The Benjamin Franklin Chair’s Big Day Out

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger recently announced that he will be stepping down as Columbia University’s President on June 30, 2023. While most of us took the time after his announcement to look back on the past two decades of Bollinger’s administration, there is one “member” of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library who is really looking forward to the inauguration of the next University President. Only during presidential inaugurations does the Benjamin Franklin chair get to have its day in the sun.

The Benjamin Franklin chair outside of the Trustees Room in Low Library, 1920s. Photo by J. Boldtman. Scan 5263. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

By the entrance of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s reading room, you will see two black chairs: one is the DeWitt Clinton chair and the other is the Benjamin Franklin chair. The chair is a “lolling” or easy chair that was part of the furnishings of Franklin’s library. Most likely, the chair came into Franklin’s possession in the 1780s. The library armchair has a silver plaque attached that offers a bit of its history: the chair was bequeathed by Catherine Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s granddaughter(-in-law), to David Hosack, a former Columbia student and faculty member, who then presented the chair to the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York in January 1822. This Society was founded in 1816 by DeWitt Clinton, Columbia College Class of 1786, and Samuel Latham Mitchill, Columbia faculty member 1792-1801.  Unfortunately, the Society was short-lived and disbanded in the 1830s. And so, the chair came to Columbia.

Benjamin Franklin himself was well acquainted with the early days of Columbia. In the 1750s, when Samuel Johnson was looking to start a “new-model” college in the province of New York, he corresponded with Franklin. Franklin at one point even invited Johnson to head up a proposed College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Johnson declined the offer and, a few years later, he became the first president of King’s College (now Columbia University). In addition to their common interests in education, Johnson and Franklin share another connection: Franklin was Johnnson’s printer. The RBML has a copy of the 1752 Franklin-printed edition of Johnson’s Elementa philosophica and, among other items, there is a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Johnson stating that Franklin, the printer, was sending Johnson 12 copies of the Noetica

Lee Bollinger delivers his inaugural address, Franklin chair to his left, 2002. Photo by Eileen Barroso. Scan 5260. Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives.

While at Columbia, the Benjamin Franklin chair has enjoyed an honored role. At the 49th Street campus (1857-1897), the mahogany-framed chair was on the platform in the College Chapel where daily services were held. At the Morningside Heights campus, the Franklin chair used to sit at the head of the table in the Trustees Room in Low Library. In fact, all of the chairs in that room are modeled on the Franklin chair, but only the original was known as the President’s Chair. Over the years, the chair made appearances on ceremonial occasions, welcoming distinguished guests and participating in special convocations. But in its advanced age, its one remaining role is to preside over presidential inaugurations. It was there for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s in 1948 and it was there for Bollinger’s in 2002. The Franklin chair, dressed in black, and its Trustees Room copies, now in Columbia blue leather, will yet again share the “stage” in front of Alma Mater in 2023. But before the big day, you can stop by the RBML and see the Benjamin Franklin chair up close.

Dwight D. Eisenhower is sworn in as Columbia University President, Franklin chair in front of Alma Matter, 1948. Photo by Manny Warman. Scan 5262. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.