UCSD professor finds Franklin letters
BY ERIKA OSTROFF
Most people relate to Benjamin Franklin when they dig deep into their wallets for that hundred-dollar bill. But, Carmel Valley resident Alan Houston dug deeper and found a treasure.
Recently, this UCSD professor discovered a collection of Franklin letters in the British Library. Houston, a Harvard University graduate with a Ph.D. in political science, said he has always taken great interest in political ideals that were first developed in England, but further expanded throughout American history.
Being told by a professor that he did not know enough about history nonetheless furthered Houston’s profound drive and passion for the subject. Thus, he was sent to England to study 16th and 17th century English history with historian Wallace McCathree.
On the road
Houston said this marked the birth of his fervent passion for British history that led him on several research trips to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston and England. More specifically, he was on a search for information about Franklin’s involvement in a particular military campaign during the Seven Year War.
Little did he know, he was soon to discover what he referred to as a “buried treasure” – a trove of Benjamin Franklin letters. He reported on his discovery in the April issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.
On the last hour of the last day of his last trip, Houston trailed into the British Library. A last-ditch effort to explore a lengthy list of manuscripts, one of which was listed as “Copies of the Letters relating to the March of General Braddock,” took him down an unexpected path.
Houston said he assumed the manuscript consisted of insignificant letters from various soldiers and did not view it as priority information. As the British Library and his research time were coming to a close, the researcher’s need to be thorough sparked Houston to open the collection.
Incredulous, what he saw before him was the actual collection of Franklin’s letters.
Nervous, yet bursting with excitement about this fortuitous discovery, Houston said he immediately called his wife and proceeded to enlighten the British Library about this worthy possession.
It turned out there were 47 letters – 18 written by Franklin, 22 written to Franklin and six written about Franklin but neither to nor from him. They provide details about what has been called the “wagon affair” of 1755, describing the difficulties farmer had securing wagons and horses during Braddock’s campaign through Pennsylvania. They also shed light on the behavior of the British soldiers.
Houston questioned why these letters had gone unnoticed for such a vast period of time. He said it occurred to him almost immediately that the letters were not written in Franklin’s handwriting, but were penned by Thomas Birch. In 1755, Franklin was in Pennsylvania but was rushed to London during battle.
In fear that something would happen to these letters, Birch copied the originals, creating these manuscripts. It was assumed that most historians overlooked this compilation, for it was written in unfamiliar script.
Erika Ostroff attends La Jolla High School.
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