Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Brand Hollis, 5 October 1783

To Thomas Brand Hollis7

Transcript:8 Library of Congress

Passy, near Paris, Octor 5th. 1783.


I received but lately (tho’ sent in June) your most valuable present of the Memoirs of Thomas Hollis Esqr.9 who was truly as you describe him in your letter, a good “Citizen of the World and a faithful Friend of America.” America too is extremely sensible of his Benevolence and great Beneficence towards her, and will ever revere his Memory.—These These Volumes are a Proof of what I have sometimes had occasion to say, in Encouraging People to undertake difficult Public Services, that it is prodigious the quantity of Good that may be done by one Man, if he will make a Business of it. It is equally surprizing to think of the very little that is done by many; for such is the general Frivolity of the Employments and Amusements of the Rank we call Gentlemen, that every Century may have seen three successions of a Set of a thousand each in every Kingdom of Europe (Gentlemen too, of equal or superior Fortune) no one of which Set in the Course of their Lives have done the good effected by this Man alone! Good, not only to his own Nation, and to his Cotemporaries, but to distant Countries, and to late Posterity: for such must be the effect of his multiplying and distributing Copies of the Works of our best English Writers on Subjects the most important to the Welfare of Society.1

I knew him personally but little. I sometimes met with him at the Royal Society and the Society of Arts, but he appeared shy of my acquaintance, tho’ he often sent me valuable Presents, such as Hamilton’s Works, Sydney’s Works, &c. which are now among the most precious Ornaments of my Library.2 We might possibly, if we had been more intimate, have concerted some useful Operations together; but he loved to do his good alone and secretly, and I find besides, in perusing these Memoirs, that I was a doubtful Character with him.3 I do not respect him less for his Error; and I am obliged to the Editors for the Justice they have done me.4 They have made a little mistake in page 400. where a Letter which appeared in a London Paper, Jany: 7th. 1768, is said to have been written by Mr. Adams. It was written by me, and is reprinted in Mr. Vaughan’s Collection of my political Pieces P. 231.5 This Eratum is of no great importance, but may be corrected in a future Edition.

I see Mr. Hollis had a Collection of curious Medals. If he had been still living, I should certainly have sent him one of the Medals that I have caused to be struck here. I think the countenance of my Liberty would have pleased him.—6 I suppose you possess the Collection, and have the same Taste. I beg you therefore to accept of one of these Medals as a Mark of my Respect, and believe me to be with sincere esteem, &c.


To Brand Hollis Esqr. on receiving from him the Memoirs of Thos. Hollis Esq

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7This letter, answering one that is now missing, is the first appearance in BF’S papers of a political reformer, dissenter, and fellow member of the Royal Society and the Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce whom BF had known in London. On the eve of the American Revolution, Thomas Brand Hollis (1719–1804) was part of the circle that included Price and Priestley. BF dined with them at Brand Hollis’ home on at least two occasions in the winter of 1774/1775: “Journal of Josiah Quincy, Jun. …,” Mass. Hist. Soc. Proc., 3rd ser., L (1916–17), 456, 482.

Born Thomas Brand, Brand Hollis took the surname of his longtime friend Thomas Hollis—the subject of the present letter—when he unexpectedly inherited Hollis’ estate at the beginning of 1774. He continued his friend’s tradition of charitable contributions, though at lower levels; more of his fortune (it is said) went to his personal collection of antiquities. He was elected an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782: ODNB; Caroline Robbins, “Thomas Brand Hollis (1719–1804), English Admirer of Franklin and Intimate of John Adams,” APS Proc., XCVII (1953), 239–47; Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, XI, 551–5; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Book of Members, 1780–2010 (Cambridge, Mass., 2010).

8In the hand of a secretary whom WTF employed c. 1817 to copy the papers he intended to include in his edition of BF’S writings. WTF gave these copies to the printer, often marked with his own title lines, commentary, or directions. (All known examples are at the Library of Congress.) In some cases, including the present one, the original MSS were subsequently lost. This text is in WTF, Memoirs, II, 44.

9[Francis Blackburne], Memoirs of Thomas Hollis, Esq. … (2 vols., London, 1780). The work was sponsored by Brand Hollis, who sent copies to various “friends of liberty”: [John Disney], Memoirs of Thomas Brand-Hollis … (London, 1808), p. 8.

1Thomas Hollis (1720–1774) was an early supporter of America, a critic of repressive regimes, and an active promoter of liberty. As the Memoirs show, he generously donated books, money, and scientific instruments to institutions and individuals throughout England, the colonies, and Europe, often anonymously. He was an important benefactor of Harvard College, continuing a family tradition. ODNB.

2Hollis was known for the handsomely bound books he sponsored and donated. He had been sending copies of Sidney’s writings to libraries for decades before he commissioned the expanded and corrected edition printed by William Strahan, Jr.: [J. Robertson, ed.], The Works of Algernon Sydney (London, 1772). See Bernhard Knollenberg, “Thomas Hollis and Jonathan Mayhew, Their Correspondence, 1759–1766,” Mass. Hist. Soc. Proc., 3rd ser., LXIX (1947–50), 102; W. H. Bond, Thomas Hollis of Lincoln’s Inn: a Whig and His Books (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 18, 29–33, 84–88, 103, 108–9. Whichever edition BF received from Hollis, it was most likely not with him in France, as he purchased Sidney’s Discourses Concerning Government in 1779: XXXVI, 332. We are unable to identify “Hamilton’s Works” and wonder, as previous BF editors have, whether the copyist mistranscribed the name. Hollis revered John Milton, and frequently gave custom-bound copies of Milton’s works as part of his plan to distribute “liberty texts”: W. H. Bond, Thomas Hollis, pp. 46–7.

3The Memoirs reprinted Hollis’ answer to a letter from Jonathan Mayhew (quoted above, XII, 423n) concerning the possibility that BF had recommended a certain undeserving Boston clergyman for an honorary degree at a Scottish university. It included the following passage: “What share Dr. F——n might have in obtaining the degree, I am ignorant. He is certainly a man of knowledge, ability; wishes well to what is right, loves his country, North America, even to partiality; and yet, according to old observings, to me he is a trimmer. His card too, which came forth in such numbers, appeared not, if I am well informed, till after the death of the D. of C. [Duke of Cumberland] and till the spring, that the leaders in the ministry had taken party, and resolved to repeal the stamp-act”: [Blackburne], Memoirs, 1, 333, 335–6.

4Blackburne’s comment on p. 336 reads: “We confess here to want some explanation; we are strangers to the facts here alluded to, which, in order to prove Dr. F——n a trimmer, should be clear and evident, beyond the possibility of a doubt. Had Mr. Hollis lived to see the present day, we are firmly of opinion, he would freely have relinquished every idea of Dr. F——n’s duplicity.”

5Hollis published BF’S pseudonymous essay “Causes of the American Discontents before 1768” (XV, 3–13) in The True Sentiments of America of 1768: XXI, 139. Benjamin Vaughan included it in 1779 in Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces: XXXI, 216.

6Blackburne described Hollis as beginning early in life to “collect books and medals for the purpose of illustrating and upholding liberty, and preserving the memory of its champions.” Hollis even favored the symbols of Liberty and the liberty cap for his book bindings. Included in the Memoirs is a catalogue of Hollis’ renowned numismatic collection: [Blackburne], Memoirs, I, 59–61; II, 808–39; Bond, Thomas Hollis, pp. 62–4. BF refers here to his own recently struck medal, Libertas Americana, illustrated as the frontispiece to vol. 39.

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