It is with scientific matters that the Franklin-Colden correspondence is concerned. It contains some remarkably resonant reflections on the research process:
You’l perceive by what you receive on these Sheets that I have open’d to my self a large Prospect either into Nature or into Fairyland and I have in my Imaginations made some steps into the Country but as the whole of this way of thinking is entirely new I am desirous to lay it step by step before my Friends for their remarks that thereby I may be either incouraged to go on in an amusement of this kind or be prevented in throwing away time uselessly which may be better imploy’d (in my time of life especially). (Colden to Franklin, Sept. 17, 1744)
You may assure your self that I think and I hope Mr. Logan will believe me in good earnest when I say that there cannot be a stronger and surer mark of Friendship than showing to me the mistakes I may have fallen into as it may prevent my exposing my weakness and Ignerance to others. Men often impose sophisms upon themselves which they can not detect without the assistance of others. (Colden to Franklin, December 1744)Despite the role that politics played in his life, Colden's scientific activities were crucial for his self-identity--every spare moment was devoted to study of one form or another, to the exclusion of more traditional social entertainments. Unfortunately, most of his projects were false starts, especially his massive magnum opus, An Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter and of the Cause of Gravitation (an unsuccessful and widely ridiculed attempt to extend the principles of Newtonian physics). This makes reading his letters to Franklin especially poignant; he was insecure, constantly worried about what people would think of his ideas, sent his work to Academic Superstars in Europe, was always writing to ask his acquaintances if they'd heard anything--and he was always defensive if he felt himself to be criticized.
I am so strongly possessed with the Principles of Action in Matter which you have seen that I amuse my self at leisure hours in applying them to the explication of the most general phoenomena of nature and can not easily direct my thoughts to other speculatives. These favourite prepossessions probably may be of advantage to our gaining of knowledge more perhaps than if you and I were both solely attached to one kind of pursuit because one may receive hints from the other which do not naturally arise in the pursuit which only one singly follows ... I cannot expect that my sentiments so contrary to the commonly received notions should suddenly prevail. A French Gent. writes "il a bien donné la torture a nos Metaphysiciens" but I am confident they will at last. (Colden to Franklin, March 16, 1752)
I shall be in a longing expectation of seeing Mr. Bowdoin’s observations on my book. Mr. Collinson sent me some remarks made on it by Professor Euler of Berlin. He writes much like a Pedant highly conceited of himself ... The most unexpected remarks on my book I receiv’d lately with a letter from Saml. Pike a person entirely unknown to me with a book he has lately published entituled Philosophia Sacra wherein he attempts to deduce the Principles of Physiology from the Hebrew Bible ... his book has not increased my vanity much. (Colden to Franklin, Nov. 29, 1753)The image of Colden that emerges from studying his writings is a sad one: an undeniably intelligent man, he was too closed-minded to revise his ideas, too self-confident to tolerate criticism, and too deluded to recognize his irrelevance. Perhaps, as scholars, it is difficult not to see something of ourselves in him--and not to feel a twinge of concern that our own work is just another Explication.