How A Royalist Becomes A Revolutionary

By Ben Venables Last edited 21 months ago
How A Royalist Becomes A Revolutionary
Benjamin Franklin in London | Picture: public domain

Benjamin Franklin left many legacies to literature, science and politics. The mere mention of his name conjures images of everything from dollar bills to the American constitution. A little less well-known fact is that for much of his life this founding father of America was a Londoner.

From 1757 to the time he was forced to take flight in 1775, Benjamin Franklin mostly lived on Craven Street, just footsteps away from Trafalgar Square.

A diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly, Franklin arrived already a celebrated figure for his famous key and kite experiment — a major contribution to our understanding of electricity.

He enjoyed London life too, this being the London of Johnson and Boswell, the era of the coffeehouse. Indeed, Franklin held a regular supper club at 41 Farringdon Street. For his political duties he dined with kings and was close to prime ministers. But by the mid-1760s Franklin had a problem.

The Stamp Act

Fresh from victory in the Seven Years War, Britain was finding fighting an expensive enterprise. This left the then-called Colonies picking up the tab for their imperial defence. And so it was that the Stamp Act was introduced to raise revenues for troops and colonial administration.

It taxed pretty much all documentation: books, contracts, land titles, liquor licenses, mortgages, newspapers, the advertisements in newspapers, pamphlets and even playing cards. All in all it was considered not so much a tax but a raid on daily life itself.

Franklin was part of a four-man delegation sent to prime minister George Grenville to set out the colonies' concerns. Grenville wasn't to budge on the issue though.

Her Colonies Reduced: Benjamin Franklin's 1767 cartoon warned of the alienating the colonies through the Stamp Act's enforcement.

Perhaps Franklin had grown so fond of life in London his report back to the colonies was one of 'que sera, sera.' However, unusually for such an intelligent and canny operator as Franklin, he completely misread the situation back home.

Once the Stamp Act passed there was uproar across the Atlantic and a vote of non-compliance at Assembly levels. But it was a more personal link that seems to have given Franklin the wake-up call he needed. It happened that a friend of his was a Stamp Tax collector and as Franklin had recommended the man for the post he was also, incorrectly, considered a supporter of the act.

The friend had even been targeted by an angry mob. Franklin quickly started to argue for the suspension of the Act using all his energy and political contacts, while all the while there continued to be breakdowns in public order in New York and Boston.

The man with all the answers

In January 1766, the new Rockingham government decided it had to concede something, especially now the City of London was growing concerned.

Franklin was the major witness in Parliament on 13 February that year, and answered over 170 questions with such aplomb the Act was repealed. In its place, however, came the Declaratory Act.

Although this granted absolute power over the colonies it was very much based on the tacit agreement Britain then had with Ireland, and it was a face saving exercise which would apparently never be enforced.

Unfortunately for Franklin, despite emerging from Parliament with great credit, the next decade or so was like a complex political chess game as he dealt with changes in governments, overtures from France and grew ever more torn between his love of London and America.

George Goodwin is author in residence at Benjamin Franklin House, Westminster — the only one of Franklin's homes still standing. His new book Benjamin Franklin In London focuses on this fascinating period, not only in the statesman's life but also one where the future trajectory of Anglo-American relations starts to take root.

The book is published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Franklin's famous speech, which temporarily eased the increasing frustrations between London and the colonies for a time. But as the book continues the story, after this time Franklin was steadily headed down the path towards American independence.

George Goodwin: Benjamin Franklin in London published by W&N, 11 Feb, Hardback £25, ebook £12.99.

Last Updated 19 February 2016