Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London


As the controversy quickened, Franklin was recognized more and more as the chief spokesman in England for the American cause. Georgia named him their agent in 1768, followed by New Jersey in 1769 and Massachusetts in 1770. When pressures became too much for him in London, Franklin found needed relaxation and amusement with a host of English friends. Writing to William, he said of his social life that “nothing can be more agreeable … ; a general respect paid me by the learned, a number of friends and acquaintances among them, with whom I have a pleasing intercourse … my company so much desired, that I seldom dine at home in winter, and could spend the whole summer in the country-houses of inviting friends, if I chose it.” Franklin was the kind of guest who brought zest and life to any group, and it was small wonder he was so popular. He loved practical jokes and lost no chance to indulge in them, and while visiting Lord Le Despencer he had the satisfaction of seeing one of his published satires swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Entitled “An Edict by the King of Prussia,” it was printed in the Public Advertiser . Franklin contentedly reported that ”… when the post brought that day’s papers … Mr Whitehead … came running in to us, out of breath, with the paper in his hand. Here! says he, here’s news for ye! Here’s the King of Prussia, claiming a right to this kingdom! All stared, and I as much as anybody; and he went on to read it. When he had read two or three paragraphs, a gentleman present said, Damn his impudence, I dare say, we shall hear by the next post that he is upon his march with one hundred thousand men to back this . Whitehead, who is very shrewd, soon after began to smoke it, and looking in my face said, I’ll be hanged if this is not some of your American jokes upon us . The reading went on, and ended with an abundance of laughing, and a general verdict that it was a fair hit: and the piece was cut out of the paper and preserved in my Lord’s collection.”

”… the whole Town is one great smoaky House, and every Street a Chimney, the Air full of floating Sea Coal Soot, and you never get a sweet Breath of what is pure, without riding some Miles for it. …”

Franklin escaped London to preserve both mind and body. He had long ago complained to Debbie that “the whole Town is one great smoaky House, and every Street a Chimney, the Air full of floating Sea Coal Soot, and you never get a sweet Breath of what is pure, without riding some Miles for it into the Country.” At Bishop Shipley’s Twyford home on the River Itchen, Franklin could breathe “sweet air,” and in that quiet and congenial setting he was able to relax and begin his autobiography. Shipley regularly opposed the ministry on American issues, in 1774 making a speech wholeheartedly in favor of the American cause. Franklin sent it to America and later informed Shipley that the members of the First Continental Congress had drunk to his health in “three successive bumpers.”

But escape to the company of close friends could not protect Franklin from the tide of events that swept him ever more quickly to the final and irrevocable climax. He himself undoubtedly brought it on faster by his role in the affair of the so-called Hutchinson letters, which achieved instant and widespread notoriety in America.

The royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, in his private correspondence with Thomas Whately of the British cabinet, had revealed a tendency to incense the mother country against her colonies and recommended steps to widen the breach. Somehow Franklin managed to obtain some of these letters and others written by Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, letters they had explicitly said were not to reach the eyes of colony agents, and he forwarded copies to Boston with the stipulation that they were not to be printed or copied.

The Boston rebels disregarded his instructions and promptly published the letters, with explosive effect. The Massachusetts Assembly petitioned for the removal of Hutchinson and Oliver. They in turn got Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn in London to defend them, and Franklin was called before a meeting of the privy council, ostensibly to speak on behalf of the Massachusetts petition. What actually took place was a brutal attack on Franklin’s character in a room jammed to capacity by lords of the council, courtiers, politicians, and spectators. Called the Cockpit, this room had in fact once been a pit for fighting cocks during the reign of Henry VIII, but on this day, the twenty-ninth of January, 1774, there was no fight. According to Jeremy Bentham, Franklin stood entirely silent, “the whole time like a rock, in the same posture, his head resting on his left hand, and in that attitude abiding the pelting of the pitiless storm.” For one degrading hour he endured the laughter and derision of men he had lived and worked among for more than fifteen years. The hopes he had had of a reconciliation between America and the mother country and the love he had felt for England and Englishmen, drained out of him then and there, never to be revived.