Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
“The Father of all the Yankees”
by James J. Kirschke
“The Father of all the Yankees,” thus does the eminent Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) refer to the subject of this essay.(1) And many subsequent authors have in effect echoed Carlyle’s unqualified assessment of the sage Benjamin Franklin.
Much evidence from Franklin’s career supports such judgments, despite his long-term removal from the American colonial scene for all but two years during the crucial years before the Revolution. In 1754, at the inter-colonial conference, held in Albany, New York, he presented the first definite plan to unite the American Colonies for mutual protection and improved government. By making public, in 1772, the insulting, denigratory, and presumed confidential, correspondence of Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780), of Massachusetts, to a recently deceased British governmental official, Thomas Whateley (d. 1772), Franklin greatly inflamed already aroused anti-British American sentiment. Franklin’s quill pen also produced a number of timely and excoriating anti-British satires, such as “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One” and “Edict by the King of Prussia” (both 1773).
Once armed hostilities with Great Britain began, Franklin was promptly elected to the Continental Congress. This body functioned in legislative and executive ways during the Revolutionary era colonies. In the Congress Franklin performed many important duties. For instance, he sketched a subsequent plan of union for the American colonies. Franklin also attempted to yoke the Canadians to the 13 colonies. He often advised Congress on American defense. He officially perused and commented on various peace proposals. As is well known, Thomas Jefferson composed the Declaration of Independence. But Franklin was one of the five delegates selected for the documents’ Committee.
He furthermore advised the American agents, to be sent abroad, as to how best to work to obtain arms and other kinds of assistance for America’s struggle against Great Britain. This nation was in almost all respects the major Imperial superpower from the roughly the late 1760 until 1914.
In the early years of the armed conflict with Great Britain, Franklin went overseas with Arthur Lee to help win the support of America’s indispensable ally, France. Franklin later proved one of the three major point negotiators in securing the very favorable terms of the Treaty of Paris, ratified in 1784. When he was overseas on this mission, Franklin furthermore proved instrumental in securing the final terms for our loans from the French government [see The Papers Of Benjamin Franklin. Yale University Press. Volumes 36 and 37 (forthcoming). Hereafter all citations to this edition shall be listed as PBF]. Although Franklin arrived back in America subsequent to the initial balloting for the delegates of the Constitutional Convention, he nevertheless promptly received election to this body as one of the strong seven member delegation from the Keystone State. Despite Franklin’s age (81) and physical infirmities, he proved one of the most active and effective of the 55 delegates.
In light of the above mentioned aspects of Franklin’s political career, puzzling it is that his decision to embrace the revolutionary cause without reservations could hardly have come any later than it did. As late as March 20, 1775, for instance, less than one month before Lexington and Concord, Franklin continued to hope for a negotiated settlement between America and the Mother Country. This desire by Franklin even continued for months beyond the April bloodshed.
This paper intends to suggest some of the major reasons how, when, and why he moved the cause of an independent American nation forward. My essay also, however, attempts to explain how, and why, Franklin came to hold hopes for reconciliation, short of all out war, between Britain and the 13 colonies.
We shall examine the latter issue first. Benjamin Franklin crossed the Atlantic eight times during his lifetime. He lived in Great Britain, mainly in England, for nearly twenty prime years. He ventured abroad first as a young adult, and stayed in London and its environs primarily for nearly two consecutive years as an apprentice in the printing trade. While there, Franklin became so enamored of British technology that he wanted to order British printing equipment when he set up his own soon lucrative business in the profession.
After his first trip to Britain, he traveled almost exclusively in company with the British political, social, economic and educational elites. Franklin had grown up in straitened circumstances (his father owned a candle shop, and Franklin had numerous siblings), and he had little formal education. For these reasons he may have been overly impressed by the panoply of British elites from all of the major professions who wined, dined, and traveled extensively with him. Indeed, Franklin was manifestly more warmly received by the 18th century leaders in Britain than he was by the consistently snobbish societal upper crust in his adopted home town, Philadelphia. Among his closest companions in Britain were Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), one of the postmasters general, Sir John Pringle (1707-1782), the Queen’s physician and boon companion, Peter Collinson (1694-1768), a very eminent scientist, William Strahan (1715-1785), an extremely successful printer, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), noted theologian and scientist, Richard Jackson (d. 1787), learned lawyer and member of Parliament, David Hume (1711-1776), Scottish philosopher and historian, Lord Henry Home Kames (1696-1782), Scottish jurist and scholar, and Lord Wills Hill Hillsborough (1718-1793), Secretary of State for the Colonies. Of this prestigious group, for example, all except Hillsborough were very pro-American, and everyone, Hillsborough included, liked, admired, and respected Franklin very much.
He felt the same for the most part toward almost all of the many high level elites with whom he had steady contact for most of his near two decades stay in Britain. Franklin evidently felt especially happy in the London of King George III. Indeed, he lived there almost entirely without the accompaniment of his family. His wife, Deborah, feared ships and the sea very much; and thus she never joined him overseas. Deborah died in Philadelphia, after Franklin had been abroad without her for nearly 18 years. Significantly, Franklin’s views on electricity were first published in a lengthy monograph in London. While in Britain, in 1772, “the Father of all of the Yankees” planned and supervised the installation of the lightning rods to protect the British Royal Arsenal at Purfleet. Small wonder that the genial mega-genius Franklin received honorary doctorates from St. Andrews and from Oxford. He may be seen as embarking on his complex path to Revolutionary, however, in the early 1750s. Then he expressed his umbrage in print concerning the British practice of transporting her convicted felons to America (see PBF. 4.133). Thus, while the British jails remained free of serious convicts, the transported criminals were shipped here to roam, uncarcerated, in the land of the free. On May 15, 1754 Franklin published an extremely trenchant Reply to the Governor of Pennsylvania, concerning the particulars of a sinking fund, which the Proprietory Governor had insisted on earlier. This fund intended to extend the Excise Act for a term of ten years. The Franklin drafted response contends that “the Representatives of the People have an undoubted Right to judge, and determine, not only the Sum to be raised for the Use of the Crown, but of the Manner of raising it.” (PBF. 5. 280-283). On December 4, 1754 Franklin writes a powerful letter to the Massachusetts Governor William Shirley, wherein Franklin cogently recapitulates his main arguments from the Albany Plan of 1752. In addition, this lengthy missive enumerates and condemns the powers exerted in America by the Crown appointed governors in the germane colonies (PBF. 5. 441-447; see also on this theme, PBF. 6. 217-219).
In another officially promulgated Message to the Governor, under the aegis of the Pennsylvania Assembly, on December 19, 1756 Franklin writes to protest the most recent British Quartering Law in PA. The Quartering Acts gave the British soldiers the right to take over dwellings of various kinds even without the express consent of the American owners (PBF. 7. 38-41). In the same period, Franklin challenged British authority in Pennsylvania when he persuaded the Pennsylvania Assembly to pass a law creating its own militia. He did this legislative maneuvering after he had seen how disastrously poor was the British military leadership before Fort Duquesne. Franklin had strongly advised General Braddock not to take the tactical course he did, and the results of Braddock’s absence of good sense led Franklin, for the first time, to question British military ability. This led to the temporary formation of a militia bill in Pennsylvania. The British soon, however, disallowed this act, a further cause of tension with the British in PA (See Russell Nye, ed. “The Autobiography And Other Writings Of Benjamin Franklin,” Houghton Mifflin, 1958. pp.129-132).
Franklin’s third lengthy stay in Great Britain proved from early 1764 through March 20, 1775. During this period his official duties were as agent for Pennsylvania (1764), Georgia (1768), the New Jersey House of Representatives (1769), and the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1770). In his capacity as agent from Pennsylvania, in April 1764 he published “Cool Thoughts On The Present Situation Of Public Affairs.” Here, on the urging of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he urges King George III to assume the government of Pennsylvania, indemnifying the Proprietors of the colony founded by William Penn. This request stemmed from the fact that in the Pennsylvania of the time, Philadelphia and the three counties surrounding it comprised a de facto oligarchy, controlled only by Proprietory Governor. This Governor served under the orders solely of a proprietor who lived in Britain. The Pennsylvania Assembly, however, objected to this narrow-gauged representation. The Pennsylvania legislators, therefore, thought that one way to begin making their representation broader would be to induce a King-driven governmental change in the William Penn founded colony. Franklin worked steadily and hard to attempt to effectuate this alteration of power in Pennsylvania (Franklin’s work on this issue began even before he sailed the third time to Britain. See, for instance, letter of Peter Collinson. Philadelphia. April 30, 1764 ).
Franklin envisioned that the British Empire, including America, and with America eventually in the lead, could become and remain the world’s greatest imperial power for many centuries. In 1760, for instance, in a letter to Lord Kames, nine months before the total surrender of the French in Canada, Franklin urged Britain to conquer all of Canada: “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.” There resides the potential for “the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected.” ( PBF. 9.6-7 ). Franklin the pragmatist, therefore, thought it crucial to keep Canada entirely under British control after the War.
Like most of the American colonial leaders, he proved fundamentally conservative in many ways. For example, Franklin abhorred mob actions of any kind (see for instance, BF to Richard Jackson. January 16, 1764. PBF.11.19).
In addition, he tended to be a negotiator. Thus, in the same letter to Jackson, cited above, he reasons with Jackson concerning the British “Schemes of raising Money on us,” such as through the molasses duty. “You will take care for your own sakes not to lay greater Burthens on us than we can bear; for you cannot hurt us without hurting your selves. All our Profits center with you, and the more you take from us, the less we can lay out with you,” so writes Franklin from Philadelphia (PBF. 11.19-20).
In early Spring 1764, the British Parliament prepared the Sugar Act. This Act raised duties and established regulations on a variety of colonial imports and exports. Concurrently, the ministry intended to devise stamp taxes on documents used in American commercial and legal transactions. These “inland duties” constituted Britain’s first set of direct taxes against the 13 colonies explicitly (PBF.11.108). At this time Franklin had just been sailing up the Thames to return to London after a two-year hiatus. Soon after his arrival, he learned of these legislative developments. These actions led to resolves throughout the colonies, which in turn led to riots against the tax collectors throughout many colonies, as well as to further colonial assemblies’ actions (PBF.12.205.208. Regarding Thomas Hutchinson, of Massachusetts, see also PBF.13.3 and 23).
On February 13, 1766, Franklin was examined by his friends in the House of Commons regarding the Stamp Act’s response by the Colonists. His responses to these questions were characteristically palliatory to a point. On the crucial issue of whether the colonists would submit to taxation by Parliament, however, he answered that they would never do so. Parliament then repealed the Stamp Act. Soon thereafter, through, they issued the Declaratory Act. The effect of this Act was to make a pronouncement directly contrary to the recent declarations by the colonial assemblies on the taxation issue.
The next year, 1767, Charles Townshend (1725-1767), the Chancellor of the Exchequer, imposed a series of taxes on such English manufactures as paper, glass, and paint, as well as on East India tea imported to the colonies. He also provided for a new Board of Customs Commissioners to reside in and oversee the collection of these duties. Franklin evidently saw these duties as export duties, even though they were applied solely to the American colonies (see, for example, the BF letter to William Strahan. Nov 29, 1769. PBF. 16. 243-249). This view is a clear case of Franklin’s so often donning rose-colored glasses when he views Britain’s management of her plantations in America).
Throughout 1768 Franklin attempted to pour water on the American revolutionary fires, especially as they were perceived by his many elite British friends. By 1770, however, he clearly felt believed the Colonies ought in no way be subordinate to Parliament. During this period he wrote his Massachusetts friend, Samuel Cooper (1725-1783), for instance, “that the Colonies originally were constituted distinct States and intended to be continued such… ” ( PBF.17,162-3).
In a long letter of June 1771 to Thomas Cushing (1725-1788) in which Franklin reports on the dispositions of Parliament, the multi-colony agent remarks that he hopes it would be possible “gradually to wear off the assum’d Authority of Parliament without an open challenge by the Americans to it (PBF.18.120-127; see also, however, 26-27). And Franklin continued to hold this conservative stance for a surprising number of years, as we shall soon note.
As already indicated, in December 1772 the eminent Dr. Franklin made public a series of letters from Crown appointed Governor Hutchinson (1711-1780), of MA, to a recently deceased British Treasury Undersecretary, Thomas Whately. These letters are filled with such comments regarding the colonists as “A bridle at present, may accomplish more than a rod hereafter” (PBF.20. 571,576 and 550). These letters seem to have been stolen by John Temple (1732-1798), and then passed to Franklin. Although the chain of possession is unclear, the authenticity of these missives has never been questioned.
British response to Franklin’s having made these letters public was to call him to appear “in the cockpit.” This was an indoor amphitheater, open to the public as well as to Parliament. Here he endured the abuse of the British solicitor general, Alexander Wedderburn, not to mention the jeers and taunting whistles of the House of Commons and the British public.
Less than two days afterwards, Franklin was removed from his concurrent and well-paid position as deputy postmaster general for America. Despite these eventualities, nonetheless, he wrote that he was willing “to try any thing, and bear any thing that can be borne with Safety to our just Liberties,” rather than to have an open break with Great Britain. This belief continued through February 1774, when Franklin wrote to New Jersey lawyer, John Antill (1745-?), for example, that he hoped that America would unite to reject British commercial goods, that this boycott would lead to the overthrow of the existing ministry, and that “the Friends of America [would] come into the [British] administration (PBF.21.502.522. In this vein, see too Franklin to Thomas Cushing. 21.326-328. For BF’s response to his having been “depriv’d of …office”, see PBF. 21.103).
Indeed, on June 25, 1775 Franklin penned and read for a Committee of Congress a paper in which he argued for terms of conciliation with Britain which could only be termed dramatic. This paper was presented by Franklin three days after news had reached the Congress of the Battle of Bunker Hill( PBF. 22. 112-120).
To sum up, then, superficial appearances notwithstanding, Franklin’s path to revolution, like the man himself, was complex. “The Father of the Yankees” began staking out pro-American independence position from the early 1750s through the mid 1770s. As an agent for Pennsylvania abroad, however, one of his major changes was to induce George III to assume a stronger hand in managing Pennsylvania’s affairs. These efforts helped blind Franklin to the broader colonial need for political change of a revolutionary nature. Franklin’s admiration for the structure and accomplishments of the British Empire was great. In addition, the warmth with which he was generally accepted by his numerous, close elite British friends only served to deepen this emotion.
Conservative he generally was, he disapproved strongly of mob action. A negotiator and compromiser by nature, Franklin continued to seek ways of arranging a compromise with Britain which would allow the Americans to remain in the British Empire, with the clear understanding that the United States would someday take the lead. These beliefs he continued to hold, even after Bunker Hill.
This essay was first presented in the fifth Session at the East-Central Society for 18th Century Studies Annual Conference, Rosemont College, Rosemont, PA, October 2002. I would like to thank the Performing Selves Panel Chair, Professor Elisabeth Ellington, for accepting my paper for this program. Thanks also to the attendees of the Session, several of whom made helpful suggestions for improving this article before publication. The comments of Professor S.O. West and Professor H.S. Haupt were especially valuable in completing the paper.
1. This essay was first presented in the fifth Session at the East-Central Society for 18th Century Studies Annual Conference, Rosemont College, Rosemont, PA, October 2002. I would like to thank the Performing Selves Panel Chair, Professor Elisabeth Ellington, for accepting my paper for this program. Thanks also to the attendees of the Session, several of whom made helpful suggestions for improving this article before publication. The comments of Professor S.O. West and Professor H.S. Haupt were especially valuable in completing the paper.