and weather; the existence of a northwest passage to the Pacific; and the best designs for canals and water pumps. In one of his own rather bizarre experiments, carried out just before the outbreak of the Revolution, Franklin had oil poured from a longboat onto the sea at Portsmouth to determine whether oil poured on water in large quantities could calm rough seas. Though the experiment was a disappointment, Franklin learned that some waves are more likely to be quelled by people than others.

Franklin often compared the situation of Revolutionary America to being at sea and when time came to design the new Continental currency, he put a tempestuous sea on the face of the twenty dollar bill, with the waves all blown in one direction by a face with swollen cheeks. He explained, in the Pennsylvania Gazette, that the waves represented an “Insurrection” of the people that had been raised by the blowing of “Boreas, the North Wind,” a not-too-subtle jab at Lord North, England’s Prime Minister. On the back of the thirty dollar bill, a scene of good weather at sea seemed to hold promise of better times once the “wind” ceased.

After helping secure the peace after the Revolution, Franklin made his eighth and final ocean voyage, in 1785. During this trip, he began organizing what became known as his “Maritime Observations.” A compendium of nautical notes, it is remarkable for its scientific content. Franklin makes suggestions to account for wind resistance in an improved sail configuration and designs experiments to test them; he proposes improvements to anchor cables in order to keep them from being lost or doing damage to the ship; he suggests partitioning the holds of ships into separate watertight compartments to prevent a leak in one part of the ship from sinking the whole; he advocates building vessels constructed along the lines of the boats of Pacific Islanders, “the most expert boat-sailors of the world”; he explains how to prevent shipboard fires from candles, lanterns, and lightning, and how to avoid icebergs; and proposes moving through the water by the use of human-powered propellers. Franklin also discusses at length the Gulf Stream and its usefulness in navigation. He makes voluminous notes on surviving disasters at sea, including having emergency kites available for sailors to pull them across the water. He even proposed a design for soup bowls that would keep them from spilling on the rolling seas!

Franklin concludes his observations with a consideration of the ethics of navigation, prescribing the proper uses for man’s increasing mastery of the sea, asserting that the use of ships to transport slaves is abhorrent, and even risking men’s lives at sea to transport superfluities is difficult to justify morally.

In the final sections of his Autobiography, written and dictated during the last years of his life, Franklin moralized some of his own nautical experiences. He used a tense scene from William Penn’s Atlantic crossing to critique religious hypocrisy. He repeated a joke—about the man who refused to save himself by pumping on a sinking ship because it would save others he disliked—to display the stupidity of prejudice. And he recounted his third Atlantic crossing to explain how experimentation and shared authority could make ships efficient and help them avoid disaster. Franklin knew cooperation and tolerance were going to be important to the success of the new experimental American ship of state, and delivered that message drawing on a strong inclination for the sea that never waned.

Featured image credit: Benjamin Franklin National Memorial at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA. Picture by Michael H. Parker. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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