AROUND THAT TIME, Smith got into a contretemps with an Anglican merchant named Daniel Roberdeau, who upbraided Smith at a Philadelphia coffeehouse for entering politics and dishonoring the cloth. The fracas played itself out in the newspapers, and in June 1756, Smith was complaining to Penn about the unjust Treatment of my Character, set on Foot by the Quakers, by Means of Mr. Roberdeau, one of their Tools, whom they have since that chose into the Assembly for this County as a Reward for his Baseness.... I observe what you recommend about future Controversies. They will be shunned as much as possible, & never risqued, except in Cases of Extremity, when there are Opportunities of humbling the Party, or setting the Conduct and Principles in a proper Light.
Penn was unconvinced that Smith would really lower his profile, however, and on 6 October he warned him that as Provost of the College you would do well to avoid controversy unless called to it on some great occasion.
By then Smith had become, in Middlekauff's words, a "figure of sensationalism, an important leader in education and in the Anglican Church in Philadelphia, a journalist skilled in more than invective, though that was his specialty, and the proprietor's agent." In doing so, he had also "identified himself unwittingly as the enemy of popular government in Pennsylvania." All of which would have lasting implications for the College.
It's a rainy winter morning in the City of Brotherly Love, and I am pondering the literary implications of wasp spawn. Having immersed myself in the tangled colonial web of the Smith papers, I've decided -- with some prodding by Mark Lloyd -- to check out the process of conserving them at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Center City. So I watch as the staff washes and deacidifies the old letters; applies patches of wheat-starch paste and hand-made Japanese paper to the tears and fragments; and, in some cases, sews the letters by hand into folders. At one point, somebody mentions that the letters were written with iron-gall ink -- a notion that resonates. When a wasp lays its eggs on an oak leaf, the leaf encapsulates the eggs as a defense mechanism. The dark, tannic tissue within that bubble is the gall; mix it with something like rusty nails and you've got a wonderfully indelible substance -- the perfect thing for an 18th-century character-assassination.
Five years ago, when Lloyd learned that the Smith papers were being sold at auction, the University was able to buy -- for just under $40,000 -- all but a few of the most valuable letters, thanks to several gifts, including major donations from charter trustee Saul Steinberg, W'59, and the Hoxie Harrison Smith Foundation. But the papers were in even worse condition than Lloyd had thought.
"We discovered they were so fragile that they could not be used without threat of harsh deterioration," he says. "The paper, when it gets brittle, will break off in your hand. So now we had the Smith papers, but we were forced to require scholars to use the microfilm. In 1995, I began a campaign to conserve the papers." That fall, when Michel Huber, W'53, ASC'61, retired as executive secretary of the General Alumni Society, he suggested that, in lieu of a retirement gift, friends and colleagues should make donations to the Archives. They did, and though the $40,000 conservation project is still not entirely paid for, enough funds were raised to get the process well underway.
Back at the Conservation Center, Lloyd and the staff have laid their hands on the one letter that I have most wanted to see in the original. It's dated 14 August 1762, and in it, Smith tells Richard Peters:
Dr. Franklin is gone from hence to embark at Portsmouth, but in what Temper I cannot say. He & I were not in the best Terms, nor the worst. He heard when down at Oxford of a Letter I had sent three years ago there to prevent his having a Degree, which he took in great Dudgeon; tho' as we stood then, and his doing all he could to support the Assembly in oppression & prevent my obtaining Redress, he could not expect that I could say anything in his Favour. At Mr. Strahan's desire, we met at his House & had the matter of the Letter over, but explaining did not mend the matter much on either side.
Franklin's "dudgeon" seems understandable. Smith's letter to the president of St. John's College at the University of Oxford suggested that Oxford not go ahead with its plan to give Franklin an honorary degree -- on the grounds that his famous electrical experiments, which he had conducted with Ebeneezer Kinnersley, were mostly Kinnersley's doing, not Franklin's. Kinnersley himself openly defended Franklin on the plagiarism charges, and one Oxford professor concluded that Smith -- who had received an honorary degree from Oxford himself -- was "extremely unworthy of the Honour he has received from our University." After the meeting at William Strahan's house, according to Carl van Doren's biography of Franklin, "Smith agreed that he had been misinformed and rancorous and promised to write another letter withdrawing his charges. He did not write it, but spread the news in London and Oxford that Franklin had lost many of his friends in Philadelphia."
"I made that man my Enemy by doing him too much kindness," Franklin would later write of Smith. "'Tis the honestest way of acquiring an Enemy. And, since 'tis convenient to have at least one Enemy, who by his readiness to revile one on all occasions may make one careful of one's conduct, I shall keep him an Enemy for that purpose." Continued...
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