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‘To mend the scheme of Providence’: Benjamin Franklin's electrical heterodoxy

  • C.R.C. BAXFIELD (a1)

I suggest in this article that Benjamin Franklin's electrical experiments were naturalistic and reactive towards providential theories of natural harmony and electricity provided by the English experimentalists Stephen Hales, William Watson and Benjamin Wilson. Conceptualizing nature as a divine balance, Franklin rejected English arguments for God's conservation of nature's harmony, suggesting instead that nature had within itself the ability to re-equilibrate when rendered unbalanced. Whilst Franklin's work reveals an experimentally defined fissure between providential and naturalistic views of matter and motion in the mid-eighteenth century, his subsequent reflections on the use of natural philosophy sheds light on the divergent trajectory of utility implicit in these differing views. Hales and Watson in particular believed that insight into nature's providential manifestations gave the natural philosopher a medically restorative role, aligning the power of nature with God's benevolent purpose to heal the infirm. For Franklin, humanity behaved like nature, moving only when necessary. Natural philosophy existed to help these needs, making new worlds that had no dependence on God.

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1 Franklin to C. Colden, 12 April 1753, in L.W. Labaree (ed.), The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 40 vols., 1959–2011, vol. 4, 1961, pp. 463–464.

2 Franklin to Colden, 23 April 1752, in Franklin, Benjamin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, 5th edn, London: Printed for F. Newbery, 1774, pp. 274, 275.

3 Weinberger, Jerry, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005, pp. 254, 255, 288.

4 On the international basis of Franklin's science see Chaplin, Joyce, The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius, New York: Basic Books, 2006; Delbourgo, James, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005; and Wrightson, Nick, ‘ “[Those with] great abilities have not always the best information”: how Franklin's trans-Atlantic book-trade and scientific networks interacted, ca. 1730–1757’, Early American Studies (2010) 8, pp. 94119. On Franklin's rejection of Christian revelation see Aldridge, A.O., Benjamin Franklin and Nature's God, Durham: Duke University Press, 1967; and Kerry Walters, ‘Franklin and the question of religion’, in Carla Mulford (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 91–103.

5 Delbourgo, op. cit. (4), pp. 16, 42, 45–46.

6 See Cohen, I. Bernard, Franklin and Newton: An Inquiry into Speculative Newtonian Experimental Science and Franklin's Work in Electricity as an Example Thereof, Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1956; Heilbron, John, ‘Franklin, Haller, and Franklinist history’, Isis (1977) 68, pp. 539549; idem, Electricity in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Study of Early Modern Physics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979; and Cohen, I. Bernard, Benjamin Franklin's Science, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

7 See Heilbron, John, Elements of Early Modern Physics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982, pp. 190, 193, 240.

8 Heilbron, Electricity in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, op. cit. (6), p. 2. See idem, Plus and minus: Franklin's zero-sum way of thinking’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (2006) 150, pp. 607617.

9 See Paola Bertucci, ‘The electrical body of knowledge: medical electricity and experimental knowledge in the mid-eighteenth century’, in Paola Bertucci and Guiliano Pancali (eds.), Electric Bodies: Episodes in the History of Medical Electricity, Bologna: Università di Bolgna, 2001, pp. 43–68; idem, Revealing sparks: John Wesley and the religious utility of electrical healing’, BJHS (2006) 39, pp. 341362; Fara, Patricia, An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Cambridge: Icon Books, 2002; and Bensaude-Vincent, Bernadette and Blondel, Christine, Science and Spectacle in the European Enlightenment, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.

10 Simon Schaffer, ‘A social history of plausibility: country, city and calculation in Augustan Britain’, in Adrian Wilson (ed.), Rethinking Social History: English Society 1570–1920, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993, p. 141; Feingold, Mordechai, The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

11 Schaffer, Simon, ‘Natural philosophy and public spectacle in the eighteenth century’, History of Science (1983) 21, pp. 143, 4.

12 Joyce Chaplin, ‘Benjamin Franklin's natural philosophy’, in Mulford, op. cit. (4), pp. 63–76, 65.

13 See Newton, Isaac, Opticks, 2nd edn, London: W. and J. Innys, 1718, p. 380.

14 Simon Schaffer, ‘The consuming flame: electrical showmen and Tory mystics in the world of goods’, in John Brewer and Roy Porter (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 489–526, 497. For Watson's life see Pulteney, R., Historical and Biographical Sketches, vol. 2, London: T. Cadell, 1790, pp. 295340.

15 See Schaffer, op. cit. (11), p. 13; and Bertucci, ‘The electrical body of knowledge’, op. cit. (9), p. 67.

16 Watson, William, A Sequel to the Experiments and Observations, London: C. Davis, 1746, pp. 7172.

17 Franklin to Peter Collinson, 29 April 1749 (hereafter Letter IV), in Cohen, Bernard, Benjamin Franklin's Experiments, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1941, p. 192.

18 Coleman, Charly, ‘Resacralizing the world: the fate of secularization in Enlightenment historiography’, Journal of Modern History (2010) 82, pp. 368395, 395.

19 Franklin to Peter Collinson, 9 May 1753, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 4, p. 480.

20 See Schaffer, op. cit. (14), p. 496.

21 Hales, Stephen, Vegetable Staticks, London: Scientific Book Guild, 1961, p. 179. On Newton's sympathies with this conception of electricity see R.W. Home, ‘Newton on electricity and the aether’, in Zev Bechler (ed.), Contemporary Newtonian Research, Dordrecht: Reidel, 1982, pp. 191–213.

22 Hales, Stephen, Statical Essays, Containing Haemastatics, vol. 2, London: W. Innys and R. Manby, 1733, pp. 60, 96.

23 Wilson, Benjamin, An Essay towards the Explication of the Phaenomena of Electricity, London: C. Davis, 1746, pp. viiviii, 5, 25.

24 Hales, op. cit. (21), pp. 196–197; Wilson, Benjamin, A Treatise on Electricity, London: Printed by C. Davis, 1750, p. 201.

25 See Herman Boerhaave, A New Method of Chemistry (tr. Peter Shaw and Ephraim Chambers), London: printed for J. Osborn and T. Longman, 1727, p. vi. See pp. 277– 299, 301–302.

26 Watson, op. cit. (16), p. 50.

27 Watson, William, Experiments and Observations Tending to Illustrate the Nature and Properties of Electricity, London: C. Davis, 1745, p. 9.

28 Watson, op. cit. (16), p. 51.

29 Watson, op. cit. (27), p. 9; see Hales, op. cit. (22), pp. 95–96; and Desaguliers, Jean Theophilus, A Dissertation Concerning Electricity, London: W. Innys, 1742, p. 41.

30 Desaguliers, op. cit. (29), p. 31.

31 Watson, op. cit. (27), pp. 12, 13.

32 Watson, op. cit. (27), p. 37.

33 Watson, op. cit. (16), p. 31.

34 See Watson, op. cit. (16), pp. 32, 43. On Nollet's concept of electricity see Home, R.W., ‘Nollet and Boerhaave: a note on eighteenth-century ideas about electricity and fire’, Annals of Science (1979) 36, pp. 171175.

35 Watson, op. cit. (16), pp. 12, 49–50.

36 Watson, op. cit. (16), pp. 72–75, 78. This declaration paraphrases a long footnote describing the philosophical division in the second edition of Peter Shaw's translation of New Method; see Boerhaave, A New Method of Chemistry, 2nd edn (tr. Peter Shaw), London: T. Longman, 1741, p. 206.

37 Wrightson, op. cit. (4), p. 115.

38 Franklin to Collinson, 25 May 1747, in Cohen, op. cit. (17), p. 178.

39 Benjamin Franklin, Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity (1725), in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 1, p. 64. Hereafter Dissertation.

40 Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography, in The Autobiography and Other Writings (ed. A. Houston), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 1–142, 35.

41 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (ed. F.B. Kaye), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924, p. 345.

42 Franklin, Dissertation, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 1, p. 64.

43 Clarke, Samuel, A Discourse concerning the unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion, and the truth and Certainty of the Christian Religion, in The Works of Samuel Clarke, DD, vol. 2, London: John and Paul Knapton, 1738, p. 641.

44 Franklin, op. cit. (39), p. 65.

45 See Aldridge, op. cit. (4); and Weinberger, op. cit. (3).

46 See Wigelsworth, J.R., Deism in Enlightenment England, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009, pp. 154159.

47 Baxter, Andrew, An Enquiry into the Nature of the Human Soul, London: printed by James Bettenham, 1733, p. 2. Franklin to Francis Hopkinson, 16 October 1746, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 3, pp. 85, 88.

48 Franklin to Colden, 6 August 1747, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 3, p. 168. Brackets added.

49 Colden persisted in using vis inertiae in tandem with other sorts of material power to provide a naturalistic description of gravity, reprinting Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter in the 1750s. He was criticized heavily by European mathematicians.

50 Franklin to Collinson, 25 May 1747 (hereafter Letter II), in Cohen, op. cit. (17), p. 175.

51 Franklin, Letter II, op. cit. (50), p. 176.

52 Franklin to Peter Collinson, 28 July 1747 (hereafter Letter III), in Cohen, op. cit. (17), p. 180.

53 Franklin, Letter III, op. cit. (52), p. 181.

54 Franklin, Letter IV, op. cit. (17), pp. 189, 190.

55 Franklin, Letter III, op. cit. (52), p. 182.

56 Franklin, Letter IV, op. cit. (17), pp. 191–192.

57 Franklin, Letter IV, op. cit. (17), p. 191.

58 Franklin, Letter IV, op. cit. (17), p. 193.

59 Wilson, , A Treatise on Electricity, 2nd edn, London: C. Davis, 1752, p. 110, see esp. pp. 138, 176–177.

60 Minutes of the Royal Society (11 January 1749–50), in Cohen, op. cit. (17), pp. 239–240.

61 Watson, , ‘An account of the phenomena of electricity in vacuo, with some observations thereupon’, Philosophical Transactions (1751–1752) 47, pp. 371, 374, 375.

62 See Mitchell, T.A., ‘The politics of experiment in the eighteenth century: the pursuit of audience and the manipulation of consensus in the debate over lightning rods’, Eighteenth-Century Studies (1998) 31, pp. 307331.

63 Watson, William, ‘Suggestions concerning the preventing the mischiefs, which happen to ships and their masts by lightning’, London Magazine (July 1763) 32, p. 372. See Heilbron, John, ‘Benjamin Franklin in Europe: electrician, Academician, politician’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (2007) 61, pp. 353373.

64 Watson, William, ‘Observations upon the effects of lightning’, Philosophical Transactions (1764) 54, p. 220; see Heilbron, ‘Franklin, Haller, and Franklinist history’, op. cit. (6) (1977); and Heering, Peter, Hochadel, Oliver and Rees, David (eds.), Playing with Fire: Histories of the Lightning Rod, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2009, on divergent readings of Franklin's lightning.

65 Hales, Stephen, A Treatise on Ventilators: Part Second, London: R. Manby, 1758, p. 310.

66 Hales, op. cit. (65), p. 63.

67 Hales, op. cit. (65), p. 4.

68 Watson, William, ‘An account of Dr Biancchini's Recueil d'Experiences Faites a Venise sur le Medicine Electrique’, Philosophical Transactions (1751–1752) 47, pp. 1920.

69 See Franklin, Benjamin, ‘An account of the effects of electricity in paralytic cases’, Philosophical Transactions (1757–1758) 50, pp. 481483.

70 Franklin to Collinson, 9 May 1753, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 4, p. 481.

71 Franklin to Collinson, 9 May 1753, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 4, p. 482.

72 Franklin to Collinson, 9 May 1753, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 4, p. 482.

73 Franklin to Collinson, 9 May 1753, in Labaree, op. cit. (1), vol. 4, p. 483.

74 Franklin, op. cit. (40), p. 101.

75 Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, in idem, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, op. cit. (2), p. 211.

76 Franklin, Benjamin, ‘A proposal for promoting useful knowledge among the British plantations in America’ (14 May 1743), in The Autobiography and Other Writings, op. cit. (40), p. 175.

77 Benjamin Franklin, Opinions and Conjectures, in Cohen, op. cit. (17), pp. 221–222.

78 Franklin to Collinson, September 1753, in Cohen, op. cit. (17), p. 269.

79 Franklin, Letter IV, op. cit. (17); Franklin to Collinson, undated (1751), in Cohen, op. cit. (17), pp. 200, 246.

80 Franklin to Kinnersley, 20 February 1762, in Cohen, op. cit. (17), pp. 371–372, 375.

81 Heilbron, op. cit. (8), pp. 611, 613.

82 Stewart, , The Rise of Public Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 383384. See the introduction to Jacob, Margaret and Stewart, Larry, Practical Matter: Newton's Science in the Service of Industry and Empire, 1687–1851, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

83 Watson, op. cit. (16), p. 75; See Schaffer, op. cit. (14).

The author would like to thank John Hedley Brooke, John Christie, Moti Feingold, Jon Hodge, Chris Kenny, Greg Radick, Jon Topham, Adrian Wilson and the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.

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