Franklin & Jefferson – Founding The Architecture of Freedom

Ben Franklin Besst

Principal author of the American Declaration of Independence and its 3rd President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), when preparing a eulogy to be read in memory of orator, diplomat, statesman, inventor and scientist Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) at the American Philosophical Society 1791 noted he considered Franklin a “great and dear friend, whom time will be making greater while it is sponging us from its records”.

The eighteenth century neoclassical movement in England and Europe admired the forms of ancient Greece and Rome. In America they became an important aspect of the architecture of freedom with the support of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, two of history’s most influential men.

We could say that based on the many insightful and visionary quotations attributed to him, accessible on many world wide web sites today, that Benjamin Franklin certainly had the gift of the gab and an extraordinary wisdom grounded in truth.

We must all hang together’ Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) once said about Britain and America, ‘or assuredly we will all hang separately’.

Ben Franklin BesstBorn at Boston Franklin first visited England in 1724-6 and 1757-62 before settling at London as a colonial agent. He resided at 32 Craven Street a terraced townhouse. Franklin was a practical man as well as a theorist and writer.

His ‘An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light’ an essay he wrote in 1784, introduced the idea of daylight saving to the world.

All the contemporary images of Franklin convey to the viewer a suggestion of solidity and shrewd good common sense. They capture the very essence of a man who was a savvy successful diplomatic negotiator mediating the unrest between Britain and America.

He also had a hearty social life forging great relationships and friendships with many of the leading lights of his day.

Benjamin Franklin’s Terraced House, Craven Street at London

Benjamin Franklin was, among other things, the inventor of a great many fascinating objects including the Franklin stove and the glass armonica – an amazing musical instrument for which interestingly composers like Mozart, Bach and Beethoven produced works. Then there was his bifocal spectacles and the lightning rod, proving how wide ranging were his ideas and the extraordinary breadth and depth of his imagination.

The house he lived in at London is now called the Benjamin Franklin House. Built around 1730 it is a museum, educational facility and scholarship centre in the style of the time, which had its foundations in the classical architecture of the ancient world.

Ben FranklinWhile staying at London Franklin was also a self appointed interpreter of American life to the British people, one that became increasingly unsympathetic in the crucial years before the outbreak of war between them.

Attached to his adopted home by conviction, and the friendships that he had made while he was there, Franklin moderated and modified his advice and counsel to others while being prophetic in his warnings. ‘Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours, and let every new year find you a better man’.

London based Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728 – 1792) holding the folio of his influential works in architecture, a copy of which he presented to King George III

In 1764 at London Scottish born London based architect Robert Adam’s ‘The Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian of Spalatro’ was published, containing many of his drawings made in that place. They would advance his vision to establish a great architectural practice operating in both London and Edinburgh.

Robert Adam set up practice in 1758 at London after returning from his Grand Tour of Europe. This was just before the first George to speak the King’s English (not German like his father and grandfather) came to the throne in 1760. This date brought together so many factors that heralded the dawn of an enlightened age. Adam was at the forefront of change and became the acknowledged leader in England of the neoclassical style in architecture. He proudly presented a copy of his opus to the new King George III.

Horsemen EtchedThe whole neoclassical identification with the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome had as much to do with eighteenth century perceptions of early democracy as it did with the antique rules governing styles in architecture and design.

The movement grew gradually, spreading through France and the rest of Europe as well as on to Russia and America over a period of about 100 years.

The English were not the only architects and painters working at Rome, although they did represent a very large proportion of the contingent of foreigners based there.

Pantheon at Rome and its Grand Tourists

Among them were young rich English men who spent a great many years in each other’s company building up relationships as they toured around.

When they finally went home, having sowed their wild oats, broadened their experiences of the European world and garnered some realities of life, they were important in spreading new classical ideas across the western world.

Thomas Jefferson would follow in their footsteps.

While Franklin, a seasoned veteran of international diplomacy science and letters was at London across the Atlantic, the young America was proceeding architecturally, as with everything else at that time in a very different direction from the ‘Old World’.

The first thing on settler’s minds was the construction of domestic architecture and it is much easier when you are concentrating on survival first to deal with what you know.

Colonial architecture – Stone House 1765, the oldest house still standing in Georgetown, Washington DC

Consequently some original houses at Georgetown, Washington DC are still preserved like the Stone House built in 1765. Despite having been built with an immediate focus on convenience and comfort, the local materials of which it is built add a flavour of their own.

For us today it is instructive about how the same elements and characteristics of a style of architecture established in one place could be interpreted in completely different ways in others.

‘A house is not a home unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body’ observed Franklin.

The study of architecture, in our understanding of it as a professional discipline, did not exist in the colonies of England when Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) went to college ironically in the year George III came to the throne, 1760.

Born in 1743 at Albemarle County, Virginia, Thomas inherited some 5,000 acres of land from his father and from his mother, high social standing. He was described as having very forthright eyes that steadily held the gaze of those talking with him. While reflective they were not portals you could pass through to discover the inner man.

He kept a barrier around himself. He was exceedingly good natured, frank and friendly once his confidence and trust had been gained. However he kept himself always at a distance, no doubt through hard experiences. When he was ten years old he had lived through an extended building project at his family home Shadwell.

William and Mary College Virginia attributed to London architect Sir Christopher Wren

This early construction activity was both exciting and educational. Later on he when he became disparaging about early colonial architecture he often referred back to the ugly, uncomfortable and happily more perishable buildings such as Shadwell were.

There was a touch of irony about these observations. One day he and his mother were out visiting neighbours and Shadwell burned to the ground.  Jefferson lost all the possessions he prized the most and was sorely grieved.

By the time he was 17 years of age Jefferson it seems had an uncommon capacity for applying himself and taught himself the rudiments of architecture. Using only meagre resources he read law at William and Mary, the only college in the Virginia colony.

Architecture was not part of the curriculum. Tradition has it that the building he was studying in was designed by famed English architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral at London.

The Sir Christopher Wren building at William and Mary College is the oldest academic building still in continuous use in the United States. It was constructed between 1695 and 1699. However it has been destroyed by fire three times in its lifetime in 1705, 1859 and 1862 so many of its records were lost.

Each time it was destroyed it was resurrected again rising from the ashes as it had stood before. It has, for more than three centuries been, for all those who work and study within its walls, at the very heart and soul of college life.

Thomas Jefferson, Renaissance Man

As a young man Thomas Jefferson wanted to pursue fresh ideas. He was inspired by a new rational outlook and climate of political and philosophical thought as well as creative ideas. He had the foundations of a classical education, was able to read Latin and Greek and he did so with great pleasure throughout all of his life.

He absorbed all the literary knowledge that he could about Ancient Rome – of her monuments and precincts of power and glory. Reading the classics and expanding his own knowledge of mathematics aided his law studies. But they did something else as well. They stimulated the beginnings of a life long search seeking an accessible architectural language that he could embrace wholeheartedly.

During that journey he discovered for himself the physics, metaphysics, mathematics, rhetoric, logic and ethics, which he researched and read during his time at William and Mary College.

They were indeed formative and became indispensable tools to the geometry based neoclassical style of architecture that later he finally embraced, because it was the style he had decided he preferred.

Selection of the Books owned by Thomas Jefferson, which are today in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

Selection of the Books owned by Thomas Jefferson, which are today in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.

Jefferson was also to say in older age of his time at College ‘it was my great good fortune and what probably fixed the destinies of my life…that Dr. William Small of Scotland, was the Professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication correct and gentlemanly manners and an enlarged and liberal mind’. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me and made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first view of the expansion of science and the system of things in which we are placed.’

Once assured you were a colleague or had the potential of becoming an acquaintance and friend, Jefferson had the power to charm and disarm the most hardened soul. Even to those opposed to him politically and personally.

During the eighteenth century as amateur archaeologists fanned out from England, France and Germany to the far reaches of Attica and the Roman Empire to measure and record in drawings the fabled ruins of the past, the books they produced took cultivated men and women by storm. Never before in the history of man had the architectural and sculptural grandeur of antiquity been so admired by so many without having been seen as a personal experience. It was made readily available, for those who could afford a subscription, for weekend or after dinner perusal, and in handsome large folio form.

Four of the so-called classical Orders of Architecture inherited from the ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations

The neoclassical movement of the eighteenth century that espoused the forms of ancient Greece and Roman buildings, left a great legacy about the designers who found inspiration in the clarity, simplicity and spaciousness of its forms. It embraced many disciplines and it was seen from St. Petersburg to Edinburgh, from Virginia to Versailles.

For Thomas Jefferson, as indeed for many others, these volumes were not just handsome, beautifully bound and well written, but guides they could use to invent a wholly new style of architecture of freedom for the modern American man, one which proved his roots were established in antiquity.

Old Courthouse at Williamsburg, VA, complete with Roman arched small paned windows, dentilled overhanging portico and bell tower

The architecture at Rome was the nucleus for all his own plans and so the works of sixteenth century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio assumed a great deal of importance.

He had interpreted the architecture of first century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius and reinterpreted for a wealthy Veneto clientele.

Few houses with grand architectural pretensions were built in the state of Virginia prior to 1700.

Although there weren’t any architects in the modern sense of the word in colonial Virginia, the more substantial plantation homes were constructed by a master bricklayer or carpenter.

Palladio I Quattro libri dell'architettura

Andrea Palladio, I Quattro libri dell’architettura

Designs were copied from selected pattern books and modified or customized to suit the expectations and specifications of the owner.

The master carpenter or bricklayer would hire and supervise other carpenters, sawyers, joiners, bricklayers, masons plasterers and painters and slaves who became highly skilled artists and artisans. He was the forerunner of what we now know as the builder, overseeing the project.

Expanding his knowledge was an important aspect of the structuring and ordering of Jefferson’s personal universe.

It was about reason, order and symmetry. He believed in this new age of reason and in the end, the way he classified the books in his own library is based on a structure of knowledge.  ‘I cannot live without books’ he once wrote, because they were an important part of his own inner growth contributing to his wellbeing and his intellectual life.

It was a bitter blow that his first library containing books left to him by his father was burned to the ground so that he was forced to start again.

He developed a self discipline and regime that most of his friends and acquaintances found quite alarming, wherein he read or studied some 15 hours a day. For him it was about being able to focus in order to get the job done.

Westover Plantation as seen from the river

Westover Plantation Virginia c1750, a Georgian style house where William Byrd II was born and died as seen from the river

During his bouts of intensive reading Jefferson’s only exercise was a mile long run at twilight when the cool night air would clear his thoughts anew. During his life he fostered a close acquaintance with major novelists, dramatists, poets, philosophers and literary critics to help motivate his own creativity.

Being considered a gentleman he could hold his own in conversation in all the great drawing rooms in America as well as in the European salons of the day simply because he had a serious interest in the life of the mind and others found that stimulating and his presence was always welcome.

When he was a student at William and Mary College Jefferson would have known the Westover Plantation belonging to tobacco planter, colonial official and diarist William Byrd II (1674-1744). His library was a men’s only domain, which contained a number of books on architecture. The house also had secret passages, was about symmetry and a balance of proportions and it was set in magnificent gardens. Byrd was an elegant socialite, a man of learning.

He was famed far and wide for his many amours and for treating his own wife shabbily. It was he who founded the town of Richmond and he was born and died at Westover his family home. With all its Georgian England strict formality Westover Plantation was the English style classical architecture that Thomas Jefferson was desperately trying to avoid.

Mt Airy, Richmond Virginia a National Historic Landmark in the neo-Palladian style

The one he would have been more in tune with was Mt Airy, a mid-Georgian plantation house, which is now also a National Historic Landmark. In America between 1758-1762 Mt Airy was the first private house built exhibiting influences of a neo-Palladian style.  Rebuilt after a fire in 1844 today it has a central impressive block of stone while the rest is of brick trimmed with stone.

There are flanking wings, as in agricultural villas built in the country in the Veneto at Italy by Andrea Palladio, such as the Villa Barbero at Maser. Scholars who have studied the house report on the National Register of Historic Places site that they believe it is possible the exterior may originally have been stuccoed, although no trace was found.

In 1767 Jefferson was admitted as a Barrister ‘to the bar’ where he practiced law with great success. His advanced knowledge of ancient cultures and preferred tastes would cause him to ‘run before the times in which he lived’ according to his kinsman Edmund Randolph. He was a visionary in every respect.

Madame Geoffrin’s influential Salon where great minds met c1755

When Thomas Jefferson arrived at Paris in August 1784 Benjamin Franklin had already been there for over seven years. In 1776 he had gone to secure French support for the American colonies in their fight for independence from Britain. Jefferson was immediately drawn into the inspirational and stimulating atmosphere of the French salons.

This is where established ladies of means hosted events in their homes for all the best scientists, literary giants, philosophers and well-connected members of French political circles to meet. He hoped introductions, initiated by Benjamin Franklin, would open doors for him. At the salon of Madame Helvétius, a close and particular friend of Benjamin Franklin’s that Jefferson finally met “the circle of literati” he wished to know and he established many lasting relationships.

Portico-MonticelloHaving inherited a considerable landed estate from his father Thomas Jefferson began building his own Palladian style dream home, Monticello when he was twenty-six years old.

Everything that he planned during his lifetime, including his house, would be heroic in scale. Am amateur architect Jefferson was self-taught in drawing.

There are no recorded mentors and we know that his first drafting efforts were gleaned from his father who had been a surveyor and mapmaker. When his father bequeathed Thomas his modest library and mathematical instruments he had also included his surveying equipment.

This was a big plus in being able to establish the guidelines and boundaries on which Monticello would be born.

Thomas Jefferson was early America’s outstanding example of a Renaissance man, his thirst for knowledge was only exceeded by his desire for more. He voiced the aspirations of a new America when establishing its constitution in writing because it was a skill at which he excelled.

As a public official, historian, philosopher, and plantation owner, he served his country for over five decades.

Monticello in the Spring, Jefferson’s dream home in the Palladian style. It was inspired by Chiswick House the country pleasure pavilion of Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington at London’s designed for him by William Kent based on the architecture of 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, who was in turn inspired by the works of 1st century Roman architect Marcus Pollio Vitruvius

He said ‘Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital’.

Throughout their acquaintance Thomas Jefferson maintained his lasting respect and admiration for Benjamin Franklin. He concluded his own notes for Franklin’s eulogy with a confession:

“On being presented to any one as the Minister of America, the commonplace question, used in such cases, was, ‘C’est vous, Monsieur, qui remplace le Docteur Franklin?’ ‘It is you, Sir, who replace Doctor Franklin?’ I generally answered, ‘No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.'”

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2013

Quotes by Benjamin Franklin | Quotes by Jefferson from the Monticello website

You may also care to read Thomas Jefferson at Monticello – to see and be seen

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