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Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London
“I … sigh in the midst of cheerful company”
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
“I found that every time I walk’d out, I got fresh Cold; and the Hackney Coaches at this End of the Town, where most People keep their own, are the worst in the whole City, miserable dirty broken shabby Things. …”
Fortunately for Franklin, he was the kind of man who could quickly and happily adjust to new surroundings. He and William and their two black servants had been in London only a few days before they were established in modest but comfortable rooms in the house of Mrs. Margaret Stevenson at 7 Craven Street, Strand. “We have four Rooms furnished and every thing about us pretty genteel, but Living here is in every respect very expensive,” he wrote Debbie. Mrs. Stevenson, a widow, and her young daughter Polly soon became Franklin’s second family, and he remained contentedly in Craven Street throughout his years in England. The house was conveniently located for Franklin’s duties, within walking distance of the government buildings in Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament. Franklin’s constitution, however rugged, proved to be no match for London’s climate, and rather than walk he was soon writing to Debbie that he had taken her advice about getting a coach of his own: “I found that every time I walk’d out, I got fresh Cold; and the Hackney Coaches at this End of the Town, where most People keep their own, are the worst in the whole City, miserable dirty broken shabby Things, unfit to go into when dress’d clean, and such as one would be asham’d to get out of at any Gentleman’s Door.”
Even before Franklin had settled in his new lodgings, he and William had been welcomed by his “Old Friend and Correspondent,” Peter Collinson. Through him Franklin met Lord Granville, the president of the privy council, with whom he would be doing business. Franklin was so alarmed by his conversation with Granville that he wrote it down as soon as he returned to his lodgings. “You Americans,” Granville had declared to him, “have wrong Ideas of the Nature of your Constitution; you contend that the King’s Instructions to his Governors are not Laws, and think yourselves at Liberty to regard or disregard them at your own Discretion. But those Instructions are not like the Pocket Instructions given’ to a Minister going abroad, for regulating his Conduct in some trifling Point of Ceremony. They are first drawn up by Judges learned in the Laws; they are then considered, debated and perhaps ammended in Council, after which they are signed by the King. They are then so far as relates to you, the Law of the Land ; for THE KING IS THE LEGISLATOR OF THE COLONIES .”
Franklin then told Granville that this was a new doctrine to him. “I had always understood from our Charters, that our Laws were to be made by our Assemblies, to be presented indeed to the King for his Royal Assent, but that being once given the King could not repeal or alter them. And as the Assemblies could not make permanent Laws without his Assent, so neither could he make a Law for them without theirs. He assur’d me I was totally mistaken. I did not think so however.” This was not an auspicious beginning for Pennsylvania’s agent, particularly since Lord Granville’s wife was the sister of Thomas Penn’s wife.
Franklin had been advised to get the advice of the Scottish doctor John Fothergill concerning his approach to the proprietors. He found that Fothergill was not in favor of an immediate complaint to the government but felt that he should first apply to the proprietors, “who might possibly be induc’d by the Interposition and Persuasion of some private Friends to accomodate Matters amicably.” Simply arranging the meeting took several weeks, and the results were anything but amicable. The Penns and Franklin were far apart in their opinions on the dispute with the Provincial Assembly on the issue of taxing proprietary estates in common with other property.