The Past's Digital Presence, February 19-20, 2010


08 - Mapping History: "Mapping Eighteenth-Century Intellectual Networks"

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The Republic of Letters united European and American scholars, scientists, and statesmen before the modern, university-based academic world supplanted it. Participants used letters as their main form of communication, and those letters remain as valuable evidence of far-flung exchanges within Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean. What did those correspondence networks look like? In what sense might they be described as “cosmopolitan”? Benjamin Franklin serves as a natural test case for the model of an eighteenth-century cosmopolitan. His duties as a legislator and diplomat created an enormous volume of correspondence. We analyzed approximately 4,300 letters written or received by Franklin and classified them according to recipient and type (personal, official, or business). When we graph letters by type during Franklin’s residence in Paris (1776-1785), the volume of official correspondence overwhelms the volume of private correspondence. Merchants, financiers, and civil servants are among the top correspondents in Franklin’s network across his lifetime. Data from Franklin’s letters show that diplomacy and trade created the cosmopolitan scope of his network. Surprisingly, Franklin’s network is more cosmopolitan in scope than that of a quintessential member of the Republic of Letters, the French philosophe Voltaire. Yet its cosmopolitan character depends on business and bureaucracy, not just philosophy.

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This Article is Open Access