Collection News / Penn Libraries

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries acquires rare book printed by Benjamin Franklin


May 7, 2015

Press Contact:
Tina Skov Cowan

PHILADELPHIA, PA The University of Pennsylvania Libraries is delighted to announce that it has acquired a copy of Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg’s Petit Code de la raison humaine, a book printed in France by Benjamin Franklin in 1782. It is one of only four known surviving copies of the book, and it is believed to be the last full-length book Franklin ever printed.

Penn Libraries: A Leader in Collecting Franklin’s Printings
Scholars today know of around 900 surviving works printed by Benjamin Franklin. Of those, about 30 come from Passy, France, where Franklin established his final printing press.  Many of Franklin’s surviving works, especially the more ephemeral, exist in only one or two copies. The Penn Libraries currently holds more than 330 of these, making Penn’s collection of Franklin’s printing among the most important in the world. Most of Penn’s holdings came to the University in 1920 as a gift from the Curtis Publishing Company. Additional purchases and generous gifts from Penn alumni have added to the Franklin printing collection over the years. Penn also holds an array of material relating to Franklin’s time at Passy. The newly arrived, pristine copy of Barbeu-Dubourg’s Petit Code provides another key jewel in this crown.  It is fitting that Penn has become the final home for this remarkable work, in which Franklin reproduced the words of his friend, encouraging the education of young people by “…inspiring without restriction their body, spirit, and soul, their pursuit of the arts, passion for the sciences, and sensitivity towards their neighbors.”

Benjamin Franklin’s Printing Legacy
When Benjamin Franklin helped to found what is now the University of Pennsylvania in 1740 he was primarily known as a Philadelphia printer.  In his printing office, located on Market Street, he produced everything from colonial Pennsylvania’s laws, to speeches encouraging smallpox inoculation, to almanacs and various newspapers.  An information broker par excellence, Franklin was an integral part of connecting the young city of Philadelphia with the wider world.  Franklin remained involved in the publishing business until 1766, though he had become increasingly involved in politics, traveling to Europe and making friends among the scientific and diplomatic elite. In 1776 he took up the crucial post of ambassador to France, making the Paris suburb of Passy his home for nine years.  From this post, Franklin lobbied for the young nation, continued his patronage of the arts and sciences and resumed his love of printing.

In Passy, Franklin’s small, private printing press produced printed passports for the wartime United States, broadsides of various kinds, and two full-length books.  One, a work by Pierre-André Gargaz, entitled A Project of Universal and Perpetual Peace was completed in July 1782. The other, printed in December 1782, was a work by Franklin’s friend Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg (1709-1779), called the Petit Code de la raison humaine, ou Exposition succincte de ce que la raison dicte à tous les hommes pour éclairer leur conduite et assurer leur bonheur  (“A short code of  human reason, or a succinct proof that reason is given to all men to guide their conduct and ensure their happiness”).  It was the last book Franklin ever printed, and clearly reflected his passion for experimental political thought and debate and for the distribution of new knowledge.

The Petit Code
Barbeu-Dubourg, who dedicated his Petit Code to Franklin, was a staunch supporter of the cause of the America’s, spending his own money freely in their aid. A scientist, doctor, and widely-read scholar, Barbeu-Dubourg was an early proponent of American arts and letters and, in 1773, published a two volume set of Franklin’s works translated into French providing a vast audience in Europe access to Franklin’s works.

Barbeu-Dubourg’s Petit Code, first written in the late 1760s and continued until his death in 1779, outlined 102 principles on the nature of moral and political life. The book was censored in France thanks to its commitment to the rights of man and its support for revolutionary changes in the political order. Franklin was so enamored with the work that he had an earlier draft printed in England in both French and English, though no known copies of the English translation by Mary Hewson survive today. In Passy, Franklin printed The Petit Code in a beautiful, custom typeface for a small number of friends.  Only four known copies survive today, and, until now, only one of those copies had been in a publically accessible collection. The copy now at the Penn Libraries is in exquisite condition and showcases Franklin’s skill and eye for the art of printing.  Penn faculty, students, alumni and visitors can view this new addition to the Library’s Franklin print collection in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.


About the Penn Libraries
The Penn Libraries serve the world-class faculty and students of Penn’s 12 schools. The Libraries’ collections comprise more than 7 million volumes, over 100,000 journals, some 2 million digitized images, and extraordinary rare and unique materials that document the intellectual and cultural experience of ancient and modern civilizations. Through our collaborative relationships, we supplement Penn’s great local collections with physical access to the Center for Research Libraries (approximately 5 million items), the combined holdings of the Ivies (more than 70 million volumes), and exclusive electronic access to some 2 million public domain titles in the HathiTrust. Today, the Libraries play an instrumental role in developing new technologies for information discovery and dissemination and are noted for groundbreaking work in digital library design.  To learn more about the Penn Libraries, visit

About the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
The Kislak Center is a vibrant space that brings together people, technology and unique content.  Located on the top floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, it was redesigned in 2013 to allow several different groups to interact with objects of study simultaneously, increasing the use of primary resources in the University’s curriculum and access to the Libraries’ resources for the larger scholarly community.  Today the Kislak Center encompasses the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Furness Memorial Shakespeare Library, the Edgar Fahs Smith Memorial Collection and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. To learn more about the Kislak Center, visit

2 thoughts on “The University of Pennsylvania Libraries acquires rare book printed by Benjamin Franklin

  1. Pingback: University of Pennsylvania: Penn Libraries Acquire Rare Book Printed by Benjamin Frankline | LJ INFOdocket

  2. Franklin hardly traveled to England after signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He would have likely been executed for treason if he had done so.

    Franklin retired from active printing in the early 1740s, and traveled to London as agent for Pennsylvania and eventually several other colonial governments beginning in 1757.

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