Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to David Hume, 27 September 1760

To David Hume7

ALS: Royal Society of Edinburgh

Coventry, Sept. 27. 1760

Dear Sir,

I have too long postpon’d answering your obliging Letter,8 a Fault I will not attempt to excuse, but rather rely on your Goodness to forgive it if I am more punctual for the future.

I am oblig’d to you for the favourable Sentiments you express of the Pieces sent you;9 tho’ the Volume relating to our Pensilvania Affairs, was not written by me, nor any Part of it, except the Remarks on the Proprietor’s Estimate of his Estate, and some of the inserted Messages and Reports of the Assembly which I wrote when at home, as a Member of Committees appointed by the House for that Service; the rest was by another Hand. But tho’ I am satisfy’d by what you say, that the Duke of Bedford was hearty in the Scheme of the Expedition, I am not so clear that others in the Administration were equally in earnest in that matter.1 It is certain that after the Duke of Newcastle’s first Orders to raise Troops in the Colonies, and Promise to send over Commissions to the Officers, with Arms, Clothing, &c. for the Men, we never had another Syllable from him for 18 Months; during all which time the Army lay idle at Albany for want of Orders and Necessaries; and it began to be thought at least that if an Expedition had ever been intended, the first Design and the Orders given, must, thro’ the Multiplicity of Business here at home, have been quite forgotten.

I am not a little pleas’d to hear of your Change of Sentiments in some particulars relating to America; because I think it of Importance to our general Welfare that the People of this Nation should have right Notions of us, and I know no one that has it more in his Power to rectify their Notions, than Mr. Hume. I have lately read with great Pleasure, as I do every thing of yours, the excellent Essay on the Jealousy of Commerce:2 I think it cannot but have a good Effect in promoting a certain Interest too little thought of by selfish Man, and scarce ever mention’d, so that we hardly have a Name for it; I mean the Interest of Humanity, or common Good of Mankind: But I hope particularly from that Essay, an Abatement of the Jealousy that reigns here of the Commerce of the Colonies, at least so far as such Abatement may be reasonable.

I thank you for your friendly Admonition relating to some unusual Words in the Pamphlet. It will be of Service to me.3 The pejorate, and the colonize, since they are not in common use here, I give up as bad; for certainly in Writings intended for Persuasion and for general Information, one cannot be too clear, and every Expression in the least obscure is a Fault. The unshakeable too, tho’ clear, I give up as rather low. The introducing new Words where we are already possess’d of old ones sufficiently expressive, I confess must be generally wrong, as it tends to change the Language; yet at the same time I cannot but wish the Usage of our Tongue permitted making new Words when we want them, by Composition of old ones who Meanings are already well understood. The German allows of it, and it is a common Practice with their Writers. Many of our present English Words were originally so made; and many of the Latin Words. In point of Clearness such compound Words would have the Advantage of any we can borrow from the ancient or from foreign Languages. For instance, the Word inaccessible, tho’ long in use among us, is not yet, I dare say, so universally understood by our People as the Word uncomeatable would immediately be, which we are not allow’d to write. But I hope with you, that we shall always in America make the best English of this Island our Standard, and I believe it will be so.4 I assure you, it often gives me Pleasure to reflect how greatly the Audience (if I may so term it) of a good English Writer will in another Century or two be encreas’d, by the Increase of English People in our Colonies.

My Son presents his Respects with mine to you and Dr. Monro.5 We receiv’d your printed circular Letter to the Members of the Society, and purpose some time next Winter to send each of us a little Philosophical Essay.6 With the greatest Esteem I am, Dear Sir, Your most obedient and most humble Servant

B Franklin

[Added in another hand:] Dated Coventry. Sepr. 27. 1760.

[Endorsed:] 27 Septr. 1760 Dr. Franklin

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7David Hume (1711–1776), philosopher and historian, was born in Edinburgh, the son of a Scottish advocate with an estate in Berwickshire. He matriculated at the University of Edinburgh before his twelfth birthday but never took his degree, spending some years instead in private reading and in travel and study in France. His published writings before 1752 were chiefly on philosophical subjects. In 1746 he served as secretary and later as judge advocate to Lieut. Gen. James St. Clair, commander of a projected expedition against Canada which, after much vacillation by the Duke of Newcastle, secretary of state, was diverted to what proved to be an abortive attack on the coast of Brittany. In 1752 he was appointed keeper of the Advocates’ Library in Edinburgh, a post which he held until 1757 and which gave him access to the books necessary to the preparation of his History of England. This work was published in six volumes between 1754 and 1761; unsuccessful at first it became in time the standard history of the period from Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688 and brought Hume a large income, to which his later writings on various subjects added substantially. He was secretary to the British ambassador in France, 1763–65, serving part of the time as chargé d’affaires, and was under secretary of state, 1767–68. DNB; Ernest C. Mossner, The Life of David Hume (Austin, Texas, 1954). BF probably met him through William Strahan when Hume was in London during the winter of 1758–59; he was Hume’s house guest in Edinburgh during an extended visit in 1771.

8Not found.

9Just what “Pieces” BF had sent Hume is not fully known. Certainly the list included Jackson’s Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pensylvania, which contained texts or extracts from some of the Assembly documents BF had composed and his remarks on Penn’s estimate of the proprietary estate (above, VIII, 360–79). From the discussion below on BF’s use of unusual words it is almost equally certain that he had sent a copy of the Canada Pamphlet (above, pp. 47–100), with which was reprinted BF’s “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind” (above, IV, 225–34). He may also have sent his long letter printed in London Chron., May 10–12, defending the provincials against the criticisms of Scottish military officers (above, VIII, 340–56), although this paper might seem too hard on the Scots to offer to a friend in Edinburgh. What other “Pieces,” if any, BF had sent is a matter of pure speculation.

1Probably a reference to the proposed expedition against Canada in 1746, for which WF had served as a subaltern in a Pa. volunteer unit and Hume had been secretary to the intended British commander-in-chief, Lieut. Gen. James St. Clair. The mismanagement in Great Britain is described in Mossner, David Hume, pp. 188–93; see also above, III, 89 n, 142 n.

2“Of the Jealousy of Trade,” an additional essay, printed at the front of David Hume, Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects. A New Edition (London, 1758), but paged as 187–9.

3“Pejorate” occurs in “Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind” (above, IV, 231, line 12); “colonize” in the Canada Pamphlet (above, p. 95, line 18); “unshakeable” also in the Canada Pamphlet (above, p. 93, line 8). Hume’s criticism of BF’s Americanisms may perhaps be explained by his sensitivity about the possible appearance of Scotticisms in his own writings and those of his Scottish friends. Mossner, David Hume, pp. 89, 266, 298, 373, 395–6, 606.

4For BF’s defense of American English, especially when criticized by a Scot, see above, VIII, 342.

5Alexander Monro the Younger (1733–1817), anatomist; M.D. University of Edinburgh, 1755; appointed in the same year professor of anatomy and surgery, coadjutor with his father. He studied further in London and on the Continent and became a fellow of the Edinburgh College of Physicians in 1759. He and Hume were joint secretaries of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh. DNB.

6So far as is known neither BF nor WF sent a “little Philosophical Essay” to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh in response to this printed circular during the winter of 1760–61. On Oct. 2, 1761, BF apologized to Lord Kames for being “so useless a member of your philosophical Society” since his election and hoped to contribute soon. Under date of Jan. 24, 1771, however, the Society’s Essays and Observations, Physical and Literary, III (1771), 129–40, printed a letter from BF to Hume on how to secure houses from the effects of lightning.

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