Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Francis Maseres, 17 June 1772

To Francis Maseres1

ALS (draft): Library of Congress

Cravenstreet, June 17. 1772


I thank you for the Pamphlet proposing to establish Life Annuities in Parishes, &c.2 I think it an excellent one. In compliance with your Wish, pag. 25, 26 I send it back with a few Marginal Notes (perhaps of no great Importance) made in Reading it, requesting it may be return’d to me.3

In page 118 of Dr. Price’s Book on Annuities, 2d Edition,4 you will find mention made of an Institution in Holland. He had that Information from me. Those Houses are handsome neat Buildings with very comfortable Apartments, some form the sides of a Square, with Grass Plats and Gravel Walks, Flowers, &c. and some have little separate Gardens behind each Apartment. Those for Men are called Oude Mannen Huyzen, for Women, Oude Vrouwen Huyzen. I think the different kinds sometimes make different Sides of the same Square. There is a Chappel for Prayers, a common Kitchen, and a common Hall in which they dine together. Two Persons such as best like one another, and chuse so to associate, are generally lodg’d in one Apartment, tho’ in separate Beds, that they may be at hand to assist each other in case of sudden Illness in the Night, and otherwise be mutually helpful. The Directors have also a Room to meet in, who form Rules for the Government of the House, hear Complaints, and rectify what is amiss. Gentlemen are Directors of the Oude Mannen Huys, Ladies of the Oude Vrouwen Haus. A Committee of Two are chosen every Year; who visit often, see the Rules observed, and take care of the Management. At the End of the Year, these are thank’d off, and as an honourable Memorial of their Service, their Names with the Year they served are added to the Gold-letter List on the Walls of the Room. All the Furniture is neat and Convenient, the Beds and Rooms kept clean and sweet by the Servants of the House; and the People appear to live happily.

These Institutions seem calculated to prevent Poverty which is rather a better thing than relieving it. For it keeps always in the Public Eye a State of Comfort and Repose in old Age, with Freedom from Care, held forth as an Encouragement to so much Industry and Frugality in Youth as may at least serve to raise the required Sum, (suppose £50,) that is to intitle a Man or Woman at 50 to a Retreat in these Houses. And in acquiring this Sum, Habits may be acquired that produce such Affluence before that Age arrives as to make the Retreat unnecessary and so never claimed. Hence if £50 would (as by your Table) entitle a Man at 50 Years of Age to an Annuity of £19 3s.d.,5 I suppose that in such a House, Entertainment and Accommodations to a much greater Value might be afforded him; because the Right to live there is not transferrable, and therefore every unclaim’d Right is an Advantage to the House, while Annuities would probably all be claimed. Then it seems to me that the Prospect of a distant Annuity will not be so influencing on the Minds of young People, as the constant View of the Comfort enjoy’d in those Houses, in comparison of which even the Payment and Receipt of the Annuities are private Transactions.

I write this in hopes you will after Consideration favour me with your Opinion whether (in Addition to your Plan, which will still have all its Advantage for small [sums?]) one or more such Houses in every County, would not probably be of great Use in still farther promoting Industry and Frugality among the lower People, and of course lessening the weight of the Poor Tax?

I enclose a little Piece I wrote in America to encourage and strengthen those important Virtues,6 of which I beg your Acceptance, and am, with great Esteem, Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant

B Franklin

Mr Maseres.

1Maseres (1731–1824) was a lawyer, mathematician, reformer, and F.R.S. He had served with distinction as attorney general of Quebec, 1766–69; he had then returned home on leave, but retained his office for at least another three years. In 1773 he became, and continued to be for more than half a century, a baron of the exchequer. His writings ranged widely in subject, from mathematics to the American colonies to domestic social and political questions. DNB.

2The pamphlet was first published pseudonymously in the Public Advertiser, July 22, 1771, and then anonymously as A Proposal for Establishing Life-Annuities in Parishes for the Benefit of the Industrious Poor (London, 1772). It proposed that an act of Parliament should empower the authorities in each parish to purchase Bank annuities, financed by the poor rate, and to use the income thus provided for annuities to be bought by the parish poor. The bill, introduced in 1773, passed the House of Commons but was thrown out by the Lords. Frederick M. Eden, The State of the Poor: a History of the Labouring Classes … (A. G. L. Rogers, ed.; London, 1928), pp. 67–8.

3Among BF’s papers in the APS is a four-page MS, in an unidentified hand, of remarks upon Maseres’ proposal. This document is clearly not the marginalia to which BF refers, but might conceivably be an essay that he wrote after they were returned to him; the style has much of his liveliness and cogency. The argument is that annuities are an unsatisfactory means of relief, and that a better method would be to empower parochial officials by act of Parliament to receive weekly payments from the wages of the laboring poor, to create a fund that would be invested at interest for the use of the contributors in time of need. This scheme does not, as far as we know, have any connection with BF’s expressed views on poor relief, and we have found no indication of his authorship except the style and location of the MS. These bits of evidence are too intangible, in our opinion, to warrant accepting the essay even conjecturally as his. A more likely author is Richard Price, for Maseres is said to have published his proposal as a separate pamphlet only after incorporating some “alterations and amendments suggested by the celebrated author of the Observations on Reversionary Payments, &c.Monthly Rev., XLVI (1772), 622.

4Richard Price, Observations on Reversionary Payments … (2nd ed., London, 1772). On pp. 380–7 Price commented at length on Maseres’ pamphlet.

5Maseres’ calculation (pp. 15–18) indicated that a £10 investment at three percent interest would buy an annuity yielding £3 16s.d. at the age of fifty; BF multiplied by five.

6Undoubtedly “Father Abraham’s Speech,” above, VII, 340–50. BF probably sent one of the English printings, for which see ibid., pp. 330–4.

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