Benjamin Franklin Papers

Franklin’s Use of “Prudential Algebra,” [before 3 August 1773?]

Franklin’s Use of “Prudential Algebra”

AD:5 American Philosophical Society

These seemingly random jottings turn out to have more significance than at first appears. They are the only example we have yet encountered of Franklin’s using his private decision-making method, which he had offered to Priestley the year before. It involved listing in separate columns the reasons for and against a given action, then striking out those that balanced each other in importance, then determining which column finally had the greater weight.6 In the present case he did not follow the method to the letter, but it was clearly at work. He was attacking the problem that engaged him intermittently and often: had the time come to return home? He put down the reasons against in one column, the reasons for in another; instead of deleting items in both, he made crosses beside most of those in the first. What the marks meant is not clear, because he did not mention this variant to Priestley; but it is a reasonable conjecture that he was checking considerations on which he put the most emphasis. In any case the list with crosses outweighed the other, and his “algebra” persuaded him to stay.

[Before August 3?,7 1773]

Stay Go
S. J. P.—Eur.8 × Recover of F
Finish 5th Edn.9 × Settle with Do. for Ph.O10
——Piece on New Stove11 × Get clear of Agys.12
——Dialogue13 × Repose
Settle with Mrs. S.14 × Prevent Waste at h15
Ohio Business.16 Settle with H’s Exrs.17
Pap. Money18 ×
Boston Agy.19 ×
[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

5On the verso of BF’s draft of his letter below to John Williams, Aug. 15, and presumably antedating it; see the next note but one.

6Above, XIX, 299–300.

7The date of the letters to Foxcroft, WF, and Galloway below, in which BF first mentioned his decision to stay in England. Internal evidence establishes the year beyond question.

8In 1772 BF had been disappointed in his hope of a European trip with Sir John Pringle (above, XIX, 132); he had recently been disappointed again, when Pringle had gone instead to Scotland. Above, p. 306. The hope had been postponed, we assume, but not abandoned.

9The latest edition of Exper. and Obser. was in preparation: BF to LeRoy above, March 30, and to Ingenhousz below, Sept. 30.

10This and “Recover of F” refer to settling with John Foxcroft both their personal accounts and those for the Philadelphia post office. See above, XVIII, 91; XIX, 60–1, 273, 320, 414–15.

11He had promised Dubourg, in his letter above of June 29, a description of his new stove; it was clearly on his mind, although he did not in fact compose it until years later.

12The agencies for Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. He subsequently said that the reason for his deciding to stay was “some Events in our Colony Affairs.” To Ingenhousz below, Sept. 30.

13He had apparently begun work on what later became “A Dialogue between Britain, France, Spain, Holland, Saxony and America,” which we print below in early 1775. See Crane, Letters to the Press, p. 283. The final form of the essay suggests by its tone that the draft in 1773, whatever it was, underwent thorough revision.

14BF paid Mrs. Stevenson surprisingly little in 1773, but a large sum when he finally left in 1775: Ledger, pp. 12, 67. He told John Williams, in the letter cited above, that he was short of cash—perhaps too short to discharge his debt to his landlady. If so, and if she was as willing to extend credit as she seems to have been, he may have wanted to avoid a settlement at this time.

15Our guess (the reader may have a better one) is that “h” meant “home,” and that BF had in mind what he considered to be DF’s extravagance; see above, XVIII, 90–1.

16No emphasis here, perhaps because BF was no longer in the inner counsels of the Walpole Company and was pessimistic about the interminable delays in securing approval of its grant.

17To settle with David Hall’s executors the accounts that Hall, shortly before his death, had been pressing BF to settle: above, XIX, 57–8, 91–2.

18A reminder to attend to the Pennsylvania paper money act that BF mentioned to Galloway below, Aug. 3.

19He was free to turn over the affairs of the agency to Arthur Lee (above, XVIII, 127), but at that juncture may have been reluctant to do so.

20He was overseeing the translation of Beccaria’s Elettricismo artificiale; see his letter to the author below, Aug. 11.

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