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Weighty Historical Matters

There has been some great, chewy stuff over at Cliopatria recently: Miriam Burstein’s essay on the aesthetics of history, Manan Ahmed and Nathaniel Robinson’s conversation about reconciliation and historical memory, and today our newest member, Claire Potter, on the history of everyday rage. I’ve been so derelict in posting there, I wanted to return to the fold with a similarly weighty and scholarly piece of work. And so I give you:

A thriving LiveJournal community, which examines historical figures and asks of each the vital question: Were They Hot? Recent contestants include Lord Byron (surely a no-brainer?), Frida Kahlo, Robespierre (“he’s got a slightly squished face but I reckon he looks good naked”), and the Roman Emperor Philip (“I would ride this man to Damascus and back if I had to”).

Kate Beaton’s History Project and History Project Two, a series of winsome and ridiculous cartoons about history, much of it obscure and/or Canadian. I can’t pick a favorite cartoon, as they always have a cumulative effect on me, but it’s hard to argue with Sandford Fleming’s beard. I wish the CBC would scrap the hokey old Heritage Minute and give my tax dollars directly to Kate.

Sometimes blog posts seem so blatantly written for me and me alone that I feel like a chimp when I link to them. But I suppose the internet is big enough that everybody feels that way from time to time. Anyway, one of our buddy Bill Turkel’s digital history students recently wrote a software ‘bot that impersonates Benjamin Franklin. I must admit it is not the most cunning impersonation one could imagine:

Turkel: So what do you think of Rob MacDougall’s blog?
FranklinBot: Does it have anything to do with reductionism?
Turkel: Why yes it does.
FranklinBot: Yay!

Finally, here is some more of the internet-enabled infomancy I celebrated on my blog last week: Caleb Crain and Paul Collins track the origins of the essential phrase, “Mad, mad, I tell you!”

That’s really all I want for my blogging life: to make a robot Ben Franklin say “yay” and to follow Paul Collins and Caleb Crain around like a dorky third wheel. “What are we doing today, guys? Guys?”

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The Further Adventures of Ben Franklin's Ghost

The other day, I posted about Ben Franklin’s posthumous popularity as the go to ghost for American spiritualists. Probably Franklin’s most frequent and energetic earthly correspondent was an abolitionist minister turned spiritualist named John Murray Spear. In 1851 or 1852, Spear and his daughter Sophronia began seeking messages from the spirit world. In 1853, they announced that Spear had become the mouthpiece for the General Assembly of Spirits, a benevolent association of departed worthies like Franklin, Jefferson, and Emmanuel Swedenborg. The Assembly of Spirits was divided into a number of committees and subcommittees: the “Educationizers,” the “Governmentizers,” the “Healthfulizers,” the “Agriculturalizers,” and so on, but it was the “Electricizers,” headed of course by Franklin, who had immediate plans for Spear.

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Great Franklin's Ghost

I’ve been reading about Ben Franklin again—what else is new? But this time it’s actually related to a project, something I’m tinkering at with Bill Turkel and the clever, clever elves at the Center for History and New Media. About that project, more later. In the meantime, when you dine with Franklin, a side order of old weird America is always on the menu. Things come up that don’t fit even Bill or the CHNM’s generous definitions of serious history. Lucky for you, I have a blog…

Great Franklin's Ghost
Great Franklin’s Ghost!

Benjamin Franklin was not, as he is often remembered, a statesman who happened to dabble in science—that sounds more like Thomas Jefferson—but a scientist who happened to dabble in statecraft. (This according to Joyce Chaplin’s terrific The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius. And if you enjoy that, definitely see James Delbourgo’s A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America.) But as Franklin’s star rose in the century after his death, it was Poor Richard’s Yankee practicality that people remembered. Doctor Franklin the Enlightenment magus faded from popular memory. (On this, see also Pamela Laird’s Pull: Networking and Success Since Benjamin Franklin. Yeah, there are a lot of books about Franklin.) Washington was the soldier’s hero, and Jefferson remained beloved by democrats and other bearded yokels, but for industrializing America, Franklin the penny-counting businessman was the great archetype and inspiration: Early to bed and a penny earned, the Horatio Alger hero before there was Horatio Alger. Franklin’s science mostly dropped out of the picture: He invented bifocals, didn’t he? And something about a kite?

But there was one segment of American society which kept the memory of Franklin as scientist alive. In the middle to late nineteenth century, millions of Americans dabbled in spiritualism, visiting seances, decoding table rappings, pushing Ouija-style planchettes, and watching mediums emit ectoplasmic goo. And no spirit from the Other Side—no Puritan preacher, no messiah, no rich dead uncle—communicated with American spiritualists more frequently than the ghost of Benjamin Franklin. (And on this, see Werner Sollors’ 1983 article, “Dr. Benjamin Franklin’s Celestial Telegraph, Or Indian Blessings to Gas-Lit American Drawing Rooms.” OK, I’ll stop doing that now.)

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