Book Review

The English Franklin


While not a “politician” in today’s sense of the word, Benjamin Franklin was as much a master of the image and the gesture as any twenty-first-century statesman, groomed by political counselors and media consultants. The picture of Franklin that has come down to posterity is one he carefully cultivated: that of the backwoods savant, the homespun sage. At a time when European and American gentlemen wore wigs or powdered their hair, Franklin, appointed minister at the Rococo court of Louis XVI, exposed his bald pate and his sparse, greying locks; his informal clothing, including the famous fur cap, gave the impression that he was a most unworldly philosopher. It was a persona he crafted carefully to appeal to overcivilized Frenchmen’s fantasies about noble savages and republican virtue.

It was an attractive image but not, it must be said, a very truthful one. Franklin was no backwoodsman but an entirely urban creature who spent his whole life in cities: Boston, where he was born in 1706; Philadelphia, his adopted home; Paris, where he was feted and celebrated; and London, where he lived for some twenty of his eighty-four years. In his new book, Benjamin Franklin in London[1], historian George Goodwin demonstrates that Franklin, the iconic American, was probably more at home in London than in any other place and certainly defined himself, for most of his life, as a Briton. He was an enormous admirer of British science, culture, education, and art.

Of all the enviable Things England has, I envy it most its People. Why should that petty Island, which compared 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 Neighborhood more sensible, virtuous and elegant Minds than we can collect in ranging 100 Leagues of our vast Forests. But, ’tis said, the Arts delight to travel Westward. You have effectually defended us in this glorious War [the French and Indian War], and in time you will improve us.

It was to be Franklin himself who did more than any of his contemporaries to improve the American cultural landscape and help cultivate “sensible, virtuous and elegant Minds” in the New World. His idea of “virtue” was no vague moral abstraction but encompassed practical education in the arts and sciences; virtue and intellectual elegance were inextricably connected. He established, as Goodwin writes, “the small beginnings of what would become great institutions, sometimes the first of their kind on the continent. These would develop to be strongly American in character, but more often than not with an initial, if long-buried, foundation stone that was British in concept, practice or both.”

Franklin’s first residence in England lasted for a year and a half, from early 1725 to mid-1726. At the age of nineteen, he was induced to set sail for the mother country under false assurances from Sir William Keith, the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania, that he would be set up with his own printing house and given the official printing for the province of Pennsylvania, which then included Delaware. This scheme turned out to be illusory, but Franklin quickly found employment with one of London’s master printers and took advantage of his temporary residence in the capital to make scientific contacts. He enjoyed the coffee-house culture of which he had read in his favorite Spectator essays by Addison and Steele and cultivated the acquaintance of several impressive intellectuals: Sir Hans Sloane, a friend of Sir Isaac Newton and his successor as President of the Royal Society; Dr. Henry Pemberton, a mathematician working with Newton on the third edition of his Principia; and Dr. Bernard Mandeville, the Enlightenment author whose Fable of the Bees; or, Private Vices, Public Benefits advanced the shocking theory that individual human self-interest might be beneficial to the species. The young Franklin was an enthusiastic proponent, too, of other luminaries of the British Enlightenment: Locke, Shaftesbury, Collins, et. al. He made an impression in London not only through his intellect and industry but by force of the powerful charm that he exercised throughout his life and, at this time, a youthful effervescence. He wrote of swimming the nearly three miles along the Thames from Chelsea to Blackfriars “whilst performing on the Way many Feats of Activity both upon and under Water, that surprised and pleased those to whom they were Novelties.”

After this relatively short sojourn, Franklin would not return to England for more than thirty years. His distinguished career in Philadelphia, where he quickly assumed the role of first citizen, is a familiar story and not worth repeating here, but as Goodwin points out, it is important to recognize the very British foundations for the many civic institutions he launched and developed back home; his early exposure to life in the capital had made deep impressions. In 1727, shortly after his return to Philadelphia, he founded a club that he called the Junto, modeling it closely on the London clubs he had so admired, and dedicating it to the formal discussion of morals, politics and natural philosophy. This, writes Goodwin, “provided the initial spark for an extraordinary range of civic improvements and the creation of institutions that were the first of their kind, not only in Philadelphia but in colonial America.”

The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Franklin, was America’s first successful public lending library, the model for many to follow. It was Franklin who initially proposed the Pennsylvania Hospital, a comprehensive fire insurance scheme, and the Union Fire Company, which operated on a subscription model and was soon imitated by many others. His Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania, 1749, outlined a revolutionary philosophy of education—practical and analytical rather than being entirely based on theology and classical literature—whose intellectual influences, as listed by Franklin, were almost uniformly British: Locke, Milton, Francis Hutcheson, Obadiah Walker, Dr. George Turnbull. “It was a bold plan,” Goodwin recounts, “but [Franklin’s] absences on business and a deepening divide with the Proprietary party [that of the Penn family] led to his removal as President of the Trustees in 1756. The other Trustees wanted the Academy, designated a college in 1755, to be more like Harvard, Yale and William and Mary, institutions designed to produce church ministers rather than mechanical engineers. Only much later would Franklin’s vision be realized, not only at the University of Pennsylvania but throughout the Western world.”

In 1751 Franklin was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly; by this time he had become a critical figure in the business, political and civic life of the territory. He was a delegate to the Albany Conference in 1754, an attempt to create a more permanent and cooperative intercolonial representative assembly. The plan failed, with intercolonial rivalry trumping the cooperative spirit, but the effort had been a significant step toward federation.

Pennsylvania was anomalous, not a crown colony but a so-called proprietary colony. Nearly as large as England, the territory had been won from the Dutch during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1660s and ’70s and awarded by Charles II as a land grant to the Quaker William Penn in 1681. Penn had spent little time in his vast demesne, a total of only four years, and departed from it forever in 1701. It was inherited on his death by his three sons; by the time Franklin joined the Assembly one of these was dead and one, Thomas Penn, owned three-quarters of the territory. The Penn brothers had departed from their father’s Quaker faith and his political idealism; living in England, as Church of England adherents, they ruled as absentee landlords through lieutenant gover­nors who were frequently in conflict with the legislative Assembly, squeezing whatever profit they could from the colony regardless of its inhabitants’ interests.

In 1757 Franklin again departed for England, this time as an agent representing the Pennsylvania Assembly, authorized to address that body’s concerns about Pennsylvania’s military defense. (The Seven Years’ or French and Indian War had commenced.) There were three so-called “Heads of Complaint”: 1) the Proprietors’ distant governance and their method of controlling their lieutenants by threatening them with financial penalties should they not follow instructions; 2) their vetoing of the Assembly’s bills to do with money, even in times of war and emergency; and 3) the Proprietors’ tax-exempt status.

The mutual dislike and distrust between Franklin and Thomas Penn predated their first meeting and did not improve upon acquaintance. Penn looked on the new agent as a positive danger; Franklin, shocked at the selfish cynicism of the Proprietor, described him in a letter to a friend as speaking “with a kind of triumphing laughing Insolence, such as a low Jockey might do when a Purchaser complained that He had cheated him in a Horse. I . . . 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.”

Franklin was appalled by the general lack of interest and, what was worse, by the lack of information the London elite had about their American colonies. “The Prevailing Opinion, as far as I am able to collect it, among the Ministers and great Men here, is that the Colonies have too many and too great Privileges, and that it is not only the Interest of the Crown but of the Nation to remove them.” Generally speaking, it was only men with business interests in America who were knowledgeable about that contsinent; others took a coolly proprietary and contemptuous air. “Every Man in England seems to consider himself as a Piece of a Sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself into the throne with the King, and talks of OUR subjects in the Colonies.”

Nevertheless, Franklin reveled in London life, so infinitely more stimulating than that of his native province. Already a celebrity, due to his well-publicized scientific work (his ground-breaking Experiments and Observations on Electricity had—so to speak—electrified the world in 1751), Franklin was eagerly welcomed by London’s intellectual commu­nity. William Strahan, the master printer who had just published Johnson’s Dictionary and would later be responsible for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, became an early friend and introduced him to many others. Joseph Priestley, the famous scientist and theologian, and Sir John Pringle, physician to the Prince of Wales, became special intimates. Shortly after Franklin’s arrival he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, which at that time met once a fortnight at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street. He also joined the Society of Arts, the Club of Honest Whigs, and the Monday Club, thoroughly enjoying the conviviality; James Boswell, who would meet him later, in 1769, found him “all jollity and pleasantry.” Traveling to Scotland, Franklin befriended leading members of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith and Henry Home, Lord Kames; later, he would add David Hume, William Robertson, and Adam Ferguson to his close circle.

Franklin had left behind in Philadelphia his wife, Deborah, who was afraid of sea travel and declined to accompany him across the Atlantic. They both took in their stride the prospect of a potentially lengthy separation, though they probably did not guess it would be as long as it became—eighteen years, with a two-year hiatus in Philadelphia from 1762 to 1764. The Franklins’ marriage seems to have been a practical partnership rather than a romantic attachment, though there was clear affection on both sides; Benjamin likened Deborah at one point to a beer jug he had spotted in England: “I fell in love with it at first sight for I thought it look’d like a fat jolly Dame, clean and tidy, with a neat blue and white calico gown on, good natur’d and lovely, and put me in mind of—Somebody.” The portrait Goodwin includes in his volume, that of a broad-faced, smiling matron, confirms the descrip­tion. On departing for England, Benjamin took with him as assistant, confidant and amanuensis his eldest, illegitimate son William and entrusted his many business interests in America to Deborah’s care, with considerable success; though she had had little formal education, she was clearly an intelligent and highly capable person.

In London, the two Franklin men, accompanied by two slaves they had brought from Philadelphia, Peter and King, took rooms in the centrally located Craven Street. (When King later absconded and was discovered in the care of a lady who was teaching him the violin and French horn, he was allowed to stay where he was.) In Craven Street, Benjamin quickly found a substitute family in the form of his landlady, Margaret Stevenson, and her bright and curious young daughter Polly. There has been speculation, never confirmed, that Franklin enjoyed sexual relations with Mrs. Stevenson, but with or without the added attraction of sex, the relationship took on the aspect of a long-term marriage, with Polly substituting very nicely for the real daughter, Sally, that Franklin had left back home.

The apparent equanimity with which Franklin switched between one family and the other, with which he let go of the son, William, who had been his right hand and confidant for many years, when their political paths finally diverged, and with which he confronted—or refused to confront—the long deterioration and eventual death of his faraway wife in 1774 indicate either a startlingly dispassionate nature or an unusual ability to control emotions that might distract him from larger purposes.

Such detachment is a little chilling when viewed within the family context; politically, it helped him enormously. Franklin’s relationship with Thomas Penn, which had started badly, quickly degenerated. “When I meet him anywhere,” Franklin commented to a friend, “there appears in his wretched Countenance a strange Mixture of Hatred, Anger, Fear and Vexation.” In any case, Franklin had soon come to the conclusion that Pennsylvania must throw off the Penns and become a crown colony, and he lobbied Parliament and the government to this end. He also interested himself in wider geopolitical questions, recog­nizing the earthshaking possibilities raised by Britain’s involvement in the Seven Years’ War. In 1760 he wrote a pam­phlet, The Interest of Great Britain Considered, looking ahead to an eventual peace treaty and arguing that when that time came, Britain should at all costs hang onto Canada, regardless of the fate of the lucrative sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean; he “believed passionately in the potential of what might be termed a Greater Britain, with the British Isles and America working together.” The terms of the eventual 1763 Treaty of Paris pleased him, and he castigated those who declaimed against it in the press:

I am ashamed to read here the Clamour of your political scribblers against the Peace. Never did England make a Peace more truly and substantially advantageous to herself, as a few Years will evince to everybody; for here in America she has laid a broad and strong Foundation on which to erect the most beneficial and certain Commerce, with the Greatness and Stability of her Empire. The Glory of Britain was never higher than at present, and I think you never had a better Prince.

Never again would Franklin entertain such warm feelings for his sovereign, George III. The demands in Parliament, after the conclusion of the war, for the colonies to contribute more to their own defense led to the beginning of the series of colonial taxes, perceived by the colonists as unconstitutional, that would eventually lead to revolution: the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), the Quartering Act (1765), and later the Declaratory Act (1766) and the Townshend Acts (1767–8). During his brief return to Philadelphia Franklin had lost his seat in the Assembly but was retained as Pennsylvania’s agent to London; he was also hired as agent to Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

Franklin was becoming very angry at Britain’s treatment of her colonies as, in Goodwin’s words, “one giant farm and forest of raw materials to feed the mother country’s manufactures.” A visit to Ireland showed him the worst-case outcome of such a setup: its dire poverty, he observed, was “the effect of the Discouragements of Industry, the Non-Residence not only of Pensioners but of many original Landlords who lease their Lands in Gross to Undertakers that rack the Tenants, and fleece them Skin and all.” Predictably, he soon found himself at logger­heads with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Hillsborough, who embodied that economic philosophy. In January 1771, Franklin arranged a meeting with him that ended in violent words. Historians have concluded that Franklin set up the confrontation deliberately, then sent accounts of it back to America for the benefit of the more radical elements there.

The escalating tensions between Britain and the colonies pointed more and more clearly to the probability of an armed struggle. Unlike the Sons of Liberty and other correspondents back home, Franklin did not support the idea of independence until other solutions had been exhausted. He continued to see the colonies as, ideally, “so many Counties gained to Great Britain, and more advantageous to it than if they had been gained out of the sea around its coasts, and joined to its land.” In Franklin’s view, Britain had much more to lose from a severance from her colonies than America did, as he had noted in a letter to Lord Kames back in 1767:

Sure I am that, if Force is used, great Mischief will ensue, the Affections of the People of America to this Country will be alienated, your Commerce will be diminished, and a total Separation of Interests be the final Consequence. I have lived so great a part of my life in Britain, and have formed so many Friendships in it, that I love it and wish its Prosperity, and therefore wish to see that Union on which alone I think it can be secured and established. As to America, the Advantages of such an Union to her are not so apparent. She may suffer at present under the arbitrary Power of this Country; she may suffer for a while in a Separation from it; but these are temporary Evils that she will outgrow. . . . America, an immense Territory, favoured by Nature with all Advantages of Climate, Soil, great navigable Rivers and Lakes, &c. must become a great Country, populous and mighty; and will in a less time than is generally conceived be able to shake off any Shackles that may be imposed on her, and perhaps place them on the Imposers.

But England continued to treat the colonies as subjects rather than partners, and in late 1772 Franklin decided to provoke public opinion back in America by revealing a confidential political correspondence between Thomas Hutchinson, the Governor of Massachusetts, and his Lieutenant, Andrew Oliver. Franklin was obdurate that such exposure was not only salutary but necessary: as Goodwin writes,

He dismissed the idea that these were “private letters between friends” but described them as ‘written by public officers to persons in public station, on public affairs, and intended to procure public measures’ designed “to incense the Mother Country against her Colonies, and, by the steps recommended, to widen the breach, which they effected.” As such it had been his duty to send them to the Massachusetts House.

One wonders what Franklin’s position might have been over WikiLeaks, as with so many other twenty-first-century controversies! The result of his breach of privacy was a lengthy inquisition before the Privy Council, with thirty-five Counselors present. This chamber was popularly known as the cockpit, but Franklin labeled it an arena for bull-baiting, with himself as the bull and Alexander Wedderburn, Hutchinson’s Counsel and the government’s Solicitor General, as baiter-in-chief. Wedderburn gave Franklin a violent tongue-lashing, accusing him of acting for “the most malignant of purposes” and describing him as someone “who has forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.” With his customary, almost superhuman self-control, Franklin rode it out without a visible flinch.

It was the end of Franklin’s career in the British government. He was branded as an agent provocateur, and the name is probably accurate, for his political position as a representative of colonial as against British interests had now clarified. He was dismissed from his position as Deputy Postmaster for America and resigned as agent for Massachusetts. The satires he had periodically produced for British and American newspapers became ever more bitter and pointed.

Lord Chatham, who as Prime Minister William Pitt had led Britain to victory in the Seven Years’ War, proposed a political settlement that could have averted war, but it was too late: Parliament was obdurate, and, as Franklin commented, “Lord Chatham’s Bill, though on so important a Subject, and offered by so great a Character, and supported by such able and learned Speakers as Camden etc., was treated with as much Contempt as they could have shown to a Ballad offered by a drunken Porter.”

Franklin, who had done all that he was able to do in England, took sail for America at the end of 1775; a warrant for his arrest was issued while he was at sea. He had finally begun—at the age of nearly seventy—his famous career as great American nationalist. “By the very narrow definition of his specific instructions,” Goodwin writes,

Franklin failed in both his missions to London: the Pennsylvania Assembly was not able to tax the Proprietors on an equitable and permanent basis; nor was it able to oust them and establish Pennsylvania as a royal colony. But such a judgment is harsh, for though he was keen enough to try, Franklin was not empowered to succeed. That is equally true of his attempts to sustain the relationship between Britain and its colonies. He failed; but it was not for want of trying. . . . In the decade before 1775, the major problem in reconciling the conflicting claims of the British Parliament and the colonial Assemblies was political instability within Britain itself.

Five days after Franklin’s arrival in America began the Second Continental Congress, which Franklin attended as the representative of Pennsylvania. He assisted in drawing up the Declaration of Indepen­dence, and with the beginning of the Revolutionary War he was sent to France as the first American minister—the equivalent of the modern ambassador. His achievements in persuading the French to part with a great deal of money in aid of the rebelling colonists probably won the war for America.

Goodwin’s book is a salutary reminder that the great founders, including Franklin, started as Britons and only gradually came to think of themselves as Americans. A generation older than George Washington, two generations older than James Madison, Franklin was the senior member of the group; unlike the rest of them, he was a Briton much longer than he was an American. The speed with which he was able to change his ideas when those that had sustained him throughout his career proved no longer tenable was remarkable: he was a supremely practical man with a rare ability never to look back when looking back was pointless. Goodwin’s portrait adds much to our view of this remark­able character.


[1] BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IN LONDON: The British Life of America’s Founding Father, by George Goodwin. Yale University Press. $32.50.