Provenance of the Benjamin Franklin Papers
How did Benjamin Franklin's papers come to the Library of Congress? This essay tells the story of their turbulent history and eventual acquisition by the Library and other repositories.
When Benjamin Franklin went to France in the fall of 1776 he left the twenty years of correspondence he had accumulated while a colonial representative in England with his friend Joseph Galloway in Pennsylvania. When Galloway turned loyalist his house was sacked and Franklin's papers were scattered and damaged. Among those rescued was the Craven Street letterbook, 1772-1773.
Franklin went on to accumulate many more papers, and when he died in 1790 he left these to his grandson and secretary, William Temple Franklin (1760-1823). Temple Franklin made a selection, which he published in 1817-1818 as Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Benjamin Franklin. That selection today constitutes Series 1 and 2 of the Library of Congress Franklin papers. Temple Franklin left the remainder of his grandfather's papers behind in Pennsylvania with a friend, George Fox. Today most of this portion of Franklin's papers is at the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1840, as a result of events that remain murky, the papers that Temple Franklin published in 1817-1818 were discovered tied in bundles in the shop of the London tailor who had been his landlord. By the time they were rescued the tailor had cut up an unknown number of Franklin's letters and writings to make patterns. These papers were purchased in 1851 by American book dealer Henry Stevens. In 1882 the United States Government purchased the Franklin papers from Stevens, but only after Stevens rescued them from the hands of creditors with the help of banker Junius Spencer Morgan (father of banker and book collector J. Pierpont Morgan). En route to the United States the papers once again narrowly escaped destruction when the New York pier they landed on in January 1883 burned just after they were picked up by the shipping agent responsible for delivering them to Washington.
Once safely arrived in Washington Franklin's papers were housed at the State Department along with those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other American leaders, which the government had acquired in the nineteenth century. In 1903, Series 2 was transferred to the Library of Congress, followed by Series 1 in 1922.
The contents of Series 3 and 4 of the Library's Franklin papers, and an addendum consisting of a single item, were acquired by the Library by gift and purchase at other times. Copies of Franklin papers at other libraries and in private hands are also included in the Library of Congress collection.
To read more about the history of the Franklin papers, see the resources under the heading "Catalogs, Calendars, Histories, and Published Editions of Benjamin Franklin's Papers" in the Related Resources page associated with this website.