Who was Benjamin Franklin? Probably not quite who we think he was.
Yes, he was one of the “Founding Fathers,” the only one who put his name to all three of the founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and the Constitution under which we still live. But he was not the principal author of any of them, and except for the Declaration, they did not say at all what he would have liked them to. Yes, he became famous for his many aphorisms in praise of being industrious and thrifty in one’s calling, but he left his own calling as a printer and retired from business at the age of 42. He devoted the rest of his long life to public service, but the most important services he performed at the public’s demand were not quite what he thought the public should be doing.
In other words, we cannot really know who Franklin was from the role he played in history. But he conveyed to others in his lifetime a sense of who he was that made and makes him worth knowing just for himself. We can recapture in the papers contained here someone whose life showed, as few ever have, how much it can mean to be a human being.
Knowing him at two centuries distance is a challenge. He once said, “Let all Men know thee but no man know thee thoroughly.” I’m not quite sure what he meant by that. He was certainly good at letting everyone know him. He loved company and rarely missed an opportunity to be with other people. He seems to have charmed them all. His was probably the most brilliant mind that most people who knew him had ever met, but he seldom showed it in public. He could chat with beggars and kings, scholars and shopkeepers, and make them all feel comfortable in his presence. At the same time his mind would be quietly at work, trying to understand the world and the people he found in it, thinking of ways to make their lives easier.
We cannot know Franklin quite the way people of his time did. We cannot go to the gatherings of friends, the clubs, the dinners, the parties that he liked so much. We cannot catch the inflection of his voice, his pregnant silences, his body language. On the other hand, we can know him in a way that his best friends could not. They had to know him over a limited number of years in a life that lasted from 1706 to 1790 in three different places: America, England, and France. But we can know him as he was in all places and all times of his life. In any given situation where we find him we can know not only what he had just done but also what he was about to do. People change. They grow, learn, forget. We can perhaps know him more thoroughly in some ways than he wanted his friends to.
In the awesome bulk of his papers, equivalent of 47 fat volumes of print, all available on this website, we can see Franklin whole. Few readers will want to tackle what is available here without knowing where to begin. The purpose of this introduction is to offer a guide to some of the things Franklin said and did at different times of his life, as recorded in his own words and in the letters that others wrote to him. We can suggest where to find his discussions and changing views on a variety of subjects.
The documents on the website can be viewed in chronological order, so one may have little to do with those on either side of it. But in pursuing some of his interests and characteristics, I hope that serendipity, the chance discovery of something unexpected, will lead different readers in different directions. You can pursue any of his interests by calling up all the letters to a particular correspondent or by asking for all documents containing a particular word or combination of words. But I am going to select a few documents that exhibit what seem to me his most characteristic qualities as a man and his interactions with other people of his time.
It may be well at first to dispel the image of him as an overweight scholar peering from his desk over the bifocal glasses he invented. Franklin was seventy in 1776 when he went to France as America’s emissary and nearly eighty when he returned. Most of the famous paintings of him were made in that interval, when he was racked with gout and kidney stones. As a young man he was obviously athletic. In an age when hardly anyone knew how to swim, Franklin did it regularly. In his autobiography he tells of swimming in the Thames from near Chelsea to Blackfriars, a distance of more than two miles. He even tried attaching paddles to his feet to gain extra speed. Read his instructions at 15:295 (in English) and 20:131 (in French).
It tells us a little about Franklin to know that he was not the couch potato that most of his portraits suggest. But we want to know him in his relations to the rest of the world. We can know little about his most intimate domestic relationships. At the time he married Deborah Read in 1736, he had already fathered an infant son, William, whom Deborah seems to have accepted as one of the household, but we have no idea who the mother was. With Deborah he fathered another son, Francis, who died early, and a daughter Sarah. Franklin seems to have been conventionally fond of his family and more than conventionally fond of William. But for the first 25 years of his marriage to Deborah, while the children were growing up, the family lived together in Philadelphia, and there was ordinarily no occasion for letters between them. In 1756 and 1757 while Franklin was frequently away doing military duty in the war with the French, he wrote pretty regularly to Deborah. His letters are affectionate, as are those he later wrote to her from London, where, except for the years from 1762 to 1764 he was absent from home. Theirs seems to have been a happy marriage, but its most intimate moments when both were young, will remain unknown to us.
Most of what we can learn about Franklin in the first forty years of his life comes from the autobiography, which he started writing when he was sixty-five. The young man we can find in its pages comes to us through the vision of a much older self. But in it we can find his recollection of the way he first directed his energies to understanding the mysteries of the world and its strange, lovable, and laughable inhabitants. The great bulk of his other surviving papers, occupying 95 per cent of the total, was written after he turned forty. The other five per cent, through the year 1747, will nevertheless tell us much, for Franklin was reaching the height of his powers during those early years.
Let’s begin on the light side with a sample of the way Franklin enjoyed children. One of his best friends during his long stay in England was Jonathan Shipley, Bishop of St. Asaph, whom he visited at Shipley’s country house, Twyford, near Winchester. Shipley and his wife had a charming family, a boy and five girls, aged from eleven to twenty-two in 1771. Franklin spent two weeks with them in the summer of that year (beginning to write his autobiography in their “garden study”). On his way back to London he escorted the youngest Shipley, Catherine (Kitty), returning to her boarding school. Arriving home, he wrote her mother of their trip together and safe arrival (18:199). Please read it.
It will be apparent from this charming dialogue not only that Franklin was good with children but also that he had a high sense of humor. The Shipley family seems to have encouraged it. A couple of years later he wrote an epitaph for the squirrel he had procured from America for Georgiana, his favorite among the daughters (19:301; 20:58). Franklin liked young people, especially young women. You can find other examples by looking at his correspondence over the years with Catherine (Katy) Ray in Rhode Island before and after her marriage to William Greene, and with Polly Stevenson, his London landlady’s daughter, before and after her marriage to William Hewson. Polly was so fond of him that when she was widowed she followed him back to Philadelphia after the Revolution. Franklin liked to flirt with these young women before they were married but after that event was careful not to, or so the letters seem to suggest. I know of nothing to indicate that his relations with either of them went beyond flirtation. But in his letters to them he frequently reveals more about himself than in other correspondence. Many of his letters to Polly Stevenson were about scientific problems that enticed him, but the longest one, about his first trip to France, is full of the fun that her friendship brought out in him. (14:250)
Franklin’s sense of humor was always just below the surface in his correspondence with close friends. It surfaces continually in the aphorisms scattered through the pages of his Poor Richard’s Almanacks, making fun of human behavior in admonitions as often directed against himself as against others. “He that speaks much is much mistaken.” (2:141) “Great talkers should be cropt, for they’ve no need of ears.” (2:192) “Is there any thing Men take more pains about than to render themselves unhappy?” Look for more of these at the beginning of the papers for each year from 1733 to 1757. And look at his pieces on conversation at 1:177 and 1:327. Franklin, in accordance with his own precepts, never said much in company, but his sense of humor lasted all his life. A New England minister visiting him for the first time in Philadelphia in 1787 was as charmed as everyone else: “He has an incessant vein of humour, accompanied with an uncommon vivacity, which seems as natural and involuntary as breathing.”
Franklin gave full vent to his wit in his favorite form of literary composition, the hoax, in which he pretended to be someone else and led the reader on as a kind of practical joke. He started early when as a teenager he wrote pieces for his brother’s newspaper, pretending to be one “Silence Dogood,” a pious widow under whose name he made fun of various human follies, among which he included Harvard College. (1:14). Later he employed hoaxes in pamphlets and newspaper pieces, sometimes just for fun and sometimes to attack the British policies that alienated the American colonists. A good example of what he wrote for fun was “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker.” (3:120) Franklin first published this in a newspaper in 1747, and it was quickly reprinted in both America and England. The hoax was so successful that many people took it for fact. It was even reported that one of the judges married Polly. Franklin was never averse to ribald humor. Find other examples at 2:173; 3:27; 32:396.
Most of Franklin’s hoaxes had a more serious purpose than the speech of Miss Polly Baker. As an advocate of American colonial rights, he was continually annoyed by the ignorance of America displayed in English newspapers. In 1765 the papers were full of exaggerated accounts of the manufacturing establishments being founded in America to compete with those of England. Franklin’s way of countering these reports was a tall-tale exaggeration of them (12:132). As the quarrel between Great Britain and the colonies developed, Franklin’s hoaxes became increasingly bitter in tone (4:130; 20:389; 21:220).
We shall have to look more closely at the way Franklin played his role as advocate for American interests in England during the years he spent there in that capacity, 1757-1762 and 1764-1775. But first we should notice his views on a very personal matter, religion. As a boy he was brought up in the Calvinistic religion of New England, but by the time he ran away from his apprenticeship to his brother as a printer, he was ready to run away from Calvinism too. In his first brief trip to England as a young man in 1725-26, he met some of the leading deists and wrote a small treatise showing that moral rules and human free will were meaningless (1:57). He later regretted this and tells much about his religious development in the autobiography. Back in Philadelphia he came to the defense of a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Hemphill, who believed, as Franklin now did, that the only way to honor and obey God was to do good to others. But Hemphill was caught plagiarizing his sermons from other deists and fled the country. Franklin never again engaged in religious controversy. Privately he defended his views briefly and unconvincingly to his sister Jane (2:384). He later explained them more fully in two letters to friends, written thirty-seven years apart, June 6, 1753 and March 9, 1790 (4:503; unpub.).
Franklin evidently believed in God as Creator of the universe, but after the Hemphill episode he was much more interested in the world that God created than he was in its inscrutable Creator. Indeed his insatiable curiosity about the world became his salient characteristic, as it is of everyone we call a scientist.
It was Franklin’s curiosity that led him to the discoveries about electricity which won him world-wide fame. But before considering that, I want to emphasize the fact that his curiosity was usually directed at everyday things that required no special apparatus to investigate. Nothing could be more of an everyday experience than the common cold. Long before there was a germ theory of disease, Franklin became suspicious of the general supposition that colds came from exposure to the cold. “From many Years’ Observations on my self and others,” he wrote in 1773, “I am persuaded we are on a wrong Scent in supposing moist or cold Air, the Causes of that Disorder we call a Cold.” Convinced that people “caught colds” from each other and not from being cold, he planned a book on the subject but never got around to finishing it. You can read his voluminous notes for it at 20:529, but also look at two letters on the subject at 20:314 and 20:442.
What aroused Franklin’s interest most often was the behavior of air and water, wind and waves, indoors and outdoors. My own favorite example is his discovery of the way northeast storms came not from the northeast, as everyone then supposed, but from the opposite direction. He described how his curiosity was aroused in a letter to Jared Eliot, a Connecticut farmer who resembled Franklin in questioning popular assumptions about many things (3:463). For other speculations about the movements of air in the atmosphere, see his observations and speculations in 4:235 and 9:110, his pursuit of a whirlwind while riding in Maryland (6:167) and accounts of the behavior of thunderstorms in his speculations about lightning (below).
At a time when houses were heated by stoves and open fires, Franklin had plenty of opportunity to observe the movement of heated air indoors, often made visible by smoke. Around 1740 he put his observations to work in designing and building a stove that would yield the maximum amount of heat and light without subjecting people to direct draughts from outside air. His description of his famous Franklin stove and how to build it is a model of lucidity and worth reading for that reason alone (2:419). To anyone struggling with the instructions for assembling the devices that arrive at our doors in those impenetrable packages, its clarity can make one weep with envy. The stove was a great success, and it so impressed the Governor of Pennsylvania that he offered to give Franklin a patent on the making of it. In his autobiography Franklin explained why he rejected the offer “from a Principle which has ever weigh’d with me on such Occasions, viz. That as we enjoy great Advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously .”
When Franklin went to England, his study of the movement of air put him in demand with his friends to deal with their smoky fireplaces. A good example is in a letter to Alexander Dick (10:13). Other examples are at 10:27, 13:196, 15:50, 15:60, and 16:1. Franklin kept thinking about smoke and smoky chimneys and finally wrote what amounted to a treatise on the subject during his final voyage home to America in 1785 (unpub.).
Movements of water were as fascinating to him as those of air. In eight voyages back and forth across the Atlantic, he encountered much that needed explaining. See his argument with John Perkins, a Boston physician, about whether waterspouts came down from the air or up from the sea (4:358, 4:370, 4:429, 4:489), his letters to Polly Stevenson about waves and tides (9:212, 9:247), and his discovery of the Gulf Stream’s effect on Atlantic crossings (15:246). But his most extraordinary observations were written during his final voyage home. In a forty-page letter addressed to a friend back in France, later published in Philadelphia by the American Philosophical Society (which Franklin had founded decades earlier), he offered detailed instructions for altering the hulls of ships as well as their rigging in order to improve their speed and safety. He suggested new ways of moving them by propellers, paddle wheels, and jet propulsion, ways of slowing them down in a storm by sea anchors, ways of providing better food on long voyages, ways of storing cargo to improve stability (41:384). The letter is a tour de force, comparable to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of aircraft.
Franklin’s curiosity about electricity began around 1747 when he heard of experiments in England and Europe with “Leyden Jars,” glass vessels coated with foil which could be charged with static electricity, the only kind of electricity then recognized. Early in that year Peter Collinson, a London merchant who had heard of Franklin’s interest, sent him a jar and directions for charging it; and Thomas Penn, the Proprietor of Pennsylvania, sent him more. From then on and especially for the next few years Franklin was engrossed in electrical experiments. You will find most of his initial work described in correspondence with Collinson and with Cadwallader Colden and Ebenezer Kinnersley. Most of it was collected and printed in London in a book entitled Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia by Benjamin Franklin . The first edition in 1751 was followed by a second in 1754, a third in 1760, a fourth in 1769, and a fifth in 1774. Each edition was expanded with new discoveries and with Franklin’s observations on air and water mentioned above. It is hard to know where one should begin with this mass of materials, all of which are included on this web site at the date when they were first written. The famous kite experiment is described at 4:360 and 4:367 (October 19, 1752).
Franklin gives an interesting account of the reasoning that led him to make the kite experiment along with several others and his view of public reactions to scientific discoveries and inventions at 5:521. His first suggestions for lightning rods are at 3:472 and 4:408. Because Franklin’s experiments taught the world much more than had ever been known about electricity, he came to be regarded as the principal authority on the subject. He had finished most of his own experiments with it by the early 1750s, but for the rest of his life he received letters, reports, and queries from other experimenters asking for his advice. You can find most of his correspondence on electrical subjects simply by typing “electric” in the search box.
He gave his advice freely and never lost interest in the subject, but somewhere around 1750, without ever saying exactly when or how, he decided to devote his life to public service. The closest thing to a clue is in a letter to Cadwallader Colden, the New Yorker who had long shared Franklin’s interest in philosophic (scientific) experiments. In 1750 Colden, who had been active in New York politics, retired from politics and rejoiced that he would now have time for experiments. Franklin, too, had freed himself from other obligations in 1748 by turning over the conduct of his printing business to his partner, David Hall (3:263). In October 1750 he congratulated Colden on his retirement from public business but warned him that the conduct of a commonwealth far outweighed the importance of philosophical discoveries (4:67).
Franklin’s own public service hitherto had been directed toward voluntary associations: a library, a fire company, a hospital, an academy, a militia. These are all described in the autobiography. Franklin had also served as clerk of the Pennsylvania legislative assembly throughout the 1740s but had refused to stand for election to it. In 1751 he agreed and was immediately elected a member. What made him change his mind? Why did he give up experimenting with electricity to devote himself to Pennsylvania politics and, by consequence, to imperial politics?
It was not a sudden change, not like a religious conversion. But it may have come as a realization of what the future was likely to bring to America. At least as early as 1749 he had begun thinking about the rapid increase of population in America. He placed some of his observations in Poor Richard’s Almanack for 1750 (3:437) and in a letter to James Parker, a New York printer (4:117) in March of that year. Sometime during the year he set down his observations at length in an essay, not published until 1755. They contain, in the form of a discussion of population growth, Franklin’s vision of America’s future potential. It is one of the most revealing of Franklin’s writings. (4:225)
It is no accident that he published in this same year his bitter protest against the British practice of peopling the colonies by exporting condemned felons (4:130). As the essay on population growth shows, he had his own ethnocentric ideas about peopling the American continent.
Franklin’s views on race and slavery changed over time. He did not write much about them. He himself held household slaves in the 1750s and 1760s (7:369; 9:173; 12:302). In 1763 he maintained that blacks were the intellectual equals of whites (10:395). In the last year of his life he signed a petition to the new United States Congress for the national abolition of slavery and wrote a devastating satire on southern defenses of it in the guise of one of his hoaxes (unpub., unpub.). In 1751 he was less concerned about the injustice of slavery than he was about populating the North American continent with people from anywhere but Great Britain. Franklin was already thinking of America as the future headquarters of the British Empire, a view that animated his insistence on the importance of uniting the English colonies and his distress at England’s failure to recognize their importance. Jumping ahead in time, look at the fifteen letters between him and Lord Kames from 1760 to 1775, in which Franklin expresses his vision most personally (search under “Kames”).
In the same letter to James Parker concerning population growth (4:117) Franklin addressed the problem of getting the English colonies to unite. His immediate purpose then and in the next few years was to present a united front against the Indians. For Franklin, as for most Americans of the time, the Indians were an obstacle to be overcome, but look at 11:19, 11:22, 11:42, 11:101; 13:433, and unpublished. The plan he outlined to Parker was preempted in 1754 when the British government proposed an intercolonial meeting at Albany, New York, to enlist the Iroquois on the British side in the expected war with France over possession of North America. Franklin’s part in the Albany meeting, his preparation for it, and the resulting proposed union of the colonies occupy a large place in his papers of 1754 (browse volume 5, pp 269-454).
The Albany Congress occasioned Franklin’s first expression of American colonial rights within the British Empire. Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, on viewing the plan adopted by the meeting at Albany (and later rejected anyhow by the various colonies and by the British ministry that had initiated the meeting) suggested that the delegates to the proposed Grand Council of an intercolonial union be appointed by the king rather than elected by the colonists. The Grand Council was to have powers of taxation. Franklin explained to the governor in three letters (5:441, 5:443, 5:449) that the colonists would regard a royally appointed body with powers of taxation as a violation of their rights as Englishmen. The letters give a foretaste of the arguments that the colonists and Franklin himself would offer ten years later when the British Parliament bypassed the colonial representative assemblies in levying direct taxes.
Franklin did not believe in “natural rights.” He thought that rights, including property rights, were conferred by society, but he also thought that the powers of government in any society rested on the good opinion of the people governed. He was not much interested in political theory and has very little to say about the origins of government or of property. Some rare examples are in a letter to Benjamin Vaughan, March 11, 1785 (unpub.) and in one paragraph of a letter to Robert Morris, December 25, 1783 (unpub.) and in comments on the Pennsylvania state constitution (unpub.). But if Franklin did not himself believe in a natural right to property, he knew that the people of America did. It mattered little to him whether such a right existed in fact (how could it even be a matter of fact?). As long as people believed in the existence of such a right, the effectiveness of government would rest on respect for their belief. And his own public service, as he saw it, required the same respect. When he decided to devote himself to public service, it was a decision to subordinate or suppress his own opinions to those of the public he served. He might lead public opinion, he might seek to change it, but he only once mistook his private opinion for that of the public.
He made that mistake when he began serving the people of Pennsylvania. As a member (and leader) of the Pennsylvania representative assembly during the war with France that began after the Albany Congress, he was outraged that the proprietors of the colony, the children and descendants of William Penn, refused to allow their vast landholdings to bear a share of taxes to support the war. The result was a continuing quarrel between the colony’s governor—appointed by the Penns, who lived in England—and the assembly elected by the inhabitants. Franklin was usually the draftsman of the increasingly strident messages sent by this assembly to the governor, and they occupy a substantial place in his Papers from 1755 to 1757, when the assembly sent him to England to appeal directly to the king.
In England, partly because of the fame his electrical experiments had brought him, Franklin already had many friends, admirers, and contacts. Deborah had refused to accompany him across the ocean, then or ever. But he took up lodgings with a widow, Margaret Stevenson, and was immediately at home in London. Her daughter Mary, always called Polly, became, as we have seen, a lifelong friend. In these years he engaged Polly Stevenson in many of his experiments about the movement of air and water. He included some of his letters to her (8:455; 9:212, 9:247, 9:338; 10:105) in the 1769 edition of his Experiments. Franklin’s sociability quickly found expression in joining London clubs that met in coffee houses and taverns to enjoy food, drink, and talk. He was so entranced by the company he found in London and in excursions with his new friends throughout the country, that he found it very hard to leave. After returning to Philadelphia temporarily in 1762, he wrote a nostalgic letter to Polly comparing England and America, to the advantage of England (10:231). He may have been tempted to make England his home, but when one of his friends, Richard Jackson, urged him to stay and to stand for a seat in Parliament, he decided he was too old to change countries (8:309).
Franklin was not too old, however, to think of all America as his country and of America as the future center of the British Empire. During his English sojourn British and colonial armies drove the French from Pennsylvania’s hinterland and then captured all of Canada. Franklin was concerned that the new possession remain in the empire and not be bartered for French West Indian islands in the peace negotiations. He disclosed his vision of the future North American empire in a long pamphlet of 1760 to which he affixed his essay on population growth (9:47).
Happily the British ministry had already decided to keep Canada, and Franklin was able to return his attention to the mission on which the Pennsylvania assembly had sent him. He succeeded in persuading the king’s Privy Council that at least some of the Proprietor’s lands in Pennsylvania should be subject to taxation. But he was becoming increasingly convinced that the empire he envisaged should have no place for private proprietors of colonies, as was the case in both Pennsylvania and Maryland. His views emerge in correspondence with Isaac Norris, the speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly, scattered through volumes 8 through 10 of the papers, but look particularly at 8:101 (the first paragraph) and 8:157.
By 1762 Franklin had convinced himself that the only solution to Pennsylvania’s problems would be a total recall by the king of the powers that James II had originally given to William Penn. Royal government for Pennsylvania became an obsession with him, and he returned to Philadelphia in 1762 to organize a mass petition to the king to bring it about. This was where he mistook his own opinion for public opinion. He drew up a petition to the king asking for royal government, persuaded 3,500 people to sign it (11:193, 11:199), and published pamphlets in support of it (11:153, 11:267, 11:429). But friends of the Proprietors got 15,000 signatures against any change in government. That should have given Franklin second thoughts. The Assembly nevertheless adopted Franklin’s petition and sent him back to England with it in 1764. After a long delay the king rejected it, but Franklin stayed on until 1774.
He stayed because the public he viewed as his had ceased to be merely Pennsylvanians and had become, in effect, Americans. By the same token, the opinions he would now support were American. 1764 was the year when the British Parliament began the contest that challenged American opinion as never before. Franklin was slow to recognize the strength of the views that he had warned Governor Shirley about in 1754. When he heard the first rumors of future British taxation in 1763, he told his friends not to worry because it would be against Britain’s long-term interests to tax the Americans (as indeed it was) (10:285; 11:19, 11:180, 11:185, 11:234).
After he arrived back in England late in 1764, with his petition for royal government in Pennsylvania, he did his best, with other colonial agents, to prevent the passage of the Stamp Act. When Parliament passed it anyway, he misjudged the strength of American hostility to it but still believed that the English would see their mistake and reverse it. His testimony before the House of Commons in 1766 (13:124) was instrumental in securing the repeal of the act, and repeal seemed to confirm his opinion that the British would now see, as he did, that by taxing the colonies England would “lose more in trade than they can get in taxes” (12:204.) He himself now believed that for the British Parliament to tax the colonists was not only unwise but a violation of the historical British Constitution (13:207) and of what Americans believed to be their constitutional rights. He kept his view of constitutional rights to himself, for he was more interested in getting the British and the colonists to reach an amicable agreement than he was in establishing anyone’s “rights.”
Franklin now saw his public service as twofold: persuading the British not to anger Americans by violating what they (and he) believed to be their historic constitutional rights, and on the other hand persuading Americans to hold off violent resistance until he and others could get the British to recognize what they had to lose by antagonizing the Americans. In the years from 1766 to 1775 we can watch Franklin pursue this goal as a kind of spokesman in England for all Americans. He became the official agent of the colonial assemblies, not only of Pennsylvania but also of Massachusetts, Georgia, and New Jersey. In his letters to his constituents, especially to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, we can see his confidence in the flexibility of both sides gradually disappear, and his impatience with British statesmen grow, along with his insistence on American rights.
He was still trying to smooth things over when the next British attempt to tax, the Townshend Acts, passed in Parliament in 1767. Since these Acts levied duties on British exports to America (Americans were already forbidden by law to purchase the items, such as glass and paper, anywhere else), Franklin did not at first recognize the Acts as a tax on Americans (15:74). And in October 1768, when the town of Boston, in response to them, adopted a non-importation agreement against British goods, Franklin was at first dismayed because it produced so much anti-American feeling in British (14:348; 15:54). For his attempt to defuse British anger and explain American actions, see his long justification of the colonists throughout the dispute at 15:3, published in the London newspapers, January 5-7, 1768.
By March 1769, when other colonies had adopted non-importation agreements, Franklin had changed his mind about American tactics. He had tried to no avail the kind of persuasion in pamphlet and newspaper articles that had helped in the repeal of the Stamp Act. He had now come to believe that the non-important agreements, by crippling British trade to America, were the only way left to get the attention of the British ministry. His letters to Americans stopped urging them to avoid giving offense and advised them to stick to their non-importation agreements until every tax was repealed (16:29, 16:52, 16:62; 17:310). As we have seen, Franklin had concluded by 1766 that Parliament had no constitutional authority in America, but he had kept that view to himself in his efforts to avoid angering the British and to encourage American patience. By 1771, though he did not advertise his opinion in England, he was telling it to his American constituents and telling them, in their protests and petitions, never to use any words that implied any authority in Parliament over them (17:162).
The development of Franklin’s views in America’s contest with Parliament can be followed in his letters to Joseph Galloway in Pennsylvania, to Samuel Cooper and Thomas Cushing in Boston, and to his son William in New Jersey. Before 1762 William had worked with his father in London in the mission against the Pennsylvania Proprietors. In 1762 Franklin succeeded in getting William appointed as royal governor of New Jersey. Thereafter Franklin often wrote him letters expressing views that he knew William, as a royal governor, could not fully share. All these letters, to William and the others, will be found most readily by name of correspondent.
When Franklin began urging Americans to stand firm against Parliamentary rule, he did not give up hope of a reconciliation. And he undertook a bold move that he believed would further it. Letters written to English authorities by several Americans, including some by Thomas Hutchinson, Governor of Massachusetts, had come into his possession—he never said how. The letters (vol. 20, pp 539–580) all argued in favor of the English measures that had angered other Americans. Franklin sent them to Thomas Cushing with a letter explaining why (20:400). This was one of the most controversial things that Franklin ever did. It prompted the Massachusetts Assembly, already at odds with Hutchinson, to petition the king for Hutchinson’s recall (20:243). The King’s Privy Council formally rejected the petition on January 29, 1774, with a famous denunciation of Franklin by the Solicitor General, Alexander Wedderburn. Franklin’s own account of that episode in a letter to Thomas Cushing is at 21:86.
Despite his humiliation by Wedderburn, Franklin continued to hope that England would recognize the danger of continuing to alienate the colonies by measures that violated the rights they claimed. As early as July, 1773, he had suggested that the colonies meet in a congress (like the one he had attended at Albany in 1754) to jointly assert and define their rights (20:271, 20:277). Before that could happen, colonial resistance escalated with the famous Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, in which a mob destroyed the cargo of the East India Company’s tea in order to prevent the collection of a tax on its sale. Parliament responded with the so-called “Intolerable Acts,” closing the Port of Boston and establishing a more autocratic government in Massachusetts.
Now, without any prompting by Franklin, the colonies joined in their first Continental Congress in September 1774 to adopt not only a Declaration of Rights but also to form an Association to halt all trade to or from Britain. When Franklin heard of the congress, even before it met, he applauded colonial firmness as the only way to bring about a change in the British ministry and in British policy (21:251, 21:279, 21:285, 21:323, 21:326). By the beginning of the year 1775 he was convinced that further efforts of his own for that purpose, in London, would be fruitless.
He embarked for Philadelphia on March 20, 1775. In the preceding months several friends had sought to negotiate with him in an effort to prevent a complete break between England and America. After he took ship, he began a long account of these negotiations in a letter to William, which will be found at 21:540. Whether William ever received the letter is uncertain. He did not meet Franklin’s ship when it arrived in Philadelphia, and the two did not get together until a few weeks later at the home of Joseph Galloway. We have no record of what was said at that meeting, but after it Franklin in effect disowned his son for adhering to the king instead of joining the colonial resistance movement that eventuated the following year in the Declaration of Independence.
Historians often ask when the point of no return came for Franklin, when he decided that independence, separation from England, was both inevitable and desirable. Put another way, when did he start thinking of himself as an American and not a British American? It will be worth bearing this question in mind while reading his account of these last negotiations, which ended with his departure for America. It will also be worth considering the fact that by June of 1775, his son’s attachment to the British cause apparently destroyed the affection he had hitherto felt so strongly for William.
Franklin arrived in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, and was immediately elected to the Second Continental Congress, which began meeting there five days later. He remained in America for the next year and a half, active in various committees and missions for the Congress: to confer with Washington about organizing the Continental Army (22:224), with Lord Howe about ending the “rebellion”—not a chance (22:518, 22:598)—and to travel to Canada in a fruitless effort to get the Canadians to join them (22:380, 22:400, 22:421). At the same time he was proposing Articles of Confederation (22:120, 22:571) and presiding over the convention that drafted Pennsylvania’s first state constitution.
The trip to Canada strained Franklin’s health and left him with bad cases of edema and gout. But Congress had more work for him. After serving on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, he was needed to seek foreign aid—no one else had the international prestige. In October 1776, he embarked for France, to spend the next nine years securing the military and financial assistance that enabled the Revolution to succeed when it did. There is no record in the official proceedings of Congress or in Franklin’s correspondence at the time that he was reluctant to undertake the task. But consider carefully the concluding paragraph of his letter to Arthur Lee on March 21, 1777 (23:508). Franklin had opposed seeking any foreign aid but was overruled and sent on the mission to do what he disapproved of doing. It tells us something about him that he thought the United States (perhaps after a longer war and more self-sacrifice) could defeat the British single-handed, and it tells us something else about him that he was willing to do the job he did not want done.
Franklin was seventy years old when he left for France. His Papers up to that time occupy 22 volumes. The Papers for the remainder of his life, somewhat less than 14 years, will eventually occupy another 25 volumes in print, at least 22 of them for the eight-and-a-half years in France. Because of his path-breaking electrical experiments, Franklin was already well-known in France when he arrived and immediately became the center of attention. In America and England he had enjoyed friendships with young women. In France he quickly discovered that the older married women of the French upper classes loved to flirt and were experts at it. With his playful sense of humor, he was delighted to join in. Having settled at the village of Passy just outside Paris, his near neighbor, Madame Brillon (Anne-Louise Boivin d’Hardancourt) not only entertained him in her home in regular weekly visits but also exchanged many written declarations of undying love with him. He carried on the same kind of flirtation and flirtatious correspondence with two other French ladies, Madame Helvétius (Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d'Autricourt), famous for her salon, and the Comtesse d’Houdetot (Elisabeth-Françoise-Sophie de La Live de Bellegarde). Look for the correspondence under Brillon, Helvétius, and Houdetot.
Most of the voluminous body of Papers from Franklin’s years in France derive from the correspondence required by his official duties. Throughout his stay his principal job for the United States was to beg military and financial assistance through the office of the Comte de Vergennes, the French minister of Foreign Affairs (see the correspondence under Vergennes). But Congress and everyone else expected him to handle a host of other problems: the activities of American privateers and of the American navy (consisting mainly of John Paul Jones), the procurement of supplies for Washington, the exchange of prisoners of war, and the private problems of every American who passed through Paris. At the outset Franklin was assisted in official relations with France by two other Americans already there, Silas Deane of Connecticut and Arthur Lee of Virginia. The three, led by Franklin, obtained treaties of alliance with France on February 6, 1778. But Lee and Deane were already at odds with each other. Lee accused Deane of fraud and succeeded in obtaining his recall, to be replaced by John Adams. Adams was also empowered to negotiate peace with England when the time should come for it.
Before that time arrived, Franklin was relieved of Adams’ assistance and made sole plenipotentiary of the United States in France on September 19, 1778. Adams, on the other hand, after needlessly quarreling with Vergennes, was replaced as sole peacemaker by a commission consisting of Adams himself but also of Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens, and Thomas Jefferson (who never got there). These are some of the bare facts underlying the diplomacy that occupied Franklin in France. If you examine his correspondence with other Americans in France, especially Lee and Adams, you will find that they presented him with more problems than Vergennes did and made his mission more difficult than it need have been. His own reports to Congress on the mission will be found mainly in his letters to Samuel Huntington, Robert Morris, and Robert Livingston. His journal of the initial peace negotiations in June 1782, sent to Livingston, December 5, 1782 (38:363) is at 37:291.
Franklin was not visibly active in the peace negotiations after John Jay more or less took charge of them in September, 1782. But from the time of his arrival in France, English friends, particularly David Hartley, a member of Parliament whom Franklin had met shortly before leaving England, bombarded him with proposals for peace. Franklin’s correspondence with Hartley shows how totally Franklin was committed to a complete separation from England. As a result of these early interchanges he had the opportunity to think his own thoughts about war and peace. As early as 1778 he expressed his opinion that a satisfactory peace would require not just a cessation of arms but a true reconciliation. For him that would require voluntary acts of contrition by the British (25:562), a view that he repeated when negotiations began (37:177, 37:228). Franklin hated war but recognized that men would continue to butcher themselves in it. The most to be hoped for was to alleviate its horrors by exempting ordinary people from them. He failed to secure his proposals for this purpose (37:608; unpub.; 39:443; unpub.; unpub.) in the treaty of peace with England, though Congress did recommend their inclusion in future treaties (unpub.), and in the treaty negotiated with Prussia in 1784 they were actually included (unpub.).
Once the peace negotiations were concluded, Franklin was ready to go home, but the United States still needed him in Paris. The country was broke, and in the absence of any power in Congress to levy taxes, the men in charge of paying the bills wrote him in desperation of the need for more loans from France (unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub.; unpub.). He stayed on until Congress finally allowed him to return in 1785. In Paris he was besieged by would-be immigrants to America who assumed that he could help them get there and furnish them with land and jobs. He finally wrote a pamphlet entitled Information to those who Would Remove to America, to disabuse them of their illusions. It is a good expression of what he thought his country was and ought to be. He was also busy on a commission, along with the great chemist Lavoisier, appointed by the French king to investigate Mesmerism, a supposed way of curing various ailments, advanced by one Franz Mesmer. After a lengthy empirical investigation, the commission pronounced Mesmerism to be a total fraud, to the consternation of many French notables taken in by it (unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub..
During his last two years in Paris Franklin was excited to witness the first balloon ascensions by Joseph-Michel Montgolfier. When someone scoffed at them by asking what good they were, he gave his famous answer, “What good is a newborn baby?” His fullest accounts of the ascensions are in letters to Sir Joseph Banks. Relieved of the pressures of negotiations with the British (though not of begging more funds from Vergennes), Franklin found time to write down his thoughts on a number of subjects in letters to friends. To old friends in England he expatiated on his belief that the great fault of the British government lay in making public office a source of profit and an invitation to bribery (unpub.; unpub., unpub.). He corresponded with a friend in the printing business about casting type for whole words, as was achieved a century later with linotype. See his correspondence with John Walter.
Congress finally agreed on March 7, 1785 to let him come home, and he received the news on May 2 (unpub.; unpub.). He was now badly incapacitated by kidney stones and gout. He could not bear the jolting of a carriage. To ease his journey to Le Havre, the initial port of embarkation, the Queen of France lent him her litter, supported by two sure-footed mules. His grandson Benny Bache (who had joined him in Paris after attending a boarding school in Switzerland during most of Franklin’s stay in France) has left us a journal of the trip from the tearful leavetaking at Passy on July 12, 1785, to the arrival in Philadelphia on September 13 (unpub.). During the voyage Franklin busied himself with designing a new stove for burning coal (unpub.), with a long letter about the different causes of smoky chimneys and the remedies for them (unpub.), and most importantly with another, longer letter, already noticed above, on ways to improve ship design and navigation (unpub.).
At Philadelphia Franklin’s ship was met by a welcoming throng. He was quickly elected president of the state’s executive council, the title given to a figurehead governor in the state constitution he had helped to draft in 1776. The president’s duties were largely ceremonial, for Franklin did not believe in strong executives. He was reelected to the office for the next two years, but he occupied himself with building an addition to his house and with writing letters to friends in France and England. The English newspapers were full of accounts claiming that Americans were in the throes of economic depression and having second thoughts about independence. Franklin told his friends abroad that the opposite was true: things had never been better unpub., unpub.. He nevertheless recognized—no one had more reason to—that the existing national government under the Articles of Confederation was not up to its task. In 1787 he was elected to the great federal Convention, called to remedy the situation. The government that the Convention provided was not the one he would have chosen—he saw no need for a senate or for a single, powerful executive—but he supported the Constitution nevertheless in a famous closing speech. You will find this and his other speeches in the Convention at unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub., unpub..
After the new federal Constitution was adopted, Pennsylvanians elected a convention in 1789 to revise the state constitution. What that convention approved included changes that Franklin strongly opposed: a single executive and a bicameral legislature. Franklin wrote a paper explaining his opposition and also expounding his view that private property was something created by society, entitling the owner to no special privileges (hence he opposed property qualifications for voting). This is perhaps the single most explicit and forceful statement of his views on this subject (unpub.). The revised Pennsylvania constitution was nevertheless adopted by the voters and went into effect in September, 1790, after his death.
Thus neither the federal Constitution nor the new state constitution reflected Franklin’s own wishes. And they both violated a belief that he had come to only late in life, namely that the enslavement of human beings could not be justified. It is not clear when he had reached this belief. When he first went to England in 1757, he brought two household slaves with him, as we learn only in a casual reference in a letter to Deborah in 1760 (9:174). By the time he returned for the last time to Philadelphia in 1785, he was ready to join his Quaker friends there in trying to make an end to slavery in the United States. In April, 1787, he was elected president of a Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Much of his correspondence during the remainder of his life was devoted to this subject. See, for example, his exchanges with Granville Sharp, the English abolitionist. In February, 1790, the Society petitioned the new United States Congress under the Constitution for a federal prohibition of slavery. When Congress declined to hear the petition, Franklin responded with one of his most biting satirical hoaxes in the Federal Gazette of March 23, 1790. Speaking as one Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a member of the Algerian governing council, he gave the arguments against a supposed petition for granting freedom to Christians held in slavery in Africa (unpub.). They were, of course, the same arguments used in the United States Congress against the petition presented by the Pennsylvania abolition society. It was, appropriately, Franklin’s last public statement. He died less than a month later, on April 17, 1790.
Copyright 2005 by Edmund S. Morgan
Permission hereby granted to reproduce this essay for educational purposes
with acknowledgment of the author.