AS A POLITICAL THEORIST. UC-SAN DIEGO PROFESSOR ALAN HOUSTON HAS DUG through the thicket of politics, philosophy, and personalities that shaped early modem England and colonial Amenca. His latest book, Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement, tackles the Founding Father who has confounded generations with his varied opinions and multiple careers. The book, written with the help of an NEH fellowship, explores Franklin's cosmopolitan, practical approaches to issues such as commerce, immigration, and governance, bringing alive the colonial era in the process. IQ asked Houston to share his thoughts on Franklin and the thrill of scholarly discovery.
How did you become interested in Benjamin Franklin?
Jefferson was taken. Literally. A decade ago I was invited to edit an American contribution to the series Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought. I proposed Jefferson, to which the response was 'Sorry, we've already committed Jefferson. What about Franklin?' I reflected for a second or two, recalled how much I enjoyed the Autobiography, and said yes. What marvelous good fortune! Franklin has been the focus of my research for nearly ten years, and I never tire of his company.
Franklin was always seeking to improve himself. Where did that drive come from?
It seems to have been woven into his nature. More stunning than his attempts at selfimprovement, however, was his ability to accept inconsistency, conflict, and failure with ironic good humor.
Franklin was a man of many interests. Which of his interests surprised you the most?
His love of reading. Franklin had only two years of formal education. But he learned to read at a very early age, and as a child "all the little Money" that came into his hands was "laid out in Books." We often think of Franklin doing: printing newspapers, experimenting with electricity, founding fire companies. But Franklin's doing was always accompanied by reading. Action and reflection were two sides of the same coin.
While doing research for your book, you discovered some previously unknown letters. What did you find?
Copies of forty-seven letters from the spnng and summer of 1 755. All concern Franklin's contributions to Edward Braddock's campaign against Fort Duquesne. In 1 754 George Washington was defeated by the French at Fort Necessity. Braddock was sent with nearly 2,000 soldiers to reassert British control over the frontier. The campaign was a disaster, but Franklin's efforts - especially contracting Pennsylvania farmers to provide wagons and horses for transport - were lauded on both sides of the Atlantic.
Upon realizing what you had, what was your first reaction?
My heart beat faster, my chest tightened, and I could not sit still. I was in the Manuscripts Reading Room of the British Library, so I rushed outside and called my wife, who was back in San Diego!
Panic! I thought to myself, This can't be right; Franklin is too well known and too thoroughly studied; someone has to have already discovered these letters.' Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case. …