Penn acquires rare book printed by Ben Franklin

Penn Libraries is now home to a very rare copy of what’s believed to be the final book printed by University founder Benjamin Franklin.

The Libraries’ recent acquisition is one of only four known surviving copies of “Petit Code de la raison humaine (A Short Code of Human Reason),” written by Franklin’s close friend, Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg.

In 1782, when Franklin was serving as the U.S. ambassador to France, he printed the book at his press that he established in the Paris suburb of Passy.

Barbeu-Dubourg began writing “Petit Code” in the 1760s until his death in 1779, outlining 102 principles on the nature of moral and political life. His work was censored in France, but Franklin printed the book to honor his friend.

“It’s kind of a proverbial Franklin book,” says Mitch Fraas, a curator in Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. “It’s like a ‘lessons to live a good life’ kind of thing. This one is more of a ‘how to run a good government, how to run a good country.’”

The book was printed in a beautiful, custom typeface for a small number of friends. The copy at the Libraries’ Kislak Center is in excellent condition, showcasing Franklin’s skill and eye for the art of printing.

At the time, Franklin had been retired from printing for about 15 years, but he took up the laborious task of printing again while in France, printing U.S. passports and a couple of books.

“It’s unknown, but was he doing all of the setting of type and pulling of the lever himself?” asks Fraas. “It would be interesting to know how much he would have supervised this and what he would have done. He certainly had strong feelings of typography and layout.”

Of the estimated 900 surviving works printed by Franklin, Penn Libraries holds more than one-third of the items.

Petit Code Franklin