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Franklin B. Sanborn papers

Identifier: GTM-GAMMS229

Collection-level Scope and Content Note

This is a collection of some 250 letters written to Franklin B. Sanborn from friends and relatives during his years as a student first at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and then at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts (circa 1852-55). Primarily containing domestic and social news about other family members and mutual friends, the letters include references to contemporary election politics of the 1850s with mention of numerous statesmen including John Bell, James Buchanan, Anson Burlingame, Stephen Arnold Douglas, John D. Freeman, John Charles Fremont, Joshua Reed Giddings, John Parker Hale, Samuel Houston, Franklin Pierce, Samuel Clarke Pomeroy, Julius Rockwell, Winfield Scott, William Henry Seward, Charles Sumner, and Henry Wilson. Related to the politics of the day was the slavery issue with letters referring to affairs of the Kansas Free State and to the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854, as well as to prominent abolitionists and reformers such as William H. Furness, William Lloyd Garrison, Amos A. Lawrence, Rev. Theodore Parker, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, and Lucy Stone.

Letters from Stephen Barker discuss at length popular beliefs in spiritualism and mesmerism. Many of Sanborn's friends and cousins mention reading the works of or attending local appearances and lectures by luminaries of Concord, New Hampshire, including Transcendentalist writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthone, and Henry David Thoreau. Finally, the correspondence affords insight into the lives of young, educated men and women of nineteenth-century New England.

The letters of Benjamin Smith Lyman, in particular, delineate the difficulties of finding employment after completing his education at Harvard, much less settling on a career. Through 25 letters we follow Lyman's peregrinations first as an itinerant farmhand and odd-jobs-man, and then as an assistant to his uncle, a geological surveyor. Correspondence from Frank Harding, son of portrait painter Chester Harding (1792-1866), describes his experiences working on railroads and his travels as part of the engineering corps across nineteenth-century Missouri and Illinois. Letters from Exeter and Harvard classmates George C. Sawyer, George A. Wentworth, and S.W. Young express similar concerns about finances and the need to find paying situations.

Teaching appeared to be a popular occupation, either in schools or as private tutors. This was certainly true of Catharine A. Cram who often refers to the school she kept with her husband Mr. Folsom. The letters of Catharine Cram, as well as those of her sister Sarah, provide interesting details about the lives of literate women of the time through references to their reading material, literary societies and clubs of which they were members, and the lectures they attended by Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, and the like. The letters are also testimony to the often precarious health of these young nineteenth-century women who suffered various debilities from common eye strain to the terminal illness of Sarah Cram, the progress of which is charted virtually letter by letter from 1855 to 1856 by her sister Catharine. The Cram family were distant relatives of Sanborn's, and it was through Catharine Cram that he met his wife Ariana Walker.


  • 1850-1902
  • Majority of material found within 1850-1856

Collection-level Access Restrictions

Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.

Conditions Governing Use

Researchers are solely responsible for determining the copyright status of the materials being used, establishing who the copyright owner is, locating the copyright owner, and obtaining permission for intended use.

Biographical note

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was born at Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, on December 15, 1831. His parents were Aaron Sanborn and Lydia Leavitt. Sanborn was the second eldest child with siblings Dr. Charles Henry Sanborn (born 1821), Lewis Thomas Sanborn (born 1834), Sarah Elizabeth Sanborn (born 1823), and Helen Maria Sanborn (born 1830). A younger brother, Joseph Leavitt Sanborn died in infancy in 1872.

Sanborn was educated at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and at Harvard College (1852-55). While at Exeter, he also studied Greek privately with J.G. Hoyt, who is mentioned frequently in letters by Sanborn's friends from Exeter days. As a student Sanborn became deeply influenced by Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and the abolitionist and reformer Rev. Theodore Parker.

In July 1853, a ten-minute visit to Emerson initiated a lifelong friendship. In March 1855, Emerson invited Sanborn and his sister Sarah to take charge of a small private school begun by John and Henry Thoreau, which was attended by Emerson's own children among others. Subsequently, on Emerson's recommendation, Sanborn moved into the home of the poet William Ellery Channing then living near the school in Corcord, Massachusetts. The latter was closely acquainted with other local authors who, along with Emerson, included Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, with whom Channing was in the habit of rambling through the countryside made famous in their writings. Thus began, for Sanborn, a lifetime's association with Concord's famous inhabitants. Other notable individuals he would come to know there included Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Charles Lane, and Rev. Theodore Parker.

One of the more controversial figures that Sanborn met through Channing was the abolitionist John Brown. Through both associations Sanborn soon became deeply involved with the movement. He was a member of the Free-Soil Party in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and in 1856, became secretary and active member of the Massachusetts State Kansas Committee, raising funds for the Free State cause. At one point in the summer of 1856, he drove across the states of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa, as well as the Territory of Nebraska on a fundraising tour for the Committee.

Sanborn first met Brown in late 1856, when the latter was given a letter of introduction by George Walker, brother of Sanborn's wife, Ariana. Sanborn became a zealous disciple and was a member of Brown's "Secret Six" who were the only men to know in advance of the Harper's Ferry raid. After the raid, Sanborn fled to Canada, but returned at Emerson's request under an assumed name. On April 3, 1860, deputies of the U.S. Senate attempted to kidnap Sanborn, but a crowd of Concord citizens, including Emerson prevented the arrest. Charges against Sanborn for refusing to testify against Brown were eventually dropped based on a writ of habeas corpus.

In the 1860s, when the Civil War compelled him to close down the school in Concord, Sanborn turned increasingly to writing and newspaper work. He was Boston correspondent for the Springfield "Republican," in 1856, later becoming resident editor (1868-1906). Sanborn was also editor for the Boston "Commonwealth" (1863-67), and of the "Journal of Social Science" (1876-97).

After Harper's Ferry, a continuing interest in social reform led to Sanborn's aiding in the establishment of the American Association for the Promotion of Social Science and his forming the first college course in social science at Cornell University where he was special lecturer from 1884 to 1887. Prior to that, on the recommendation of George Walker, he gained an appointment on the newly created Board of State Charities, in 1863. With Amos Bronson Alcott and William Torrey Harris, Sanborn also co-founded the Concord School of Philosophy (1878-88), a summer school that featured lectures by Alcott, Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Sanborn, himself.

In later years, Sanborn cultivated his Concord connections, producing numerous biographical works on A. Bronson Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, as well as editing works by William Ellery Channing and Rev. Theodore Parker. In 1860, Sanborn was named one of Parker's executors although the will left the disposition of papers in the hands of Parker's wife, Lydia Dodge Cabot, until her death when she ultimately bequeathed them to Sanborn. In 1891, Sanborn persuaded William Ellery Channing to move into his house, the latter proving an invaluable source for his biographical work on Emerson and Thoreau.

In 1853 Sanborn was engaged to Ariana Smith Walker whom he married shortly before her death from a long illness in the summer of 1854. Sanborn died on February 24, 1917, five weeks after being struck by a baggage wagon on a train platform in Plainfield, New Jersey.

Sanborn's principal works include: "Henry David Thoreau" (1882); "Life and Letters of John Brown" (1885 with later editions); "A. Bronson Alcott: His Life and Philosophy," 2 vols. (1893); "Ralph Waldo Emerson" (1901); and an autobiography, "Recollections of Seventy Years," 2 vols. (1909). Sources: "Dictionary of Literary Biography," Vol. 1 (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1978); and "Recollections of Seventy Years," 2 vols., by Franklin B. Sanborn (Boston: Gorham Press, 1909).


1.3 Linear Feet (3 Hollinger Document Cases)

Language of Materials


Franklin B. Sanborn papers
Lisette C. Matano, Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.
circa 1990-1995
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository

Lauinger Library, 5th Floor
37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington DC 20057