The difference between Samuel Johnson’s circle in London and Benjamin Franklin’s circle in Philadelphia is a measure of the difference between the place of books in the older and the newer culture. Dr. Johnson’s famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, in which he expressed contempt for the arrogance of his patron, could never have been written in Philadelphia. Imagine Franklin seeking a patron, cooling his heels in the waiting room of a noble lord, and wasting his time writing letters to rebuke the discourtesies of a man who sought sycophants! Contrast Dr. Johnson’s circle, frequented by James Boswell, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, and Edward Gibbon—all men of letters in the traditional sense of the word—with Benjamin Franklin’s “Junto,” its young, unknown membership including a glazier, a surveyor, a joiner, a cobbler, and several printers.
Franklin’s group did not chat wittily about polite literature; it had topics for “debate.” “Is it justifiable to put private men to death, for the sake of public safety or tranquillity, who have committed no crime? As, in the case of the plague, to stop infection; or as in the case of the Welshmen here executed?” “If the sovereign power attempts to deprive a subject of his right (or, which is the same thing, of what he thinks his right) is it justifiable to him to resist, if he is able?” “Whence comes the dew that stands on the outside of a tankard that has cold water in it in the summer time?”