We tend to think that we’re participants in an era of unprecedented busyness. The icon of our situation is the e-mail inbox, relentlessly full and irredeemably disordered.
A few nights ago, I was flipping through a volume of Benjamin Franklin’s writing and noticed that perhaps a quarter of his letters from the middle period of his life began with the sort of apology that’s familiar to all of us: I’m really sorry for my late reply. Franklin’s literal inbox was apparently as backlogged as my own figurative one. Of course, my ordinary e-mail isn’t held up by the need to write back to George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, or Joseph Priestley.
The founding fathers were sometimes overwhelmed by their correspondence. But does that mean everyone has always felt as busy as we do now? These are among the very most profound writers of their time, famous in part because of their letters, so we’re confronted with a survivor bias. But, maybe there’s some consolation in the idea that we’re all now as sought-after as Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington.
The excerpts below are from the Franklin and Jefferson anthologies published by the Library of America.
You’ve probably forgotten about this already.
“I ought to have wrote to you long since, in Answer to yours of Oct. 16. concerning the Water Spout: But Business partly, and partly a Desire of procuring further Information by Inquiry among my Seafaring Acquaintance, induc’d me to postpone Writing from time to time, till I am now almost asham’d to resume the Subject, not knowing but you may have forgot what has been said upon it.” 1
—Benjamin Franklin, February 4, 1753, to John Perkins
Sorry. I promise I’ll be quicker.
“I receiv’d with great Pleasure your friendly Letter by Mr. Alexander, which I should have answer’d sooner by some other Conveyance, if I had understood that his Stay here was like to be so long. I value myself extreamly on the Continuance of your Regard, which I hope hereafter better to deserve by more punctual Returns in the Correspondence you honour me with.”
—Benjamin Franklin, June 2, 1765, to Lord Kames
Mail is really messed up for some reason.
“I received three days ago your favor of Apr. 12. You therein speak of a former letter to me, but it has not come to hand, nor any other of later date than the 14th of December. My last letter to you was of the 11th of May by Mr. Adams who went in the packet of that month. These conveiances are now becoming deranged.”
—Thomas Jefferson, June 17, 1785, to James Monroe
I’m traveling, so just time for a quick reply.
“Being just return’d home from a Tour thro’ the northern Colonies, that has employ’d the whole Summer, my Time at present is so taken up that I cannot now write fully in answer to the Letters I have receiv’d from you, but purpose to do it shortly.”
—Benjamin Franklin, December 17, 1763, to John Waring
Your last note was crazy. You work too hard. LOL.
“I received your Favour of the 10th. of Decemr. It was a great deal for one to write, whose Time is so little his own. By the way, When do you intend to live? i.e. to enjoy Life. When will you retire to your Villa, give your self Repose, delight in Viewing the Operations of Nature in the vegetable Creation, assist her in her Works, get your ingenious Friends at times about you, make them happy with your Conversation, and enjoy theirs; or, if alone, amuse yourself with your Books and elegant Collections?”
—Benjamin Franklin, March 14, 1764, to John Fothergill
Now it’s my turn to apologize.
“You made an Apology to me for not acquainting me sooner with your Marriage. I ought now to make an Apology to you for delaying so long the Answer to your Letter. It was mislaid or hid among my Papers, and much Business put it out of my Mind, or prevented my looking for it and writing when I thought of it. So this Account between us if you please may stand balanced.”
—Benjamin Franklin, August 9, 1768, to John Alleyne
“Your head, my dear friend, is full of Notable things; and being better employed, therefore, I do not expect letters from you.”
—Thomas Jefferson, April 11, 1787, to the Marquis de Lafayette
I am the worst.
“Our Correspondence might be carried on for a Century with very few Letters, if you were as apt to procrastinate as myself. Tho’ an habitual Sinner, I am now quite ashamed to observe, that this is to be an Answer to your Favour of January last.”
—Benjamin Franklin, November 7, 1773, to William Brownrigg
I’ve just checked, and I definitely did not get that note.
“I have just been honoured with a Letter from you, dated the 26th past, in which you express your self as astonished, and appear to be angry that you have no Answer to a Letter you wrote me of the 11th of December, which you are sure was delivered to me.
“In Exculpation of my self, I assure you that I never receiv’d any Letter from you of that date.” 2
—Benjamin Franklin, April 6, 1777, to — Lith
Quick reply; about to go into meetings.
“Your’s of Aug. 3. came to hand yesterday; having had no moment to spare since, I am obliged to set down to answer it at a Committee table while the Committee is collecting. My thoughts therefore on the subject you propose will be merely extempore.”
—Thomas Jefferson, August 13, 1776, to Edmund Pendleton
I was taking an e-mail break.
“You conclude, Madam, from my long silence that I am gone to the other world. Nothing else would have prevented my writing to you so long. I have not thought of you the less, but I took a peep only into Elysium.”
—Thomas Jefferson, July 1, 1787, to Maria Cosway
And, finally, a couple of charming opening sentences that don’t happen to be apologies.
Good to hear from you!
“Your letter, my dear friend, of the 18th ultimo, comes like the refreshing dews of the evening on a thirsty soil. It recalls antient as well as recent recollections, very dear to my heart.”
—Thomas Jefferson, March 5, 1810, to John Langdon
You’re much too kind.
“Your favor of the 14th has been duly received, and I have to thank you for the many obliging things respecting myself which are said in it. If I have left in the breasts of my fellow citizens a sentiment of satisfaction with my conduct in the transaction of their business, it will soften the pillow of my repose through the residue of life.’
—Thomas Jefferson, September 20, 1810, to John B. Colvin
1 I’ve kept the original orthography intact here, as it appears in my copies of the Library of America compilations of these authors’ letters. This includes the German-style capitalization of improper nouns. I’d be curious to know when that convention was dropped for English.
2 This letter continues with some good advice for correspondence, whether in the 18th century or the 21st:
But I receiv’d one from you of the 8th of January, which I own I did not answer. It may displease you if I give you the Reason; but as it may be of use to you in your future Correspondences, I will hazard that for a Gentleman to whom I feel myself oblig’d, and as an American, on Account of his Good Will to our Cause.
Whoever writes to a stranger should observe 3 Points; 1. That what he proposes be practicable. 2. His Propositions should be made in explicit Terms so as to be easily understood. 3. What he desires should be in itself reasonable. Hereby he will give a favourable Impression of his Understanding, and create a Desire of further Acquaintance.
Bonus for reading this far: Thomas Jefferson appraises John Adams in a 1787 letter to James Madison:
He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force & probable effect of the motives which govern men. This is all the ill which can possibly be said of him. He is as disinterested as the being which made him: he is profound in his views: and accurate in his judgment except where knowledge of the world is necessary to form a judgment.
As anyone who grew up within view of Monticello can explain, Jefferson and Adams later became intimate friends, and died on the same day 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that they had drafted together.