Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2,221st Meeting

President-elect Kenneth Haapala called the 2,221st meeting to order at 8:16 pm April 13, 2007 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. The recording secretary read the minutes of the 2,220th meeting and they were approved.

Robert Hershey introduced the speaker of the evening, Mr. Mark Skousen. Mr. Skousen is author of The Compleated Biography of Benjamin Franklin. He spoke on “The Secret to Benjamin Franklin’s Electrifying Success.”


Mr. Skousen, hearing in the minutes of the previous meeting of the exhumation of the body of Jesse James, noted that his wife is related to Mr. James. He is a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, and he says the combination made their children evil geniuses.

There was a long effort in the Franklin family to complete his autobiography. Franklin stopped writing it when he was 57. That left out all of his representation of the colony in Europe and his work on the Declaration of Independence. Temple, his grandson, tried to finish it, but found he did not have the papers. Mr. Skousen, a collector of memorabilia, found that he possessed the necessary memoirs and essays to complete the biography, and did so.

There is a revisionist view, represented by Joyce Chaplin, that Franklin became a successful statesman because he had done science. In a book title, she called him “The First Scientific American.” Mr. Skousen thinks Franklin would have been a statesman even without his scientific achievements. His scientific achievements did, however, make him highly respected in France and gave him great advantage there.

Mr. Skousen quoted Franklin’s comments on arriving in England in 1757: “… we narrowly escap’d running ashore of the rocks….The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincerely thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I Roman Catholic, perhaps I should have vowed to build a chapel; but as I am not, I should build a lighthouse.”

Mr. Franklin was practical, Mr. Skousen observed. His inventions were practical – the lightning rod, Franklin stove, bifocals, and glass harmonica. It was said that he heated the American home from the inside and protected it from the outside. He also discovered the Gulf Stream, which made it easier to get back and forth to England.

The stove did not work well at first, though. It tended to leak smoke. Lightning rods also were problematic; they often were not grounded properly. One British scientist thought the end should be rounded, not pointed. Whatever the theory, he intended it to be practical. He did not try to protect his inventions. He intended them for the common good.

He communicated often with scientists of his day. Matthew Bolton and James Watt (steam engines); Peter Collinson (botanist); Erasmus Darwin (physician); Franz Mesmer (Viennese psychiatrist); Joseph Priestley (discoverer of oxygen); Benjamin Rush (physician); Benjamin Vaughan (publisher of Franklin’s works); Josiah Wedgwood (potter) were among his correspondents. He did, however, advocate prohibiting Mesmer’s “…misleading way to heal the sick….”

Franklin hated war. Franklin said even successful wars become misfortunes to those who “… unjustly commenc’d them….” He said “… there never was a good war or a bad peace.” During the Revolutionary War, Franklin lost contact with other scientists. He also lost his friendship with his son, William, which had been a deep friendship. He referred to William “… taking up arms against me.”

On the progress of science, Franklin speculated that he almost wished he had been born two or three centuries later, so he could see the progress. He thought that if medicine were improved in proportion to other arts, people might avoid disease and live as long as the patriarchs in Genesis.

Mr. Skousen and his wife, Joanne, read an exchange of letters between Franklin and one Madame Brionne, the wife of an innkeeper and friend of Franklin’s in Paris. It sounded pretty risqué. They discussed their affection for each other in quite enthusiastic terms and recounted playing chess while she was having her bath. The Skousens believe firmly, however, that it was a warm but platonic relationship. Madame Brionne did encourage Franklin to “… adopt me as your daughter,…”

Franklin’s wife, Deborah, died in 1787, which was before the exchange of letters with Madame Brionne. The Franklins’ marriage had deteriorated over time.

In his old age, Franklin said, “People who live long and drink full must not be surprised at getting some dregs.” They should not, he said, “… blame Providence inconsiderately, for there are many more pleasures…. This is why I love life.”

Following his own advice, Franklin saved. He had bank accounts in three countries, land, investments, and loans.

Congress sent five ambassadors to France. Only one, Franklin, raised any money. Even Adams only raised some money after he went to Holland. Once, Franklin begged for a loan of 25 million libra. The French government turned him down, pleading lack of funds. The king, however, gifted him 6 million libra from his personal funds.

Congress sent five ambassadors to France. Only one, Franklin, raised any money. Even Adams only raised some money after he went to Holland. Once, Franklin begged for a loan of 25 million libra. The French government turned him down, pleading lack of funds. The king, however, gifted him 6 million libra from his personal funds.

Franklin’s epigram says: “The Body of / B. Franklin, Printer; / Like the cover of an old book, Its contents torn out, / and stript of its lettering and guilding, / Lies here, food for worms, / But the work shall not be wholly lost: / For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more, / In a new & more perfect edition, / Corrected and amended / By the author.

Mr. Skousen offered to answer questions.

“Did Franklin invent the general hospital, and did it change practice?” someone asked.

He did raise funds for a general hospital. In doing so, he invented the concept of matching funds. But Mr. Skousen did not know the significance of Franklin’s role in the creation of the general hospital.

There was discussion of Franklin’s social activities in France, especially with women. His amiable manner with French women contrasted sharply with that of Adams. Adams was accompanied in Paris by his wife, Abigail, and they were both apparently nonplussed and annoyed by the attention of French women to John Adams, and Adams never achieved a good relationship with the French.

“How did Franklin become a doctor?” someone asked. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by St. Andrews, and after that he was called “Doctor.” He was a self-educated man.

Asked about Franklin’s children, Mr. Skousen said he had three. There was William, who was illegitimate, although he was raised in the home with Deborah. Nothing is known of William’s mother. A child named Francis died at four of smallpox. Sarah, a devout daughter, cared for Franklin until his death. A rumor holds that he had many illegitimate children, but Mr. Skousen knew of no substantiation of that. His marriage was common-law because Deborah was married before and her husband had disappeared.


Mr. Haapala presented to Mr. Skousen a plaque commemorating the occasion, and Mr. Skousen presented to Mr. Haapala a commemorative coin, the first to honor Franklin as a scientist.

Mr. Haapala added a story about the French ambassador telling the British that, in Franklin, the Colonies were sending “The most dangerous man in America.”

Mr. Haapala announced the next meeting. He encouraged support of the Society and urged all interested parties to become members. He made the parking announcement. Finally, at 9:34pm, he adjourned the 2221st meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 73
Temperature: 12° C
Weather: Cool and breezy

Respectfully submitted,

Ronald O. Hietala
Recording secretary

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