The July 4, 1829 edition of the London-based The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction (heretofore The Mirror) published an excerpt from Basil Hall’s then-recently published Travels in North America describing the relatively nondescript grave of Benjamin Franklin (issue on Project Gutenberg). Below, I re-print Basil Hall’s account of his visit to Benjamin Franklin’s grave with additional notes and commentary.
First, let us begin with the excerpt from Hall’s book in The Mirror: I reprint the excerpt in full below:
Captain Basil Hall, in his Travels in North America, just published, says, “On the 12th of December, we made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Franklin—dear old Franklin! It consists of a large marble slab, laid flat on the ground, with nothing carved upon it but these words:—
BENJAMIN AND DEBORAH FRANKLIN. 1790.
Franklin, it will be recollected, wrote a humorous epitaph for himself; but his good taste and good sense showed him how unsuitable to his living character it would have been to jest in such a place. After all, his literary works, scientific fame, and his undoubted patriotism, form his best epitaph. Still, it may be thought, he might have been distinguished in his own land by a more honourable resting-place than the obscure corner of an obscure burying-ground, where his bones lie indiscriminately along with those of ordinary mortals; and his tomb, already well nigh hid in the rubbish, may soon be altogether lost. One little circumstance, however, about this spot is very striking. No regular path has been made to the grave, which lies considerably out of the road; but the frequent tread of visitors having pressed down the rank grass which grows in such places, the way to the tombstone is readily found without any guide.
Basil Hall was a British naval officer and explorer who lived from 1788-1884. He published his three-volume account of his 1827 and 1828 travels in North America in 1829. This collection included his brief account of visiting Benjamin Franklin’s grave. The excerpt from The Mirror shows both that Hall admired Franklin’s abilities and accomplishments and was surprised to find that his grave was innocuous, describing it as resting in “the obscure corner of an obscure burial ground,” in danger of “soon be[ing] altogether lost.” However, Hall remarked that notwithstanding the location of the grave and its lack of embellishment, “the frequent tread of visitors having pressed down the rank grass which grows in such places” ensured that the grave could be found without a guide.
I took some time to locate a digitized version of Hall’s book and found it on the Internet Archive. See the links below for the relevant pages pertaining to Hall’s visit to Franklin’s grave:
Hall’s Franklin commentary continued beyond the magazine excerpt. Let us work through the rest of Hall’s commentary.
During such a man’s lifetime, every person must feel–whatever be his political creed as to distinctions in rank–that Franklin would have been much out of his place had he passed his time amongst inferior company. All the world were ready to acknowledge that his proper sphere was that of the master spirits of his age; and, probably, it was mainly in consequence of his occupying so commanding a station–to which his genius and virtues alone had raised him–that his lessons of practical wisdom were delivered with such peculiar force.
To be sure, it is true that Franklin’s being recognized as brilliant aided in his “lessons of practical wisdom” being “delivered with such peculiar force,” but Hall would have done well to add that Franklin had lessons in practical wisdom to begin with. Hall himself notes that Franklin passed much of his time among “the master spirits of his age,” but not all dealt in “practical wisdom.” Just considering the founding generation, John Adams was certifiably brilliant but he is not much, as is Franklin, remembered for his witticisms about saving.
Hall returned to Franklin’s grave:
That the grave levels all worldly distinctions is true only as far as it relates to mere corporal attributes. But in the cause of so distinguished a philosopher as Franklin, for example, who may almost be called the Socrates of modern days, Death, instead of lowering the moral rank of its victim, contributes, if any thing, to raise it still higher.
I never thought of comparing Franklin to Socrates, but I can see it insofar as both opined regularly on down-to-Earth matters. However, the comparison in death does strike me as peculiar on first glance. Socrates’ death by poison pursuant to the judgment of the citizens of Athens is a significant part of his legacy and story. Franklin died from illness as an old man. Hall continued, fleshing out the comparison:
During Franklin’s lifetime, it must be recollected, that by far the greater part of the world, his contemporaries, although they acknowledged his influence, held no more personal intercourse with him than posterity are able to. The mere circumstances, therefore, of his absence from the living scene, can neither destroy the beneficial influence of his intellectual companionship, which we enjoy with our predecessors, nor weaken the salutory example of his character and conduct.
Hall is correct to note that few people who read Franklin while the man was alive had the opportunity to engage in discourse with him. Hall moves on to discuss Franklin’s influence after death.
Still less does [death] diminish the weight of his authority; for although the grave, in such cases, absorbs, irrevocably, when life is extinguished, very much that cannot be supplied, that portion which has recorded becomes, thenceforeward, the fixed inheritance of all mankind, to be turned to greater or less account, according to the manner in which it is found to bear the touch of Time.
This long and intricate sentence describes continuing influence after death. In the case of Franklin, he no longer existed in this world corporeally – his body and physical form were “absorbe[d]” by the Earth. But his thoughts, written on paper and etched in memory, became “the fixed inheritance of all mankind.” To be sure, this is not true only of Franklin, but of any person who leaves some sort of legacy during life. Renown in life does not necessarily predict renown in posterity. Hall eloquently described this in saying that one’s inheritance will “be turned to greater or less account, according to the manner in which it is found to bear the touch of time.” Some of Franklin’s contemporaries who were influential in their day have had their influence “turned to … less account” by posterity. Hall noted that Franklin remained influential more than three decades after his death, and he remains so today alongside American Revolution and early Republic figures such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and Marshall.
Hall pivoted back to describing the physical humility of Franklin’s grave in comparison to the graves of figures of comparable renown:
The value of such instruction, however, in the estimation of ordinary minds, may often be modified by the degree of respect in which the author’s memory is held. And in this lies the chief, though not the only, advantage of conspicuous and honourable monuments, compared with such unworthy neglect as that which Franklin’s grave is allowed to remain. In this spirit, the inhabitants of Boston have lately erected a handsome epitaph to Franklin; and I am sure the public-spirited Philadelphians will not fail to profit by an example, in which they ought to have been the first to lead.
Hall notes, no doubt correctly, that the degree to which ordinary people remember figures from posterity “may often be modified by the degree of respect in which the author’s memory is held.” To this effect, Hall suggested that dignified graves and memorials increase the chance that ordinary people will hold the memory of the deceased in high regard. I will opine that Hall’s point about subjective memory applies to those he would deem a cut above ordinary as well as the masses, but it is fair all the same. We can see that Hall’s concern about the state of Franklin’s grave was inspired less by his view that Franklin should have a grander tomb for the sake of having a grander tomb and more to his belief that Franklin’s having such a quaint, poorly maintained grave would cause his intellectual inheritance to fade from memory. It is worth noting that Hall may have been more concerned with the apparent lack of care with which Franklin’s grave was being attended to than its lack of ornamentation. Well-maintained modest graves can show great reverence for the deceased.
Recall that in the first excerpt from Hall’s piece on Franklin that was re-printed by the Mirror, Hall referenced a mock epitaph written by Franklin, and expressed some relief that the great thinker had decided not to use it on his grave. Riverrun Books & Manuscripts notes that Franklin composed his mock epitaph in 1728 when he was 22 years old. The mock epitaph was re-published in An Astronomical Diary, or Almanack for the Year of our Lord Christ, 1771. See a photograph of the original page here. I re-print Franklin’s epitaph below:
Riverun Books noted, as we know from Hall’s account, that “[t]wenty years [after 1770] when death finally came [to Franklin] at age 84, [he] opted for the simpler and less whimsical: ’Franklin, Deborah and Benjamin, 1790.” One can see why Hall, who was concerned with the effects of Franklin’s grave site on how people remembered him, would not have favored using the epitaph of the young Franklin (even with the promise that we could look forward to a “new and more beautiful Edition”). Of course, in light of Hall’s emphasis on the effect of esteem on posterity, I dare venture that it is in large part thanks to Franklin’s wit and sense of humor that he is remembered so well more than two centuries after he breathed his last.
I have never personally visited Benjamin Franklin’s grave, but Basil Hall would surely be heartened to know that people visit it regularly today.
Today thousands of tourists annually still come to pay their respect to Benjamin Franklin. His grave is visible through an iron gate at the southeast corner of 5th and Arch Streets. Pennies dot his tombstone, as a local tradition claims that such a practice will bring the penny-tosser luck.
(I am not sure how Hall would feel about the pennies, but at least the grave is in good shape and is being better maintained today than it was in the late 1820s.)
You can see an image of Franklin’s grave courtesy of RPD2 at Find a Grave.
Benjamin Franklin’s grave is located at Christ Church Burial Ground, which has been a functioning cemetery since it opened in 1719. The National Park Service notes that in addition to Franklin, Christ Church hosts the graves of four other signers of the Declaration of Independence: Francis Hopkinson, Benjamin Rush, Joseph Hewes, and George Ross.