Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London

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Franklin scholars have long wondered about his personal life during those many years in London away from home. His open affections in Paris, after Debbie had died, are well documented, but there are no clues to whatever attachments he may have had in England. His letters to Debbie, always beginning “My Dear Child,” are affectionate and concerned but certainly not those of a John Adams writing to his Abigail. He speaks of what he is doing, inquires after his “little family,” and often details the things he has bought for her and Sally and his Boston relatives so she can look for them via the next packet. One of his earliest letters assures her that “the agréable Conversation I meet with among Men of Learning, and the Notice taken of me by Persons of Distinction, are the principal Things that sooth me for the present under this painful Absence from my Family and Friends; yet those would not detain me here another Week, if I had not other Inducements, Duty to my Country and Hopes of being able to do it Service.” Later, when he begins to think his stay might last another twelve months, he tells his wife: “at this time of life, domestic comforts afford the most solid satisfaction, and my uneasiness at being absent from my family, and longing desire to be with them, make me often sigh in the midst of cheerful company.”

In the summer of 1758 Franklin and William, who had been studying law at the Middle Temple, took a “Ramble” through the English Midlands to visit not only Franklin’s ancestral home at Ecton but also Debbie’s relatives in Birmingham. “I have ever had a pleasure,” he wrote, “in obtaining any little anecdotes of my ancestors.” After visiting a cousin of his wife’s he told her that “Mrs. Salt is a jolly, lively dame, both Billy and myself agree that she was extremely like you, her whole face has the same turn, and exactly the same little blue Birmingham eyes.” From this trip and materials he industriously gathered elsewhere, Franklin was able to make an elaborate genealogical chart of the Franklin family.

Early in 1759 Franklin was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. It was this that earned him the title “Doctor Franklin,” by which he was known for the rest of his life. He also made his first trip to Scotland, where in Edinburgh he was introduced to a circle of eminent Scots. These men, in addition to John Fothergill and William Strahan, also Scots, became some of his warmest friends. One learns something of Franklin’s ability to charm the intellects of his day by his farewell letters to those he visited. He had spent a week with Sir Alexander and Lady Dick at Prestonfield, their country house on the outskirts of Edinburgh. To this prominent Scottish doctor and his wife he wrote:

Joys of Prestonfield Adieu! Late found, soon lost, but still we’ll view The engaging Scene—oft to these eyes Shall the pleasing Vision rise!

Chearfull meals, balmy rest, Beds that never buggs molest, Neatness and Sweetness all around These at Prestonfield we found.

In addition to the Dicks, Franklin had come to know the philosopher David Hume and the distinguished jurist Lord Kames. He stopped to spend a few days with Lord Kames and his wife at their estate in Berwickshire, and they accompanied him a short way on his trip back to London. Franklin wrote that he wished he had pressed them to travel farther with him, for they “could have beguil’d the Way by Discoursing 1000 Things that now we may never have an Opportunity of considering together; for Conversation warms the Mind, enlivens the Imagination, and is continually starting fresh Game that is immediately pursu’d and taken and which would never have occur’d in the duller Intercourse of Epistolary Correspondence.” He told them how far Scotland had exceeded his expectations: “On the whole, I must say, I think the Time we spent there, was Six Weeks of the densest Happiness I have met with in any Part of my Life.”