Benjamin Franklin Papers

Oxford University: Record of Degree of Doctor of Civil Law, 30 April 1762

Oxford University:
Record of Degree of Doctor of Civil Law

MS Register of Convocation, University Archives: Oxford University

The “Heads of Houses” at Oxford University had voted, Feb. 22, 1762, to confer on Franklin the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law “whenever He shall please to visit the University.” Above, p. 59. The ceremony took place at a special Convocation on April 30, 1762. No copy of the diploma survives and the only official record is in the Register of Convocation printed below. “The very distinguished man,” Benjamin Franklin, Esquire, is described as “agent of the Province of Pennsylvania to the Court of the Most Serene King, deputy general of the Post Office of North America, and of the postal service of all New England, and Fellow of the Royal Society.” His son William, who received the Master of Arts degree at the same ceremony, is described as “learned in municipal law.”

Preceded by the beadles (spelled “bedels” at Oxford) Franklin was escorted into the hall by Dr. William Seward, fellow of the College of St. John the Baptist.8 Seward presented him to the vice-chancellor and proctors “with the prescribed graceful speech,” and the vice-chancellor, by his own authority and that of the whole university, thereupon solemnly admitted Franklin to the degree. In like manner, Thomas Nowell, M.A., fellow of Oriel College and public orator,9 presented “the very distinguished young man,” William Franklin, and the vice-chancellor conferred upon him his degree.

No documentary evidence has been discovered to suggest whether the initiative for the granting of these degrees came from within the university or from an outside, possibly political, source. It may be remarked, however, that at this time the only honorary degrees Oxford University was conferring were those of Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Civil Law, and Master of Arts. Obviously, if Franklin was to be honored at all, the degree of Doctor of Civil Law was the most appropriate for a person of his attainments.

[April 30, 1762]

Termo Paschatis 1762 Convoc[atione] Domino Doctore Browne Vice-Cancellario1

Die Ven[eris] Viz Tricesimo Die Mensis Aprilis Anno Dom. 1762 Causa Convocationis erat ut Ornatissimus Vir Benjaminus Franklin Armiger Provinciae Pensylvaniae Deputatus, ad Curiam Serenissimi Regis Legatus, Tabellariorum per Americam Septentrionalem Praefectus Generalis, et Veredariorum totius Novae Angliae Praefectus Generalis, necnon Regiae Societatis Socius (si ita Venerabili Coetui placeret) ad Gradum Doctoris in Jure Civili, et Gulielmus Franklin Armiger Juris Municipalis Consultus ad Gradum Magistri in Artibus admitterentur, necnon ut Literae ab Honoratissimo Cancellario ad Senatum datae legerentur et ut alia Negotia Academica peragerentur.

Causâ Convocationis sic indictâ proponente sigillatim Domino Vice-Cancellario placuit Venerabili Coetui ut praedictus Ornatissimus Vir Benjaminus Franklin Armiger ad Gradum Doctoris in Jure Civili, et Gulielmus Franklin Armiger ad Gradum Magistri in Artibus Honoris Causa admitterentur.

Spectatissimum Virum Benjaminum Franklin Armigerum praeeuntibus Bedellis in Domum Convocationis ingressum Dextrâque prehensum Dominus Doctor Seward Collegii Divi Joannis Baptistae Socius sub eleganti Orationis Formulâ Domino Vice-Cancellario et Procurantibus praesentabat ut ad Gradum Doctoris in Jure Civili Honoris Causa admitterentur: Quemque hoc modo praesentatum Dominus Vice-Cancellarius suâ et totius Universitatis Authoritate ad dictum Gradum Honoris Causâ solenniter admisit.

Ornatissimum Iuvenem Gulielmum Franklin Armigerum a Thoma Nowell A. M. Collegii Orielensis Socio et Publico Oratore similiter praesentatum Dominus Vice-Cancellarius ad Gradum Magistri in Artibus similiter admisit.2

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8William Seward (1720–1789), matriculated at Trinity Coll., Oxford, 1738; fellow of St. John’s Coll.; B.C.L., 1748; D.C.L., 1753. He was vicar of Charlbury, Oxford, until the time of his death. Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses; The Members of the University of Oxford, 1715–1886 (London, 1887–88), IV, 1275. In a communication to The Nation, LXXVI (June 23, 1903), describing this ceremony and printing a rather unsatisfactory translation of this record, a correspondent signing himself as “D” contended that by assigning Seward, a man of no distinction, to introduce BF, the university authorities deliberately slighted him, since Nowell, who introduced WF, was “one of the chief dignitaries of the University.” In ibid., LXXVII (Nov. 19, 1903), 403, James A. H. Murray of Oxford University ridiculed this interpretation. He pointed out that the regular procedure at Oxford had been, and still was, for candidates to be presented for the degree of Doctor of Civil Law by the Regius professor of Civil Law (in 1762 this would have been Robert Jenner) or in his absence or indisposition, by his deputy (in this case William Seward). All candidates for the Master of Arts degree had been, and still were, presented by the public orator. The relative personal distinction of the incumbents of these positions had nothing to do with the matter.

9Thomas Nowell (1730?–1801), matriculated at Oriel Coll., Oxford, 1746; B.A., 1749–50; M.A., 1753; proctor, 1761; B.D., 1767; D.D., St. Mary Hall, 1764; principal, 1764–1801; public orator, 1760–76; Regius professor of modern history, 1771–1801. Foster, Alumni Oxonienses, III, 1031.

1The vice-chancellor at this time was Joseph Browne; see above, p. 59 n.

2Rev. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, had received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Oxford in 1759, a month after St. Andrews had made BF a Doctor of Laws. At about that time Smith wrote a letter to Dr. Thomas Fry (1718–1772), president of St. John’s College, Oxford, in order, as he afterwards put it, “to prevent his [Franklin’s] having a Degree” there also. Later, perhaps while at Oxford in April 1762, BF learned of this letter, “which he took in great Dudgeon” according to Smith, and was apparently given a copy. At a subsequent meeting between BF and Smith at William Strahan’s house this letter was read over “Paragraph by Paragraph.” As Strahan reported the matter, Smith acknowledged “that it contained many Particulars in which he had been mislead by wrong Information, and that the whole was written with too much Rancor and Asperity; but that he would write to the Dr. contradicting what was false in it.” Smith declined Strahan’s suggestion of writing the retraction then and there but promised “in a Day or two” to show Strahan what he had written. He never did so. In February 1763, Smith was again at Oxford and, being questioned about the original letter to Dr. Fry and his promise to Strahan, “He denied the whole, and even treated the Question as a Calumny.” In reporting this conversation to Strahan, John Kelly, Regius professor of medicine (above, p. 59 n), observed: “I make no other comment on this behaviour than in considering him [Smith] extremely unworthy of the Honour, he has received from our University.” Smith to Richard Peters, Aug. 14, 1762, Albert F. Gegenheimer, William Smith Educator and Churchman 1727–1803 (Phila., 1943), p. 150; Kelly to Strahan, Feb. 11, 1763; Strahan to Kelly, [Feb. 1763]. Strahan evidently sent copies of the last two to BF in a letter of Feb. 28, 1763 (not found, but see below, p. 271). They are now among the Franklin Papers, APS.

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