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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 proprietors told Franklin to put the complaints in writing for their consideration. Then they tried to foist him off on their lawyer. Franklin persisted in his efforts to deal with them directly, and his record of the conference that finally took place early in 1758 shows his utter distaste for the men he had come to do business with. As Franklin noted, Thomas Penn characterized the assembly as “only a kind of Corporation acting by a Charter from the Crown,” which “could have no Privileges or Rights but what was granted by that Charter, in which no such Privilege as we now claim was any where mentioned.” Franklin quotes his reply and the ensuing debate: “Your Father’s Charter expressly says that the Assembly of Pennsylvania shall have all the Power and Privileges of an Assembly according to the Rights of the Freeborn Subjects of England, and as is usual in any of the British Plantations in America. Yes says he but, if my Father granted Privileges he was not by the Royal Charter impowered to grant, Nothing can be claim’d by such Grant. I said , If then your Father had no Right to grant the Privileges He pretended to grant, and published all over Europe as granted those who came to settle in the Province upon the Faith of that Grant and in Expectation of enjoying the Privileges contained in it, were deceived, cheated and betrayed. He answered they should have themselves looked to that. That the Royal Charter was no Secret; they who came into the Province on my Father’s Offer of Privileges, if, they were deceiv’d, it was their own Fault; and that He said with a Kind of triumphing laughting Insolence, such as a low Jockey might do when a Purchaser complained that He had cheated him in a Horse. I was astonished to see him thus meanly give up his Father’s Character and conceived that Moment a more cordial and thorough Contempt for him than I ever before felt for any Man living—A Contempt that I cannot express in Words, but I believe my Countenance expressed it strongly.” After this unpleasant exchange the negotiations with the Penns dragged on until August, 1760. The outcome, settled finally by the privy council, was largely in favor of the assembly and a victory for Franklin, since it established the right to tax all the property in the province, including that of the True and Absolute Proprietors.
During the long stretches between meetings Franklin did not sit around cooling his heels. He had one trump card that was not held by the other American agents in London. Having been a successful printer and journalist, he knew the value of propaganda and he knew how to write. He had uncommonly good contacts with London printers and booksellers, in particular William Strahan, who printed both the Chronicle and Ralph Griffith’s literary magazine, Monthly Review . Franklin soon began a prodigious output. His first essay was a flank attack on the subject of Pennsylvania’s proprietorship, but his subject matter thereafter ranged far and wide. He understood that it was important not only to “strike while the iron is hot” but also to “heat it continually by striking.” Verner W. Crane, who has tracked down most of Franklin’s published articles for the period he was in London, found that “the Craven Street publicity office began to function in the summer of 1757, and rarely suspended operations until Franklin’s departure … in 1775.”
Franklin’s friendship with Strahan was important to him in his role as publicist for the colonies, but it went far beyond that. From their first face-to-face meeting after years of friendly correspondence they became the closest of friends. Debbie must have been pleased to receive a letter from Strahan telling her that he “never saw a man who was, in every respect, so perfectly agreeable to me. Some are amiable in one view, some in another, he in all.” She may have worried somewhat when he advised her to “come over, with all convenient speed” to look after her interest, as “the ladies here consider him in exactly the same light. …” Debbie’s answer has unfortunately been lost, but evidently it was a refusal—and Franklin told her that it was “just what it should be; I was much pleas’d with it. He fancy’d his Rhetoric and Art would certainly bring you over.” Strahan, however, in writing to a mutual friend of the Franklins in Philadelphia, asks him to tell Deborah that “I am sorry she dreads the Sea so much, that she cannot prevail on herself to come to this fine Place, even tho’ her Husband is before her. There are many Ladies here that would make no Objection to sailing twice as far after him; but there is [no] overcoming Prejudices of that kind.”