Benjamin Franklin Papers

The University of St. Andrews: Degree of Doctor of Laws, 12 February 1759

The University of St. Andrews: Degree of Doctor of Laws

DS: American Philosophical Society; Latin copy and English translation: American Philosophical Society; two Latin copies: Yale University Library1

Little can be established with certainty about the circumstances under which Franklin received his first honorary degree in Great Britain and first doctorate. The minutes of the Senatus of the University of St. Andrews contain the following entry dated Feb. 12, 1759: “Sed[erun]t Rector, prin[cipa]l Murison, profr. Brown Mr. Gregory, Mr. Jon Young, Dr. Hadow, Mr. Morton, Mr. Watson Mr. Wilson. Conferr’d the Degree of Doctor in Laws on Mr. Benjamin Franklin famous for his Writings on Electricity, And appoint his Diploma to be given him gratis, The Clerk and Arch Beadles dues to be paid by the Library Quaestor.” There is no contemporary evidence to show who proposed the honor, though it would be reasonable to suppose that it was one of the more scientifically oriented professors, possibly David Gregory (mathematics), David Young (natural and experimental philosophy), or Thomas Simson (medicine and anatomy), who, although absent from this meeting, signed the diploma, and whose brother Robert had corresponded with Franklin (above, VII, 184).

At this time Franklin was in London and the degree was conferred in absentia. How he was notified of the honor is not clear for no letter from the rector or any other university official can be found,2 and no letter of response survives in which he acknowledges receipt of the diploma. But that he and his friends were highly gratified is certain; it soon became customary for associates and correspondents, when addressing him formally or referring to him, to call him “Doctor Franklin.” This was his usual title during the rest of his life.3

[February 12, 1759]

Nos Universitatis St. Andreae apud Scotos Rector Promotor, Collegiorum Praefecti, Facultatis Artium Decanus, caeterique Professorum Ordines, Lectoribus Salutem

Quandoquidem aequum est et Rationi congruens, ut qui magno Studio bonas didicerunt Artes, iidem referant Praemium Studiis suis dignum, ac prae inerti Hominum vulgo propriis quibusdam fulgeant Honoribus et Privilegiis, unde et ipsis bene sit, atque aliorum provocetur Industria; Quando etiam eo praesertim spectant amplissima ilia Jura Universitati Andreanae antiquibus concessa, ut, quoties respostulat, idoneos quosque in quavis facultate viros, vel Summis qui ad earn Facultatem pertinent, Honoribus amplificare queat; Quumque ingenuus et honestus Vir Benjaminus Franklin, Artium Magister, non solum Jurisprudentiae Cognitione, Morum Integritate, Suavique Vitae Consuetudine, Nobis sit commendatus, Verum etiam, acute inventus, et exitu felici factis Experimentis, quibus Rerum Naturalium, et imprimis Rei Electricae parum hactenus exploratae, Scientiam locupletavit, tantum sibi conciliaverit per Orbem Terrarum Laudem, ut summus in Republica Literaria mereatur Honores: Hisce nos adducti, et praemia Virtuti debita, quantum in nobis est, tribuere volentes, Magistrum Benjaminum Franklin supra nominatum, Utriusque Juris Doctorem Creamus, Constituimus et Renunciamus Eumque deinceps ab universis pro Doctore dignissimo haberi volumus; adjicimusque Ei, plena manu, quaecunque uspiam gentium. Juris utriusque Doctoribus competunt Privilegia et Ornamenta. In cuius Rei testimonium hasce nostras Privilegii, Literas, Chirographis singulorum confirmatas, et communi Almae Universitatis Sigillo munitas Dedimus Andreapoli duodecimo Die Mensis Februarii Anno Domini millesimo Septingentesimo quinquagesimo nono.

  • And. Shaw S.T.P. Univers. Rector et Promotor4
  • Thos. Tullideph Coll: St. Salvat: et St. Leonar: Praefectus
  • Ja. Murison Coll. Mar: Praefectus
  • Robtus Watson P.P. Fac. Art. Doc.
  • Thomas Simson Med. et Anat. p. candosensis
  • David Young P.P.
  • Joannes Young P.P.
  • David Gregorie Math: P.
  • Guiel: Brown S.T et H.E.P.
  • Alexr. Morton H.L.P.
  • Gual. Wilson G.L.P.
  • Geor: Hadow M. D. Ling. Heb. P.

1The two copies in Yale Univ. Lib. are in the College Records and the Stiles Papers, respectively. BF probably provided Stiles with the text, together with information on his other honors, at Stiles’s request, during a visit to Newport in July 1763.

2In the course of an address in 1938 Sir James Irvine, then principal and vice chancellor of St. Andrews, mentioned such a letter in terms implying that he had seen it (Journal of the Franklin Institute, CCXXVI, 271–9), but Mr. R. N. Smart, Keeper of the MSS at the University Library, has informed the editor by letter, Dec. 11, 1963, that he has “been unable to find any evidence for its existence.” Sir James’s account of a ceremony at which the degree was actually conferred, when BF visited St. Andrews the following October, is wholly imaginary. In a letter to Principal T. M. Knox, April 25, 1964, R. G. Cant, Keeper of the Muniments, has commented: “There was no need for him [Franklin] to attend in person—indeed the University only began to insist on it for Honorary Graduates in 1887. Consequently, there was no occasion for any Graduation Ceremony when he visited St. Andrews in October, 1759.”

3With the original diploma in the Franklin Papers, APS, are a Latin copy and an English translation, both contemporary. The translation reads as follows (omitting the signatures at the end): “We the Rector, Provost, Presidents of the Colleges, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and other Orders of Professors in the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, to our Readers Greeting Whereas it is just and reasonable, that they who by great Study have learned the Arts, should also receive a Reward worthy of their Studies, and outshine the slothful Herd of Mankind by some peculiar Honours and Privileges, both to reward them and excite the Industry of others; And whereas the Design of those very extensive Privileges granted in antient times to the University of St. Andrews is, that as oft as Occasion requires they may have it in their Power to dignify Men excelling in any Faculty with the highest Honours appertaining to that Faculty; and whereas the ingenuous and worthy Benj: Franklin has not only been recommended to us for his Knowledge of the Law, the Rectitude of his Morals and Sweetness of his Life and Conversation, but hath also by his ingenious Inventions and successful Experiments with which he hath enriched the Science of natural Philosophy and more especially of Electricity which heretofore was little known, acquired so much Praise throughout the World as to deserve the greatest Honours in the Republic of Letters; For these Reasons and from a willingness as far as in us lies to bestow the Rewards due to Virtue we create constitute and declare the above named Mr. Benjamin Franklin Doctor of Laws and will that for the future he be treated[?] by all as the most Worthy Doctor, and we grant to him with a liberal Hand all the Privileges and Honours, which are any where granted to Doctors of Laws. In Testimony of which we have given these our Letters signed with our Hands and sealed with the common Seal of the University at St. Andrews the 12th of February 1759.”

4The signers with their titles were: Andrew Shaw, professor of sacred theology [divinity] and Biblical criticism, university rector provost; Thomas Tullideph, principal of the [United] Colleges of St. Salvator and St. Leonard; James Munson, principal of the College of St. Mary’s; Robert Watson, professor of philosophy [logic, rhetoric, and metaphysics]; Thomas Simson, Chandos professor of medicine and anatomy; David Young, professor of [natural and experimental] philosophy; John Young, professor of philosophy [ethics and pneumatics, i.e., spiritual philosophy or psychology]; David Gregory, professor of mathematics; William Brown, professor of sacred theology [divinity] and ecclesiastical history; Alexander Morton, professor of humanity [humane letters]; Walter Wilson, professor of Greek; and George Hadow, M.D., professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages. James M. Anderson, ed., The Matriculation Roll of the University of St Andrews 1747–1897 (Edinburgh and London, 1905), pp. lxxiv–lxxxiii.

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