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Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London
“I … sigh in the midst of cheerful company”
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
Despite this fondness for Scotland and the Scots, Franklin found much in London to interest and divert him. Following his receipt of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal, he had been elected a member of that renowned body of scientists the year before he left America. He had written to Peter Collinson in November of 1756 that the “Information of my being chosen a Member of the Royal Society, was extreamly agréable, and the more, as I had not the least Expectation of ever arriving at that Honour.” It was natural for Franklin to gravitate to the society’s headquarters in Crane Court, where men like Sir John Pringle, Sir Hans Sloane, and Joseph Priestley, in addition to Collinson and Fothergill, offered ready and stimulating companionship. Indeed, according to Carl Van Doren, “Crane Court was almost a club for Franklin.” He was four times chosen a member of its council during his years in London, and he saw to it that his American and French friends were elected to the society as well as his English friends to its counterpart, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which he had helped to found.
Before his departure for England, Franklin had also become a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, now known as the Royal Society of Arts. He had sent them a contribution of twenty guineas after receiving a letter from William Shipley, a portrait and landscape painter. Franklin became an active member and chairman of their committee of British colonies and trade during his years in London. William Shipley also did Franklin another meaningful favor when he presumably introduced him to his brother, Jonathan Shipley, bishop of St. Asaph. Jonathan Shipley, a good friend of the American cause, became very close to Franklin; it was at his country house in the village of Twyford near Southampton that Franklin began writing his autobiography.
The coffee houses that flourished in London became popular haunts for him—among them the King’s Arms, the Pensilvania, and the George and Vulture. Boswell wrote of a club he went to that “meets every other Thursday at St. Paul’s coffee house. It consists of clergymen, physicians, and several other professions. There are of it: Dr. Franklin, Rose of Chiswick, Burgh of Newington Green, Mr. Price who writes on morals, Dr. Jeffries, a keen supporter of the bills of Rights, and a good many more. We have wine and punch upon the table. Some of us smoke a pipe, conversation goes on pretty formally, sometimes sensibly, and sometimes furiously. At nine there is a sideboard with Welsh rabbits, [and] apple puffs, porter, and beer. Our reckoning is about 18d. a head.”
It was in these coffee houses that Franklin picked up the latest gossip from friendly Whig politicians. As Michael Kammen has pointed out in his study of American agents prior to the Revolution, Franklin “had recognized the value of unity from the very outset in 1757, and gradually became the core of the American agency … [he] early developed and sustained firm relationships” with a number of American agents. In addition, because he acquired the confidence of the colonists, “he had the broadest discretionary powers of all the agents. … His instructions from Pennsylvania reveal the steady transmutation of his agency into an ambassadorship-at-large.” During these early years Franklin felt that if proprietary rule could be changed to royal rule, all would be well. He felt a deep kinship with Britain and joined all Englishmen in celebration when General James Wolfe defeated the French in Quebec in September, 1759. “No one can rejoice more sincerely than I do,” he wrote Lord Kames, “on the Reduction of Canada; and this, not merely as I am a Colonist, but as I am a Briton. I have long been of Opinion, that the Foundations of the future Grandeur and Stability of the British Empire, lie in America; and tho”, like other Foundations, they are low and little seen, they are nevertheless, broad and Strong enough to support the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected. I am therefore by no means for restoring Canada.” In April, 1760, he published his famous pro-Canada pamphlet, The Interest of Great Britain Considered , arguing that the return of Quebec to the French was not the way to peace.
In September of that year George III succeeded his grandfather as king. Franklin and William attended the coronation, and Franklin later praised the young king for his “Virtue, and the Consciousness of his sincere Intentions to make his People happy.” He also predicted that “the future Course of his Majesty’s Reign” would be “happy and truly glorious” and felt that the British Isles had “the best Constitution and the best King any Nation was ever blessed with.”