Meet Dr Franklin

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For Franklin, 1765 may be considered the critical year of his political career. Thereafter he abandoned his role as imperial statesman and moved steadily on a course toward revolution. Some would make Franklin out as a conspirator motivated by personal pique, and, while one must concede that Franklin’s reticence and deviousness endowed him with the ideal temperament for conspiracy and that his public humiliation at the hands of Crown officials provided him with all the motivation that most men would need, one must remember that above all Franklin was an empiricist. If one course would not. work, he would try another. Thus, Franklin as agent in London for Pennsylvania’s assembly not only approved the Stamp Act in advance, but proposed many of the stamp collectors to the British government. To John Hughes, one of his unfortunate nominees who secured the unhappy job for his own province, Franklin counselled “coolness and steadiness,” adding: … a firm loyalty to the Crown and faithful adherence to the government of this nation, which it is the safety as well as honour of the colonies to be connected with, will always be the wisest course for you and I to take, whatever may be the madness of the populace or their blind leaders, who can only bring themselves and country into trouble and draw on greater burthens by acts of rebellious tendency.

But Franklin was a fast learner. If the violence and virtual unanimity of the opposition in the colonies to the Stamp Act took him by surprise, Franklin quickly adjusted to the new realities. In an examination before the House of Commons in February, 1766, he made clear the depth of American opposition to the new tax, warned that the colonies would refuse to pay any future internal levy, and intimated that “in time” the colonists might move to the more radical position that Parliament had no right to levy external taxes upon them either. Henceforth Franklin was the colonists’ leading advocate abroad of their rights to self-government, a position grounded not only on his own eminence but on his agency of the four colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Georgia. If he now counselled peaceful protest, it was because he felt that violent confrontations would give the British government a pretext for increasing the military forces and placing the colonies under even more serious repression. A permissive parent even by today’s lax standards, Franklin drew an interesting analogy between governing a family and governing an empire. In one of his last nostalgic invocations of imperial greatness, Franklin wrote: Those men make a mighty noise about the importance of keeping up our authority over the colonies. They govern and regulate too much. Like some unthinking parents, who are every moment exerting their authority in obliging their children to make bows, and interrupting the course of their innocent amusements, attending constantly to their own prerogative, but forgetting tenderness due to their offspring. The true act of governing the colonies lies in a nut-shell. It is only letting them alone.

Down to the outbreak of hostilities Franklin still clung to his post of absentee deputy postmaster general of the colonies, with all the perquisites thereto attached. All that dramatically changed in the years 1773-74, a final turning point in his career.

Franklin had gotten his hands on a series of indiscreet letters written by Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver, the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts Bay, respectively, and addressed to Thomas Whately, a member of the Grenville and North ministries. The letters, which urged that the liberties of the province be restricted, were given to Franklin by a person whose confidence he preserved to show him that false advice from America went far toward explaining the obnoxious acts of the British government. Tongue in cheek, Franklin sent the letters on to Thomas Gushing, speaker of the Massachusetts house of representatives, with an injunction that they were not to be copied or published but merely shown in the original to individuals in the province. But in June, 1773, the irrepressible Samuel Adams read the letters before a secret session of the house and later had the letters copied and printed.

The publication of the Hutchinson-Oliver letters, ostensibly against Franklin’s wishes, caused an international scandal, which for the moment did Franklin’s reputation no good. Summoned before the Privy Council, he was excoriated by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn. The only way Franklin could have obtained the letters, Wedderburn charged, was by stealing them from the person who stole them, and, according to one account, he added, “I hope, my lords, you will mark and brand the man” who “has forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.” Henceforth, he concluded, “Men will watch him with a jealous eye; they will hide their papers from him, and lock up their escritoires. He will henceforth esteem it a libel to be called a man of letters; homo tnum literarum! ” Of course, everyone in the audience knew Latin and recognized the “three letters” Wedderburn referred to as fûr, the word for “thief.”