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Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin by Jared Sparks


Dr. Franklin meditates a Return to America. — Singular Conduct of Lord Hillsborough. — Walpole's Grant. — Hillsborough's Report against it. — Franklin's Reasons for settling a New Colony west of the Alleganies. — Interview with Lord Hillsborough at Oxford. — Franklin draws up the Report of a Committee appointed to examine the Powder Magazines at Purfleet. — Performs new Electrical Experiments. — Controversy about Pointed and Blunt Conductors. — Lord Dartmouth succeeds Lord Hillsborough. — His Character. — Franklin's Interview with him. — Petitions from the Assembly of Massachusetts. — Franklin writes a Preface to the London Edition of the Boston Resolutions; also "Rules for reducing a Great Empire to a Small One," and "An Edict of the King of Prussia." — Abridges the Book of Common Prayer. — Experiments to show the Effect of Oil in smoothing Waves. — Dubourg's Translation of his Writings.

At this time he again meditated a return to Pennsylvania. Impatient of the delays attending all kinds of American business, disgusted at the manner in which the American department was administered, and weary of fruitless solicitations, he was inclined to retire from a service, which seemed to promise as little benefit to his country as satisfaction to himself. Writing to his son in January, 1772, he said; I have of late great debates with myself whether or not I shall continue here any longer. I grow homesick, and, being now in my sixty-seventh year, I begin to apprehend some infirmity of age may attack me, and make my return impracticable. I have, also, some important affairs to settle before my death, a period I ought now to think cannot be far distant. I see here no disposition in Parliament to meddle further in colony affairs for the present, either to lay more duties or to repeal any; and I think, though I were to return again, I may be absent from here a year without any prejudice to the, business I am engaged in, though it is not probable, that, being once at home, I should ever again see England. I have, indeed, so many good, kind friends here, that I could spend the remainder of my life among them with great pleasure if it were not for my American connexions, and the indelible affection I retain for that dear country, from which I have so long been in a state of exile." Circumstances induced him, as on a former occasion, to suspend the execution of this design. His friends urged him to wait the result of the session of Parliament, letters and papers came from the American Assemblies requiring his attention, and at length, by the resignation of Lord Hillsborough, the agents were restored to the footing on which they had formerly stood.

The conduct of this minister was as inexplicable in some things, as it was arrogant and absurd in others. "When I had been a little while returned to London," says Dr. Franklin, "I waited on him to thank him for his civilities in Ireland, and to discourse with him on a Georgia affair. The porter told me he was not at home. I left my card, went another time, and received the same answer, though I knew he was at home, a friend of mine being with him. After intermissions of a week each, I made two more visits, and received; the same answer. The last time was on a levee day, when a number of carriages were, at his door. My coachman driving up, alighted, and was opening the coach door, when the porter, seeing, me, came out, and surlily chid the coachman for opening the door before he had inquired whether my Lord was at home; and then, turning to me, said, ' My Lord is not At home.' I have never since been nigh him, and we have only abused one another at a distance." This caprice was the more extraordinary, as they had not met, nor had any kind of intercourse passed between them, since his Lordship's caresses in Ireland.

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There was an incident, however, connected with a public transaction, which may perhaps afford some explanation of the minister's conduct in this instance. Several years before, Sir William Johnson, and others in America, had projected a plan for settling a new colony west of the Allegany Mountains. A company was formed, consisting of individuals, some of whom resided in America and others in England, and an application was made to the crown for a grant of land. Gentlemen of rank and distinction were among the associates. Mr. Thomas Walpole, a wealthy banker of London, was at the head of the Company, and from this circumstance the territory in question was usually called Walpole's Grant. The Company's agents for obtaining the grant, and making the requisite arrangements with the government, were Thomas Walpole, Dr. Franklin, John Sargent, and Samuel Wharton. They presented a petition, which lay for a long time before the Board of Trade, without attracting much favor. It was said to interfere with the Ohio Company's lands, and with other grants made by the Governor of Virginia. Lord Hillsborough presided at the Board of Trade, and was secretly opposed to it, although be contrived to lead Mr. Walpole and his associates into the belief, that he was not unfriendly to their objects. At last it was necessary for the Board to give an opinion, and he then wrote an elaborate Report against the petition, which Report was approved by the Board and sent up to the King's Council.

In the mean time Dr. Franklin answered this Report in a very able paper, taking up and confuting each of his Lordship's objections, and advancing many arguments to prove the great advantages that would flow, both to the colonies and to the British nation, by extending the settlements westward. This answer was likewise presented to, the Council. It produced the desired effect. Notwithstanding the opposition of the Board of Trade, the petition was approved.

Lord Hillsborough had set his heart upon defeating the measure; for he had a scheme of his own in regard to. the western boundary of the colonies, by which emigrations were not to extend beyond the head waters, of the streams running eastward into the Atlantic. He thought it necessary thus to restrict the limits of the colonies, that they might be within reach of the trade and commerce of Great Britain, and be kept under a due subjection to the mother country. He was, therefore, disappointed and offended at the course taken by the Council; and the more so, as it was a proof that his influence was on the wane. He thought his opinions and judgment were treated with less respect than he was entitled to, as a member of the cabinet and the head of the Board of Trade. The issue of this affair, chiefly brought about by Dr. Franklin's answer to his Report, was the immediate cause of his resignation.

The answer was drawn up with great skill, containing a clear and methodical statement of historical facts, and weighty reasons for extending the western settlements. It was impossible to prevent the population, tempted by new and fertile lands, from spreading in that direction. Already many thousands had crossed the mountains and seated themselves on these lands, and others were daily following them. Was it good policy, or fair treatment to this portion of his Majesty's subjects, to leave them without a regular government, under which they might have the benefit of laws and a proper administration of justice? A colony, thus established, would, moreover, be a barrier against the incursions of the Indians into the populous districts along the Atlantic, which had hitherto been a constant source of bloody wars and vast expense to the inhabitants. It would afford additional facilities for promoting the Indian trade. So far from being out of the reach of British commerce, as Lord Hillsborough imagined, it would, in fact enlarge that commerce by increasing the consumption of British manufactures, and filling the markets with new products of industry, derived from a soil now lying waste, but which, from its variety and richness, with an uncommon benignity of climate, would yield ample returns to the labor of the cultivator, and in such commodities as would meet a ready demand in all the principal marts with which the trade of Great Britain was connected. There would also be an easy communication with the seacoast by the navigable rivers, and by roads, which the settlers would soon find the means of constructing.

Dr. Franklin's exact knowledge of the internal state of America enabled him to amplify these topics, and illustrate them with statistical and geographical details, in such a manner as to overthrow all his opponent's objections, and the arguments upon which they were founded. The Revolution came on before the plan was executed, and, by depriving the King of his authority over the lands, defeated the completion of the grant. The experience of a few years, however, proved the accuracy and wisdom of Dr. Franklin's views on the subject, by the unparalleled rapidity with which the western territory was settled.×

In August, 1772, a committee of the Royal Society, under the direction of the government, examined the powder magazines at Purfleet, for the purpose of suggesting some method of protecting them from lightning. Dr. Franklin had already visited Purfleet, at the request of the Board of Ordnance, and recommended the use of pointed iron rods, according to the method originally proposed by him, which had been practised with success in America for more than twenty years. The committee consisted of Messrs. Cavendish, Watson, Franklin, Wilson, and Robertson, all of whom were distinguished for their acquaintance with electricity. A Report was drawn up by Dr. Franklin, and signed by the committee, in which they advised the erecting of pointed rods, with a minute description of the manner of constructing them.

Mr. Wilson was the only dissenting member, who gave it as his opinion, that pointed conductors were dangerous, inasmuch as they attracted the lightning, and might thus overcharge the rod and promote the mischief they were intended to prevent. According to his theory, the conductors ought to be blunt at the top. To satisfy himself more fully in this particular, as well as to remove all doubts from the minds of others, Dr. Franklin performed a series of new electrical experiments, by which he demonstrated, that pointed rods are preferable to blunt ones. It is true, they invite the lightning, yet this is the very thing desired, for the charge is thereby silently and gradually drawn from the clouds, and conveyed without danger to the earth; whereas a conductor, blunt at the top, may receive a larger quantity of the fluid at once, than can be carried away, which will thus cause an explosion. This was the principle, upon which his theory of lightning-rods was originally formed, and it was established more firmly than ever by these new experiments. They were satisfactory to nearly all the men of science, and the conductors at Purfleet were erected in the manner recommended by the committee.×

The successor of Lord Hillsborough in the American department was Lord Dartmouth. This appointment gave satisfaction to the colonial agents, and it has even been supposed, that Dr. Franklin was instrumental in effecting it. Some time before Lord Hillsborough's resignation, it was rumored, that he would probably be removed, as he was known not to be gn cordial terms with the ministry; and, when Dr. Franklin was asked by a friend at court, if he could name another person for the place, who would be more acceptable to the Americans, he answered, "Yes, there is Lord Dartmouth; We liked him very well when he was at the head of the Board formerly, and probably should like him again." The colonists generally were pleased with the change. Lord Dartmouth had been on their side in opposing the Stamp Act, and they hoped much from his character, and the dispositions he had shown towards them.

If they were disappointed in this hope, it was perhaps less owing to the fault of this minister, than to the policy which had been adopted in regard to America, and which be was obliged to support while be retained his office. In the administration of his own department, he at first assumed some degree of independence, and his conduct was more, mild and considerate, than that of his predecessor; but he soon betrayed a want of consistency and firmness, which, although he was inclined to good measures, led him to join in sustaining the worst. He abolished the rule of not admitting agents to appear before the Board of Trade, whose election had not been approved by the governors, and restored to them all their former privileges. He consulted them frequently, and in a temper which at least evinced a desire to become thoroughly acquainted with the grounds of the colonial complaints, whatever may have been his opinion as to the expediency or the manner of removing them.

At his first interview with Lord Dartmouth on business, Dr. Franklin put into his hands a petition from the Assembly of Massachusetts to the King. Hutchinson, the Governor of the province, had lately received his salary from the crown, contrary to all former usage, and, as the Assembly declared, contrary to the spirit and intent of their charter, and to the constitution under which the government was established. It was a violation of their rights, and an alarming precedent, out of which might spring innumerable abuses subversive of their liberties. It was a prerogative of the Assembly, which had never before been encroached upon or questioned, to tax the people by laws of their own enacting for the support of government; and this was designed not more as a security for the ex of government, than as a protection from any undue influence of the crown over the officers by whom it was administered. The Governor could negative their laws, and, being appointed by the King, the only tie that bound him to their interests was his dependence on them for his means of support. When this tie was broken, by making him exclusively dependent on the crown for his office and his salary, no motive remained with him for cultivating the good will of the people, and no restraint which would prevent him from exercising his power, whenever he should think proper, in such a manner as to undermine and ultimately break down the pillars of the constitution. The Assembly of Massachusetts saw, in this dangerous innovation, the ruin of their freedom, if it should be allowed to grow into a practice. They, passed several spirited resolves in opposition to it, and petitioned the King for redress.

It was this petition, which Dr. Franklin handed to, Lord Dartmouth. When they met again to discourse upon the subject, his Lordship advised, that it should not be presented for the present; said he was sure: it would give offence; that it would probably be referred to the judges and lawyers for their opinion, who would report against it; and that the King might. possibly lay it before Parliament, which would bring down the censure of both Houses in the shape of a reprimand by order of his Majesty. This would irritate the people, and add fresh fuel to the beats, which had already become so violent as to threaten unhappy consequences. He believed it would be better for both parties, if a little time could be left for these. heats to cool; yet, as the petition had been delivered to him officially, he would, if Dr. Franklin insisted, discharge his duty and present it to the King. Prompted by the most friendly feelings towards the province, however, he could not but repeat the wish, that it might be delayed, till these considerations could be stated to the petitioners and new instructions received.

In reply Dr. Franklin said, that, considering the large majority with which the resolves and petition had been carried through the House, after long and, mature deliberation, he could 'not hope for any change upon a revision of the subject; that the refusing to receive petitions from the colonies bad occasioned the loss of the respect for Parliament, which formerly existed "that his Lordship might observe, that petitions came no more to Parliament, but to the King only; that the King appeared now to be the only connexion between the two countries; that, as a continued union was necessary to the wellbeing of the whole empire, he should be sorry to see that link weakened as the other had been; and that he thought it a dangerous thing for any government to refuse receiving petitions, and thereby prevent the subjects from giving vent to their griefs." Lord Dartmouth interrupted him by saying, that be did not refuse to present the petition, that he should never stand in the way of the complaints, which should be made to the King by any of his subjects, and that, in the present instance, he had no other motive for advising delay, than the purest good will to the province, and an ardent desire for harmony between the two countries.

Dr. Franklin finally concluded to comply with the ministers request, and to wait till be could communicate the substance of the conversation, and obtain further orders. Not long after the adjournment of the Assembly, by which this, petition had been sent to the King, news arrived in Boston, that the salaries of the judges, as well as that of the Governor, were to be paid by the crown. The inhabitants immediately assembled in town meeting, and passed resolutions strongly remonstrating against the measure, as tending to complete the system of bondage, which had been preparing for the colonies ever since the passage of the Stamp Act. These resolutions were clothed in bold and energetic language, and they embraced an enumeration of the late acts of the British government, which were deemed oppressive and hostile to American liberty. It was voted also, that a copy of them should be transmitted to the other towns in the province, with a circular letter, recommending that the people should everywhere assemble in town meetings, and express their sentiments in a similar manner.

Governor Hutchinson took umbrage at these proceedings, and used his endeavours to counteract them. He denounced the meetings as unlawful, and the Boston resolutions as encouraging such principles, as would justify the colonies in a revolt, and in setting up an independent state. He moreover charged them mainly to the influence of Franklin. "The claims of the colonies," be afterwards said, "were prepared in England, in a more full manner than ever before, with a manifest design and tendency to revive a flame, which was near expiring. These, it seems to have been intended, should be first publicly avowed in Massachusetts Bay, and that the example should be followed by all the other colonies." And again, speaking of the Statement of Rights, which was reported by a committee appointed for the purpose at the town meeting of Boston, be adds; "Although, at its first appearance, it was considered as their own work, yet they had little more to do than to make the necessary alterations in the arrangement of materials prepared for them by their great director in England, whose counsels they obeyed, and in whose wisdom and dexterity they had an implicit faith."×

The individual here alluded to, as the "great director," was Dr. Franklin; but the charge is utterly unfounded. The guiding spirits in Massachusetts well understood their rights, and needed no aid from England to teach them in what manner to declare those rights to the world. Franklin's correspondence, containing the advice he actually gave, affords a complete vindication of his conduct in reference to this charge. In fact, his friends in America thought him too lukewarm, while those in England were concerned at his boldness. He had all along avowed his opinions without reserve, in his letters and published writings, and advised the colonists to hold fast their rights, to protest against every encroachment upon them, and to reiterate petitions for redress but at the same time be recommended moderation in the measures of resistance, because he feared, that any rashness or precipitancy in this respect would be seized upon by the ministry as a pretext for more severe acts of Parliament, and for filling the country with troops to crush the spirit of liberty before the people were in' a condition to maintain it; and because the growing strength and importance of the colonies would in due time cause them to be respected and their claims to be acknowledged.

When the pamphlet, containing the votes and resolutions of the town of Boston, came to his hands, he had it republished in London, with a Preface written by himself. In this performance he again took occasion to describe the condition of the colonists, and to explain the nature and reasons of their complaints, representing their late transactions as the natural consequences of the unwise policy of the government in driving them to extremities by refusing to listen to their petitions and remove their real grievances. The temper and matter of this Preface were, such, as to gain from the public a fair hearing to the resolutions themselves, which spoke in so high a tone, that they would necessarily give great offence to the partisans of the ministry, and in some measure cool the zeal of those in England, who wished well to the American cause.

The Massachusetts Assembly convened a short time after the Boston resolutions were passed. They took the same subject and the general state of the province into consideration. The result was another petition to the King, which was likewise transmitted to Dr. Franklin. He immediately waited on Lord Dartmouth, told him there could be no more delay, and requested him to deliver this petition to his Majesty, and also the one which had been held in suspense. The minister promised to comply with his wishes.×

About this time Dr. Franklin published anonymously two pieces, remarkable for the style in which they are composed. They were entitled, a Rules for reducing Great Empire to a Small One, and An Edict by the King of Prussia. An admirable vein of irony runs through both these pieces. In the former; all the late measures of the British government, in relation to the colonies, are brought together under twenty distinct heads, and so represented, by an ingenious arrangement and turn of expression, as to constitute general rules, which, if put in practice, would enable, any ministry to curtail the borders of a great empire and reduce it to a small one.

The Edict purports to have been promulgated with much solemnity by the King of Prussia, imposing restraints on the trade and manufactures of the Island of Great Britain, for the purpose of replenishing, the coffers of his Prussian Majesty; it being alleged as a reason in the preamble, that the early settlements were made by Germans, who were subject to his ancestors, having flourished under their protection, and whose descendants were bound to obey the laws of his kingdom and contribute to its revenues. A parallel is pursued throughout between the actual conduct of the British government, and the pretended claims of the King of Prussia upon the inhabitants of Great Britain on account of their Saxon origin. Lord Mansfield was heard to say of this Edict, "that it was very able and very artful indeed, and would do mischief by giving in England a bad impression of the measures of government, and, in the colonies, by encouraging them in their contumacy." The good humor, which pervade both these compositions, and the pointed manner of expression, attracted to them many readers, who would scarcely have turned aside to a grave and argumentative discussion of the colonial controversy.

During his absence from London, in the summer of 1773, he passed a few weeks at the country residence of Lord Le Despencer, and employed himself, while there, in abridging some parts of the Book of Common Prayer. A handsome edition of this abridgment was printed for Wilkie, in St. Paul's Church Yard; but it seems never to have been adopted in any Church, nor to have gained much notice. The Preface explains his motives in this undertaking, and the principles upon which the alterations were made, with remarks on the, objects and importance of public worship. At the conclusion he says; "And thus, conscious, of upright meaning, we submit this abridgment to the serious consideration of the prudent and dispassionate, and not to enthusiasts and bigots, being convinced in our own breasts, that this shortened method, or one of the same kind better executed, would further religion, remove animosity, and occasion a more frequent attendance on the worship of God."×

Many experiments were performed by Dr. Franklin, at different times and places, to show the effect of oil in smoothing the surface of water agitated by the wind. While on a tour in the north of England with Sir John Pringle, he tried this experiment successfully upon the Derwent Water at Keswick. Dr. Brownrigg was present, and, in answer to his inquiries afterwards, Dr. Franklin gave a history of what he had done in this way, and explained upon philosophical principles the singular fact, that had been established by his experiments. It was proved by numerous trials, that a small quantity of oil poured upon a lake or pond, when rough with waves, would speedily calm the waves, and produce a smooth and glassy surface. This had often been shown in the presence of many spectators. Indeed, he was accustomed in his travels to carry a little oil in the joint of a bamboo cane, by which be could repeat the experiment whenever an occasion offered. The Abbe' Morellet mentions his having passed five or six days in company with Franklin, Garrick, Dr. Hawkesworth, and Colonel Barre', at Wycomb, the seat of Lord Shelburne, where he saw it performed with complete success.×

He explained as follows the operation of the oil in producing this effect. Waves are caused by winds, which so far adhere to the water as to raise it into ridges by their force. The particles of oil, when dropped on water, repel each other, and are also repelled by the water, so that they do not mingle with it. Hence they expand and diffuse themselves on the surface, till they meet with some obstruction, covering the water with an extremely thin and continuous film. The wind slides over this film, without coming in contact with the water, and thus the waves subside. The most remarkable thing observable in the process is the expansive power of the oil, by which a few drops will spread over a large surface, if they meet with no obstruction.×

Dr. Franklin's mind was always more or less intent upon philosophical studies, for which his habits of observation and reflection peculiarly fitted him; yet he wrote little on subjects of this kind during his second mission to England. His various political duties, and the deep interest he took in the affairs of his country, absorbed his time and thoughts. He wrote a few pieces, however, on electricity and other kindred subjects, and one on the analogy between electricity and magnetism. He also sketched the plan of an elaborate essay on the causes of taking cold. It was never finished, but he left copious notes, from which it appears that he made extensive investigations, and formed a theory by which he imagined, that the nature of the malady would be better understood, and that more easy and effectual preventives might be used.

A new edition of his philosophical writings was published at Paris in 1773, translated by Barbeu-Dubourg, a man of considerable eminence in the scientific world, and apparently well qualified for the task he undertook of translator and commentator. There had already been two French editions, but M. Dubourg's is much superior to either of them, as well in the matter it contains as in the style of its execution. It is handsomely printed, in two volumes quarto, and includes several original pieces communicated to him by the author. It comprises nearly all he had written on electricity and other philosophical subjects, with a few of his political and miscellaneous papers. The translator's notes are valuable. A fifth edition of the. philosophical writings was nearly at the same time published in London.

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