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The Franklin Papers includes 4,522 documents, including angry letters the founding father never sent. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s Ben Franklin’s Birthday—Want to Rummage Through His Papers?

4,522 documents, letters and notes that Franklin wrote or received

On this day in 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born. Franklin did a lot of things in his 84 years on this planet—inventing bifocals, helping discover electricity, and, oh yeah, helping to create the United States. 

Franklin also wrote a lot. And today, to celebrate his birthday, you can rummage through the 4,522 documents that the U.S. Founders Archive has on record—everything from an elegy to his sister, written in 1722, to angry letters that he never sent. The collection, called the Franklin Papers, was founded in 1954 by Yale University, and the school has kept the 47 volumes since. In 2006, the papers were put online for anybody to browse. Yale’s website says:

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin is a collaborative undertaking by a team of scholars at Yale University to collect, edit, and publish the writings and papers of one of America's most remarkable founding fathers and indeed one of the most extraordinary people this nation has ever produced. His ever-curious and inventive mind explored nearly every aspect of his world, both pragmatic and theoretical, and he corresponded with an astonishing range of men and women of all classes and nearly all professions in America, Great Britain, and Europe. In a life spanning from 1706 to 1790, his collected papers present a panoramic view of the eighteenth century.

You can search the collection by year and by who Franklin was writing to. Take this cute little P.S. in a 1767 letter to Mary Stevenson:

p.s. Dr. And Mrs. Hawkesworth are to drink Tea with us on Tuesday: It is said to be clever to kill two Birds with one Stone: You may make three or four more alive by one little Visit at the same time.

You can also see his correspondence with people like George Washington. Here is the first letter Franklin sent to Washington:

Sir

I have your Favours of July 23. and Aug. 3. but that you mention to have wrote per Mr. Balfour, is not come to hand. I forwarded the Pacquet inclos’d in that of July 23. as directed; and shall readily take care of any other Letters from or for you, that pass thro’ my hands.

The Post between this Place and Winchester was established for the Accommodation of the Army chiefly, by a Vote of our Assembly; they are not willing to continue the Charge, and it must I believe be dropt, unless your Assembly and that of Maryland will contribute to support it, which perhaps is scarce to be expected. I am sorry it should be laid down as I shall my self be a Loser in the Affair of Newspapers: But the Letters per Post, by no means defray the Expence. If you can prevail with your Assembly to pay the Rider from Winchester to Carlisle, I will endeavour to persuade ours to continue Paying the Rider from Carlisle hither: My Agreement with the House was to carry all publick Dispatches gratis; to keep Account of Postage receiv’d for private Letters; charge the Expence of Riders and Offices, and they were to pay the Ballance. I am, Sir, with great Esteem and Respect, Your most obedient humble Servant

B Franklin

p.s. We have just receiv’d News, that the Delaware Indians with whom we treated lately at Easton, have burnt the Goods they receiv’d as Presents, and resolv’d to continue the War.

The archive is vast, and you can easily get lost in tracing correspondence between Franklin and his many friends (and enemies). Which seems like a fitting way to celebrate his birthday. 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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