Ben Franklin was one of the greatest Americans in history. Already fairly old (70) when the British colony, America, declared war on England, Franklin was one of the original and most steadfast of the revolutionaries. His eclectic interests - in literature science, politics, social improvements, you name it - coupled with his persuasive powers and common (actually very uncommon) sense, made Franklin the most recognizable name in the world in his time. He was also a chess addict -
My original Ben Franklin article
Morals of Chess
Below is Daniel Wilard Fiske's ( a friend of Paul Morphy and a great man in his own right) tribute to Franklin, published in Chess Monthly for which Fiske was editor.
from Chess Monthly, July 1857
reprinted in the Book of the First American Chess Congress
Daniel Willard Fiske
by Daniel Willard Fiske
The earliest name in the annals of American chess is that of Benjamin Franklin. Previous to his time the history of our game in this country is a Sahara of oblivion, relieved by no oasis of recorded incident or transmitted tradition. Our sturdy forefathers of the old colonial days, engaged as they were in sterner contests with the severities of nature and the passions of savages, would have disdained so mild a warfare as chess. They were too much occupied with the toils of life to find leisure for its amusements. It is yet possible that a diligent search among the family records of the Virginian cavaliers might result in some trivial trace of the game at an earlier period, but with regard to New England, the austerities of Puritan faith and practise preclude any such hope or belief. Nor can we wish it otherwise. It was fitting that so philosophic a game should find its historic starting-point in so philosophic a man as Franklin. In Europe the chess writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, understanding the contemplative character of the sport, endeavored, by the help of uncertain tradition, to trace back its origin to a Grecian philosopher by the name of Xerxes or to an Indian sage by the name of Sissa. What was fable in the Old World has become fact in the New. As far as we know, chess in America began with Benjamin Franklin.
In the year 1734 was played the first game of American chess to which we can affix a date. At that time Franklin, then twenty-eight years of age, and a resident of Philadelphia, commenced the study of the Italian language, in company with a friend, whose name it is now impossible to ascertain. The following extract from his autobiography shows the curious way in which he made his passion for the game subservient to the purposes of study:
" I had begun in 1733 to study languages; I soon made myself so much a master of the French, as to be able to read the books in that language with ease. I then undertook the Italian. An acquaintance who was also learning it, used often to tempt me to play at chess with him. Finding this took up too much of the time I had to spare for study, I at length refused to play any more, unless on this condition, that the victor in every game should have the right to impose a task, either of parts of the grammar to be got by heart, or in translations, which tasks the vanquished was to perform upon honor before our next meeting. As we played pretty equally, we thus beat one another into that language."
We fancy that the educational utility of chess was never so markedly displayed before. Amid the multifarious systems of instruction which are almost weekly proposed by our zealous legislators or ambitious pedagogues, why has not some bold doctor of the schools conceived the idea of putting the plan of Franklin into a larger practise among the youth of our seminaries and academies? With so high a name as that of its originator in its favor it could not but be popular and successful.
After this we find no mention of Franklin's chess until the year 1774, when the great patriot was residing in London as the agent of the Colonies. The game was then made the means of a strange political intrigue, the story of which we have not space to recount in full. There seems to have been a little plot concocted by the ministry to entrap the American agent into a scheme for persuading his revolted countrymen to return to their allegiance; but Franklin was too wary to be taken in. His own account of the first steps of this singular attempt is as follows:
" The new Parliament was to meet the twenty-ninth of November, 1774. About the beginning of that month, being at the Royal Society, Mr. Raper, [1.] one of our members, told me there was a certain lady who had a desire of playing with me at chess, fancying she could beat me, and had requested him to bring me to her. It was, he said, a lady with whose acquaintance he was sure I should be pleased, a sister of Lord Howe's, [2.] and he hoped I would not refuse the challenge. I said I had been out of practise, but would wait upon the lady when he or she should think fit. He told me where her house was, and would have me call soon, and without further introduction, which I undertook to do; but, thinking it a little awkward, I postponed it; and on the thirteenth, meeting him again at the feast of the Society election, being the day after the Parliament met, he put me in mind of my promise, and that I had not kept it, and would have me name a day when he said he would call for me, and conduct me. I named the Friday following. He called accordingly. I went with him, played a few games with the lady, whom I found of very sensible conversation and pleasing behavior, which induced me to agree most readily to an appointment for another meeting a few days afterwards; though I had not the least apprehension that any political business could have any connection with this new acquaintance."
Franklin goes on to say that "on the Thursday preceding this chess party, Mr. David Barclay called on me to have some discourse concerning the meeting of the merchants to petition Parliament." He at length accepts an invitation to meet Mr. Barclay and another gentleman "to confer on American affairs." The day for this was the fourth of December.
"The time thus appointed was the evening of the day on which I was to have my second chess party with the agreeable Mrs. Howe, whom I met accordingly. After playing as long as we liked, we fell into a little chat, partly on a mathematical problem, [3.] and partly about the new Parliament, then just met, when she said: 'And what is to be done with this dispute between Great Britain and the Colonies? I hope we are not to have a civil war.' 'They should kiss and be friends,'said I; ' what can they do better? Quarrelling can be of service to neither, but is ruin to both.' 'I have often said,' replied she, 'that I wished government would employ you to settle the dispute for them; I am sure nobody could do it so well. Do not you think that the thing is practicable ?' 'Undoubtedly, madam, if the parties are disposed to reconciliation: for the two countries have really no clashing interests to differ about. It is rather a matter of punctilio, which two or three reasonable people might settle in half an hour. I thank you for the good opinion you are pleased to express of me; but the ministers will never think of employing me in that good work; they choose rather to abuse me.' 'Ay,' said she, 'they have behaved shamefully to you, and indeed some of them are now ashamed of it themselves.' I looked upon this as accidental conversation, thought no more of it, and went in the evening to the appointed meeting at Dr. Fothergill's, where I found Mr. Barclay with him."
The negotiations with these two last-named gentlemen have nothing to do with our story. We therefore turn over until we once more meet the name of Mrs. Howe.
"On Christmas evening, visiting Mrs. Howe, she told me, as soon as I went in, that her-brother, Lord Howe, wished to be acquainted with me; that he was a very good man, and she was sure we should like each other. I said, I had always heard a good character of Lord Howe, and should be proud of the honor of being known to him. 'He is but just by,' said she; 'will you give me leave to send for him?' 'By all means, madam, if you think proper.' She rang for a servant, wrote a note, and Lord Howe came in a few minutes. After some extremely polite compliments, as to the general motives for his desiring an acquaintance with me, he said he had a particular one at this time, which was the alarming situation of our affairs with America, which no one, he was persuaded, understood better than myself; that it was the opinion of some friends of his that no man could do more towards reconciling our differences than I could, if I would undertake it; that he was sensible that I had been very ill treated by the ministry, but he hoped that would not be considered by me in the present case; that he himself, though not in opposition, had much disapproved of their conduct towards me.
The conversation continued in this tone a long while. Franklin finally agreed to draw up propositions expressing his views of what might be made the basis of the satisfactory settlement of the pending difficulties. He used to correspond with Lord Howe through the medium of Mrs. Howe and sometimes met him at her house, under the pretense of going there to play chess. We give a specimen of the notes which used to pass between the American agent and his fair adversary. Franklin, it appears, had made her a New Year's gift of his " Philosophical Writings," and on the third of January, 1775, received the following note:
"Mrs. Howe's compliments to Dr. Franklin; she encloses him a letter she received last night, and returns him many thanks for his very obliging present, which has already given her great entertainment. If the Doctor has any spare time for chess, she will be exceeding glad to see him any morning this week, and as often as will be agreeable to him, and rejoices in having so good an excuse for asking the favor of his company.
The obstinacy of the King and his ministers on the one hand, and the honest patriotism of Franklin on the other, prevented, as all the world knows, any pacific arrangement of the difficulties between the mother country and her Colonies. In a final interview Howe expressed his regret that they had been so unsuccessful in their endeavors to reconcile the interests of the two countries; the cautious American diplomatist replied in the same tone; "And so," says Franklin, "taking my leave, and receiving his good wishes, end the negotiations with Lord Howe."
With the exception of this remarkable scacco-political episode, we find no mention of the chess of Franklin during the time he spent in England. He was probably too busy with his colonial agency and otherwise to enjoy, more than occasionally, his favorite amusement. But during the diplomatic leisure of his Parisian life he seems to have pursued this pastime with considerable zest. We learn that he more than once visited the Cafe de la Regence, and in all probability had the pleasure of seeing there the great sovereign of the chessmen, the renowned Philidor. Here, too, in 1780, he met Mr. Jones, afterwards Sir William Jones, whose extraordinary fondness for the game is well known, and whose Caissa is the most successful effort of the English chess muse. In a letter, dated in October of this same year and addressed to Miss Georgiana Shipley, daughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph, and subsequently sister-in-law to Sir William Jones, Franklin says:
"Mr. Jones tells me, he shall have a pleasure in being the bearer of my letter, of which I make no doubt. I learn from him, that to your drawing and music, and painting, and poetry, and Latin, you have added a proficiency in chess; so that you are, as the French say, remplie de talens."
It thus appears that these famous friends of chess, in their brief intercourse with each other, did not neglect to compare notes on the game and perhaps engaged in actual combat over the board. It is a pleasant thing to think of, this chess converse between those two men, each so remarkable in his peculiar way — one of them the author of the most agreeable essay on the morals of the sport, and the other the first bard in all our English tongue who sang in numbers worthy of the theme:
Of armies on the chequer'd field arrayed,
And guiltless war in pleasing form displayed.
In Paris Franklin used to play frequently with a certain Madame de Brillon, who resided at no great distance from his dwelling at Passy, and in whose family, as he himself tells us, he spent many delightful hours. Tradition says that the lady was wont to get the better of the philosopher in these mental encounters. A pleasant allusion to their play occurs in his works in the amusing piece entitled: "Dialogue between Franklin and the Gout," written the twenty-second of October, 1780.
"But what is your practise after dinner? Walking in the beautiful gardens of those friends, with whom you have dined, would be the choice of a man of sense; yours is to be fixed down to chess, where you are found engaged for two or three hours. This is your perpetual recreation, which is the least eligible of any for a sedentary man, because, in accelerating the motion of the fluids, the rigid attention it requires helps to retard the circulation and obstruct internal secretions. Wrapped in the speculations of this wretched game, you destroy your constitution. ... If it was in some nook or alley in Paris, deprived of walks, that you played a while at chess after dinner, this might be excusable; but the same taste prevails with you in Passy, Auteuil, Montmartre, or Sanoy, places where there are the finest gardens and walks, a pure air, beautiful women, and most agreeable and instructive conversation; all which you might enjoy by frequenting the walks. But these are rejected for this abominable game of chess. . . . You know Mr. Brillon's gardens, and what fine walks they contain. . . . During the summer you went there at six o'clock. You found the charming lady, with her lovely children and friends, eager to walk with you, and entertain you with their agreeable conversation; and what has been your choice? Why, to sit on the terrace, satisfying yourself with the fine prospect, and passing your eyes over the beauties of the garden below, without taking one step to descend and walk about in them. On the contrary you call for tea and the chessboard; and lo! you are occupied in your seat till nine o'clock, and that besides two hours' play after dinner."
In the year 1783 Wolfgang von Kempelen, the ingenious inventor of the far-famed Automaton Chess Player, arrived in Paris. He brought letters from Vienna to Dr. Franklin. M. Valltravers wrote to him as follows:
"The occasion of this letter is furnished me by a very ingenious gentleman, M. Kempel, Counselor of his Imperial Majesty's Finances for the Kingdom of Hungary, who, on a furlough obtained for two years, is ready to set out for Paris, Brussels, and England, attended by his whole family, his lady, two sons, and two daughters; not only to satisfy his own curiosity, but also in a great measure that of the public. Endowed with a peculiar taste and genius for mechanical inventions and improvements, for which he sees no manner of encouragement in these parts, he means to impart several of his most important discoveries and experiments wherever they shall be best received and rewarded. As an amusing specimen of his skill in mechanics, and as a means at the same time of supporting his traveling charges, he intends to exhibit the figure of a Turk playing at chess with any player; and answering, by pointing at the letters of an alphabet, any questions made to him. I saw him play twice without discovering his intelligent director anywhere in or about him. If there were nothing but the organization of his arm, hand, and fingers, besides the motions of his head, that alone would entitle him to no small admiration.
"Besides his Chess Player, M. Kempel has amused himself with forming the figure of a child, uttering the first articulate sounds of elocution. Of these I have heard it pronounce distinctly upwards of thirty words and phrases. There remain but five or six letters of the alphabet, the expression of which he intends to complete at Paris.
Vienna, December 24th, 1782."
The American sage too, it seems, had his bout with that memorable Mussulman who penetrated, a conqueror, into regions whither neither Abderahman nor Mahomet the Second had ever dreamed of carrying the crescent flag. No record or tradition has handed down to us the result of the encounter. But, alas for Christian courage and American prowess, we very much fear that the pagan Moslem triumphed, and thus added the subjugator of lightning to his long list of conquests. In connection with this matter the following remark by Franklin's grandson may be of interest:
"Chess was a favorite amusement with Dr. Franklin, and one of his best papers is written on that subject. He was pleased with the performance of the Automaton. In a short letter after his arrival in Paris, M. Kempel said to him: ' If I have not, immediately on my return from Versailles, renewed my request, that you will be present at a representation of my Automaton Chess Player, it was only to gain a few days in which I might make some progress in another very interesting machine, upon which I have been employed, and which I wish you to see at the same time.' This machine was probably the speaking figure mentioned by Mr. Valltravers. The inventor's name occurs with a various orthography, as Kempelen, Kemple, Kempl, but his autograph is Kempel."
All chess readers have stowed away in their memories the name of Hans, Count von Briihl, for many years the Representative of Saxony at the Court of London, a frequent adversary of Philidor, and one of the most ardent admirers of our game among the last century's disciples of Caissa. Franklin gave the owner of the Automaton an introductory epistle to the Count. Franklin's letter has been lost, but Briihl's pleasant reply is still preserved:
"Sir: — I was very much flattered with the letter I had the pleasure to receive from your Excellency by means of the ingenious M. de Kempel's arrival in this country. The favorable opinion you entertain of his talents is alone sufficient to convince me of their extent and usefulness. I cannot find words to express the gratitude I feel for the honor of your remembrance. I shall there fore only beg leave to assure you that it will be the pride of my life to have been noticed by one of the most distinguished characters of the age, and I shall endeavor, upon all occasions, to contribute my mite of admiration to the universal applause which your eminent qualities, as a philosopher and politician, are so well entitled to. I have the honor to be, with great respect,
The Count De Bruhl"
Twiss, in the first volume of his pleasant collection of "Chess Anecdotes" (p. 190), states that "Dr. Franklin, and the late Sir John Pringle, used frequently to play at chess together; and towards the end of the game the physician [Pringle] discovered that the velocity of his own, as well as his adversary's pulse, was considerably increased." In the Palamede it is said that Franklin, while in Paris, used to encounter a lady, Madame de Brion (Brillon?), who was able to give him odds. But no authority is given for this assertion.
Such are all the details which time has spared us of the chess life of Benjamin Franklin. Few and scattered as they are, they are still sufficient to do honor alike to the man and the game. That a person who embodied and represented better than any other the vaunted common sense of Americans, and the extreme utilitarianism of these later generations, should have loved, honored, and practised chess affords one of the strongest external arguments in favor of its general use. These unconnected incidents, moreover, seem to us indicative of many more still unrecorded. Franklin lived in an age of great chess activity and passed many years of his existence in the very center of that activity. The splendid career of Philidor in England and France, the large number of fine players created by his book, his example, and his practise in the capitals of both those countries, the analytical labors of the Modenese school in Italy, the influence of Stein in Holland, and the appearance of the Automaton Chess Player, all contributed to draw the attention of the public to our intellectual sport, and form, in fact, the beginning and first development of that popularization of the game which has been going on in Europe, with increasing effect and extent, ever since. We know that Franklin was personally acquainted with Bruhl, Maseres, Kempel, and Sir William Jones, and that he frequented the Cafe de la Regence. The method of his introduction to Mrs. Howe shows that his love of chess was a well-known fact in London. From all these circumstances we are warranted in supposing that behind the scanty written incidents of his chess life there must lie a mass of interesting matter still unknown, and perhaps lost to us forever. We have not even any reliable information of his degree of skill as a player. Many are fond of citing him with Leibnitz, Rousseau, and Euler, as persons gifted with splendid talents and acute intellects, who tried in vain to become adepts at the game. This manner of speech arises in a great measure from the pleasure which men take in uttering or listening to paradoxes. It is certain that only the dimmest and most untrustworthy tradition supports their opinion. Arguing from his mental characteristics — always, as we are aware, a very doubtful method of procedure in chess — and from the amount of his play, we should be inclined to place Franklin, not in the first rank indeed, but among the best of the second class. His cautious, circumspect, calculating mind should have made him a good defensive player.
But it is in his agreeable essay on the "Morals of Chess" that Franklin has left the most enduring monument of his love for the game. Its graceful style, its admirable exposition of the practical utility of chess, and its well-conceived maxims of advice are apparent to everyone who reads it. "The game of chess," he asserts, "is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess." He then proceeds to show that by playing at chess we may learn "foresight, circumspection, caution, and the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable chance, and that of persevering in the search of resources." But the chief part of the essay is devoted to some judicious and carefully weighed rules for the guidance of the player. He especially enjoins courtesy towards an opponent, and urges us to use no triumphing or insulting expressions when we have gained a victory, and says that by "general civility (so opposite to the unfairness before forbidden) you may happen indeed to lose the game; but you will win what is better, his esteem, his respect, and his affection, together with the silent approbation and the good will of the spectators." In truth, all who love the ancient pastime of which we treat will be forever grateful to Benjamin Franklin for sanctioning its practise, not only by his influential example, but with his vigorous and powerful pen.
[1.] Matthew Raper was born in 1705 and died in 1778. He translated Grellman's work on the Gipsies and was the author of several papers in the Philosophical Transactions. From boyhood he was the intimate friend of John Howe, husband to the lady mentioned in the text.
[2.] This accomplished lady lived until 1814. Franklin says of her that he "had never conceived a higher opinion of the discretion and excellent understanding of any woman on so short an acquaintance." Her house was the resort of the first personages and most distinguished men in the kingdom, and she was on terms of intimacy with all the royal family. Lord Mahon exclaims, in reference to the dispute between America and England: "But how changed both the scene and the temper of negotiation since Lord Howe and Doctor Franklin first met in London, leaning in friendly converse over Mrs. Howe's chessboard."
[3.] This problem may have been the Knight's Tour, or perhaps one of Stamma's positions.