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Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London
“I … sigh in the midst of cheerful company”
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
The mission that sent Franklin to London in 1757 was an almost definitively colonial matter—a minor matter as far as the rest of the colonies were concerned, but one redolent of the kind of antagonisms that would be crippling British-American relations over the next several years, antagonisms with which Franklin would become all too familiar. He had been appointed as an agent (in effect, a lobbyist) by the Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania to represent its interests against the brothers Penn, sons of William, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, and in their own view the “True and Absolute Proprietors” of the original royal charter of 1681, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. Among those rights and privileges, the brothers Penn maintained, was that their own extensive landholdings should not be taxed at the same level as those of the common folk. The assembly disagreed, and Franklin’s mission in London was to persuade British officialdom that the assembly was right.
His departure in 1757 was announced with some alarm by the Penns’ provincial secretary in Philadelphia in a letter to Proprietor Thomas Penn in London: “Certain it is that Benjamin Franklin’s view is to effect a change of Government, and considering the popularity of his character and the reputation gained by his Electrical Discoveries which will introduce him into all sorts of Company he may prove a Dangerous Enemy. Dr. Fothergill and Mr. Collinson can introduce him to the Men of most influence at Court and he may underhand give impressions to your prejudice. In short Heaven and Earth will be moved against the Proprietors.” Thomas Penn disagreed: “I think I wrote you before that Mr. Franklin’s popularity is nothing here, and that he will be looked very coldly upon by great People, there are very few of any consequence that have heard of his Electrical Experiments, those matters being attended to by a particular Sett of People, many of whom of the greatest consequence I know well, but it is quite another sort of People, who are to determine the Dispute between us.”
Despite this confident tone, Thomas Penn had long considered Franklin “a dangerous Man” for the independence he had shown in urging a volunteer militia to defend Pennsylvania against French privateers on the Delaware River in i747. and this opinion had solidified during the years of Franklin’s growing political and military reputation. Franklin was aware of the proprietors’ animosity toward him but wrote to Peter Collinson that he was not much concerned, “because if I have offended them by acting right , I can, whenever I please, remove their Displeasure, by acting wrong . Tho’ at present I have not the least Inclination to be in their good Graces on those Terms.” In this spirit he set forth for London.
With him went his young son, William, the illegitimate product of what was presumably one of Franklin’s “intrigues with low women,” a phrase used by him in his autobiography in discussing “that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth.” William’s mother has never been identified. All that is known is that after Franklin married Deborah Read, daughter of a Philadelphia family, the baby William was taken into the household. Franklin and Deborah later had a son of their own who, to their anguish, died at the age of four from smallpox, and a daughter, Sarah, born in 1743. It is not altogether surprising that Deborah was never partial to William, but it is a measure of her devotion to Franklin that she raised him at all. That devotion would have to endure, for when Franklin and William sailed in 1757, Deborah stayed in Philadelphia with young Sally, and for the next nearly eighteen years, with the exception of Franklin’s two-year visit at home, their letters—which took more than a month to cross the ocean—were their only contact with each other.