Benjamin Franklin Papers

Notes for a Reply to ——— Stockar zur Sonnenbourg, [before 14 December 1782]

Notes for a Reply to ——— Stockar zur Sonnenbourg1

AL (draft): Historical Society of Pennsylvania

[before December 14, 1782]2

Different Men who have been present and Witnesses of a Transaction, often give different and inconsistent Accounts of it thro’ Defaults in their Observation or Memory. It is still more difficult for a Historian who writes of Affairs distant either in Time or Place, to come at the exact Truth. It is therefore no Wonder if some Errors have escaped the Abbé Raynall’s Care in his History of the American Revolution which this Pamphlet points out.3 It is nevertheless upon the whole an excellent Work. Tho’ There are some other Errors, such as that European Animals degenerate in America.4 That Men are shorter liv’d. That they have a bad Method of Inticing Inhabitants. That the People of Massachusetts Bay preserve their Fanaticism. That the Soil is bad and has grown worse. With others of less Importance.5

1BF drafted these notes on a duplicate of Stockar’s Dec. 6, 1781, letter, sent on Aug. 3, 1782: XXXVI, 204n; XXXVII, 701–2. They responded to the question Stockar posed in the earlier letter about the reliability of the abbé Raynal’s Révolution de l’Amérique (London, 1781), a pamphlet issued in both French and English: XXXVI, 205.

2The day BF acknowledged having received copies of Thomas Paine’s Letter Addressed to the Abbe Raynal on the Affairs of North-America, in which the Mistakes in the Abbe’s Account of the Revolution of America are Corrected and Cleared Up (Philadelphia, 1782): BF to Livingston, Dec. 5[–14], above. This is undoubtedly the pamphlet BF mentions below. Paine’s criticism of Raynal centered on the causes of the revolution and the legitimacy of American independence. See Edoardo Tortarolo, “La réception de l’Histoire des deux Indes aux Etats-Unis,” in Lectures de Raynal: l’Histoire des deux Indes en Europe et en Amérique au XVIIIe siècle, Actes du Colloque de Wolfenbüttel, ed. Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink and Manfred Tietz, Studies on Voltaire 286 (Oxford, 1991), pp. 319–20.

3This sentence, alluding to Paine’s pamphlet, and the statements that follow lead us to wonder if BF was not speaking generally about views Raynal had expressed in earlier editions of Histoire philosophique et politique … des Européens dans les deux Indes (known by the short title Histoire des deux Indes), the multi-volume work from which Révolution de l’Amérique had been extracted. Some of the errors BF lists are not in Révolution de l’Amérique. At least one of them, the theory of degeneracy discussed in the following note, had been present in earlier editions of Histoire des deux Indes but was dropped in the 1780 edition that BF owned: XXXV, 343. We claimed in XXXV, 343n, that BF owned a copy of Révolution de l’Amérique; this was based on a mistaken reading of an abbreviated title on one of BF’s book lists, and our correction is in XXXVI, 339–40n. We are no longer certain that BF had a copy of that pamphlet in his possession.

4In the first two editions of his work (1770 and 1774), Raynal had adopted Cornelius de Pauw’s thesis of degeneracy (XIX, 197n) and had argued that English settlers degenerated intellectually in North America. His acquaintance with BF and other Americans convinced him otherwise, and he retracted the claims in the 1780 edition, citing BF as a counterexample: Durand Echeverria, Mirage in the West: a History of the French Image of American Society to 1815 (Princeton, 1957), pp. 7–14, 29–30, 64–6.

Two stories survive about BF’s demonstrating the absurdity of the theory. William Carmichael wrote to Thomas Jefferson about a dinner he attended in Paris at which a guest asked BF his opinion of de Pauw’s thesis. Looking at the five Americans seated at the table, BF asked his interrogator to judge for himself whether “the human race had degenerated by being transplanted to another section of the Globe.” Any one of those Americans, Carmichael reported, could have “tost out of the Windows any one or perhaps two of the rest of the Company, if this Effort depended merely on muscular force.” Carmichael to Jefferson, Oct. 15, 1787, in Jefferson Papers, XII, 240–1. In 1818 Jefferson recounted that BF had told him of a dinner at which Raynal himself was arguing “his favorite theory of the degeneracy of animals and even of man, in America.” Of the twelve guests, half were American, the other half French, and they were seated at opposite sides of the table. BF challenged the assembly to rise, so that the “remarkably diminutive” Frenchmen (the abbé himself was a “mere shrimp”) would be gazing up at the strapping Americans: Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Works of Thomas Jefferson (12 vols., New York, 1904–05), XII, 110–11n. These two stories are often assumed to be interchangeable, though Jefferson’s secondhand version, recalled decades after he heard it, suffers from at least one major inaccuracy: the three American guests he identifies by name—Carmichael, Josiah Harmar, and David Humphreys—were never in Paris at the same time, and the latter two never overlapped with Raynal, who fled the country in 1781.

5Even in the recent edition of Histoire des deux Indes, Raynal retained his views about the poor American soil; they appear in Révolution de l’Amérique, pp. 175–7. BF and Silas Deane had told the abbé Raynal in late 1777 or early 1778 about many of the errors in the first edition of Histoire des deux Indes, one of them being his reporting the story of Polly Baker; see III, 121–2, and Ford, Works, XII, 110–11n.

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