Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to William Smith, 19 April 1753

To William Smith7

ALS: Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Philada. April 19. 1753


I received your Favour of the 11th Instant, with your new Piece on Education,8 which I shall carefully peruse; and give you my Sentiments of it as you desire, per next Post.

I believe the young Gentlemen, your Pupils,9 may be entertain’d and instructed here in Mathematics and Philosophy to Satisfaction. Mr. Allison (who was educated at Edinburgh, or Glasgow)1 has been long accustomed to teach the latter, and Mr. Grew2 the former, and I think their Pupils make great Progress. Mr. Allison has the Care of the Latin and Greek School, but as he has now three good Assistants in that School, he can very well afford some Hours every Day for the Instruction of those who are engag’d in higher Studies. The Mathematical School is pretty well furnished with Instruments. The English Library is a good one, and we have belonging to it a midling Apparatus for Experimental Philosophy, and purpose speedily to compleat it. The Loganian Library, one of the best Collections in America,3 will shortly be opened; so that neither Books nor Instruments will be wanting; and as we are determin’d always to give good Salaries, we have reason to believe we may have always an Opportunity of choosing good Masters, upon which, indeed, the Success of the whole depends. We are oblig’d to you for your kind Offers in that Respect, and when you are settled in England, we may occasionally make use of your Friendship and Judgment.

Your former Piece4 I read with great Approbation and Pleasure, and could never conceive what it was that could provoke the Treatment you met with on that Occasion.

If it suits your Conveniency to visit Philadelphia, before your Return to Europe, I shall be extreamly glad to see and converse with you here, as well as to correspond with you after your Settlement in England. For an Acquaintance and Communication with Men of Learning, Virtue and Publick Spirit, is one of my greatest Enjoyments.

I do not know whether you ever happen’d to see the first Proposals I made for the Erecting this Academy.5 I send them enclos’d. They had (however imperfect) the desired Success, being follow’d by a Subscription of £4000 towards carrying them into Execution. And as we are fond of receiving Advice, and are daily improving by Experience, I am in hopes we shall in a few Years see a perfect Institution.

I am very respectfully, Sir, Your most humble Servant

B Franklin

Mr. Smith

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7William Smith (1727–1803) will appear frequently in this and succeeding volumes. Born in Aberdeen, educated under the auspices of the Society for the Education of Parochial Schoolmasters, a student at the University of Aberdeen in 1743–47 (there is no record of his taking a degree), after teaching several years he came to New York, 1751, as tutor of the sons of Col. Josiah Martin of Long Island. He became a frequent contributor to the press in prose and verse, prepared a letter (unpublished) on freedom of the press in connection with the prosecution of James Parker (see above, p. 311 n), and wrote several tracts on education to promote the establishment of a college in New York. One of these, The College of Mirania 1753, attracted BF’s attention because it emphasized training for citizenship and recognized the importance of educating for the “mechanic professions” as well as for divinity, law, medicine, and public service. Smith visited Philadelphia in May and June 1753. He expressed his favorable impression of the Academy in a poem on the subject addressed to the trustees. Though BF hoped he might remain in Philadelphia and Samuel Johnson thought he would be a good tutor for the proposed college in New York, Smith returned to England for ordination (December 1753) and with a view of settling there permanently. He returned to America the following spring, however, and was elected rector of the Academy. He became provost when the institution was re-chartered as the College of Philadelphia, 1755. From this time until 1779 Smith was its dominant, and often its most controversial, figure. He contributed importantly to the culture of Pennsylvania by his sympathetic encouragement of such young men as Francis Hopkinson, Thomas Godfrey, Jr., and Jacob Duché in literature, Benjamin West in painting, and John Morgan in medicine. Oxford and Aberdeen in 1759 and Trinity College, Dublin, in 1763 made him a doctor of divinity.

Smith was no less active in the political, ecclesiastical, and scientific life of the colony. He was a prominent Mason, a secretary of the APS, and made observations of the transit of Venus with David Rittenhouse, 1769. A strong Anglican, he favored the establishment of an American bishopric, which he hoped to fill—a hope he long held, often revived, but never realized. He was an outspoken supporter of the Proprietary interest, favored measures to reduce the German influence in Pennsylvania, and publicly condemned the Assembly for refusing to take aggressive military measures in the French and Indian war. Partly as a result he was twice jailed for publishing seditious libels, 1758. He opposed the Stamp Act and subsequent imperial measures, though he was not an advocate of separation.

When the Pennsylvania Assembly abrogated the charter of the College in 1779, removing all its officers, Smith went to Maryland, where he was rector of Chester parish, Kent Co., and established a school, which was chartered, 1782, as Washington College. He was chairman of a committee of the Episcopal Church to revise the prayer book for American use, 1785. When the charter of the College of Philadelphia was restored in 1789, Smith returned as provost; but he was left out when the College and the new University of the State of Pennsylvania were united, 1791.

Despite all this, Smith was not respected or even liked, and he rarely enjoyed the confidence of leading men. He drank too much, was opinionated and unreliable. Ezra Stiles thought him “a contemptible drunken Character! of tolerable academic general Knowledge. But immoral, haughty, irreligious, and profane, avaricious and covetous, a consummate Hypocrite in Religion and Politics!” Franklin B. Dexter, ed., Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles (N.Y., 1901), II, 338. John Adams summed him up more briefly: “There is an appearance of Art.” Works (Boston, 1850–56), II, 360.

Smith’s relations with BF, which began so cordially, as this letter shows, soon deteriorated under the pressure of Pennsylvania politics until they became bitter enemies (see, for example, BF to Mary Stevenson, March 25, 1763). Yet it was Smith of all people whom the APS asked to deliver Franklin’s eulogy. It was an eloquent and unexceptionable address, but a family tradition relates that Smith’s daughter afterwards protested to him, “I don’t think you believed one-tenth part of what you said of old Ben Lightning-rod. Did you?” and that Smith “laughed heartily” in reply. There is a less unpleasant tale of Smith’s reaction to news of BF’s death, which was brought him during a thunderstorm. His guests included Thomas McKean, Thomas Willing, Henry Hill, and David Rittenhouse. Smith wrote at once the following graceful tribute:

Cease! cease, ye clouds, your elemental strife,

Why rage ye thus, as if to threaten life?

What busy mortal told you Franklin’s dead?

What, though he yields at Jove’s imperious nod,

With Rittenhouse he left his magic rod.

Not to be outdone, Willing wrote another:

What means that flash, the thunder’s awful roar—

The blazing sky—unseen, unheard before?

Sage Smith replies, “Our Franklin is no more.”

The clouds, long subject to his magic chain,

Exulting now their liberty regain.

Horace W. Smith, Life and Correspondence of the Rev. William Smith, D.D. (Phila., 1880), II, 324–5, 344; Albert F. Gegenheimer, William Smith, Educator and Churchman, 1727–1803 (Phila., 1943); DAB.

8A General Idea of the College of Mirania (N.Y., 1753). Smith had already published Some Thoughts on Education (N.Y., 1752) and a proposal for Indian education in Indian Songs of Peace (N.Y., 1752). Gegenheimer, Smith, pp. 8–10, 14–29.

9Colonel Martin’s sons, Josiah and William, both attended the Academy of Philadelphia, where William died, 1754.

1Francis Alison (1705–1779), born in Co. Donegal, Ireland, educated at the University of Glasgow, came to America, 1735, as a private tutor. He became Presbyterian minister at New London, Pa., 1737, where he opened a private school and then an academy, 1743, which received the patronage of the Synod of Philadelphia. When David Martin (see above, pp. 214n, 222n) died in December 1751 Alison was invited to become rector of the Academy of Philadelphia; after some hesitation he agreed to be master of the Latin school only. He became vice-provost when the institution became the College of Philadelphia. Despite a short temper, he taught there successfully for 27 years, and served at the same time as assistant minister of the First Presbyterian Church. His relations with BF were later strained. BF to Deborah Franklin, Dec. 13, 1766. Ezra Stiles considered Alison “a great Literary Character” in ethics, history, and literature (though less strong in the sciences) and “the greatest Classical Scholar in America especially in Greek.” Literary Diary, II, 338. In 1777 he and others protested to the Council of Safety the “interruptions [quartering troops in the college buildings] which we have met with in the important Business of Education.” Yale and Princeton gave him the degree of master of arts, and Glasgow made him a doctor of divinity, 1758. Montgomery, Hist. Univ. Pa. pp. 162–6; DAB; see above, II, 392.

2Theophilus Grew (see above, II, 29 n), professor of mathematics in the Academy and College of Philadelphia.

3On the Loganian Library, see above, III, 401 n, and the deed of trust establishing the library, Aug. 28, 1754.

4Some Thoughts on Education (N.Y., 1752).

5See above, III, 397.

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