Almost 70 years before Jefferson began formulating his plans for Albemarle Academy, Benjamin Franklin published his own proposals for an academy in Philadelphia. Where Jefferson envisioned an academy teaching a traditional curriculum that conferred gentility on the sons of the wealthy and wellborn, Franklin projected one providing an extraordinary array of instruction to prepare students for all the “professions” in which they might find themselves. Where Jefferson’s academy would have had nothing whatever to do with the “laboring classes,” consigning them to their fates as farmers and artisans, Franklin’s academy would have welcomed those of its students destined for commerce and “handicrafts.”

Franklin foresaw that a subject such as natural history would aid students who aimed to be merchants “to understand many commodities, drugs, etc.” and those who aimed to be artisans “to improve [their] trade or handicraft by new mixtures, material, etc.” In the curriculum that he envisioned, students would have worked with their hands as well as their heads and improved their bodies as well as their minds. They would have learned by doing as well as by classroom study.

In Franklin’s capacious conception of his academy, students would have had “apparatus for experiments in natural philosophy and for mechanics.” They would have been “taught to write with a fair hand,” and they would have “learnt something of drawing.” They would have declaimed and debated, and they would have been “frequently exercised in running, leaping, wrestling, and swimming.” They would have worked at “gardening, planting, grafting, inoculating, etc.,” not only in classes but also on “excursions” to nearby fields “of the best farmers.” As far as Franklin was concerned, “the improvement of agriculture” was “useful to all” and “skill in it no disparagement to any.”

If departures from the classical curriculum self-consciously colored Franklin’s imagination of the academy that became, a few years later, the College of Philadelphia, they utterly dominated his imagination of “the English school” that he projected at the same time. In that plan, he scarcely even gestured at gentility. As he proclaimed in the very name of the school, he would have had it disdain to teach the learned languages entirely. He aimed to fit the youth who attended it “for learning any business, calling, or profession except such wherein languages are required.” Its graduates would leave “unacquainted with any ancient or foreign tongue” but “masters of their own.” And through the last four years of its six-year sequence of study, they would also have mastered “natural and mechanic history,” since “next to the knowledge of duty, this kind of knowledge [was for Franklin] the most useful as well as the most entertaining.” The student who meant to become a merchant would “better ... understand many commodities in trade.” The one who hoped to become a “handicraftsman” would “improve his business by new instruments, mixtures, and materials.”

Jefferson did flirt for a moment with such concern for the common pursuits of common people. In his initial design, his academy included a school of technical philosophy that would have offered evening lectures on practical subjects to local laborers. But he never developed a plan for the school in any detail, and he forgot about it almost as soon as he conceived it. He was simply not serious about educating the yeomen masses whom he had once called “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people.”

Franklin was always too serious to fantasize idly or mistake generous words for generous deeds. Even in his last years, as he worked intermittently on the memoir in which he fashioned the image of himself by which he wished to be known, he identified as much with the lowly lad he had been as with the accomplished scientist and civic leader he had become.

Though he had just two years of elementary schooling and wore the leather apron of the working class for several decades, Franklin had a healthy appreciation of his own talents. And he knew better than to scorn the aptitudes of others who did or were destined for manual labor.

Indeed, from his first writings, Franklin chafed at elite assumptions of the intellectual incompetence of commoners. He devoted the earliest of the substantive Silence Dogood Papers in its entirety to a denunciation of Harvard College, where he saw admission determined “by two sturdy porters named Riches and Poverty.” The latter “obstinately refused to give entrance to any who had not first gained the favor of the former.” And since attendance at the college thus depended on the parents’ “purses” rather than the “children’s capacities,” “the most part” of those who studied there were “little better than dunces and blockheads.” They spent their college years learning “little more than how to carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteelly.” They graduated “as great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.” Franklin’s criticism surely reflected the disappointment of his own hopes of a Harvard education. But he got over his exclusion from the company of the “idle” and “ignorant” easily enough. And once he was in a position to promote an education reflective of his own values, he invariably conceived schools that would serve the learning of the low and the middling rather than the pride of the high and the mighty.

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