Ben Franklin, Recorded Live at the Library of Congress

Here is a link to my discussion of The Society for Useful Knowledge at the Library of Congress, earlier in 2013.

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Ben Franklin and the “Electric” Turkey

With the arrival of Thanksgiving, news outlets, blogs, and social media are once again abuzz with the perennial tale of how Benjamin Franklin opposed the choice of the bald eagle as an American symbol, preferring instead the wild turkey.

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly,” Franklin confided to his daughter in 1784.

“The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. … he is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage.” A dozen years earlier, Franklin had already evinced his dislike for the bald eagle, calling him “a tyrant.”

Yet, in a lessor known episode in his long, colorful life, Franklin was somewhat less charitable toward the turkey, even using the creatures for his experiments with the power of electrical charges stored in simple capacitors known as Leyden jars.

Discharging the Leyden jar

“My Respects to Mr. Watson. He desir’d you to enquire what Success we had in our Attempts to kill a Turkey by the Electrical Strokes,” Franklin wrote to one scientific correspondent in London.

“Please to acquaint him, that we made several Experiments on Fowls this Winter; That we found two large thin glass Jars … were sufficient to kill common Hens outright; but the Turkey tho’ thrown into violent Convulsions, and then lying as dead for some Minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an Hour.”

Only by linking several Leyden jars together to substantially increase the charge did Franklin and his colleagues succeed. On one well-planned outing, Franklin led a celebratory picnic during which his friends toasted their fellow electricians worldwide with electrified gilt glasses and then slaughtered a turkey with an electrical charge and roasted it with electrical fire. “I conceit that the Birds killed in this Manner eat uncommonly tender,” he noted.

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Weekly Standard calls Society for Useful Knowledge “profoundly likeable new book”

Patrick Allitt, professor of history at Emory University, reviews The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America  in the Weekly Standard. Allit is the author, most recently, of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History.

“Benjamin Franklin is a biographer’s dream. Successful, long-lived, articulate, witty, and saucy, he wrote about nearly all his activities and left a well-marked documentary trail. He made such a vivid impression on his American, French, and British contemporaries that dozens of them wrote about him, too. No wonder new biographies of him have appeared in every decade since his death in 1790. Most are highly complimentary, depicting a hard-working and high-minded man—ingenious, patriotic, and unselfish. A handful of contrarians, notably Herman Melville, D. H. Lawrence, and a few Communists (who regarded him as the prototype capitalist personality), have taken against him; but they are very much the exception.


“Is there anything left to say about Franklin? In this profoundly likable new book, Jonathan Lyons—a member of the pro-Franklin faction—answers “Yes.” He singles out the practical groups and citizens’ organizations to which Franklin belonged, from his 20s right through until his 80s. What these groups had in common was a dedication to “useful knowledge.” After a flirtation with philosophical abstractions in his teens, says Lyons, Franklin came down to earth and became the first great American pragmatist. Knowledge for itself was never enough, in his view: It must be put to use.”

Read the full review here.

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Franklin’s ‘Home’ Reopens to Visitors, August 24

Aficionados of useful knowledge will be pleased to know that the Benjamin Franklin Museum, built at the site of his former Philadelphia home, will reopen on August 24 after a two-year renovation.

Franklin’s actual residence and adjacent print shop are no longer standing, but a steel frame, known as the “ghost house,” in the museum courtyard outlines their exact locations.


Franklin, of course, spent much of his latter years away from his adopted hometown, first representing Pennsylvania and other colonies at the British Court in London, and then advancing the Revolutionary cause as a diplomat in Paris. He returned for good in 1785.

Ever the intellectual entrepreneur, the 81-year-old Franklin created his last study circle in February of 1787, this time dedicated to the improvement of a branch of useful knowledge that he had so far largely ignored.

The inaugural meeting of the Society for Political Inquiries for Mutual Improvement in the Knowledge of Government and for the Advancement of Political Science was held at Philadelphia’s City Tavern. However, the fortnightly sessions—suspended during the oppressive heat of the mid-Atlantic summer—soon shifted to Franklin’s home, in deference to his declining health.

The American Philosophical Society likewise moved its regular gatherings to the Franklin residence, which had recently been expanded to accommodate such sessions and to make room for his “very considerable” library.

Franklin died at home, at age 84, and his funeral drew a crowd estimated at two-thirds of the Philadelphia’s total population.

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View C-SPAN’s broadcast of my talk on Society of Useful Knowledge

C-SPAN’s Book TV has broadcast a recording of my recent book talk, at Town Hall in Seattle. You can view the program here:



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Ben Franklin and his Society for Useful Knowledge on Book TV, July 21

C-SPAN’s Book TV will be airing my recent talk on The Society for Useful Knowledge: How Benjamin Franklin and Friends Brought the Enlightenment to America, recorded at Seattle’s Town Hall, at 8 pm (EDT) on July 21.

Details on the book and the program are available here.


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