Benjamin Franklin had an astonishing life and career. Not only an author, scientist, inventor, and newspaper editor, he also served as an early President (now Governor) of Pennsylvania, the first U.S. Postmaster General, and the first president of The Academy and College of Philadelphia. Add to that minister to Sweden and, most famously, France.
Yet, for all that we know about Franklin, it appears our understanding of his time living in England may be surprisingly incomplete. George Goodwin’s well-written book Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father tackles the long-standing myth that Franklin was a political outsider in this great city. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Franklin’s first London trip ended up being a rather gratifying experience.
The talented historian and author in residence at London’s Benjamin Franklin House wrote, “Franklin had all his life considered himself to be British.” He was inspired by British writers, philosophers, and ideas. “It was because of his British influences, not through a rejection of them,” writes Goodwin, “that he was so willing to put the British government to the test of his ‘Prudential Algebra.’ ” At the same time, “Franklin was then prepared to become” what the Earl of Sandwich “had already believed him to be: ‘one of the bitterest and most mischievous Enemies [Britain] had ever known,’ and at great personal cost.”
Franklin’s first taste of British society occurred between 1724 and 1726. Still a teenager, he traveled on the “well-named London Hope” based on a false promise by Sir William Keith, Pennsylvania’s Lieutenant Governor, to help him finance a newspaper. Franklin would get the satisfaction of a “small revenge,” however, when in a remarkable twist of fate, he convinced the ship’s captain to open the Governor’s mail—revealing a letter from Riddlesden, a “crooked attorney,” detailing a “secret scheme against [Andrew] Hamilton that involved Keith.”
He stayed in London for a year, working at the established London printer Palmer’s. He read an extraordinary number of books, and wrote “one pamphlet of note,” A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. He even won over some colleagues, who “gave up their breakfast of beer and joined Franklin in eating the far more wholesome porridge, sprinkled with pepper and breadcrumbs and with a bit of butter added.”
It may have had an inauspicious start, but Franklin’s first London trip ended up being a rather gratifying experience.
The most illuminating sections of Benjamin Franklin in London occur during his next, and more extensive, stay in London. For nearly two decades (1757–1775), Franklin lived, studied, and politicked in the Square Mile.
Much had changed for him since his last visit. He had acquired wealth and social standing, aided by his successful Poor Richard’s Almanack.
The famous 1752 kite experiment, and his revolutionary work with electricity and the lightning rod, had also made Franklin a household name. He became “the first Briton from outside the British Isles” to be awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1753. “As a provincial outsider, Franklin had been treated with scepticism by the scientific establishment,” Goodwin noted, “but the support of the French” and “championing” of the botanist Peter Collinson and the physician John Fothergill, along with “proofs” from his fellow Copley Medal winner John Canton, “had won the day.”
Franklin took up residence on Craven Street near Trafalgar Square. It was “not far from Parliament and the houses of the aristocracy in Mayfair.” Hence, he was situated in the most ideal location: right near the main corridors of power.
In turn, Franklin moved in eminent social circles. “Far from being ‘treated coldly,’ ” Goodwin explains, “Franklin was welcomed with open arms by those interested in (natural) philosophy and science, whether they were aristocrats or commoners.” His admiration for the “ideal club” in the old Tatler journal, combined with great English prose he devoured in The Spectator, was a perfect fit for the Royal Society Club and other organizations. This is, again, another example that counters the notion of Franklin as an outsider. With only a few exceptions, including the Earl of Sandwich’s devious 1768 attempt to take away Franklin’s role as Deputy Postmaster, he had far more friends than enemies in London.
Franklin had far more friends than enemies in London.
That being said, the “First American” had returned to British soil as a colonial representative. He fought for freedom and liberty for his beloved Pennsylvania and, after an exceedingly brief period of cordial relations, firmly against the province’s proprietors, the Penn family. (He once described Thomas Penn, the son of the original founder, as “proud, avaricious, and despicable.”) He reached the conclusion that “Pennsylvania must throw off the Penns and become a Crown colony,” and aimed to help the Assembly achieve this lofty goal.
It was a precarious position to defend. The Whigs, who held political power in England, “shared the view that the colonies had claimed too much for themselves.” Franklin was therefore unsuccessful in early attempts to build relationships and wisely devised a new approach. He had to “lobby government at a lower level . . . the workhorse under-secretaries who acted as both administrators and political advisors to their aristocratic superiors and could provide or deny access to them.” This strategy was the “long game,” as Goodwin correctly notes, but it worked and he gradually gained access.
The book also examines Franklin’s role in the turbulence surrounding Stamp Act between 1764–1766. The American colonies were understandably furious at this measure, which “did not just tax correspondence but all stamped documentation.” The Act “extended right across both business and pleasure,” and was, in effect, “a tax on living.” Goodwin points out “the Stamp Tax would be lower in the colonies than its long-standing British equivalent, but it was the fact of the tax rather than its original amount that was the cause of colonial objections.”
Alas, Franklin “was both out of touch with popular feeling and did not yet understand its strength.” He originally felt the Stamp Act should be regarded as a “fait accompli” and the “lesser of two evils,” believing “resistance to it would harm their efforts in resolving the greater problem,” the proprietors. Stern letters, and the threat of burning down his Philadelphia house, taught him an important lesson. He reversed course, and helped bring the Stamp Act down.
“Franklin still retained a small part of his dream of a British American confederation.”
The final years in London were difficult ones. The native Bostonian was displeased about a particularly raucous tea party, even “suggesting that reparation be made to the East India Company.” He lost his role as Deputy Postmaster after a difficult meeting at Whitehall Palace in the room known as the Cockpit, and became “persona non grata” in Massachusetts, although it “actually clarified Franklin’s political position as a clear representative of colonial interests.” He sent out “what could only be construed as a threatening letter” to Lord Dartmouth days before he left the city, which led to a warrant for his arrest being served “when he was at sea.”
History teaches us that Franklin’s return to America led to a new chapter in his life. He became a Revolutionary hero, a Founding Father, and he even won over French hearts and minds. Yet, as Goodwin writes, “he still retained a small part of his dream of a British American confederation,” albeit an “American-centred one.” An American in London he was, and would always remain.