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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.