Dear Sir, Ben Franklin Would Like to Add You to His Network

Historian Caroline Winterer’s analysis of Franklin’s letters applies big data to big history

(Timothy Archibald)
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In July 1757 Benjamin Franklin arrived in London to represent Pennsylvania in its dealings with Britain. With characteristic dry humor, Franklin, then 50, had written ahead, warning his longtime correspondent William Strahan, a fellow printer, that he might appear at any moment. “Our Assembly talk of sending me to England speedily. Then look out sharp, and if a fat old Fellow should come to your Printing House and request a little Smouting [freelance work], depend on it.”

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That trans-Atlantic journey effectively marked Franklin’s debut on the world stage, the moment this American inventor-publisher-aphorist-leader—but not yet the wise old cosmopolitan founding father—first directly encountered the Old World intellectual elite in the midst of the Enlightenment. And for that reason 1757 is the starting point for a groundbreaking investigation of Franklin in the world of ideas. At Stanford, historian Caroline Winterer is heading up a computer-powered effort to trace the interconnections—what we in the era of Facebook recognize as social networks—that would eventually link Franklin to the most prominent intellectuals and public figures of his day. The study is part of a larger endeavor at Stanford, the Republic of Letters project, to map the interactions of the Enlightenment’s leading thinkers, among them Voltaire, philosopher John Locke and astronomer William Herschel.

“We are seeing Franklin when he was not the Benjamin Franklin,” Winterer, who is 47, says one day, looking up from a computer in her office overlooking the Spanish Mission-style buildings of the university’s main quad. On-screen bar graphs display a welter of data, including the ages and nationalities of her subject’s most active correspondents. “This project restores him to the story of the world.”

To be sure, Franklin was on his way to becoming a giant at home by 1757. His publishing business was flourishing; the Pennsylvania Gazette was the leading American newspaper, and Poor Richard’s Almanack was a staple of colonial bookshelves. He had laid the groundwork for the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophical Society. His brilliant experimental work on electricity had been published. But computer graphics and maps representing Franklin’s early correspondence add new particulars to our understanding of Franklin’s gradual entry into Enlightenment networks. He “does not stand out as a new, glittering species of American, the lowly provincial rocketed into the international arena of European intellectual and political life,” Winterer concludes in a new scholarly paper. “Rather, Franklin takes his place in a long sequence of British-American engagements in the republic of letters.”

The research, although still in the early stages, is stirring controversy among scholars because of its heavily quantitative approach—Winterer and co-workers don’t even read the Franklin letters that their computers enumerate. But the work is also winning praise.

The Harvard historian Jill Lepore, author of a new study of Franklin’s sister, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, says Winterer’s research is “revolutionary.” All too many digitization efforts, Lepore adds, “tell us what we already know—that there are more swimming pools in the suburbs than in the city, for instance—but the mapping in the Enlightenment project promises to illuminate patterns no one has seen before.”

Winterer’s work, says cultural historian Anthony Grafton of Princeton, increasingly will demonstrate the potential of what he calls “spatialized information” to “sharpen our understanding both of the culture of the British Atlantic and of the historical role of Benjamin Franklin.” And the promise of the approach is virtually limitless—it could be applied to historical figures from Paul of Tarsus to Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama.

In the initial phase of their research, Winterer and colleagues, including doctoral candidate Claire Rydell, draw on Franklin’s correspondence between 1757 and 1775, when Franklin returned to Philadelphia a committed partisan of American independence. During that time, his correspondence more than tripled, from around 100 letters a year to more than 300. At the Stanford Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), researchers pore over an electronic database of Franklin’s correspondence, edited at Yale and available online. They painstakingly record data from each letter Franklin wrote or received, including the sender, recipient, locale and date. A separate database tracks individual senders and recipients. These two data sets are fed into a customized computer application for processing into charts, maps and graphs that allow the research team to search for patterns and interrogate the material in new ways.

In that 18-year period, as Winterer’s quantitative analysis documents, Franklin’s most prolific correspondents were not the movers and shakers of the European Enlightenment. He was not communicating with leading scientists of the Royal Society of London, the French intellectual elite or learned figures from around the Continent—with whom he would later engage on an equal footing.

One of the major ways that we understand Franklin, historian Gordon S. Wood states in his 2004 study, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, is that “He was undoubtedly the most cosmopolitan and the most urbane of that group of leaders who brought the Revolution.” A goal of the new Franklin research, Winterer says, is to accumulate data to test and measure this idea of Franklin.


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