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Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community
A Study in Rhetorical Iconology

Lester C. Olson

Dramatizes changes in Franklin's political commitments by focusing on the visual rhetoric of the images he designed to represent British America

Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community focuses on the rhetoric of the pictorial images Benjamin Franklin created to represent the British colonies that became the United States. Franklin designed at least one such image during each decade from the 1750s to the 1780s. No other American colonist's pictorial representations of the emerging nation were more original or influential in their time than Franklin's.

Although Franklin disseminated his pictorial images among Americans, Lester C. Olson's study is international in scope since Franklin presented the images to audiences in Britain and France as well. Franklin was a representative in the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1754, a colonial agent at London in 1765–66, a representative to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1776, and the U.S. ambassador at Paris in 1783. At each of these times, roughly a decade apart, Franklin's political and social role had changed. In 1754 and again in 1776, he was well situated as a representative in Pennsylvania to participate directly in the formation of governmental policies. But in 1765–66 and again in 1783, he was on the periphery of the forums of political power and social privilege centered in the British Parliament and the French ministry.

Olson contends that attention to the visual images created in each of these roles dramatizes fundamental changes in Franklin's sensibility concerning British America. In 1754 Franklin was an American Whig supporter of the British Empire's constitutional monarchy. During the late 1750s and early 1760s he veered toward increasing the power of the Crown over Pennsylvania by changing the colony's form of government, before ultimately rejecting constitutional monarchy and advocating republican politics during the 1770s and 1780s. The shifts in Franklin's fundamental political commitments are among the most arresting aspects of his life. Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community highlights those changes as it examines his pictorial representations of British America through several decades.

Lester C. Olson is an associate professor of communication at the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses on rhetoric, visual communication, and human rights. His first book, Emblems of American Community in the Revolutionary Era, which concentrated on eighteenth-century visual culture in Britain, France, and the United States, received the National Communication Association's James A. Winans–Herbert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address in 1992. Olson lives in Pittsburgh.

"This book is an interesting and highly informative examination of iconography by an insightful scholar of eighteenth-century culture and a pioneer in the study of visual rhetoric. Through careful and extensive research, and by combining the theoretical and critical perspectives of rhetoric, history, and culture studies, Lester C. Olson has produced a genuinely original and most engaging work; this important book will appeal to scholars and students in disciplines across the humanities."—James R. Andrews, Professor Emeritus of Communication and Culture and American Studies, Indiana University

"Lester C. Olson demonstrates once again how visual 'emblems and devices' were an abiding interest of colonial persuaders. As he examines nuances in design and dissemination, Olson articulates a rich dimension of Benjamin Franklin's artistry and charts key shifts in his political commitments. Along the way, he also reveals how the circulation and appropriation of images constitute democratic public culture."—Robert Hariman, Department for the Study of Culture and Society, Drake University

"Tracing the production, dissemination, and reception of four of Benjamin Franklin's pictorial images depicting the British colonies, Lester C. Olson argues brilliantly that they constitute a significant historical record revealing the 'transformation' of Franklin's politics from Whig to republican. Olson's scholarship is meticulous. The book provides an exemplary methodology for serious examination of the complexities of visual rhetoric and, I believe, will become a classic."—Diane S. Hope, William A. Kern Professor in Communications, Rochester Institute of Technology



book jacket for Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community


6 x 9
344 pages
53 illustrations
ISBN 978-1-57003-525-8
cloth, $49.95s
Studies in Rhetoric/Communication
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