- Historic Sites
Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London
“I … sigh in the midst of cheerful company”
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
When his prolonged negotiations with the Penns were finally and successfully completed, Franklin wound up his affairs and sailed for home in August, 1762. He left William behind, after first helping him to receive an impressive appointment from the new king as royal governor of New Jersey. Franklin’s departure was mourned among his English and Scottish friends, who had no idea that he would be back in their midst within two years to spend more than another decade. William Strahan wrote to Franklin’s friend David Hall that “from the Acquaintance I have had of him, and the Intimacy with which he has been pleased to honour me for these five Years past, I have conceived, as you may easily imagine, the most cordial Esteem and Affection for him: For tho’ his Talents and Abilities in almost every Branch of human Science are singularly great and Uncommon, and have added to the Pleasure and Knowledge of the greatest Geniuses of this Country, who all admire and love him, and lament his Departure; yet he knows as well how to condescend to those of inferior Capacity, how to level himself for the time to the Understandings of his Company, and to enter without Affectation into their Amusements and Chit-chat, that his whole Acquaintance here are his affectionate Friends. … It would much exceed the Bounds of a Letter to tell you … how universally he is esteemed by all who know him here.”
Franklin, for his part, was loath to leave. Although happy to return to his “little family,” he still felt a deep attachment to England, which he revealed in a letter from Philadelphia to his landlady’s daughter Polly: “Of all the enviable Things England has, I envy it most its People. Why should that petty Island, which compar’d to America is but like a stepping Stone in a Brook, scarce enough of it above Water to keep one’s Shoes dry; why, I say, should that little Island enjoy in almost every Neighbourhood, more sensible, virtuous, and elegant Minds, than we can collect in ranging 100 Leagues of our vast Forests.” In 1762 Dr. Franklin was still very much an admiring and loyal subject of his king and of the mother country.
Although peace was finally achieved between England and France in 1763, thus bringing the Seven Years’ War to an end, Franklin was not to find peace at home. There were clashes with the Indians on the frontier in which he became involved and, more importantly, clashes with the provincial governor over the agreement Franklin had worked out with the Penns in London. He and his friends in the assembly fought the governor by petitioning King George to get rid of the proprietors and put Pennsylvania under a royal government. As usual, Franklin was in the forefront of the bitter political battle that ensued, during which, for the first time, he was defeated for re-election to the assembly, although his party remained in power. These friends named Franklin once more as their agent to go back to London and present their petition to the king. Thus he headed back to London exactly two years after arriving home in November, 1762, leaving Debbie and a new house that was barely completed, for what he expected to be a few months. Three hundred cheering friends rode with Franklin to the embarkation point of Chester, where an anthem fashioned after “God Save the King” was sung:
As soon as “agent Franklin” set foot in London, he went straight to Craven Street and his other family. He wrote Polly, who was elsewhere in England, that since her “good Mama was not at home, and the Maid could not tell me where to find her … I sat me down and waited her Return, when she was a good deal surpriz’d to find me in her Parlour.” Polly and Franklin enjoyed a very special relationship, as the number of letters between them reveal. Two years after he and William had settled in at Craven Street during the first sojourn, Polly was sent to live with an aunt, but not before a deep attachment had formed between her and Franklin. Polly married Dr. William Hewson in 1770 and named Franklin godfather to their son, born a year later. A proud godfather, Franklin wrote Polly that “his being like me in so many Particulars pleases me prodigiously.” He went on to advise her to “let him have every thing he likes; I think it of great Consequence while the Features of the Countenance are forming. It gives them a pleasant Air, and that being once become natural, and fix’d by Habit, the Face is ever after the handsomer for it, and on that much of a Person’s good Fortune and Success in Life may depend. Had I been cross’d as much in my Infant Likings and Inclinations as you know I have been of late Years, I should have been, I was going to say not near so handsome, but as the Vanity of that Expression would offend other Folks Vanity, I change it out of Regard to them, and say, a great deal more homely.”