At the Cullen Symposium, I mentioned that, among other reasons, one of the ways we know that Dr. Cullen actually met Benjamin Franklin is because the Rev. Alexander ‘Jupiter’ Carlyle (1722-1805)—he acquired the nickname ‘Jupiter’, apparently, on account of his commanding good looks—rather non-chalantly mentions just such a meeting. In fact, in my mind, the meet-up that Carlyle mentions has always seemed to me to be a rather powerful example of the Scottish Enlightenment in action. Someone came up to me after the panel was over and wanted to know the specific reference where this meeting is mentioned, and it occurred to me that perhaps it was not as well-known as I assumed. So, I shall mention it here, along with a few other items of interest regarding the relationship between Franklin and Cullen.
Carlyle wrote an autobiography of his life during his final years, but it was published for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, in 1860 by John Hill Burton, based on Carlyle’s manuscript. I have to admit to being fairly ignorant of the details, but it is to the content I wish to draw attention.
I note, as well, that Carlyle’s memory cannot be entirely trusted here. But more on that below. Let us first enjoy the anecdote. Carlyle recalls that about the middle of September (1770), he and his friend a Dr. Wight (from Dublin):
supped one night in Edinburgh with the celebrated Dr Franklin at Dr Robertson’s house, then at the head of the Cowgate, where he had come at Whitsunday, after his being translated to Edinburgh. Dr Franklin and his son [William Franklin (c. 1730-1814)] with him; and besides Wight and me, there were David Hume, Dr Cullen, Adam Smith, and two or three more. Wight and Franklin had met and breakfasted together in the inn at [ ] without learning one another’s names, but they were more than half acquainted when they met here. Wight, who could talk at random on all sciences without being very deeply skilled in any, took it into his head to be very eloquent on chemistry, a course of which he had attended in Dublin; and perceiving that he diverted the company, particularly Franklin, who was a silent man, he kept it up with Cullen, then professor of that science, who had imprudently committed himself with him, for the greatest part of the evening, to the infinite diversion of the company, who took great delight in seeing the great Professor foiled in his own science by a novice. Franklin’s son was open and communicative, and pleased the company better than his father; and some of us observed indications of that decided difference of opinion between father and son which, in the American war, alienated them altogether.
Here we have, on a particular evening at William Robertson’s house, a remarkable gathering of minds. William Robertson, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, William Cullen, and David Hume, all together, one entertaining evening. Note that Carlyle seems to find Franklin’s presence, as an out-of-towner, noteworthy, but not the gathering of Robertson, Hume, Smith and Cullen at the same dinner. To him, this was not unusual; these sorts of gatherings, in Edinburgh at the time, were presumably not very uncommon. But to us, looking back, we are reminded of the sheer concentration of singular figures that enjoyed each other’s company and conviviality, in the Scottish capital. When we speak of the Scottish Enlightenment, I, at least, think of moments like this.
I do not know what axe Carlyle had to grind against Cullen—though it may have been on religious grounds or, more likely, on account of Carlyle’s friendship with Dr. John Gregory, who was often at loggerheads with Cullen—but he clearly enjoys poking fun at him here. Now, it must be said that Carlyle’s chronology can’t be correct, and one wonders how much to trust his version of events. Perhaps he is really combining a few evenings into one, and that no such dinner in mid-September 1770 took place. I have no doubt that these kinds of evenings happened, especially during Franklin’s visits, but I’m unsure whether we can say that this particular one did. For the moment, let’s give Carlyle the benefit of the doubt.
Still, there are concerns: to begin, Carlyle is mistaken about Cullen’s position. In 1770 he was no longer Professor of Chemistry and had not been for at least 5 years. He became Professor of the Theory of Physic in 1766 or thereabouts. He had been Professor of Chemistry from 1756-1766 in Edinburgh (without here worrying about precise dates to the month). So either this evening happened earlier than 1770, when Cullen was in fact Professor of Chemistry, or it happened in 1770, but Carlyle was mistaken as to Cullen’s position. I suspect, since the entertainment of the story hinges so much on Dr. Wight making a fool of Cullen in chemistry, while he was Professor of that very subject, that it is the former—i.e. that the evening in question, if it happened in this way, took place earlier than 1770.
In fact, there is an easy way to put a rough estimate on the evening in question, for Franklin came to visit Edinburgh twice, once in 1759 and again in 1771. During his 1759 visit, he stayed at the estate of Lord Kames in the Scottish Borders (Kaimes). He appears to have stayed for about six weeks, which ended sometime before the new year, based on Franklin’s letter to Kames, dated Jan. 3, 1760 from London, of which I excerpt below:
Our Conversation till we came to York was chiefly a Recollection and Recapitulation of what we had seen and heard, the Pleasure we had enjoy’d and the Kindnesses we had receiv’d in Scotland, and how far that Country had exceeded our Expectations. On the whole, I must say, I think the Time we spent there, was Six Weeks of the densest Happiness I have met with in any Part of my Life. And the agreable and instructive Society we found there in such Plenty, has left so pleasing an Impression on my Memory, that did not strong Connections draw me elsewhere, I believe Scotland would be the Country I should chuse to spend the Remainder of my Days in.
During the time Franklin was staying with Lord Kames, Cullen was Professor of the Practice of Chemistry, so it is possible that Carlyle’s dinner occurred in late 1759, instead of 1770. More support is lent to this date, if we consider the whereabouts of Franklin’s son, William. It was likely he was traveling with his father in 1759, but he became Colonial Governor of New Jersey in 1763 and continued in that post until January 1776. It is possible, though unlikely, that he would have been traveling in Edinburgh in the early 1770s. Someone has probably already figured this out, but this suggests strongly to me that the evening Carlyle remembers happened in late 1759 instead of sometime in 1770.
It is worth mentioning that Cullen definitely meant and conversed with Franklin during his first trip to Edinburgh. Not only does Franklin begin a correspondence with Cullen in 1760 (alas, it is quite small, consisting of three letters—two of which are simple letters of introduction—as far as I am aware), but he (Franklin) specifically mentions, in a letter to Cullen from London dated Oct. 21st, 1761, that
I hear, that since I had the pleasure of seeing and conversing with you on the subject, you have wrote some of your sentiments of Fire, and communicated them to the Philosophical Society. If so, as it may be some time before their publication, I should think myself extremely obliged to you if I could be favoured with a copy, as there is no subject I am more impatient to be acquainted with. It should go no further than my own closet without your permission.
During his 1771 visit (which began in late October 1771), Franklin stayed with David Hume at his home in the New Town.
It would certainly be interesting to know more about the relationship between Franklin and Cullen. Cullen clearly had a deep respect for Franklin; and he mentions in some unpublished letters to his American pupils, that he was always very proud of his friendship with Franklin, and the many civilities they engaged over the years. It is surprising to me that there are not more extant letters between the two of them, but then Cullen could—and did—communicate with Franklin in his later years via his many American pupils who settled in Philadelphia and knew Franklin well (John Morgan, William Shippen, Benjamin Rush, etc). A letter from John Morgan, in 1786 for instance, mentions Cullen’s “old friend Dr Franklin.”
It is also becoming clear that Franklin’s work on electricity played an important role in Cullen’s thinking on certain topics (as, indeed, it did with many philosophers and physicians in the mid-to-late eighteenth century). But that is not something I can explore here.