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
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