The project to collect and publish the complete papers of Benjamin Franklin will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2004. Copies of some thirty thousand documents have been gathered from around the world, deciphered, transcribed, sorted into chronological order, and combed for details about the great man’s long and momentous life.
“The first editors thought that it would take fifteen years, and even that was considered an immense undertaking,” says Ellen Cohn, editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. “They knew it was going to be a huge project, but no one at the time had a realistic sense of the size. The first editors of this project spent several years just setting up the archive.”
Volume 1 appeared in 1959 and this year will see the publication of Volumes 36 and 37. They cover the end of 1781 and the first half of 1782, taking Franklin into his seventy-seventh year and his sixth year in France. At the time he was Minister Plenipotentiary to the French court and busily negotiating terms of peace with Great Britain after the Revolutionary War.
“There was three times as much material for Franklin’s seven and a half years in France than the rest of his life put together,” Cohn says, “and much of that was undated. Mostly it was other people writing to him. People from all over Europe started flooding him with letters.” Not every letter Franklin received is printed in full, but even so, Volume 37, which includes Franklin’s journal of the peace negotiations, will cover five months instead of the six originally planned, to keep it to a manageable size.
“We have reached the peak of density of his papers, but we won’t be finished until April of 1790, when Franklin died,” says Cohn. “We have another ten volumes to publish. I hope to stick to our very aggressive timetable of one a year.” It may sound like a long time, but Cohn says confidently, “We are the closest of the Founding Fathers projects to be finished.”
The largest collection of Frankliniana is housed in the Franklin Collection at Yale University, and the largest single repository of his papers is the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, of which Franklin was a founder. The two institutions jointly sponsor the Papers of Benjamin Franklin project.
Cohn says that despite a couple of centuries of collecting, new Franklin papers still come to light. “Amazingly, every once in a while a dealer will contact us saying, ‘I’ve just gotten something. Do you know about it?’ Just a couple of months ago I got a call from a woman in Virginia doing research. She had come across a cache of eighteenth-century manuscripts in private hands in Connecticut. It included a completely unknown letter from Franklin from the period of Volume 37. It had been in the owner’s family since his ancestor had received it from Franklin.”