George Goodwin’s new book on Benjamin Franklin explores the 18 years Franklin spent in England working as a printer (1726-28) and as an agent representing the Pennsylvania assembly and other American colonies (1757-62, 1766-75).  The author of this excellent book is an Englishman who offers fresh insights into the period from a British perspective.

Benjamin Franklin is most often associated with the city of Philadelphia where he rose to fame, but he was born in Boston in 1706 to a poor family of candle and soap makers.  His father could afford only three years of grammar schooling for young Ben.  At age 12, Benjamin was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer.

After leaving Boston at 17, Franklin established his own printing business in Philadelphia.  Here he published the pithy, witty, and wildly popular Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732-57), invented a number of items (such as the Franklin stove), and experimented with electricity.  An initiator of many civil improvements, he founded a library, a fire company, and a university.  In 1751, he was elected to the Philadelphia assembly, and Thomas Penn, the proprietor of Philadelphia, warily characterized him as a “tribune of the people.”  Poor Richard’s huge success enabled the now wealthy Franklin to retire at the age of 43.

Goodwin describes Franklin’s work with electricity as a “major breakthrough in theoretical physics,” as it identified two kinds of electricity, positive and negative: “Franklin introduced names and concepts still in use, such as battery, charge, conductor, plus, minus and many more.”  This theoretical knowledge enabled him to invent the lightning rod.  In 1753, Franklin was awarded the prestigious Copley Medal, the highest award of the Royal Society and equivalent of the modern Nobel Prize.  This made Franklin internationally famous.

In 1757, the Pennsylvania assembly thought him the best ambassadorial agent to represent the colony in England.  St. Andrews University soon conferred on him a doctorate, as did Oxford, and he became “Doctor Franklin.”  In London, his mission was to represent the Pennsylvania legislature’s petitions against the Penn family.  Franklin’s aim was to overturn the proprietary system and replace it with a governor appointed directly by the king, and he was a consistent advocate of the formation of a more perfect union between the colonies and the British government.  Nonetheless, his Albany Plan of Union, proposed in 1754, was rejected both by the colonies and by the British government.  No revolutionary or advocate of the natural-rights philosophy of John Locke, Franklin approached reality, politics, and government in terms of usefulness and practicality.  A sense of his views can be gleaned from his Atlantic crossing in 1757 and a near shipwreck, following which Franklin, with the other passengers, repaired to a church in Falmouth to give thanks to God.  In a letter to a friend he summed up his religion of worldliness and practical necessity with the comment, “were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not if I were to vow at all it should be to build a lighthouse.”  The quintessential American, he believed that “the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael.”

British General Wolfe’s great victory in Canada in 1759 ensured the removal of French power from North America.  Horace Walpole boasted that the acquisition of India and Canada made Britons “heirs apparent to the Romans.”  None cheered louder as a loyal Briton than Benjamin Franklin, who looked forward to peace and prosperity along with further expansion of the British Empire and advocated and invested in a scheme of creating a new colony along the Ohio River.

Franklin’s efforts to install a royal governor in Philadelphia ultimately failed, as did his efforts to found a new colony, but he did succeed in getting his son William appointed royal governor of New Jersey.

The end of the French and Indian War left England in debt and in need of new revenue.  But William Pitt, the architect of victory in that war, failed to be reelected prime minister, and various groups now engaged in their own contests for self-aggrandizement, causing Great Britain to experience a succession of weak administrations.

Problems of colonial management that should have been solved politically worsened.  The Townsend Act, laying new taxes on the colonies, met with stiff resistance, and the riots in South London protesting the imprisonment of MP John Wilkes affected the ministry’s treatment of American affairs.  America was relegated to secondary consideration, and the lawless mobs in England rioting in 1768 created a defensive mood among government officials.

Troops were dispatched to Boston in the same year to keep the peace after the violence that followed the Stamp Act.  On March 5, 1770, a street riot known as the Boston Massacre left five civilians dead, and three years after that a new tax on tea prompted a party of Bostonians to toss shipments of tea into Boston Harbor.  The port of Boston was soon closed, and General Gage was appointed military governor of Massachusetts.

Franklin made a bold move to save the deteriorating relationship between Great Britain and America by making a lightning rod of Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Hutchinson.  Having acquired compromising personal letters of the governor, Franklin forwarded them to Samuel Adams and leaders of the Massachusetts assembly, whom he also represented in London.  Franklin’s hope was that his action would lead to Hutchinson’s removal as governor, discredit the Townsend Acts and other policies alienating Americans, and lead to a reconciliation between the colonies and the mother country.

In fact, the scheme backfired.  Published in Boston and London, the letters caused an uproar and an investigation into the identity of the procurer.  In order to prevent a duel between two men accusing each other of having purloined the letters, Franklin confessed to the London Chronicle that he alone was responsible and was subsequently lacerated in a public meeting by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn, who proceeded to ostracize Franklin as a man who had “forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.”  Out of favor, Franklin lost his long-held sinecure as assistant colonial postmaster general, and rumors of a warrant for his arrest prompted him to leave London in March 1775, never to return, though he hoped for an accommodation between Britain and her colonies until the very end.

Franklin’s Autobiography, begun in 1771 but published after his death in 1790, established him as one of America’s greatest prose writers; Paul Elmer More described the book as

a long lesson in the method of settling problems of immediate necessity.  He was ever engaged in enforcing a present lesson on producing an immediate result, and his busy brain could not pause long enough to listen to those hidden powers that all the while murmur in remote voices the symbolic meaning of the puppets and the puppet actions of this world.

And Goodwin notes that Franklin cited as one of his primary literary influences Essays To Do Good by Cotton Mather, who in 1723 had urged Americans to cultivate inventions and advocated inoculation for smallpox.

Franklin did not escape the critical eye of subsequent American writers who moved American literature on to more imaginative possibilities.  The best summary of his work is found in a little-known novel by Herman Melville: Israel Potter, a fictional account of a veteran from Bunker Hill who visits Franklin in France.

Here Melville takes the measure of the man:

Having carefully weighed the world, Franklin could act any part in it . . . printer, postmaster, almanac maker, essayist, chemist, orator, tinker, statesman, humorist, philosopher, parlor-man, political economist, professor of housewifery, ambassador, maxim maker, herb doctor, wit:—Jack of all trades, master of each and mastered by none—the type of genius of his own land.  Franklin was everything but a poet.


[Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father, by George Goodwin (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) 400 pp., $32.50]