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Benjamin Franklin’s Years In London
“I … sigh in the midst of cheerful company”
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
It is difficult not to think of Benjamin Franklin in a purely American setting. After all, this Philadelphia printer who—with little formal schooling—became a remarkable scientist, inventor,writer, philosopher, politician, and statesman was quite as distinctively American as the turkey he proposed for our national symbol. D. H. Lawrence called him “the real practical prototype of the American.” One thinks of him, pen in hand, sitting around a large table with others of the Founding Fathers, ready to sign the Declaration of Independence or some other momentous document; or scribbling furiously in the Philadelphia office of his Pennsylvania Gazette ; or—yes—flying a kite above the green hills of home during an electric storm.
Ironically, this prototypical American, himself a national symbol, spent not only two years of his youth as a printer’s apprentice in London between 1724 and 1726, but also nearly twenty-five years of his most active life in an exile of service, a stretch of time during which the country struggled toward a definition of itself as a nation. Franklin helped shape that vision significantly, yet between 1757 and 1785 he lived a total of only three years on American soil.
The best-known of his exiles was the nine years he spent in Paris and on the Continent between 1776 and 1785, securing financial and military assistance for the embryonic United States as its minister plenipotentiary and helping to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, ending the war with England. Less well known was the longest of his exiles, the more than fifteen years he spent in London between 1757 and 1775 (with a two-year stay in his own country sandwiched in). It was a curiously mixed time for him, one in which he found himself accepted and even venerated by the cream of English society, arts, and science, and at the same time saw his best efforts to produce a working compromise between an emerging American assertiveness and a continuing British intransigence steadily go to pieces. The final split between the two countries he saw as a necessary sadness, but a sadness nonetheless, and throughout his long sojourn in the land of his ancestry he was buoyed in spirit by the friends he found, yet haunted by the forces of history.
Temperamentally Franklin was utterly suited to a life in London. Born in Boston and having forged a life and a reputation in Philadelphia, he was a thoroughly urban product. Unlike George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, who escaped to their country estates whenever duty would permit, Franklin was happiest in the bustling city. He had Jived and worked from young manhood on Philadelphia’s busiest street and had poured a good deal of his vast energy into the problems besetting the city. He saw crime around him and proposed a scheme for paid watchmen to replace volunteers. He noted the appalling fires and recommended trained volunteer fire companies, forming his own and then founding the first fire-insurance company as well. He was alert to the needs of defense and over the years used his considerable skills as a propagandist to get forts erected and volunteer military associations and local militia organized, serving first as a common soldier and later as colonel of Philadelphia’s militia regiment. As he recounted in his autobiography, he drew “a Bill for Paving the City … with an additional Provision for lighting.” He improved the postal system, started a circulating library, supported the establishment of what later became the University of Pennsylvania, and propagandized successfully for founding the Pennsylvania Hospital. An admiring friend wrote to him that “there is no such thing as carrying through a publicspirited project without you are concerned in it.”
For all his commitment to the city he loved, Franklin’s reputation was by no means confined merely to Philadelphia—or to America, for that matter. His writing, his printing, and, most importantly, his experiments into the nature of electricity had carried his name to England by the early 1750’s. In 1750 the English botanist and longtime Franklin correspondent Peter Collinson sent a number of Franklin’s letters on the subject of electricity to printer Edward Cave, who published them as “Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Phila etc etc. …” And in 1753 the Royal Society in London awarded its prestigious medal to Franklin for his work—"the first person out of that Nation that has had that Honour confer’d,” according to Collinson.
Prepared by temperament and reputation, then, it was with understandable excitement that Franklin wrote to another long-time correspondent in London, printer William Strahan, early in 1757: “Our Assembly talk of sending me to England speedily. Then look out sharp, and if a fat old Fellow should come to your Printing House and request a little Smouting [part-time work], depend upon it, ‘tis Your affectionate Friend and humble Servant —B Franklin.” He might have been a little less pleased at the idea had he known that this trip to London would not be a matter of months, as he expected, but of years.
The mission that sent Franklin to London in 1757 was an almost definitively colonial matter—a minor matter as far as the rest of the colonies were concerned, but one redolent of the kind of antagonisms that would be crippling British-American relations over the next several years, antagonisms with which Franklin would become all too familiar. He had been appointed as an agent (in effect, a lobbyist) by the Provincial Assembly of Pennsylvania to represent its interests against the brothers Penn, sons of William, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, and in their own view the “True and Absolute Proprietors” of the original royal charter of 1681, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto. Among those rights and privileges, the brothers Penn maintained, was that their own extensive landholdings should not be taxed at the same level as those of the common folk. The assembly disagreed, and Franklin’s mission in London was to persuade British officialdom that the assembly was right.
His departure in 1757 was announced with some alarm by the Penns’ provincial secretary in Philadelphia in a letter to Proprietor Thomas Penn in London: “Certain it is that Benjamin Franklin’s view is to effect a change of Government, and considering the popularity of his character and the reputation gained by his Electrical Discoveries which will introduce him into all sorts of Company he may prove a Dangerous Enemy. Dr. Fothergill and Mr. Collinson can introduce him to the Men of most influence at Court and he may underhand give impressions to your prejudice. In short Heaven and Earth will be moved against the Proprietors.” Thomas Penn disagreed: “I think I wrote you before that Mr. Franklin’s popularity is nothing here, and that he will be looked very coldly upon by great People, there are very few of any consequence that have heard of his Electrical Experiments, those matters being attended to by a particular Sett of People, many of whom of the greatest consequence I know well, but it is quite another sort of People, who are to determine the Dispute between us.”
Despite this confident tone, Thomas Penn had long considered Franklin “a dangerous Man” for the independence he had shown in urging a volunteer militia to defend Pennsylvania against French privateers on the Delaware River in i747. and this opinion had solidified during the years of Franklin’s growing political and military reputation. Franklin was aware of the proprietors’ animosity toward him but wrote to Peter Collinson that he was not much concerned, “because if I have offended them by acting right , I can, whenever I please, remove their Displeasure, by acting wrong . Tho’ at present I have not the least Inclination to be in their good Graces on those Terms.” In this spirit he set forth for London.
With him went his young son, William, the illegitimate product of what was presumably one of Franklin’s “intrigues with low women,” a phrase used by him in his autobiography in discussing “that hard-to-be-governed passion of youth.” William’s mother has never been identified. All that is known is that after Franklin married Deborah Read, daughter of a Philadelphia family, the baby William was taken into the household. Franklin and Deborah later had a son of their own who, to their anguish, died at the age of four from smallpox, and a daughter, Sarah, born in 1743. It is not altogether surprising that Deborah was never partial to William, but it is a measure of her devotion to Franklin that she raised him at all. That devotion would have to endure, for when Franklin and William sailed in 1757, Deborah stayed in Philadelphia with young Sally, and for the next nearly eighteen years, with the exception of Franklin’s two-year visit at home, their letters—which took more than a month to cross the ocean—were their only contact with each other.
“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.
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.”
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:
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.”
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.”
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.”
Such rewarding friendships continued to brighten his life in London after 1764—and his life needed brightening. He arrived back on the scene to find that a stamp tax for the colonies had been proposed in the House of Commons in February, 1764. This tax was passed as an act of Parliament a year later and took effect in November, 1765. And from America word had come that the Virginia Resolves, adopted after fiery persuasion by Patrick Henry, rejected Parliament’s right to impose such a measure. Franklin’s campaign to oust the Penns was put aside for the moment, and he was soon hard at work with other American agents trying to get the Stamp Act repealed. First they tried to persuade George Grenville, First Lord of the Treasury, to consider a better way to raise revenue in America—namely, by issuing paper currency to the colonies on which they would pay six per cent interest to the Crown. This was rejected, but when Grenville was replaced by Lord Rockingham—who, with his secretary, Edmund Burke, was much more sympathetic to the American cause—Franklin redoubled his efforts. William Strahan, writing to a mutual friend, described his activités: “The Assiduity of your Friend Dr. Franklin is really astonishing. He is forever with one member of Parliament or another (most of whom by the bye seem to have been deplorably ignorant with regard to the Nature and Consequence of the Colonies) endeavouring to impress them; first with the’Importance of the present Dispute; then to state the Case clearly and fully, stripping it of every thing foreign to the main Point; and lastly to answer objections arising either from a total Ignorance, a partial Knowledge, or a wrong Conception of the matter. … All this while, too, he hath been throwing out Hints in the Public Papers, and giving answers to such Letters as have appeared in them, that required or deserved an answer.—In this manner is he now employed, with very little Intermission, Night and Day.” On a small card Franklin drew his famous cartoon “Magna Britannia her Colonies Reduc’d,” showing Britannia with her legs (Virginia and New England) and her arms (Pennsylvania and New York) cut off. He distributed this card to everyone of importance.
The debates in the House of Commons on the repeal of the Stamp Act culminated in February, 1766, with the testimony of a number of people knowledgeable about America. Edmund Burke had arranged this, and he carefully chose Franklin as the last to be questioned. Franklin had been expertly coached. The questions of his allies, as he later revealed, were intended “to bring out such answers as they desired and expected from me.” He was on his feet for four hours and performed brilliantly, as these excerpts from the transcript suggest.
Q . What is your name, and place of abode?
A . Franklin, of Philadelphia.
Q . Do the Americans pay any considerable taxes among themselves?
A Certainly many, and very heavy taxes.
Q . Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country, and pay no part of the expence?
A . That is not the case. The Colonies raised, cloathed and paid, during the last war, near 25000 men, and spent many millions.
Q . Do not you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty, if it was moderated?
A . No, never, unless compelled by force of arms.
Q . What was the temper of America towards GreatBritain before the year 1763?
A . The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the Crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to acts of parliament. … They had not only a respect, but an affection, for Great-Britain, for its laws, its customs and manners, and even a fondness for its fashions, that greatly increased the commerce. Natives of Britain were always treated with particular regard; to be an Old England-man was, of itself, a character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us.
Q . And what is their temper now?
A . O, very much altered.
Q . Did you ever hear the authority of parliament to make laws for America questioned till lately?
A . The authority of parliament was allowed to be valid in all laws, except such as should lay internal taxes. It was never disputed in laying duties to regulate commerce.
Q . If the stamp-act should be repealed, would it induce the assemblies of America to acknowledge the rights of parliament to tax them, and would they erase their resolutions?
A . No, never.
Q . Is there no means of obliging them to erase those resolutions?
A . None that I know of; they will never do it unless compelled by force of arms.
Q . Is there a power on earth that can force them to erase them?
A . No power, how great soever, can force men to change their opinions.
Q . What used to be the pride of the Americans?
A . To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great-Britain.
Q . What is now their pride?
A . To wear their old cloaths over again, till they can make new ones.
When the Stamp Act was repealed a week later and the repeal approved by the king on March 8, Franklin, like most Americans, was exultant. This joy, however, was not to last. Constant changes in Parliamentary personnel and the splitting and shifting of responsibility for American affairs into a variety of government departments made the American agents’ lives one long frustration. “’Tis a kind of Labour in vain to attempt making Impressions on such movable Materials,” Franklin wrote home. “’Tis like writing on the Sand in a windy Day.” First Minister Rockingham was replaced by America’s great ally and Franklin’s friend William Pitt, whose declining physical and mental health soon caused him to lose his hold. Charles TOwnshend took over effective control of the government and put into effect the oppressive Townshend Acts. After Townshend’s death Lord Hillsborough, a man whose character Franklin described as “conceit, wrong-headed-ness, obstinacy and passion,” was placed in charge of American affairs. Finally, in 1770, the reins of government came to rest in the hands of Frederick Lord North, who fanned the fires of anger in the colonies into a white heat by a series of measures that became known as the Intolerable Acts. These acts were passed in 1774.
Franklin, during the course of these events, was orchestrating a vast propaganda effort, reprinting documents and pamphlets from America, getting sympathetic English friends to write on behalf of the colonies, and pouring out, under pseudonyms, a huge body of persuasive essays. It was not until late in the game that the government caught on to the authorship. Franklin wryly characterized himself in the midst of the turmoil: “Being born and bred in one of the countries, and having lived long and made many agreeable connexions of friendship in the other, I wish all prosperity to both; but I have talked and written so much and so long on the subject, that my acquaintance are weary of hearing, and the public of reading, any more of it, which begins to make me weary of talking and writing; especially as I do not find that I have gained any point in either country, except that of rendering myself suspected by my impartiality;—in England, of being too much an American, and in America, of being too much an Englishman.”
As the controversy quickened, Franklin was recognized more and more as the chief spokesman in England for the American cause. Georgia named him their agent in 1768, followed by New Jersey in 1769 and Massachusetts in 1770. When pressures became too much for him in London, Franklin found needed relaxation and amusement with a host of English friends. Writing to William, he said of his social life that “nothing can be more agreeable … ; a general respect paid me by the learned, a number of friends and acquaintances among them, with whom I have a pleasing intercourse … my company so much desired, that I seldom dine at home in winter, and could spend the whole summer in the country-houses of inviting friends, if I chose it.” Franklin was the kind of guest who brought zest and life to any group, and it was small wonder he was so popular. He loved practical jokes and lost no chance to indulge in them, and while visiting Lord Le Despencer he had the satisfaction of seeing one of his published satires swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Entitled “An Edict by the King of Prussia,” it was printed in the Public Advertiser . Franklin contentedly reported that ”… when the post brought that day’s papers … Mr Whitehead … came running in to us, out of breath, with the paper in his hand. Here! says he, here’s news for ye! Here’s the King of Prussia, claiming a right to this kingdom! All stared, and I as much as anybody; and he went on to read it. When he had read two or three paragraphs, a gentleman present said, Damn his impudence, I dare say, we shall hear by the next post that he is upon his march with one hundred thousand men to back this . Whitehead, who is very shrewd, soon after began to smoke it, and looking in my face said, I’ll be hanged if this is not some of your American jokes upon us . The reading went on, and ended with an abundance of laughing, and a general verdict that it was a fair hit: and the piece was cut out of the paper and preserved in my Lord’s collection.”
”… the whole Town is one great smoaky House, and every Street a Chimney, the Air full of floating Sea Coal Soot, and you never get a sweet Breath of what is pure, without riding some Miles for it. …”
Franklin escaped London to preserve both mind and body. He had long ago complained to Debbie that “the whole Town is one great smoaky House, and every Street a Chimney, the Air full of floating Sea Coal Soot, and you never get a sweet Breath of what is pure, without riding some Miles for it into the Country.” At Bishop Shipley’s Twyford home on the River Itchen, Franklin could breathe “sweet air,” and in that quiet and congenial setting he was able to relax and begin his autobiography. Shipley regularly opposed the ministry on American issues, in 1774 making a speech wholeheartedly in favor of the American cause. Franklin sent it to America and later informed Shipley that the members of the First Continental Congress had drunk to his health in “three successive bumpers.”
But escape to the company of close friends could not protect Franklin from the tide of events that swept him ever more quickly to the final and irrevocable climax. He himself undoubtedly brought it on faster by his role in the affair of the so-called Hutchinson letters, which achieved instant and widespread notoriety in America.
The royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, in his private correspondence with Thomas Whately of the British cabinet, had revealed a tendency to incense the mother country against her colonies and recommended steps to widen the breach. Somehow Franklin managed to obtain some of these letters and others written by Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, letters they had explicitly said were not to reach the eyes of colony agents, and he forwarded copies to Boston with the stipulation that they were not to be printed or copied.
The Boston rebels disregarded his instructions and promptly published the letters, with explosive effect. The Massachusetts Assembly petitioned for the removal of Hutchinson and Oliver. They in turn got Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn in London to defend them, and Franklin was called before a meeting of the privy council, ostensibly to speak on behalf of the Massachusetts petition. What actually took place was a brutal attack on Franklin’s character in a room jammed to capacity by lords of the council, courtiers, politicians, and spectators. Called the Cockpit, this room had in fact once been a pit for fighting cocks during the reign of Henry VIII, but on this day, the twenty-ninth of January, 1774, there was no fight. According to Jeremy Bentham, Franklin stood entirely silent, “the whole time like a rock, in the same posture, his head resting on his left hand, and in that attitude abiding the pelting of the pitiless storm.” For one degrading hour he endured the laughter and derision of men he had lived and worked among for more than fifteen years. The hopes he had had of a reconciliation between America and the mother country and the love he had felt for England and Englishmen, drained out of him then and there, never to be revived.
Franklin knew the end had come. He remained in London until March, 1775—almost on the very eve of the conflicts at Lexington and Concord—winding up his affairs and meeting privately with English friends who still hoped reconciliation with the colonies was possible. His last day was spent with Joseph Priestley choosing articles from American newspapers that he hoped might be printed to advantage in London. This wise and witty man, who had fought so long and so ably “to preserve from breaking that fine and noble china vase, the British Empire,” was, as Priestley later recounted, “frequently not able to proceed for the tears literally running down his cheeks.”
He returned to an empty house in Philadelphia, for in December Debbie had died.
Horace Walpole, looking back on Franklin’s ordeal, wrote: