Preface Index to the Biography CHAPTER II.
Electric ...
Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin


State of Affairs in Pennsylvania. — Defects of the Government. — Legislation. — Conduct of the Proprietaries. — Object of Franklin's Agency in England. — Collinson, Miss Stevenson, Strahan, Governor Shirley Beccaria, Mussehenbroek. — Franklin's Interview with the Proprietaries. — He causes a Letter to be published respecting Pennsylvania. — Delays in his public Business. — He travels in various Parts of England. — Visits the Place in which his Ancestors were born. — Forms an Acquaintance with Baskerville. — Publishes the "Historical Review of Pennsylvania." — Authorship of that Work.

The dissensions, which had long existed and continually increased, between the governors and assemblies of Pennsylvania, had their origin in the peculiar structure of the government, and the manner of its administration. The system, possessing in itself many excellent principles, became vicious, and almost impracticable, in its operation. William Penn, the founder and first Proprietor, while he was careful of his own interest, made to the original settlers some valuable concessions. The royal charter obtained by him was such, as to secure political rights on the broad basis of English freedom; and the charter of privileges, which he granted to the people, established unlimited toleration in religion, and gave them so large a share in the making of the laws, as to place civil liberty, and the protection, of property, almost entirely in their own keeping. These were substantial benefits; and the liberal and benevolent motives of Penn in conferring them, and his enlightened views on the subject of legislation, cannot be questioned. It was a maxim with him, that freedom can exist only where the laws rule, and the people are parties in making those laws.

Theoretically considered, his frame of government promised all that could be desired by a free people in a state of colonial dependence. But it was marred with defects, which admitted of no remedy, and which in practice often defeated the best aims for the general welfare. In the first place, there was a charter from the King, imposing restraints and conditions by which he and the inhabitants were equally bound. In the next place, as Proprietor, he retained for himself and his descendants certain rights of property and a political control, which conflicted with the public interests and abridged the freedom of legislation. During his lifetime these evils were so manifest, and perplexed him so much, that he was on the point of surrendering the jurisdiction of the province to the crown, reserving to himself and family the right of property only in the territory, which had been confirmed to him by the royal charter. And afterwards, when his sons became Proprietaries as successors to their father, the difficulties were constantly increased by their mode of administering the government. They sent out deputy-governors, armed with instructions so imperative and pointed, as to leave them neither discretion nor power to conform to circumstances by yielding to the will or wishes of the representatives of the people. Hence these governors refused their assent to laws, which the Assemblies regarded as of vital importance both to the safety and prosperity of the commonwealth.

Again, the King added his instructions, forbidding laws of a particular description to be passed by the governors, without a clause suspending their operation till they had received the royal sanction. This was a violation of the charter. By that instrument, all laws were permitted to take effect as soon as they were passed, although they were to be sent to England within five years, and, if disapproved by the King, they were then to be null and void. And even this process was slow, vexatious, and expensive. When a law had gone through all the forms in Pennsylvania, it was transmitted to an agent in London, by whom it was laid before the Board of Trade. It was next referred to the King's solicitor for his opinion, after which it came back to the Board of Trade, where it was considered and acted upon. Thence it made its way to the King's Council, and here it was at last confirmed or rejected. If the Proprietaries took exceptions to an act, they employed counsel to argue against it before the Board, and it was necessary for the agent of the Assembly to do the same on the other side. Meantime the business was attended with endless delays and heavy expenses. Harassed in this way from year to year, it is no wonder that the patience of the Assembly was gradually worn out, and that they resolved to seek redress.

The conduct of the Proprietaries was censured chiefly on the ground of attempts to strengthen their pecuniary interests, though, in some instances, they also sought to extend their political powers. They owned large tracts of land in various parts of the province, which had been selected and surveyed for them where ever a new purchase was made of the Indians. This land was of the choicest quality, and it rose rapidly in value as the country around it became settled. The Proprietaries set up a pretension, that their lands ought not to be taxed for the public service, and they instructed their governors not to pass any bill in which such a tax was imposed. For many years this was not necessary, as the revenue for defraying the expenses of government was derived from an excise, and from the interest on bills of credit lent out to landholders.

In times of war, however, extraordinary contributions were required for the defence of the province, and for the King's use in prosecuting the war. A land tax was then resorted to; and the Assembly, considering it just that the Proprietaries should bear their proportion in providing the means for defending their own property, included their lands in the laws for raising money. The governors, bound by their instructions, uniformly rejected these laws, and insisted, that the proprietary estates should in no case be taxed. Frequent altercations ensued. Franklin was the champion of the Assembly, being well qualified for this task, not more by his talents and skill as a writer, than by his perfect knowledge of the subjects in dispute. The able and elaborate replies, which from time to time were made to the objections and arguments of the governors, were nearly all from his pen.

When it was determined, therefore, to send an agent to England with a remonstrance to the Proprietaries, and, should this prove ineffectual, with a petition to the King, Franklin was selected as the most competent person for this important mission. His instructions embraced several objects, tending to a removal of the obstacles to the peace and prosperity of the province; but the principal one was the complaint against the Proprietaries for refusing to bear their just share of the public burdens for defence, in common with the inhabitants, and in proportion to the value of their estates in Pennsylvania. He was, in general, to make such representations, and demand such redress, as would restore the violated rights of the people, and establish them on the fundamental principles of charter privileges and English liberty.

Franklin's fame as a philosopher, and as a political writer, had preceded him in England. His brilliant discoveries in electricity bad been made known to the world ten years before. He was already a member of the Royal Society, that body having rendered ample justice to his merits as an original discoverer, though tardily, and not till these merits had elicited the applause of the learned in France and other countries. When he arrived in England, therefore, be did not find himself a stranger or without friends.

His letters on electricity had been written to Peter Collinson, a member of the Royal Society, and a benevolent and worthy man, who had raised himself to usefulness and some degree of celebrity by his zeal and exertions in promoting the researches of others in various branches of science, and collecting the results of their labors. Mr. Collinson kindly invited him to his house, where be stayed till he took lodgings at Mrs. Stevenson's, in Craven Street, a few doors from the Stand. Mrs. Stevenson's house had been recommended to him by some of his Pennsylvania friends, who had lodged there; and, so well was be pleased with the accommodations, and the amiable character of the family, that he remained in the same place during the whole of his residence in England, a period of fifteen years. This circumstance is the more worthy of being mentioned, as he often alludes to the family in his letters. Mrs. Stevenson had an only daughter, Miss Mary Stevenson, an accomplished young lady, whose fondness for study and acuteness of mind early attracted his notice; and some of his best papers on philosophical subjects were written for her instruction, or in answer to her inquiries.

Mr. Strahan, afterwards the King's printer and a member of Parliament, who acquired wealth by his occupation and eminence by his talents, had long been one of Franklin's correspondents, and he now extended to him the welcome and the substantial kindnesses of a cordial friendship. In London be also met Governor Shirley, with whom he had been much acquainted in America, and who had consulted him confidentially on several important subjects relating to the administration of the colonies.× They visited each other frequently. But his chief associates were men of science, who sought his society, and whose conversation he relished; for, although he had recently been much devoted to politics, yet his taste for philosophical investigations, originally strong and confirmed by success, had not abated; and he seemed at all times to derive from it more real satisfaction than from the bustle of political life, into which he had first been drawn rather by circumstances and accident than by inclination. His arrival in England was likewise soon known on the continent, and he received congratulatory letters from some of the most distinguished men of the time, expressing admiration of his scientific achievements and respect for his character.×

The business of his mission, however, was his first and principal care. But this was retarded by a severe illness, which confined him to his rooms for nearly eight weeks. A violent cold terminated in an intermitting fever, during which he suffered extremely from pain in the head, accompanied with occasional delirium. By cupping, a copious use of Peruvian bark, and other remedies, Dr. Fothergill succeeded in removing the disease, but not till it had reduced his patient to a very low and feeble state. As soon as his strength enabled him to go abroad, he applied himself again to his public duties.

His instructions required, that, as a preliminary step, he should see the Proprietaries, present to them the remonstrance with which he bad been furnished by the Assembly, and endeavour to bring about an amicable arrangement, which might render farther proceedings unnecessary. He accordingly had an interview with them, and explained the tenor of his instructions, the embarrassments under which public affairs labored in Pennsylvania, and the claims and wishes of the Assembly.

The Proprietaries were not in a humor to listen to these representations, or to yield any thing to the complaints of the people. They insisted on their right to instruct the governors according to their own interpretation of the charter defended what had been done, and complained of the encroachments of the Assembly upon their prerogatives. They agreed, however, to consider the matter, and to give an answer to the remonstrance. From the temper in which they discussed the subject, Franklin foresaw that it would be impossible to bring them to any change of sentiments or of conduct on the points at issue, and that be should be obliged in the end to appeal to the higher tribunals. The Proprietaries at this time were Thomas and Richard Penn, sons of William Penn, the founder of the colony.

He soon discovered, that many obstacles were to be encountered even in preparing the way for his ulterior proceedings. In the first place he had to meet and baffle the opposition of the Proprietaries, who were resolved to resist his efforts step by step with all the means and influence they could command. Again, the great officers of the crown, by whom the cause must be decided, were naturally inclined to favor the royal prerogative, and looked with a jealous eye upon every movement of the people, which aimed at liberty or privilege. And, lastly, a prejudice existed against the Pennsylvanians, on account of their apparent backwardness in supporting the war, and the reluctance of the Quakers to bear arms, or even to aid any scheme for military defence. This prejudice had been raised and kept alive by the Proprietaries and their agents, who represented the opposition to the governors as originating in the obstinacy and factious spirit of the people, equally hostile to the proprietary rights and the King's prerogative.

The newspapers and other journals teemed with falsehoods of this kind, censuring alike the conduct and the motives of the Pennsylvanians. Franklin felt bound, not more by a regard for truth, than by a sense of justice to his countrymen, and in return for the confidence they had placed in him, to counteract these artifices, and disabuse the public mind of the mischievous errors into which it bad been deceived. Indeed, there was little hope of success to his further endeavours, till this should be done. An opportunity soon presented itself. A piece of intelligence was published, said to be the substance of letters from Philadelphia, in which the members of the Assembly were accused of wasting their time in idle disputes with the governor, whilst the frontiers were ravaged by the Indians, and of refusing to raise money for the pubic service, except by laws clogged with such conditions that the governor could not assent to them. The obstinacy of the Quakers in the Assembly was assigned as the principal cause of the dissensions.

These charges were refuted in a letter, which was published in the name of Franklin's son, and addressed to the printer of the paper in which the pretended intelligence had first appeared. And here he had a proof, that neither justice, nor a fair hearing, was to be obtained on easy terms. He was obliged to pay the printer for allowing the article a place in his paper, although this same paper was the vehicle in which the false reports had originally been circulated.

In this letter the actual condition of the province was briefly stated and. explained. It was shown, that the frontiers were no more exposed than those of other colonies; that the inhabitants had arms in their hands and used them; that the Quakers made but a small part of the whole population, and, though they had conscientious scruples as to bearing arms, yet they bad never, as a body, opposed the measures for military defence; on the contrary, some of them bad withdrawn from the Assembly because their religious principles would not suffer them to join in such measures, and others had refused to be elected for the same reason; that, so far from neglecting to provide the means of defence, the Assembly had already granted more than one hundred thousand pounds for the King's use since the beginning of the war, besides the heavy contingent expenses of government; that numerous forts had been built, supplied, and garrisoned, soldiers raised, armed, and accoutred, a ship of war fitted out and sent to cruise on the coast, an expedition against the Indians undertaken and successfully executed ; and that, in short, the arbitrary and unjust instructions from the Proprietaries to the governors were the real and only sources of the troubles in Pennsylvania, the only obstacles to the harmony and energetic action of the government, to the prosperity and happiness of the people.

This paper was skilfully drawn up, and with such fairness and so clear a statement of facts, that it could not fail to awaken the attention of thinking men, and to diminish the effect of the illiberal aspersions, which had called it forth. No attempt was made to refute it. The Proprietaries, however, remained firm, proceeding slowly or not at all in their reply to the remonstrance, and showing no disposition to enter into a compromise by a private arrangement. Even after a year hall elapsed, they had done nothing; and they gave as a reason, that they could not obtain the papers they wanted from their legal advisers. Meantime he thought it necessary to go forward with his business. The forms required, that the case should first be brought before the Board of Trade, who Were to report their opinion to the Privy Council, where a final decision was to be obtained. If justice could not be reached through this channel, it was intended, as a last resort, to seek redress from Parliament.

The delays necessarily attending all affairs of this kind, left no room to hope for a speedy termination. The public mind was so much occupied with European politics and the war on the continent, and the attention of the ministers and other officers of the government was so deeply engaged with these great concerns, that there was as little leisure as inclination to meddle with the colonial disputes, and least of all to go through a laborious investigation of facts, and a discussion of the complex difficulties in which the subject was involved.

In a letter to his wife, dated January 21st, 1758, Franklin says; "I begin to think I shall hardly be able to return before this time twelve months. I am for doing effectually what I came about; and I find it requires both time and patience. You may think, perhaps, that I can find many amusements here to pass the time agreeably. It is true, the regard and friendship I meet with from persons of worth, and the conversation of ingenious men give me no small pleasure; but, at this time of life, domestic comforts afford the most solid satisfaction, and my uneasiness at being absent from my family, and longing desire to he with them, make me often sigh in the midst of cheerful company." He could do no more than to put the business in train, by furnishing the lawyers, employed on the part of his constituents, with the materials and facts for enabling them to appear in behalf of the province, whenever the Board of Trade should take the case into consideration.

For more than a year afterwards scarcely any progress seems to have been made. He spent the summer in journeying through various parts of England. He visited the University of Cambridge twice, and was present by invitational the Commencement. He expresses himself as having been particularly gratified with the civilities and reward shown to him by the Chancellor and the heads of Colleges. Curiosity led him also to the town where his father was born, and where his ancestors had lived; and, be sought out with a lively interest such traditions concerning them, as could be gathered from the memory of ancient persons, from parish registers, and inscriptions on their tombstones. At Wellingborough he found a Mrs. Fisher, the only daughter of Thomas Franklin, his father's eldest brother, advanced in years, but in good circumstances.

"From Wellingborough," he says, we went to Ecton, about three or four miles, being the village where my father was born, and where his father, grandfather, and great grandfather had lived, and how many of the family before them we know not. We went first to see the old house and grounds ; they came to Mr. Fisher with his wife, and, after letting them for some years, finding his rent something ill paid, he sold them. The land is now added to another farm, and a school kept in the house. It is a decayed old stone building, but still known by the name of Franklin House. Thence we went to visit the rector of the parish, who lives close by the church, a very ancient building. He entertained us very kindly, and showed us the old church register, in which were the births, marriages, and burials of our ancestors for two hundred years, as early as his book began. His wife, a goodnatured, chatty old lady, (granddaughter of the famous Arch deacon Palmer, who formerly had that parish and lived there,) remembered a great deal about the family; carried us out into the churchyard, and showed us several of their gravestones, which were so covered with moss, that we could not read the letters, till she ordered a hard brush and basin of water, with which Peter scoured them clean, and then Billy copied them. She entertained and diverted us highly with stories of Thomas Franklin, Mrs. Fisher's father, who was a conveyancer, something of a lawyer, clerk of the county courts, and clerk to the Archdeacon in his visitations; a very leading man in all county affairs, and much employed in public business."

He was alike successful at Birmingham. "Here, upon inquiry," he adds, in writing to his wife, "we soon found out yours, and cousin Wilkinson's, and cousin Cash's relations. First, we found out one of the Cashes, and he went with us to Rebecca Flint's, where we saw her and her husband. She is a turner and he a buttonmaker; they have no children; were very glad to see any person that knew their sister Wilkinson; told us what letters they had received, and showed us some of them; and even showed us that they had, out of respect, preserved a keg, in which they had received a present of some sturgeon. They sent for their brother, Joshua North, who came with his wife immediately to see us; he is a turner also, and has six children, a lively, active man. Mrs. Flint desired me to tell her sister, that they live still in the old house she left them in, which I think she says was their father's. On his return to London he pursued his inquiries still further, and "found out a daughter of his fathers only sister, very old and never married; a good, clever woman, but poor, though vastly contented with her situation, and very cheerful." He mentions other relations, of whom he heard in his journeys but, being out of the range of his tour, he intended visiting them at another time. His manner of speaking on this subject, in both his autobiography and his letters, shows that he took much delight in seeking out and rendering kindness to the members of his family, even where the relationship was remote, although they were all in humble life, and many of them poor; and there are evidences of his substantial and continued bounty to such as were in a needy condition.

At Birmingham he became acquainted with the celebrated type founder and printer, Baskerville, one of those men, the results of whose labors prove how much can be achieved in the arts by resolution, perseverance, and an energetic devotion to a favorite object. Franklin always loved the profession by which he had first gained a livelihood and afterwards a liberal competency; and, even when he had risen to eminence, and whilst he associated with statesmen and courtiers, he was fond of talking with printers, entering into their schemes, and suggesting or aiding improvements in their art. So far was he from being reserved on the subject of his early condition and pursuits, that he often alluded to them as giving value to his experience, and as furnishing incidents illustrative of his maxims of life. One day at his dinner-table in Passy, surrounded by men of rank and fashion, a young gentleman was present who had just arrived from Philadelphia. He showed a marked kindness to the young stranger, conversed with him about the friends he had left at home, and then said, "I have been under obligation to your family; when I set up business in Philadelphia, being in debt for my printing materials and wanting employment, the first job I had was a pamphlet written by your grandfather; it gave me encouragement and was the beginning of my success." A similarity of taste was the foundation of an intimate and lasting friendship between him and Baskerville.

After passing a few days at Tunbridge Wells, his health being much improved by travel and recreation, he went back to London and established himself again at his lodgings. Nor was he neglectful of his public duties. It was not possible to advance in the business of his mission, till the government should be ready to give it a hearing; but the press, which had been freely employed to calumniate the Pennsylvanians, was open to his used His friends, who understood the state of opinion in England, advised him to resort to it, as affording the best means of counteracting the errors that were abroad, and defeating the arts by which they were disseminated.

Speaking of Mr. Charles, an eminent lawyer employed as counsel on the part of the Assembly, he says in an official letter, "One thing, that he recommends to be done before we push our point in Parliament, is, removing the prejudices, that art and accident have spread among the people of this country against us, and obtaining for us the good opinion of the bulk of mankind without doors. This I hope we have it in our power to do, by means of a work now nearly ready for the press, calculated to engage the attention of many readers, and at the same time to efface the bad impression received of us; but it is thought best not to publish it, till a little before the next session of Parliament."

The work, here alluded to, was the Historical Review of Pennsylvania, rendered famous not more on account of the ability with which it is written and the matter it contains, than of the abuse it brought up on Franklin as its supposed author. It was published anonymously near the beginning of the year 1759. It is the professed object of the writer to support the cause of the Assembly and people of. Pennsylvania against the encroachments and arbitrary designs of the Proprietaries. With this aim, he sketches the political history of the provide from its first settlement; and, in executing his task, he is led occasionally to touch with considerable severity upon the transactions both of William Penn and of his descendants. As a composition, the treatise possesses merits of a high order. The style is vigorous and clear, always well sustained, and rising sometimes to eloquence. The Dedication and Introduction, especially, are finished specimens of their kind. The tone and sentiments of the work may be inferred from the motto; "Those, who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

As a history, however, it wants the essential requisites of completeness and impartiality. Yet there is no disguise about it. From the first page to the last the reader is made to see and, understand the writer's drift and purpose, which are, to describe in strong language the oppressions under which the people have struggled, and to vindicate them from the censures of their enemies. This is done, in the first place by copious abstracts and selections from public records and documents, and, next, by such deductions and arguments as seem naturally to flow from them. As to the facts, there can be no doubt of their accuracy, since they are all drawn from authentic sources. The reader is left to judge bow well they bear out the inferences and arguments. In short, the writer's statements, as far as they go, cannot be charged with misrepresentation or with essential errors in point of fact. Their chief fault is, that they exhibit only one side of the subject. The evils of the proprietary system, emanating from its inherent defects and a vicious administration, are represented in glowing colors, while the advantages derived from it, such as they were, have no place in his picture.

The partisans of the Proprietaries, in England and Pennsylvania, eagerly ascribed this performance to the pen of Franklin, the leader of the popular party, whose influence and talents they most dreaded. The style, and other circumstances, gave countenance to such a suspicion. As he never publicly affirmed the contrary, it has generally been supposed that the suspicion was well founded.

Very recently, however, an original letter has been obtained, which was written by him to David Hume soon after the work was published, and in which he explicitly disavows the authorship. "I am obliged to you," he says in that letter, "for the favorable sentiments you express of the pieces sent to you; though the volume relating to our Pennsylvania affairs was not written by me, nor any part of it, except the remarks on the Proprietor's estimate of his estate, and some of the inserted messages and reports of the Assembly, which I wrote when at home, as a member of committees appointed by the House for that purpose. The rest was by another hand."× This declaration, made for no other end than to correct an erroneous impression on the mind of Mr. Hume, puts to rest the question of authorship. It is certain, however, that the book was written under his direction, and he may fairly be considered responsible for its contents. Nor does it appear, that be was disposed to shrink from this responsibility, since, if he had been, nothing more was necessary than to avow publicly what he wrote to Mr. Hume. In fact, he was really the author of a large portion of the work, which consists of the messages and reports mentioned above. The reason for withholding the author's name at the time was, that, if this were known, it would weaken the effect intended to be produced, by fixing the public attention upon an individual, rather than upon the book itself. Those, who have doubted Franklin's authorship, have attributed it to Ralph, one of his early associates, an able political writer, and an historian of some celebrity. Ralph was then in London, and this conjecture, to say the least, is not improbable.

< BACK | START | NEXT > homepage

Interested in using a picture? Some text? click here.
To contact the webmaster, click here

Copyright ©1999-2014 by the Independence Hall Association, electronically publishing as
The IHA is a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
On the Internet since July 4, 1995.

Click for Ben Franklin Posters