Other key loans are five of America’s founding documents, all signed by Franklin. In addition to the Constitution and (at the Constitution Center) Jefferson’s own manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence, they include the less well-known 1754 Albany Plan of Union (a proposal for a legislative body that was ultimately rejected by the colonial legislatures), the 1778 Treaties of Amity and Commerce (which secured France’s material support for the American Revolution), and the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which spelled out the terms of American victory.
Installing these rare documentsfrom the National Archives and Records Administration, the American Philosophical Society, the Library of Congress, and other lendersat each venue is a particular challenge. Different copies are being used at different sites for conservation reasons, and, Talbott says, the lenders “don’t want to truck it by a shipper. They want to bring it themselveswith a guard.” In most cases, a curator must supervise both the installation and removal.
Essential to the mounting of the exhibition has been the cooperation of Franklin’s descendants. With his common-law wife, Deborah Read, Franklin had a son, Francis Folger, who died at 4 of smallpox, and a daughter, Sarah, called Sally (1743-1808). He also had an older illegitimate son, William (1731-1813), whose mother has never been identified. It is this son, the onetime Royal Governor of New Jersey and a Loyalist during the American Revolution, from whom Franklin was famously estranged. Talbott says she is convinced that some of William’s descendants survive, but only Sally’s are known to historians.
One of them, Ted Molin, a lawyer and financial services company officer who lives in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, has lent what Talbott calls “a very important portrait” of William Franklin. Attributed to the English painter Mather Brown, ca. 1810, the portrait is part of a “matched set” that includes a portrait of William’s second wife.
The exhibition’s first section, “Character Matters,” features another important family loan: a massive 1763 Bible sent by Franklin to Sally from England, and printed by Franklin’s friend, James Baskerville. On the title page Franklin has inscribed his daughter’s name. “This is the family Bible,” says Talbott, “and it has the names of all the descendants in it.”
Section II, “B. Franklin, Printer,” displays a 1720 printing press used by Franklin in London, as well as a portrait of Franklin’s son Francis and another of his wife, recently cleaned as part of the Tercentenary’s $600,000 conservation project. Franklin, who advocated the American cause in England and France, was separated from his wife (who feared the transatlantic crossing) for about 14 years in all.
But that doesn’t mean he was stepping out on her, Talbott says. “He had one child out of wedlock, and that’s it. And he was a man who had a reputation of being charming and flirtatious, but he was not a gadabout,” she adds, with some heat. “Not in the least. There’s nothing to substantiate that he had affairs.”
Not that Franklin was an ideal family man. “I think that was a weakness in his character,” she says, citing his “dysfunctional” relationship with his son, William. “We’re not trying to tell the story of a perfect [person]. In fact, we’re trying to tell the story of a real human beinga man who is accessible, a man who is just like you and me.” The exhibition also makes clear that Franklin owned slaves for a while, though he ultimately supported the abolitionist cause.
The third section of the show, “Civic Visions,” focuses on Franklin’s Junto and its “conception of community building,” Talbott says. It discusses Franklin’s role in founding such local institutions as Pennsylvania Hospital, the Library Company of Philadelphia, the city’s first fire company, and the Universitybut without, Talbott says, being “Philadelphia-centric.”
The “Useful Knowledge” section depicts Franklin as one of the preeminent scientists of his day, with a re-creation of a “gentleman’s laboratory,” along with Franklin’s own lightning rod and other scientific equipment. A 25-foot-long ship “environment,” allowing visitors to try Franklin’s method of charting the Gulf Stream, didn’t fit in the galleries, so it will be set up in the Constitution Center lobby.
In “World Stage,” visitors witness Franklin’s humiliation in London in 1774, when he is accused of releasing letters from Massachusetts’ Royalist governor asking England’s help in subduing the disobedient colonials. “This is going to be a particularly visceral experience,” says Talbott, as visitors stand beside a full-sized Franklin statue and listen to a scathing address by the English solicitor general. “That was the turning point for Franklinwhen he became truly a revolutionary,” she says.
Finally, in “Seeing Franklin,” visitors also will be able see themselvesliterally and perhaps metaphorically. A 12-foot-wide, photo-sensitive pair of glasses will enable them to watch images of Franklin morphing into their own self-portrait. “That,” says Talbott, “is the stunning final moment,” as exhibition patrons are challenged to identify with Franklin’s legacy and make it their own.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia who writes for The New York Times, Mother Jones, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and many other publications.
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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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COVER STORY: Stuff of Legend By Julia M. Klein