Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indians

BY
JULIAN P. BOYD, Litt.D. Librarian, Princeton University

Shortly after Franklin's death in 1790 the Abbé Morellet published in the Gazette Nationale a series of Franklin anecdotes which the great diplomat had used to charm his circle of admirers in France. One of them concerned the mental processes of the American Indians. According to Franklin, the savages never traced or desired to trace the connection between cause and effect. An Indian came to see Franklin in Philadelphia to witness the experiment of lighting brandy with an electric spark. When he had seen it, he neither exhibited surprise nor gave any evidence of reflection on the cause, but merely remarked: "These white men are clever rascals."

This anecdote, if Morellet has reported Franklin correctly, may be interpreted in two ways and both ways have significance. It may be taken to indicate that Franklin really did not understand the Indians. To accept this interpretation we must believe that one of the wisest of men, whose greatness was due largely to his understanding of the complex humanity of civilized society, failed completely to understand the simple and childlike nature of the forest inhabitants. The second interpretation is more important. The anecdote may be taken as an indication of the intellectual approach of Franklin as well as of that of the Indian. The Indian, schooled by habit not to betray emotion or surprise, probably went back to his village and pondered for days over what to him was a supernatural phenomenon. Franklin, busy with cause and effect viewed in a natural light, was concerned with the immediate and practical application of his laboratory experiment. If the primitive brain of the Indian was limited to ponderings over a supernatural phenomenon, the powerful mind of Franklin was limited to the immediate use of a new instrument. He did not soar into metaphysics, whether con

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Meet Dr. Franklin
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Table of Contents iii
  • Foreword v
  • Meet Doctor Franklin 1
  • Benjamin Franklin as a Scientist 11
  • Self-Portraiture: the Autobiography 27
  • Dr. Franklin as the English Saw Him 43
  • Franklin's Political Journalism in England 63
  • Benjamin Franklin: Student of Life 83
  • Molding the Constitution 105
  • Benjamin Franklin: Philosophical Revolutionist 127
  • Looking Westward 135
  • Benjamin Franklin: the Printer at Work 151
  • Benjamin Franklin: Adventures In Agriculture 179
  • Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indians 201
  • Concluding Paper 221
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