Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from the Trustees of the Burlington Free School, 5 January 1773

From the Trustees of the Burlington Free School

LS: American Philosophical Society

Burlington (January) 1st mo: 5th 1773

Respected Friend

To a person of Doctor Franklins well known character, for humanity and benevolence, we think it scarcely necessary to enter into an apology for the freedom we have taken in enclosing the within Petition to the King, in presenting which we request thy friendly assistance.

Notwithstanding the application made by Lord Rochford for a Grant of the Islands in Delaware was thrown aside, at some future day, one similar may be revived. We therefore thought it a duty incumbent on us, as Guardians of an infant charitable seminary, to address the Throne for a confirmation of our Right; and no time we thought more favourable than the present, when the application abovementioned, may be supposed, very justly, to have alarmed us.1

The rents of the Island for about 26 years to come, will annually educate 25 poor children, and for 20 years then next succeeding 30 poor children; being lett out on a lease of 50 years, 4 of which are expired. But here a difficulty arises, our funds are wholly appropriated to this purpose, and if any considerable expence is likely to accrue in obtaining a confirmation of our Title, we have no way of defraying it, but by withdrawing the Scholars, till the rents make up the sum; as this would be an irreparable loss to a number of poor boys and girls, we would willingly hope some method may be fallen on to obviate any heavy expence, and we beleive no person would be more ready to devise, or more willing to execute, a plan suitable to the scanty state of our finances, than our worthy Agent. We therefore also beg a kind attention to this important point, and be pleased to inform us what may be likely to be the attendant charges. We humbly conceive that an Instruction to the Governour to grant a Pattent (as in New York and other Royal Governments) might answer every purpose,2 and be attended with little or no expence, flattering ourselves that the pattenting Officers would generously give up their fees to so charitable a use.

As we serve entirely without pay, and have no private interest to promote, by this application, but only to procure some useful learning to those who might otherwise be destitute of it, we hope our desires of avoiding expence, wont be thought little or unreasonable. We remain with great respect on behalf of the Trust, Thy Friends3

John Hoskins Saml How
Abrm. Hewlings Ellis Wright
Richard Wells Saml: Allinson

Doctor Benjamin Franklin

Endorsed: Letter from Trustees of Burlington School, concerning the Island.

1In 1682 the West Jersey Assembly had granted Burlington (alias Matinecunck or Stacy’s) Island in the Delaware to the town of Burlington for the maintenance of a school. By 1767 the island was sufficiently settled so that revenue from its lands was appropriated for the tuition of some orphaned and indigent scholars, and eventually for the education of all the poor children of the town. 1 N.J. Arch., X, 515–17; Evan M. Woodward and John F. Hageman, History of Burlington and Mercer Counties (Philadelphia, 1883), pp. 143–4; Nelson R. Burr, Education in New Jersey … (Princeton, 1942), p. 56. But Burlington’s title to the land was nonexistent: half a century earlier the King’s law officers had decided that the riverine islands were crown property, not part of either Pennsylvania or New Jersey. At that time the Board of Trade had suggested that Burlington Island be transferred to New Jersey and granted to the town, but apparently nothing had come of the idea; and Lord Rochford’s recent attempt to secure the islands for himself, even though unsuccessful, had brought to the fore the long dormant question of title. Acts Privy Coun., Col., VI, 134; above, XIX, 276 n.

The petition that the trustees sent to BF went no farther; it is among his papers in the APS. It pointed out that the revenue from the island sufficed for twenty-five scholars, declared that the possibility of the land’s being granted elsewhere alarmed the trustees “in behalf of the poor infant communicants,” and begged the crown to confirm the original grant by the Assembly. BF’s reason for not forwarding the petition can readily be conjectured. The whole method of granting crown land was under review at the time, and new rules were being promulgated; see A. Berriedale Keith, Constitutional History of the First British Empire (Oxford, 1930), pp. 321–2. In the previous August BF had advised Galloway to enter a caveat against any grant’s being made in the islands before the property-holders had been heard: above, XIX, 277. He may well have advised the Burlington trustees, in a letter now missing, to do the same. If so they eventually took his advice, for their caveat came before the Board of Trade in November, 1775. Board of Trade Jour., 1768–75, p. 451.

2Governors of royal provinces were normally authorized, with consent of their councils, to grant crown land by patent; but the trustees presumably wished to strengthen their shaky title by obtaining a royal command to WF to make the grant. Why they expected the crown to oblige, when the island had long since been declared to be outside the jurisdiction of New Jersey, we do not venture to guess.

3The signers were for the most part Quakers. John Hoskins (1727?–1814) was prominent in the Burlington Society of Friends. Abraham Hewlings (d. 1785) had been a member of the New Jersey Assembly Committee of Correspondence: above, XVI, 256. Richard Wells (d. 1801) was an English-born merchant who lived for several years in Burlington and then moved to Philadelphia, where he subsequently served in the Assembly and was secretary of the APS and a director of the Library Company. Samuel Allinson (d. 1791) was a lawyer and former clerk of the Burlington corporation, who was commissioned in 1773 to prepare a new edition of the laws of New Jersey; he and Hoskins were trustees of the Friends’ Burial Ground in Burlington. All we know about Samuel How is that he was at the time a well-to-do landowner in the town; about Ellis Wright we know virtually nothing. For these scraps of information see the following sources: Hinshaw, Amer. Quaker Geneal., II, 177; PMHB, XVI (1892), 251; XXIV (1900), 57, 153; LXVI (1942), 417–18; Geneal. Mag. of N.J., XIX (1944), 32–3; XXXVI (1961), 51; Charles P. Keith, The Provincial Councillors of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1883), p. 33 of first pagination; George De Cou, Burlington: a Provincial Capital … (Philadelphia, [1945]), pp. 46, 115).

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