The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin
Presented at the Charles Warren Center, Harvard University, 20 November 1985
Long before he became a revolutionary patriot, Benjamin Franklin was a loyalist, a fervent supporter of the Anglo-American connection. His political activities and voluminous writings in support of the British empire were well recognized in his own day and have been hailed ever since, by historians of both the Revolution and the empire, for their soaring vision of the Anglo-American partnership.1 In terms of the modern scholarly categories devised by such social analysts as James Kirby Martin, Franklin meets all the criteria for a loyalist leader. His age, his wealth, his lucrative Crown appointment, his strenuous support of the military campaigns against the French during the 1740's and 1750's, his seminal role in devising the Albany Plan to strengthen imperial authority in America, his cordial participation in the practices of nepotism and plural-office holding current in British political culture, even his willingness to go along with the Stamp Act, are all hallmarks, leading indicators, of a paid-up member of the loyalist seaboard elite.2
Yet, alone among the key colonial supporters of the empire in his generation, Franklin did not go the last mile. Unlike his colleagues from the days of the Albany Plan -- Thomas Hutchinson, Cadwallader Colden, William Smith, jr. -- Franklin broke with the empire. Unlike the two men closest to him from the next generation, his son William Franklin and his political lieutenant Joseph Galloway, Franklin repudiated the mother country and embraced the infant republic. Historians have tried to come to grips with this discrepancy by recognizing other facets of Franklin's life and persona, other associations and activities which created a kind of dual allegiance within the man: his close political ties as their London agent with the colonial assemblies, his friendships with the dissenting radicals of England and the Enlightenment philosophers of Scotland and France, his ethical commitment to the virtues of industry and frugality which constituted the core of republican ideology, his belief in the capacity of the ordinary man to choose good leaders and participate in the government of his community.3
It is a measure of the man and the depths of his commitment to both halves of this dual allegiance that choosing between them was not easy. Seven years elapsed between Franklin's first questioning of Parliament's authority in America and his final renunciation. During his final year in London, 1775, he not only endured the most searing kind of political humiliation but came within a hair's breadth of being clapped in jail for his refusal to betray a political trust. Franklin suffered so such from the anxiety and stress of these events that he began to fear for his emotional balance: "What ever robs an Old Man of his sleep, soon demolishes him."4
Although the results of this crisis in allegiances are well known, the internal dynamics of Franklin's shift have only been partially explored. There are two prevailing interpretations of Franklin's renunciation of his imperial ties and his identification with the cause of American independence. The first -- articulated notably by Lawrence Henry Gipson and Gerald Stourzh -- is a straight-forward constitutional interpretation: beginning in 1768 Franklin perceived that Parliament would never grant the expanding colonies autonomous status within the empire, and rather than accept external limits on America's continental destiny, he opted for American independence. This interpretation is persuasive within its legal context, but it lacks psychological and political depth. Franklin's long championship of empire grew out of deeply felt moral and political needs which cannot be explained fully by abstract considerations of power. It was the emotional strength of these attachments which compelled Franklin to stay in London and seek a compromise long after he had rationally apprehended the unlikelihood of the ministry's ever yielding on the constitutional issue. Thus for Franklin, the decision regarding allegiance involved bonds and aspirations that were not susceptible to rational, constitutional exegesis, and it was his reluctance to sever those bonds which so prolonged and complicated his final years in London.5
The second interpretation of Franklin's shift -- argued most recently by Drew McCoy -- is ideological in nature and deals more successfully with these moral and emotional issues. This view asserts that Franklin's growing revulsion at the corruption and luxury of the English ruling classes forced him to rethink his commitment to the empire and eventually embrace the possibility of an independent, republican political community in America as the only remaining refuge for liberty in a world dominated by the decadent European state system. This interpretation accommodates the ideological intensity of the struggle for America and comports wonderfully with the image Franklin assumed after his conversion to independence: that of a simple American frontiersman preaching the gospel of virtuous self-sufficiency to compatriots at home and European allies abroad.6
Without denying the cogency of these views, it is pertinent to note that both the constitutional and ideological interpretations rest on the assumption that the American Revolution was a contingent rather than a necessary event, the product of human frailty, or what several historians have described as the failure of statesmanship.7 Implicit in both interpretations is the premise that better men could have wrought a more positive result. Had the ministry only possessed the vision of a Pitt or the compassion of a Burke, had the loyalists only anticipated the crisis with a more timely, organized response, the breakthrough achieved in Canada sixty years later -- which granted internal self-government to a colony and paved the way for autonomous status within the empire -- was surely possible in 1776. It was the unfortunate combination of wicked ministers and weak loyalists that prevented a resolution of the crisis: the defect was human, not structural; the Revolution was accidental, not inevitable.8
This line of thinking has almost irresistible appeal because it makes the Revolution such a unique, poignant episode. It accords less well, however, with the subsequent experiences of the loyalists in Canada or the history of Britain itself in the two centuries following the Revolution. The initial response of both the loyalists and the Crown, in setting up new political structures for British North America after 1783, was to resist strenuously the levelling, democratic tendencies inherent in colonial government by increasing the prerogative powers of the local executive and fostering aristocratic institutions in each colony.9 Furthermore, the remarkable concession of responsible government sixty years later, while doubtless a more sympathetic response to Canadian urgencies than America enjoyed in 1776, could only have occurred after the electoral reforms in Great Britain of the 1820's and 1830's created a new basis for Parliamentary authority at home by removing religious disabilities and enfranchising the upper middle class. Even the dominion status subsequently granted to Canada and the other settlement colonies did not terminate their subordinate standing in the empire. In fact, it was only the devastating effect of World War I, which altered so radically the balance of power and dependency within the empire, that finally enabled Canada and the other dominions to achieve full self-determination, particularly autonomy in military and foreign affairs. With the Statute of Westminster of 1931 Britain did indeed grant the parity within the empire which the Americans had demanded in 1776, did create an imperium in imperio, did make the Crown the sole connecting link between autonomous members of the British family of nations. But the long, arduous efforts of the settlement colonies to achieve this equality of status hardly supports the view that a little more foresight on the part of the ministry in the eighteenth century could have brought the Commonwealth principle into being.10
As for the supposed enfeeblement of the British ruling class, this cherished ideological interpretation seems even more fanciful when weighed against the evidence of modern history. For surely the overwhelming testimony of the past two centuries suggests that the revolutionary ideologues got it backwards, that they were in fact dead wrong. The Great Britain of the 1760's and 1770's was not in decay -- she was on the march! She was industrializing at home and expanding commercially all over the globe. In the nineteenth century she would use this base to establish her hegemony first in Europe and then over the rest of the world. And in the twentieth century she would adapt her inclusive, hierarchical form of government to create a far more thorough-going social democracy than the United States enjoys to this day. In short, rather than being effete, capricious, and conspiratorial, the real empire the colonies had to deal with was energetic, aggressive, arrogant, and extraordinarily fertile in pursuing her own self interest.11
Thomas Hutchinson perceived the rigid, domineering core of British policy early on. He could see no line, he told the Massachusetts General Court in 1772, "that can be drawn between the supreme authority of Parliament and the total independence of the colonies." 12 Benjamin Franklin clung far longer to his hope for eventual equal status for America within the empire. Franklin could not, would not, believe that England would be so foolish as to let America go. Only gradually did he apprehend that the ruling classes of England did not share the great rhetorical dreams articulates by Pitt and Burke, much less the sympathetic feelings for America expressed by his dissenter friends and his colleagues in the Royal Society. Franklin's gradual exposure to the hard-core, often contemptuous insularity of the Tory ruling class ultimately made him question the basis of his identification with England. It was the rigidity and political strength of these ethnocentric Tories, not their weakness or dissipation, which eroded his belief in the possibility of an Anglo-American empire and forced him to begin groping for an American destiny outside of that empire.
Franklin's discovery of the strict structural limits on Britain's definition of empire, the boundaries beyond which the ruling classes would not go in accepting American participation, has important historiographical implications. It creates a possible bridge, or basis of comparison, between his experience and the records of other colonial leaders in other imperial crises who went through the same cycle of (1) initial allegiance to an exalted ideal of empire, followed by (2) disillusionment when the metropolitan government failed to live up to this ideal, followed by either (3) reluctant submission, in the case of loyalists, or (4) aggressive resistance, in the case of nationalists, provoking some combination of reform, revolution, or decolonization. In a strikingly imaginative exploration of this cycle, the psychologist O. Mannioni has employed a metaphor from Shakespearean drama, the images of Prospero and Caliban, to illustrate the escalating nature of this recurrent imperial crisis. Using French colonial rule in Madagascar for his case study, Mannioni emphasizes the subjective, symbiotic aspects of the colonial situation whereby the objective reality of domination and dependence releases a series of unconscious needs and wishes: for superiority, control, and gratitude on the side of the imperial official; for security, acceptance, and eventual equality on the side of the colonial subject. In Mannioni's view the basic colonial relationship of domination and submission suits both sides at first, but the colonial subject gradually begins to resent his inferior status and to demand equality as he assimilates metropolitan culture and develops modern forms of economic and political activity. The imperial official, however, feels no comparable impetus to change and indeed resists the colonial's demands because of his continuing need to exercise dominance and control. The clash of motives inevitably produces, according to Mannioni, the famous curse of Caliban:
You taught me langauge and my profit on't
Is, I now know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language! 13
Important corroboration for Mannioni's description of the dynamic nature of the imperial relationship, particularly the pivotal importance of the motives and perceptions of colonial leaders, can be found in the work of two historians of British Africa, Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher. In a series of path-breaking studies, Robinson and Gallagher have developed a new model for imperialism which posits the existence of two independent circles of power -- one centered in Europe and industrially advanced; the other excentric, preindustrial, and resource-based. These two circles are linked together in an imperial relationship by means of a "collaborative mechanism" which establishes "interconnecting sets of linkages" or "bargains" between the imperial power and the leaders of the local colonial elites. The specific nature of the bargain struck can vary almost infinitely: ranging from total metropolitan control to a high degree of colonial self-government to merely informal commercial and military agreements. Over time, these bargains of collaboration will necessarily change, particularly as a result of colonial growth and development, and a new cooperative arrangement between the two sides of the imperial equation must then be instituted. For Gallagher and Robinson, this successive series of collaborative arrangements constitutes the heart of the imperial process. To understand its permutations consideration must be given, of course, to the "official mind" of the imperial government, but the most important source of change is the relationship with the local collaborating elites who serve as mediators and must ensure that any bargain struck corresponds with colonial expectations.14
In a similar vein, the sociologist Edward Shils has stressed the importance of the assimilated colonial intellectual, the man caught in "the very profound disjuncture between the metropolitan culture and the provincial culture." For Shils, the dilemma confronting this man is recurring and poignant:
There is no easy remedy because, despite its painfulness, the culture of the foreign metropolis is the only modern culture he possesses. If he denies that culture, he denies himself and negates his own aspirations to transform his society ....
This painful "stress" impels the assimilated colonial to create new forms which will affirm the dignity of his colonial community and regional culture without rejecting "the greater refinement, greater subtlety, and greater profundity of the metropolis."15
Historian Robin Winks too has emphasized the need to understand "the mediating groups in the society being encroached upon," so as to ascertain how "such groups interweave their needs with those of the expansive power" and to detect the moment when the equilibrium fails, "when the imperial partner seeks too much." Building on the work of Robinson and Gallagher on interdependency, Winks stresses the elements of collaboration and partnership which can exist within an imperial situation. The crucial testing point occurs when the colonists refuse to submit any longer, and the imperial official must therefore decide whether to bow to this new reality -- foresaking the old flattering forms of paternalism, economic exploitation, etc. -- or whether to cling, for motives of its own, to the existing pattern of control and domination.16
Examples of both, of course, abound in modern history. Within the British empire, the metropolis ultimately proved inflexible in the eighteenth century, unwilling to adjust imaginatively to the development of either her American or Irish colonies. In the nineteenth century, London did develop a sympathetic bond with the aspirations of her remaining white settlement colonies, producing the media via of dominion status, but not with the new African and Asian portions of the empire, where the old need to rule, exploit, and denigrate reemerged in peculiarly regressive form.
The question as to why Britain remained so obstinate in the face of changing American needs and aspirations has been explored by many historians from many different perspectives. In this essay, I wish to examine the career of Benjamin Franklin, particularly the events of his second mission to London, in order to see how well he fits the model outlined above of an assimilated colonial intellectual whose crisis of allegiance arose out of the very ideals and growth stimulated by the empire.17 Franklin was, of course, the preeminent American of his day in both England and the colonies. More pertinent to this inquiry is the extraordinary political distance which he traversed between his original fervent advocacy of the imperial tie and his final incarnation as the revolutionary symbol par excellence. The key to this transformation is the second mission to London, which brought Franklin face-to-face with the hard-core, unyielding attitudes of the Tory governing class, best expressed in the writings of Josiah Tucker, which adamantly refused to sacrifice either the English class structure or its need for dominance to American demands for autonomy and participation. In the face of this rejection Franklin gradually abandoned his cherished ideal of a vast Anglo-American imperium and took on the more cosmopolitan approach to the world fostered by the Enlightenment. From this perspective membership in the empire became less necessary to Franklin, and he was able to develop an entirely new set of convictions respecting British corruption, ministerial conspiracy, and American virtue. These values would, in turn, permit Franklin to reject the empire and embrace the revolutionary ideology, thus completing his personal transition from imperialism to republicanism, from assimilated colonial to rebel patriot, from "old-England man" to proud American. This transition will be described in six overlapping stages to explore the correlation between Franklin's needs and values and his shifting attitudes to empire.
I. The Arriviste. Franklin's diverse and truly extraordinary record of accomplishment is a matter of legend as well as historical fact. His rise from obscurity to the top of American colonial society, his discoveries in experimental science, and his forceful representation of American interests, first in London at the seat of empire and then in Paris at the seat of the Enlightenment, make Franklin a prime personification of the American Dream. Later fictional incarnations of that dream -- Horatio Alger, Isabel Archer, Jay Gatsby -- pale before the reality of Franklin. His restless energy, his need to improve not only himself but the world, particularly his ingenious conquest of the natural world with his lightning rod, revealed to all mankind the potency of New World curiosity and ambition. He was, of course, the man-on-the-make, the Yankee tinkerer, le bourgeois gentilhomme, the American, version of Bonaparte's carriere ouverte aux talents. His successive portraits reveal a choice of costumes precisely calculated to reflect his rising eminence in the Anglo-American world, to further his goal of acceptance as an urbane English gentleman. But while the portraits display the velvets and adornments of respectability, they also reveal a remarkable face. The vast forehead, the carefully set mouth and pursed, quivering lips form a backdrop to his principal feature -- the large, patient eyes which gaze directly, amiably out from the canvas. The formidable intelligence of the forehead and the controlled, teasing aggression of the lips are redeemed by the eyes. They suggest the fatalism, the humor, and the clarifying intellect which raised Franklin from the ranks of the merely ambitious to the much higher plain of exemplary hero.18
In precise step with the emerging spirit of his century, Franklin's life can be viewed as an exercise in balance. His continuing need was to control his restless energy, to keep in harmony the positive and negative forces within his own personality so as to concentrate talent and effort upon acceptable goals. The lessons learned from his Puritan upbringing were invaluable to his life-long campaign for self-control. A stern but caring father, as well as the meager sustenance available in his boyhood, impressed young Benjamin with the need for worldly achievement and material self-sufficiency. The formal religious attachments of his youth did not cling, but the Puritan habit of introspection remained throughout life his most valuable check on impulse, his guide to internal and external reality. His lowly rank as the last son, the 12th of 13 children, gave Franklin an early lesson in conflict management and the competitive edge, the need to prove himself, which would project him through colonial society out into world -- and the heavens.19
The conflicts inherent in these basic traits necessitated a stern self-discipline. Although he repeatedly professed optimistic faith in the goodness of life and the divine nature of its purpose, Franklin's lodestar was prudence not joy. The utilitarian moral arithmatic outlined it his Autobiography governed his life. The 13 virtues he assiduously cultivated managed to ignore completely the classical ideals of beauty, truth, and honor as well as the Christian preoccupation with charity and self-sacrifice. Instead, self-control, frugality and industry, and respect for public opinion sufficed to fill Franklin's moral universe and sharply attenuated his capacity for emotional depth or sustained idealism.20 The nineteenth century biographer Sainte-Beuve noted that Franklin called ill-humour "uncleanliness of soul."21 His determined optimism, his flair for earthy satire stopped short of tragedy or even the more absurd, sublime forms of comedy. Franklin asked no ultimate questions either of himself or the universe. His pragmatic marriage to the pathetic Deborah and his manipulation of his son William exemplify the shallowness of his emotional and philosophical roots. Only the external world of tangible projects -- business, public affairs, scientific experiments -- was a safe outlet for his energies. Wealth, achievement, fame, and a distant but genuine affection for his fellow humans became the hallmarks of his career.
In charting his way though this external world Franklin, provided himself with a set of positive and negative targets which kept him on course -- in balance -- and which provided both stimulus and outlet for his ambition. The positive targets were, of course, the extraordinary series of projects which Franklin launched with such fecundity and methodological sureness. His entire life became a prolonged inductive experiment. He approached personal behavior, literary style, the civic institutions of Philadelphia, American colonial government, and the British empire with the same curiosity, tentative solutions, and careful observation of results that he brought to his study of electricity.22 He felt triumph when a hypothesis proved correct but always remained open to new evidence, alternative views. Franklin's identification with these projects was matched by a series of enemies or scapegoats whom he clung to with equal vigor in order to vent his aggressive, negative feelings. As he told Polly Stevenson, "'tis convenient to have at least one Enemy, who by his readiness to revile one on all occasions may make one careful of one's Conduct ..."23 Successively Franklin showered his wrath on his older brother James, the rival printer Keimar, the Penn proprieters, the Paxton Boys, Lords Grenville and Hillsborough, and finally King George himself. The glorious positive projects and the negative feelings of resentment were all of a piece. Like Camus' rebel, Franklin "says yes and no simultaneously .... simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself."24 These confused values, particularly the passionate need for self-affirmation, led Franklin originally to unparalleled worldly success and then to rebellion.
II. The Imperialist. Franklin was praised by contemporaries and later historians for his prophetic vision of the British empire. Lawrence Henry Gipson, Richard Koebner, and Randolph G. Adams all credit Franklin with foreseeing a self-governing empire that spanned oceans and federated sovereign communities.25 Such important later political structures as colonial dominion status and the British Commonwealth of Nations have been repeatedly traced to Franklin's 1754 Albany Plan of Union. Without doubt, his sustained, twenty-year effort "to preserve from breaking that fine and noble China Vase, the British empire," was a heroic feat in the annals of statesmanship as well as extraordinary evidence of his patriotism.26
And yet, to paraphrase Voltaire, it must be noticed that if the British empire had not existed, Benjamin Franklin would have had to invent it. Colonial America was simply not mature or complex enough to contain his restless, creative talent. Franklin's voracious appetite for knowledge, his love of grand projects, and above all, his need for fame drew him inexorably to the imperial metropolis. As a young man footloose in London he had the presumption to challenge in print the doctrines of the Christian Deist, William Woolaston, and to seek out the essayist Bernard de Mandeville, although Sir Isaac Newton eluded him.27 In his mid-30's, he set up the American Philosophical Society to promote regular scientific correspondence between "the virtuosi or ingenious men" of the colonies and the Royal Societies of London and Dublin.28 By the time he was 40, his scientific experiments had caught the attention of members of the Royal Society and Franklin got the regular contact with the metropolis that he craved. A pathetically humble letter to the amateur London scientist, William Strahan, revealed the sense of isolation and cultural inferiority that haunted Franklin:
I have long wanted a Friend in London whose judgment I could depend on, to send me from time to time such new pamphlets as are worth Reading on any Subject .... We seldom have any News on our Side of the Globe that can be entertaining to you or yours. All our affairs are petit. They have a miniature Resemblance only, of the grand things of Europe. Our Governments, Parliaments, Wars, Treaties, Expeditions, Factions, etc., tho matters of great and Serious Consequence to us, can seem but Trifles to you.29
Franklin reconciled himself to his position on the periphery of empire and civilization through a highly sophisticated theory of historical development. Although this theory was by no means unique to him, it did enable Franklin to accept the relative immaturity of America and to regard its future with great hope. As Drew McCoy has described, Franklin viewed history and civilization as a rhythmic, evolutionary process in which, ever since the time of the Greeks, societies passed successively from simple hunting and herdsmen forms through agriculture on to the highest level of commercial and civilized development, before lapsing into decay and degeneration. Europe, in Franklin's view, had reached its highest point in civilization, while America was still in the initial stages of ascent.30 Such an encompassing, comforting perspective on America's place in the world enabled Franklin to enjoy the riches of European civilization and to emulate it without embarrassment. Letters to English friends cheerfully acknowledged the newness of the arts in America and their indebtedness to the English tradition:
Painting has not yet made her appearance among us; but her sister Art, Poetry, has some Votaries .... which I hope your Mother Critics will treat with some indulgence.31
His own tastes ran unabashedly to the simple, in food, in sociability, and in music. His long disquisition asserting the superiority of country music, the "simple ditties" of Massachusetts and Scotland, over the more intricate British forms ended with a vehement 6-point indictment of a song by Handel for "wrong placing the accent," "drawling," "stuttering," "unintelligibleness," "tautology," and "screaming."32 Franklin's greatest contribution to American expression -- the superb essays and letters -- brought world recognition to the new American style, the laconic, homespun humor of the frontier. "Poor Richard" immortalized the Yankee ethic, for better and for worse. And Franklin cast his eye with equal whimsey on English customs such as this Bunyanesque response to English fears of American competition:
The very Tails of the American Sheep are so laden with Wool, that Each has a Car or Wagon on four little Wheels to support and keep it from trailing on the Ground. Would they caulk their Ships? would they fill their Beds? would they even litter their Horses with Wool, if it was not both plenty and cheap?33
Franklin's willing dependence on the British empire, his warm admiration for her strength and accomplishments, coupled with a saucy, assertive pride in emerging American society provide the essential background for understanding his more serious statements on the future of the British empire. His first two such statements, both written in 1751 -- "Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc." and "Exporting of Felons to the Colonies" -- manifest the deep ambivalence which Franklin brought to imperial affairs. Although he would write voluminously on this same subject for the next quarter century, he would never budge from the values expressed in these early pieces.
"Observations concerning the Increase of Mankind" is the more famous and more positive. Announcing that England is now "full settled," Franklin predicted that the Mother Country would grow but slowly in future whilst America, with its plentiful land and opportunities for employment "must at least be doubled every 20 years." He proclaimed this growth as a glorious opportunity for both Britain and America. The colonies would be so engrossed with settling their virgin lands, and the price of labor there would be so high, that British manufactures would continue to be needed in quantity by the growing population. Of course, Franklin went on, the population of the colonies:
will in another Century be more than the People of England, and the greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water. What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea as well as Land! What Numbers of Ships and Seamen!
Franklin's statistics and his ecstasy were entirely justified by the demography and natural resources of America. Yet despite his assurances of America's continued dependence on British manufactures, this picture of the young American colossus overtaking and dominating the British empire was not welcome in the Mother Country.34
Quite the contrary. England's ruling classes regarded America and Americans as inferior, and Franklin knew it. In the "Observations," he criticized British policy for polluting the colonies with alien races -- especially the Palatine Germans and black Africans. In his companion piece on "Exporting of Felons," Franklin attacked this point more directly. He lashed out at the Mother Country for exporting convicts to America for the stated purpose of the "improvement and well peopling of the Colonies." This affront to the colonial population enraged Franklin, and he unleashed his fiercest satirical powers to mock "such tender parental concern in our mother country," which would empty the Newgates and dungeons of Great Britain "to perpetuate many horrid crimes" in America.
But let not private interests obstruct public utility. Our mother knows what is best for us. What is a little housebreaking, shoplifting, or highway robbing; what is a son now and then corrupted and hanged, a daughter debauched and poxed, a wife stabbed, a husband's throat cut, or a child's brain beat out with an axe, compared with this "improvement and well peopling of the Colonies!"
The emotionalism of this passage suggests the depths of Franklin's indignation. Not only was the policy detrimental to colonial development, it clearly touched on Franklin's basic identity as an American, triggering fierce resentment in this proud colonial. With malice aforethought, he proposed that in return America should transport thousands of rattlesnakes annually to Britain to be:
carefully distributed in St. James's Park, in the spring gardens and other places of pleasure ... but particularly in the gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament ...
In a final scornful note Franklin suggested that the English gentry might learn from these reptiles "to creep, to insinuate, and to slaver, and to wriggle into place ... qualities of no small advantage to courtiers."35
Franklin's imperial position maintained these radically conflicting attitudes in uneasy tension. Great Britain excited his patriotism and his most exalted aspirations. He willingly accepted the fact of economic and cultural dependency and feverently wanted America to develop her young continent within the firm, wise models provided by British institutions. But this temporary dependency was recompensed for him by the transporting thought that America would one day dominate the empire. Thus as early as 1751 Franklin was as much an American imperialist as a British one.36 The policy of transporting felons provoked his rage because it suggested that the British governing classes did not share his vision, but rather regarded America as the permanently inferior dumping ground for the offal of their islands. This fundamental difference of opinion over the status of America in the empire, lay at the heart of his second mission.
III. The Colonial Agent. Franklin began his second mission in late 1763 an ardent champion of the "whole empire." His first tour of duty in England, from 1757 to 1762, had confirmed his most optimistic expectations about the Mother Country. The addition of Canada to the "British Plantations" was a stunning realization of his expansionist goals for North America. In the long, heavily researched "Canada Pamphlet," Franklin combined detailed trade statistics with his most persuasive eloquence to assure the British public that this new territory would bring prosperity to all members of the empire by encouraging the Americans to remain an agricultural people rather than being tempted to erect manufacturing establishments in competition with the Mother Country.37 The personality of the new king further enhanced Franklin's sense of imperial loyalty. He had attended George III's coronation and came away enamoured of his youth and idealism. Franklin's identification with the monarch reached a personal height in 1762 when, thanks to the intervention of his Scottish friends with Lord Bute, his son William was made royal governor of New Jersey. For a colonial, who began life as the son of a tallow chandler and soap boiler, this mark of royal favor provided singular proof of the empire's capacity to recognize men of merit whatever their origins.38
At the nonpolitical level as well as the first mission strengthened Franklin's bond with Great Britain. He immersed himself deeply in "the conveniences of life, the politeness, the pleasures, the magnificance of the reigning country ..."39 The opportunity for discourse with England's scientific and literary illuminati at the meetings of the Royal Society, the frequent, aimable gatherings at the "Club of Honest Whigs" of English and Scottish reformers, and the flirtatious banter of an entirely new sort of female companion, all combined to make Franklin a fervent Anglophile. For, though he valued detachment and solitary study, Franklin was at the same time an eminently clubbable man who found deep fulfillment in the friendships and intellectual associations he formed during his first mission. "Of all Enviable Things England has, I envy it most its People," he concluded as he prepared to leave for home.40 The first tour had also enabled Franklin to reap the rewards of his scientific and literary fame. He became active in the Royal Society, struck up a correspondence with Giambatista Becarria and other European scientists, received honorary degrees from Oxford and St. Andrews, and made contact with a notable group of Scottish philosophers, particularly David Hume and Lord Kames, whose interests and moral outlook were akin to his own.41 Hume was one of many who regretted Franklin's leavetaking in 1762, and in an extraordinarily powerful tribute the Scot estimated Franklin's importance as an American emissary to Europe:
America has sent us many good things, Gold, Silver, Sugar, Tobacco, Indigo, &c. But you are the first philosopher, and indeed the first Great Man of Letters for whom we are beholden to her: it is our own fault we have not kept him: Whence it appears, that we do not agree with Solomon, that Wisdom is above Gold.42
With such praises ringing in his ears, Franklin's return to colonial Philadelphia was inevitably a letdown. In fact, he would return to England within the year to commence his second mission. Two incidents during this brief interval enhanced, if possible, Franklin's regard for British institutions. The first was the notorious Paxton Boys' episode, the vengeful massacre of some helpless "praying Indians" by a vigilante group of Pennsylvania frontiersmen. Franklin published "A Narrative of the Late Massacres" to rouse public opinion against the murderers. In passionate, scathing language he denounced the "CHRISTIAN WHITE SAVAGES" who had perpetrated the crime and betrayed every principle of religion and civilization. Significantly, the only people, other than the poor Indians, whom Franklin saw fit to praise in his pamphlet were the British soldiery, "brave men and true Soldiers," who recognized the peaceful intent of these particular Indians and gave them protection and escort. For Franklin, the contrast between the indiscriminate violence of the frontiersmen and the disciplined strength of the soldiers led to an important moral lesson: "Such just and generous Actions endear the Military to the Civil Power, and impress the Minds of all the Discerning with a still greater respect for our national Government." British justice and British discipline were clearly perceived as necessary to contain the anarchic impulses of America.43
The second major event was the continuing, aggravating dispute with the Penn Family, the proprietary governors of Pennsylvania. This climaxed in late 1763 with an Assembly resolution to seek a royal government and the dispatch of Franklin to London to conduct the negotiations. A long, hot summer of political contention and electioneering preceded this decision and subjected Franklin to a large dose of truly insulting political criticism as well as his first electoral defeat.44 Although cool and controlled in public, Franklin seemed utterly disenchanted with the Penns and the low level of political life in his colony: "All parties begin now to wish for a King's Government. The Mobs strike a general Terror, and many talk of Removing into other Provinces, adjudging both their Persons and Property insecure."45 While clearly a partisan in this dispute, nonetheless Franklin's enthusiasm for a royal government under "a gracious King" was wholehearted.46 Even the prospect of a resident British army and new taxes did not dampen his advocacy, although he did add the caution: "If you cause to tax us, give us Members in Your Legislature, and let us be One People."47
The commitment to empire and a personal longing for the delights of his British friends were recurrent themes in his letters at this time. He acknowledged in his note of farewell to Philadelphia that he might never return to his native land.48 At his debarkation, 300 supporters saw him off, singing a specially prepared hymm for the occasion, linking Franklin and the King as twin sources of hope for the future:
Long to defend our Laws,
Still give us greater cause
To sing with Heart and Voice
GEORGE and FRANKLIN
GOD Save Great GEORGE our King
Prosper agent FRANKLIN:
Grant him Success49
Despite this auspicious beginning, Franklin's second mission was a decidedly mixed affair. In personal terms, the pleasures and the triumphs continued. The friendships with Mrs. Stevenson's family and the radical reformers grew closer. Franklin's scientific fame brought new acclaim, particularly from the European continent, where royalty as well as fellow scientists sought him out. But these delights were diluted by the deepening political imbroglio in which Franklin, to his acute discomfort, found his colonial loyalties in conflict with the new imperial policy. The British decision to rationalize colonial affairs after the Seven Years' War and to raise more revenue in the colonies produced a well known series of administrative reforms and new taxes. When Franklin arrived back in London in late 1763, the Stamp Act was under discussion. Because he came from a proprietary colony, Franklin had never before been involved in direct, prolonged negotiations with the imperial government, and his battle with the proprietors inclined him to overvalue its benevolence. The new revenue measures, however, as well as his role as agent for Pennsylvania and, in the years following, Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, brought Franklin face-to-face with the King's ministers. It was not an easy role for a man with his dual loyalties, and Franklin spent most of the period between the Stamp Act and the Townshend duties backing and filling, trying to placate and conciliate both sides, hoping to come up with some proposal that would dissolve the growing animosity.50
He was thrust, in short, into the equivocal position of the colonial agent who was close enough to the seat of empire to understand the imperatives of policy but whose letters from home, as well as his own native intuitions, made him aware of the potential folly of the new imperial initiative. Franklin was energetic and ingenious in his efforts to bridge the growing gap. He pled the colonial cause bravely, brilliantly before the Ministry and the House of Commons whilst his messages back to the colonies urged patience and moderation. He made proposal after proposal to circumvent the increasingly entrenched positions: colonial representation in Parliament, reorganization of the empire on a more equal basis, the establishment of a paper currency fund in the colonies to meet the revenue requirement, a return to the old requisition system, etc. His efforts can be best appreciated in his submissions to the newspapers, his favorite medium, where Franklin devoted a lifetime's knowledge and skill to coaxing his Anglo-American community back into rapport.
In these letters to the London and colonial newspapers, Franklin's basic strategy was the time-honored device of the carrot and the stick. He lectured both Britain and America on how much each needed the other. He published reams of statistics on the value of the transatlantic trade and the staggering costs of a military conflict -- he reckoned it would "only" take 50,000 men for 3 or 4 years at a cost of £ 10 to £ 12 million a year and assured his readers in London that he "can never believe the Americans will be able to spin it out to seventy [years], as the Holanders did the War for their Liberties ..."51 He emphasized the American contribution to the Seven Years' War and rejected again and again British suggestions that the colonies were bent on independence now that the French were out of North America. He worried openly about the instability of the colonies and the longstanding jealousies between them which only the imperial framework could overcome. And he rebuked the English for their equally divisive insularity, their need to feel superior to their American children.
It was a masterful effort, climaxing with the bravura performance in the House of Commons, where he informed the political leaders of the Kingdom, in carefully modulated but firm responses, that they were driving their loyal, valuable colonists into open rebellion.52 A cartoon published by Franklin about the same time captured the intensity of both his affections and his apprehensions for the empire. It featured a young, blood-spattered Britannia, her arms and legs (the colonies) hacked off above the joint, with the caption "MAGNA Britannia: her Colonies REDUCED." The moral accompanying the drawing warned of how states can be ruined by partiality to "one part of the nation:
An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy; it being a matter of no moment to the state, whether a subject grows rich and flourishing on the Thames or the Ohio, in Edinburgh or Dublin.53
The cartoon distilled the essence of Franklin's colonial loyalty: the empire must be governed on the basis of equality. The Crown in its transcendant wisdom must view the Thames and the Ohio with loving impartiality. Franklin's own career had demonstrated beyond any doubt the interchangeability of the various parts of the empire, the capacity of colonials to participate in metropolitan affairs and contribute to its glories. Americans had long accepted a subordinate role due to their immaturity, but Franklin had always assumed such inequality to be merely temporary. Nothing in his personal experience suggested that objections to American equality might arise as a matter of political principle.
IV. The Anarchist. While the repeal of the Stamp Act was a moment of triumph for Franklin personally as well as for the colonies, his optimism soon turned to frustration and then rage as he followed the subsequent debates in the House of Lords on the Repeal and the Declaratory Act. Franklin made marginal notes in a pamphlet published by a group of dissident Lords who were protesting against the Repeal and urging the government to take a "vigorous" policy with the fractious Americans.54 Franklin's notes at first are reasonable, constitutional rejoinders, accompanied by a pointed declaration of loyalty: "I came over here to solicit in Behalf of my Colony a closer Connection with the Crown." His exasperation increased, however, as he read through the pamphlet and had to deal for yet another time with the unshakeable British conviction that the Americans must be brought to heel before they were strong enough to fulfill their supposed "desire of a total independence" and plunged the empire into a disasterous war. At the end of the pamphlet Franklin vented his pent up anger with this extraordinary statement:
I can only judge of others by myself. I have some little Property in America. I will freely spend 19 Shillings in the Pound to defend my Right of giving or refusing the other Shi[lling] and after all, if I cannot defend that Right, I can retire chearfully with my Little Family into the Boundless Woods of America which are sure to afford Freedom and Subsistence to any Man who can bait a hook or pull a Trigger.55
The steely defiance contained in these words is unmistakable, and shocking. This was not the careful declaration of the public Franklin -- the colonial courtier, successful man of affairs, elderly moral philosopher. This is an enraged, anarchic, spiteful Franklin. It is American individualism at its irreducible core. It is Hunk Finn lighting out for the territory, it is Henry Thoreau choosing to go to jail, it is Jack Kerouac on the road. The powerful, rebellious note in Franklin's statement suggests that certain impulses in his personality, which had been clearly evident in his youthful encounters with his father and brother but carefully suppressed ever since, now resurfaced in response to the arrogance of the intransigent Tories.56
This other, more aggressive side of Franklin's attitude toward the empire and himself became more evident as the 1760's wore on. He seemed impelled by two distinct, contradictory forces -- the wish to preserve the empire and the determination to reject any suggestion of submission under pressure. These motives appeared alternately in Franklin's public statements, as they doubtless also conflicted within the private reaches of his personality. He accused England of despising the Americans too much to accept them as equal partners, and heaped scathing abuse on "the sweet flowers of English rhetorick" which branded her American children, "republican race, mixed rabble of Scotch, Irish and foreign vagabonds, descendants of convicts, ungrateful rebels, &c." He dramatically rebuked the English for their haughtiness and their racism:
Give me leave, MASTER JOHN BULL, to remind you, that you are related to all mankind .... you have mixed with your many virtues a pride, a haughtiness, and an insolent contempt for all but Yourself .... why despise your own English, who conquered and settled Ireland for you; who conquered and settled America for you?57
Although he clung to his ideal of a consolidating union, Franklin began to doubt that English pride would ever permit it. At a particularly dark moment in 1767, when the New York Quartering Act was causing grave distress in the colonies, Franklin suggested to the Scottish philosopher Lord Kames that the heart of the issue was the English need to dominate another people: "Every Man in England seems to consider himself as a Piece of a Sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself into the throne with the King, and talks of OUR Subjects in the Colonies."58
Growing resentment of British imperial attitudes was accompanied and reinforced by a new pride in his American countrymen. The stalwartly moral American decision to resist British taxes through economic boycott, particularly to refuse British manufactures and begin filling their own requirements, simply thrilled Franklin. The old Puritan virtues of frugality and industry were being used to defend American liberty! This marvelous example of virtue and collective spirit contrasted sadly in Franklin's mind with the "roguery and rapacity" he now found in England, where mob riots were becoming "the mode of government," and the American service subverted to fill the pockets of "friends and favorites."59
Gradually, imperceptibly, the balance of Franklin's loyalties was shifting. In 1770 when 3 of the 4 Townshend duties were repealed, Franklin urged his countrymen to continue their boycott until the British totally capitulated.60 Five years earlier he would probably have counselled compromise. His interpretation of the imperial connection had hardened as well. Throughout the 1760's he had sought a reconciliation through Parliament, but by 1770 he had come to the much more provocative conclusion that Parliament had no authority whatsoever over the colonies, that only the King exercised sovereignty in America.61
The clearest, most dramatic evidence of Franklin's shedding of his imperial loyalties is his marginal notes to a pamphlet by the political iconoclast, Josiah Tucker, entitled A Letter from a Merchant in London to his Nephew in North America.62 Tucker was a curious combination of Anglican dean, economic liberal, and irreconciliable conservative. Modern scholars credit Tucker with anticipating by 20 years the arguments of Adam Smith espousing free trade and denying the mercantilist contention that colonies were essential to the economic prosperity of Great Britain.63 Tucker also anticipated by 20 years the arguments set forth in Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France that the "natural rights" theorists in America and England -- with their commitment to a contract theory of government based on numerical representation and majority rule -- threatened the historic foundations of English constitutional government.64
Tucker's writings are cranky and involuted, totally devoid of Smith's fluid clarity or Burke's majestic metaphors. In his own day, however, Tucker was widely read. His appeal was twofold. First, as a fervent Anglican and fervent Whig, Tucker believed that English forms of liberty depended on aristocratic rule and a strong sense of community. He recognized that American traditions were different, grounded as they were in Puritan dissent, and he far preferred to let the colonies go than abandon the interlocking nature of English government. Tucker's second point, his economic theories, suggested that the loss of America would not inflict unacceptable damage on British trade. In a series of tightly argued, factually impressive pamphlets, which he began writing in 1755, Tucker insisted that international trade was beneficial to all nations involved. He assured the British public that the exchange of British manufacturing goods for American resources would continue whether America remained in the empire or not. He went on to suggest that rather than being indispensable assets, "our numerous colonies ... are great and continual Drains upon us," because of the administrative costs involved and the loss of manpower through emigration. Tucker's views on the colonies became progressively harsher as the American quarrel worsened. The insidious republicanism of "dear America" was undermining the stability of both England and Ireland, while the enormous bureaucracy required to govern the colonies was increasing the power of the Crown to a dangerous degree. In sum, Tucker's position led him to the exact opposite of the imperial principle later enunciated by Winston Churchill: he was not prepared to salvage the colonies in order to preside over the liquidation of the British political structure.65
Franklin and Tucker had clashed once before during the Canada-Guadaloupe controversy, and they would clash again in the debate over the Boston Tea Party.66 The marginalia written by Franklin in 1770 on Tucker's Letter from a Merchant were not of course a public encounter. Yet their very privacy and informality, the unguarded nature of Franklin's replies to Tucker's assertions reveals in unusually direct form the shattering implications which Tucker's definition of empire posed for the American agent. Clearly Tucker, and all those among the governing classes whom Tucker spoke for, would never grant America equal status within the empire. As the pamphlet put it: "In short, while you are a Colony, you must be subordinate to the Mother Country. These are the Terms and Conditions." Tucker simply scoffed at Franklin's pet dream that one day the seat of empire would be transferred to America. With gratuitous sarcasm, Tucker assured his readers that the seat of empire, the British way of life, was not moveable, not subject to structural alteration: it was inextricably bound to the British isles and the historic community which had evolved there. If an American wished to enjoy the full rights of Englishmen, he must remove to the Mother Country: "You live in the colonies because you prefer to do so; why should we be compelled to remodel our ancient constitution at your behest?"67
Franklin was simply taken aback by Tucker's intransigence. His marginal comments explode with indignation and rage. Tucker was a "villain" who was fabricating "an Absolute Lie!" The Mother Country as defined by Tucker was "a wicked guardian and a shameless one ..." Tucker's insistence that the Navigation acts benefitted the colonies caused Franklin to protest: "I am sick of these forged obligations." Out of his disgust at Tucker's demeaning view of the colonies, out of his painful realization that Tucker and the English diehards would never yield their dominant position in the empire, would never consider any alternative whatever in the governing structure of the empire, came Franklin's initial, tentative move to the possibility of independence, based on the hardy virtues of frugality and industry:
This should be a Caution to Americans how they indulge for the future in British Luxuries. See here British generosity! The People who have made you Poor by their worthless I mean useless Commodities would now make you poorer by Taxing you .... Reject then their Commerce as well as their pretended Power of Taxing. Be frugal and industrious, and you will be free.
Tucker's final proposal in the pamphlet that Britain should simply stand back and set the colonies free to fight among themselves "until, surfeited with republicanism, they will petition for reunion with the mother country," produced the most defiant response from Franklin. Whatever the burdens of a break, he noted, they were preferable to submission: "We might still have something we could call our own."68
V. The Philosophe. Ironically, at the very moment when Josiah Tucker and the peers of England were assuring Franklin that Americans, qua Americans, could never participate as an equal unit in the empire, Franklin himself -- the most famous and representative American of all - was achieving new heights of international eminence. On his first trip to France in 1767, Franklin was invited to a royal supper at the Palace of Versailles, where he was permitted to stand next to the Queen and converse with Louis XV. The next year an even more signal favor occurred in London, when the visiting King of Denmark invited Franklin to dinner at St. James's Palace and after a convivial evening suggested that he would like to visit Franklin in his lodgings on Craven Street. The American was thrilled by these attentions. In letters to intimates, he described his royal hosts in minute detail and even drew diagrams of the seating arrangements to make the encounters more vivid for his readers. At the end of a fulsome letter to his son William about the King of Denmark, Franklin added the stern caution: "This is only for you and Betsey to read, your Mother and Sister. For it will not be decent in us to talk of these kind of Things." After all, Franklin had never met his own King, nor even, despite numerous efforts, such chief ministers as Chatham or North.69
The discrepancy between his increasing renown in Europe and the second-class status assigned his countrymen in England struck Franklin forcibly. Although he had long been familiar with Enlightenment principles of toleration, the cosmopolitan commitment to "mankind in general" took on a new, political significance as a result of his trips abroad and his own conflicting loyalties. He noted admiringly the courtesy of Parisians to strangers and wondered why the English could not emulate such "Urbanity."70 He struck up a correspondence with the French Physiocrat, Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, informing him that he was so "charmed" by the "freedom from National Prejudices and Partialities" of his writings that Franklin "wished he had stayed in France to study at your School."71 This was more than mere politesse, as the subsequent friendship of Franklin and de Nemours amply attested. Deprived of his dream of an Anglo-American partnership, Franklin began groping for a new definition of America's place in the world which transcended both the provincialism of the colonies and the domineering structure of the empire. The political impasse with the Mother Country had created a dilemma for the colonial which could only be overcome by the construction of an alternative vision for America. At this juncture Franklin's long association with the humanitarian and scientific ideals of the Enlightenment was now put to serve his political need.
Franklin's crisis of loyalties reached fever pitch and was then resolved by the end of 1771. At the level of political events, the crisis was marked by three key shifts. First, he totally rejected the authority of Parliament over the colonies and based his future efforts to preserve the empire on a totally unrealistic proposal to make the King the sole connecting link between the political components. Secondly, he became in 1770 the London agent for Massachusetts Bay, the most turbulent and radical colony, thus identifying himself much more decisively with the extreme wing of American protest and defiance. Thirdly he began to maintain that the American colonies should have the diplomatic status of "distinct states," and he chose to present his credentials as Massachusetts agent to Lord Hillsborough, the Secretary of State, rather than going through the normal channels at the Board of Trade. This was a deliberately provocative act by Franklin, amounting to a claim for ambassadorial status, and Hillsborough rejected it out of hand. The effect of these aggressive acts on Franklin's part was to cancel his status as an intermediary in the imperial dispute and identify him much more closely with the radicals.72
These shifts in Franklin's political stance were accompanied by two even more significant shifts at the level of ideas. Both drew on Enlightenment principles, and both would have far reaching implications for the developing ideology of American republicanism. First of all, Franklin changed his economic orientation. He completely scuttled in these years his original commitment to mercantilist theories of a self-sufficient trading empire and embraced the new Scottish and Physiocrat doctrines extolling an international economy based on free trade and a domestic economy centred on agriculture.73 This new set of economic priorities enabled Franklin to regard American membership in Britain's great trading empire as less important to its economic well being. He began to see America's abundant land and its farming population as a source of economic strength and social virtue, rather than as a sign of cultural immaturity. The connection with the great manufacturing engines of Great Britain was no longer vital and might even be pernicious. Thus Franklin laid the basis in these years for a belief that America could prosper independently of the imperial tie, a belief crucial to republican ideology. Even more fundamental to Franklin's quest for a new vision of America's role in the world was his withdrawal to the English countryside in 1771 to write the first section of the Autobiography.
The theme of this classic work of Enlightenment literature is unmistakeable and relentless. It traces the rise from "poverty and obscurity" of the Eighteenth Century's most successful American.74 Franklin had long contemplated such a work because of his deep belief in the moral efficacy of personal example. As he told Lord Kames in 1763, "the Power of a Single Man to do National Service, in a Particular Situation of Influence, is often immensely great." Franklin knew he was a man of influence, and he had always considered "writers who inculate good habits" to be performing great national service.75 Thus his writing of the first part of the Autobiography in the dark moments of 1771 must be considered as a profoundly political act. In this work, Franklin defined his character as an autonomous, self-created, and self-sufficient American. In both a literal and a metaphorical sense, the Autobiography was Franklin's personal declaration of independence.
Every anecdote and detail of this brilliant spiritual biography hammers home the central theme: the tale of a "poor ignorant boy," the untutored son of a colonial craftsman, making his way to unparalleled success by dint of talent, industry, and a conscientious preoccupation with his own moral development. The Autobiography is a hymn to the man of character, to the power of the radically independent self. It is as significant for what it omits as for what it highlights. No governments are mentioned, no social structures, no royal dynasties or courts, no constraining hierarchies, not even a nation, much less an empire. The focus is on the individual and his apparently limitless potential. The only institutions described favorably as nurturing, supportive aids to the individual are Franklin's family -- both his immediate relations and his estimable Puritan ancestors -- and the treasured classics of world literature. Otherwise, the few references to school, church, business, and aristocracy are simply brought in to show how the young lad effortlessly gained access to these institutions and then transcended them. The Autobiography is, in short, Franklin's definitive reply to the preoccupation of Josiah Tucker and the English governing classes with status, governing structures, interlocking estates of the realm, and the constraints imposed by history and community. By omitting such topics entirely from his Autobiography Franklin assigns the entire English fixation with tradition and hierarchy to the wastebin. Men of character, working for their own and the public benefit, were the only truly essential ingredients for success and happiness. The final episode in the first section -- the happy ending -- makes this point succinctly. It describes Franklin's "first project of a public nature," the founding of subscription library in Philadelphia. The key point is that this project was brought into being by the voluntary actions of honest, public-spirited men from backgrounds as humble as Franklin's -- without benefit of clergy, or Parliament, or the Board of Trade. Its fate was exemplary:
... this was the Mother of all North American subscription libraries, now so numerous. It is becoming a great thing in itself, and continually increasing. These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps have contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defence of their privileges.76
The exercise of writing the first part of the Autobiography enabled Franklin finally to resolve his crisis of allegiance. By reflecting upon his unique experience of life and demonstrating its freedom from institutional or structural restraints, Franklin affirmed the cardinal principle of the Enlightenment: that the individual was separate from society and capable of transcending its boundaries. Fortified by this definition of himself, Franklin's sense of dependency on English political and cultural forms was finally snapped. It was sufficient now for him simply to be an American, self-made and self-determining, radically independent of the empire and its traditions.
VI. The Patriot. Although he would remain in England for four more years, Franklin became after 1771 a partisan patriot, an increasingly shrill advocate of American self-government at any cost. This important reorientation was marked by a transvaluation of Franklin's previous political ideals. The empire was no longer a source of stability, culture, and wisdom; it became rotten, conspiratorial, and tyrannical. American's vulnerability to violence and internecine rivalry dropped from sight, and new artistic promise, economic strength, and personal virtue -- based particularly on her agricultural way of life -- came to the fore. The English people by 1771 had become corrupt, venal, and servile in his view, while the New England farmers had laid the basis for true happiness with their superior way of life:
where every Man is a freeholder, has a vote in publick Affairs, lives in a tidy warm House, has plenty of good Food and Fewel, with whole Cloaths from head to Foot, the Manufactury perhaps of his own Family. Long may they continue in this situation!77
In his new found enthusiasm for things American, Franklin saw less need for a strong bond with the European mother culture. American wealth and genius would suffice to produce a rich civilization, he assured Charles Wilson Peale, for "the Arts have always travelled Westward."78 Agriculture became an increasingly important key to American self-sufficiency, while trade, manufacturing, and social distinctions were seen as leading a colony to the wretched condition of the Irish tenantry.79
Franklin's fervent patriotism was a necessary sequel to his alienation from English values. He had to devise a new set of ideals and new attachments to replace his long-standing ideological commitment to the empire. By 1774 he had come full circle. With the encouragement of such English radicals as Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, Franklin became convinced that liberty was on the absolute decline in England, and that its preservation for posterity depended on "a safe and vigorous America." Drawing on his New England roots, Franklin professed to see divine purpose in America's new role: "Providence seems by every means intent on making us a Great People."80 By early 1774 his rejection of England and his faith in the rising American people was open and complete:
... the Flame of Liberty in North America shall not be extinguished. Cruelty and Oppression and Revenge shall only serve as Oil to increase the Fire. A great country of hardy Peasants is not to be subdued.81
In this nationalistic mood, Franklin prodded both colonies and ministry with a series of unusually provocative gestures. His motivation in this period is particularly difficult for the historian to assess. On the one hand, it is hard to believe that a man of such practiced detachment, and such vast experience in the use of propaganda, could suddenly get "carried away" in his sixty-sixth year and adopt an extremist course. Perhaps Franklin should be taken at his word: that his indiscretions and incitements were a last-ditch effort to preserve "the whole empire," to bring the dispute to the point of crisis and force a resolution.82 On the other hand, both Franklin's actions and writings in these last years in England are repeatedly marked by uncharacteristic signs of passion, at times bordering on frenzy. By 1774 even his great (and imperturbable) friend David Hume worried that Franklin had succumbed to "Fanaticism."83
Whatever the precise nature of his motives, there is no doubt that Franklin succeeded in giving offence to the English government and encouraging defiance in the radical centers of America. In letters to Massachusetts that he knew would be circulated Franklin condemned Lord Hillsborough for "Conceit, Wrongheadedness, Obstinacy, and Passion."84 In 1773 he published in the London papers two vicious satires on the English government -- "Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One" and "An Edict by the King of Prussia" -- both of which accused the empire of despotic rule. And he would follow these up in 1774 with an even more savage piece -- "A Method of Humbling our Rebellious Vassals" -- which suggested the wholesale castration of American males as a plausible policy for the Mother Country.85 This kind of scurrility was, of course, a staple of British pamphleteering, but Franklin had never before indulged in it. While the ministry felt exasperated by his attacks and by his constant exhortations to the colonists to press for redress of grievances without restraint,86 Franklin's esteem as a great man in London protected him against reprisal. His reputation as a savant was capped it 1772 when the French Royal Academy elected him associe étranger, one of only eight in Europe to be so honored. Even the King was said to speak well of Franklin, and his ministers were impotent to halt his incendiary conduct.87
Finally Franklin overstepped. He sent some highly confidential letters of Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Chief Justice Peter Oliver back to Massachusetts revealing that the two had agreed in 1768 that some "abridgement" of American liberties was necessary to resolve the imperial crisis. Although the letters were five years old when disclosed, and essentially moderate albeit conservative statements, they were seized upon by the Boston radicals as a pretext for demanding the removal from office of both men.88 In retaliation, the Ministry called Franklin before the Privy Council Committee for Plantation Affairs to defend his breach of the gentlemanly code in divulging this correspondence. Franklin appeared in the Cockpit, dressed with ponderous dignity in a velvet suit, but he chose to remain mute while the Solicitor General of England accused him of thievery, compared him to an African savage, convicted him of wishing to found "a Great American Republic," and -- worst of all -- condemned him before the peers of England for violating "another Gentleman's letters," thereby forfeiting the respect of all decent societies and all decent men.89
It was a monkey trial, and Franklin was humiliated, even being stripped of his Post Office commission. Lord Chatham and Edmund Burke later tried to make amends for this affront to his dignity, but Franklin left England sad and embittered. Although a few final attempts were made to resolve the imperial crisis, both Franklin and the Crown were by now locked into fixed positions. The month after Franklin's return to America, the clash of arms began at Concord Bridge. The rest of the story is well known. The object of scorn in England, Franklin was welcomed as a hero by his fellow patriots. He signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and then set off to represent America in France. For this final mission, Franklin abandoned his London finery and put on the fur hat and plain garb of the American frontiersman. He would become the most famous, and most effective, ambassador of republicanism America has ever had. Thus, looked at from the perspective of his entire career, Franklin's ultimate identification with the American cause has an inevitable, heroic, and nearly mythical quality. The irony is that the last thing Benjamin Franklin wanted when he began his second mission was to break America's ties with the British empire.
The significance of Franklin's second mission for the purposes of this analysis lies less in the result than in the sequence of events. By emphasizing Franklin's original commitment to empire and the prolonged crisis of loyalties which preceded his conversion to American independence, it is possible to view the American Revolution from an imperial perspective and to relate Franklin's dilemma to the experience of other assimilated colonial leaders, as described in the introduction to this essay. The advantages of this perspective are several. It emphasizes, first of all, the importance which the metropolitan culture had for its most talented and sophisticated colonial subjects. In turn, the tendency of colonial leaders to idealize the power and glory of the empire gives the loyalist position in America and elsewhere added coherence and applicability. Franklin's ambivalent loyalties were shared by many prominent Americans, among whom Thomas Hutchinson, William Smith, jr., and John Dickensen may serve as examples. While the means by which each resolved this dilemma were distinctive, the conflict arising from their love of the Mother Country and their apprehensions regarding an independent America was intense in each case. The histories of other colonies suggest that this ambivalence is a recurring phenomenon in the imperial process. In addition, by emphasizing Franklin's divided allegiance, the imperial perspective gives new explanatory power to the intense ideological reaction which ensued. It becomes evident that republican ideals were not an original, primary motive for Franklin. Rather they functioned in a secondary capacity -- as substitutes, compensations, rationalizations -- enabling Franklin to console himself and his fellow countrymen for the loss of their generative bonds with imperial institutions and cultural forms. The primary motive for the rupture was, of course, exactly what Franklin said it was -- dignity; equality; autonomy. In this fundamental sense, Franklin's separation from the empire is typical of other colonial rebellions whether one looks back historically to Athens or forward to more modern examples. In each case, the overt rationale, the ideological superstructure, was distinctive and usually messianic. But the fundamental thrust, the aspiration for autonomy and dignity, provides a common core.
It is important as well to note how very emotional, indeed frenzied, was Franklin's rejection of the empire and his embrace of the new republican ideal of a liberty based on agrarian virtues. The nature of his struggle with the empire makes his passionate adoption of these values compelling and profoundly moving. But on a more mundane level, the conversion of this urbane city dweller to a rustic ideal seems more than a little fanciful. It is particularly worth noting how many intractable realities this utopian flight overlooked. The social and political condition of England had not measurably worsened between 1763 and 1775. Nor had American tendencies toward violence and anarchism noticeably decreased. In both cases, the opposite was probably true -- England was more stable, America less stable, in 1775. The inflammatory, escalating rhetoric which Franklin used to gloss over these realities was clearly necessary to develop in himself and his patriotic colleagues the courage to rebel. It is important, however, for historians not to gloss these matters over, to be aware of the unreal, mythical nature of the republican ethos -- similar to other revolutionary myths propagated by other emerging societies.
Finally, an imperial or comparative approach to colonial development can open up new questions for study. For the American national experience, it is surely appropriate to ask what was gained and what was lost by the break with the empire. Political independence, to be sure, was gained. But Josiah Tucker's sneering prediction that America would remain economically and culturally in thrall to Great Britain remained accurate for at least another century. Indeed, in the case of literary history, the evidence suggests that breaking the bonds with the European mother culture led to the prolonged, painful alienation of some of America's most creative talents. The experience of other colonies, particularly settlement colonies -- Canada, Australia, New Zealand -- could enable us to define more precisely the tradeoffs, the benefits and the losses, of the revolutionary rupture. These latter colonies accepted political and cultural ambivalence as a permanent condition, and eventually achieved their national autonomy and political democracy within parliamentary and social structures imposed by the empire. Greater appreciation of their experience would provide a useful reminder that the Revolution involved a rejection as well as an affirmation, that it was a moment of sorrow and farewell as well as a new beginning.90
1. An excellent summary of the Loyalist ideal of empire, including Franklin's contribution, is presented in Janice Potter, The Liberty We Seek: Loyalist Ideology in Colonial New York and Massachusetts (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), pp. 107-82. Also pertinent are Gerald Strourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1969), pp.-7-8-82; Richard Koebner, Empire (New York, 1965), pp. 105-18; Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (New York, 1954), pp. 198-99, and Randolph G. Adams, Political Ideas of the American Revolution,: Britannic-American Contributions to the Problems of Imperial Organization, 1765-1775 (New York, 1922), pp. 65-85. Back
2. James Kirby Martin, Men in Rebellion: Higher Governmental Leaders and the Coming of the American Revolution (New Brunswick, N.J., 1983). Although Franklin's patronage appointments in the Post Office are not included in Martin's categories, his age, business experience, wealth, political record, and intellectual achievements easily make him a key colonial leader, as Martin recognizes on p. 100. It is interesting to note that Franklin did not share the religious affiliation, formal educational qualifications, or wealthy educational background of more typical members of the colonial elite. Back
3. Among the numerous biographies, the most helpful political account is Verner W. Crane, Benjamin Franklin and a Rising People (Boston, 1954). For a searching exploration of Franklin's political thought, especially his modest view of human nature and his qualified commitment to political equality, see Stourzh, Franklin and American Foreign Policy, pp. 1-32, especially pp. 28-31. Back
55. Gipson, Coming of Revolution, pp. 198-99. The progression of Franklin's views is a major subject of inquiry in Gipson's multivolume The British Empire before the American Revolution (New York, 1956-70). Gipson sees the rupture with America as an inevitable "aftermath" of the conquest of Canada and the new sense of security which the colonies enjoyed with the removal of the French from North America. He does, however, fault the British ministry for failing to apprehend these new conditions. For example, see his criticism of Burke, XII, 264. Back
6. Drew McCoy, "Benjamin Franklin's Vision of a Republican Political Ideal," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 35 (1978), 605-28. This article draws extensively on recent scholarly interpretations of revolutionary ideology, and the supporting works are cited in the text. Back
7. J.G.A. Pocock, "1776: The Revolution against Parliament," in Pocock, ed., Three British Revolutions: 1641, 1688, and 1776 (Princeton, 1980), p. 280; Crane, Franklin and a Rising People, p. 130. Back
8. On the weakness of the ministry, a traditional account is Ian R. Christie, Crisis of Empire, Great Britain and the American Colonies, 1754-1783 (London, 1960), pp. 111-14. A more extreme interpretation, which indicts the British ministers for practicing a policy of "appeasement," is presented in Robert W. Tucker and David C. Henderson, The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence (Baltimore, 1982). On the weakness of the loyalists, see Robert M. Calhoon, The Loyalists in Revolutionary America, 1763-1781 (New York, 1983), pp. 175-81 and 502-506. Back
9. For a description of the British determination to reinforce executive and aristocratic institutions in British North America, the classic text is William H. Morton, "The Local Executive in the British Empire, 1763-1828", English Historical Review, 78 (1963), 436-57. For a detailed example of the political lessons the loyalists drew from the American Revolution, see Ann Gorman Condon, The Envy of the American States: The Loyalist Dream for New Brunswick (Fredericton, 1984), pp. 43-67. Back
10. Archibald P. Thornton maintains that preserving control over Britain's social structure and its system of parliamentary representation were always paramount considerations for the British governing classes, in The Habit of Authority: Paternalism in British History (Toronto, 1966), pp. 100-66. The most recent study of British domestic politics during the period following the American Revolution supports this interpretation: Norman Gash, Aristocrat and People: Great Britain, 1815-1865 (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), pp. 8-25. The implications of these British priorities for maturing colonial societies are explored in J.G.A. Pocock, "The Limits and Divisions of British History: In Search of an Unknown Subject," American Historical Review, 87 (1982), pp. 311-36. Back
11. According to imperial historians, the real shift that occurred after 1760 was not a degeneration in the quality of British leadership but a shift in priorities away from settlement colonies towards naval bases and trading posts. See Vincent T. Harlow, The Founding of the Second British Empire, 1763-1793 (New York, 1951), pp. 199-22, and Peter Marshall, "The First and Second British Empire: A Question of Demarcation," History, 49 (1964), 12-23. An even more aggressive interpretation of post-1763 imperial policy is mooted in Stephen Saunders Webb, The Governors General: The English Army and the Definition of Empire (Chapel Hill, 1977), pp. 465-66. This is not to deny that patriot propaganda popularized this theory of enfeeblement and made it a potent force in galvanizing revolutionary sentiment, as Bernard Bailyn has demonstrated in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 1967). Back
12. Calhoon, Loyalists in Revolutionary America, p. 66; Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), pp. 207-209. It is important to observe that only if the crisis of authority was as real and as stark as both Hutchinson and Franklin believed does the loyalist position become politically respectable and indicative of a more general colonial crisis. Back
14. A final summary of the findings of these two scholars was published singly by Ronald Robinson after John A. Gallagher's death: "NonEuropean Foundations of European Imperialism: Sketch for a Theory of Collaboration," in Roger Owen and Bob Sutcliffe, eds., Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (London, 1972), pp. 117-42. Their initial work in this field was Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians: the Official Mind of Imperialism (London: 1st ed., 1961; 2nd ed. with Alice Denry, 1981). Back
17. For a suggestive piece on the advantages of viewing the American Revolution from an imperial perspective, see Thomas C. Barrow, "The American Revolution as a Colonial War for Independence," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 25 (1968), 452-64. Back
18. The most useful recent biography is Ronald W. Clarke, Benjamin Franklin; A Biography (New York, 1983). Carl Becker's vignette remains unsurpassed: "Benjamin Franklin," Dictionary of American Biography, I, 585-98. Franklin's public image can be traced in Charles C. Sellers, Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture (New Haven, 1962). For a superior analysis of Franklin's thought in its Eighteenth Century context, including several posthumous comments on his significance as a representative American, see Ormond Albert Seavey, jr., "Benjamin Franklin, the Enlightenment, and American Experience" (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1976). Three collections of essays span the multi-faceted nature of Franklin's personality and achievement: Brian Barbour, ed., Benjamin Franklin. A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1979); J.A. Leo LeMay, ed., The Oldest Revolutionary: Essays on Benjamin Franklin (Philadelphia, 1977); Esmond Wright, ed., Benjamin Franklin, A Profile (New York, 1970). Back
19. Leonard W. Labaree, et. al., The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven, 1964), esp. Part One, pp. 3-141. For Franklin's place in the culture of Puritan New England, see the piece by Perry Miller in Barbour, Benjamin Franklin, pp. 20-24 and Norman S. Fiering, "Benjamin Franklin and the Way to Virtue," American Quarterly, 30 (1978), 199-223. For valuable psychological insight, see Richard L. Bushman, "On the Uses of Psychology: Conflict and Conciliation in Benjamin Franklin," History and Theory, 5 (1966), 225-40, and John William Ward, "Who Was Benjamin Franklin?" American Scholar, 32 (1963), 541-53. Franklin's youth in colonial Boston is described with imagination and depth in Arthur Bernon Tourtellot, Benjamin Franklin, the Shaping of Genius: the Boston Years (New York, 1977). Back
21. Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Portraits of the Eighteenth Century, Historic and Literary, I (New York, 1964), 366. Although lauded by the Enlightenment and by Karl Marx, Franklin's utilitarian outlook has been severely criticized by such notables as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Max Weber, and D.H. Lawrence. See Seavey, "Franklin, the Enlightenment, and American Experience," passim. Back
25. Ann Gorman Condon, "The Circuitous Career of Loyalists Plans for Colonial Union in America and Canada, 1754-1914" in Prosser Gifford, ed., The Treat of Paris (1783) in a Changing European State System (Washington, D.C., 1985), pp. 183-202. Back
36. See particularly the brilliant description by Gerald Stourzh of Franklin's imperialism as a cloak for his expansive ambitions for the North American continent, Franklin and American Foreign Policy, pp. 40-82. Back
44. Ibid., pp. 381-84. The murkey details of this election campaign and Franklin's loss of political support are traced in James H. Hutson, Pennsylvania Politics, 1746-1770: the Movement for Royal Government and its Consequences (Princeton, 1972), pp. 145 ;. Back
50. The fluctuating role of the colonial agents and their increasing isolation during the constitutional crisis are described comprehensively in Michael G. Kammen, A Rope of Sand: the Colonial Agents, British Politics, and the American Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968). Back
63. Tucker's major works are reprinted, with a fine introductory essay and a bibliography of all known works, in Robert Livingstone Schuyler, ed., Josiah Tucker: a Selection from his Economic and Political Writings (New York, 1931). The implications of his economic theories for the empire are discussed by Klaus Knorr, British Colonial Theories, 1570-1850 (Toronto, 1944)., pp. 117-25 and Harlow, Founding of the Second British Empire, I, 201-209. Tucker's place in the ideological debate over the American Revolution is described in Salim Rashed, "'He Startled ... as if He Saw A Spectre:' Tucker's Proposal for American independence," Journal of the History of Ideas, 43 (1982), 439-62. Back
66. In 1760 William Franklin reported that Tucker was the anonymous pamphleteer who opposed Franklin's position in the Canada-Guadaloupe Controversy, Franklin Papers, IX, 123. Vincent Harlow endorses this attribution, Founding of the Second British Empire, I, 165, 199. In the 1770's Tucker lashed out at Franklin for alleged hypocrisy in publicly opposing the Stamp Act while seeking the post of Stamp Collector for himself, for acting the "flaming American Patriot" while coveting the role of "Tax Gatherer and an American Publican," in The True Interest of Great Britain Set Forth in regard to the Colonies .... (London, 1774), p. 36. Franklin indignantly denied the charge and demanded an apology. Tucker complied but did not cease his denunciations of Franklin as "the avenging angel of America." See Franklin Papers, XXI, 121-23, 125-26. Back
68. Ibid., pp. 374, 373, 357, 366, 367, 380. On the sudden, artificial outburst of American nationalism during this period in reaction to British insistence upon political and social superiority, see Paul Varg, "The Advent of Nationalism, 1758-1776," American Quarterly, 16 (1966), 169-81. Back
70. Franklin Papers, XIV, 254. For Franklin's lifelong, intuitive participation in the Enlightenment, see Henry F. May, The Enlightenment in America, pp. 126-32 (New York, 1976) and Thomas J. Schlereth, The Cosmopolitan ideal in Enlightenment Thought: the Ideas of Franklin, Hume, and Voltaire (Notre Dame, 1977). Back
73. Ibid., XVIII, 273-74; McCoy, "Franklin's Vision of a Republican Political Economy," pp. 611-28. For the ethical implications this new economic creed, see Ralph Lerner, "Commerce and Character: the Anglo-American as New-Model Man," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 36 (1979), 3-26. Back
76. Autobiography, pp. 43-131. See particularly Ormond Seavey's explication of Enlightenment definitions of the self and the importance given to autobiographical works, "Franklin, Enlightenment, and the American Experience," pp. 171-254. An alternative, complementary interpretation has been offered by R. Jackson Wilson who sees the central symbol of food in Part One of the Autobiography as a metaphor for the British patronage system and Franklin's spiritual need to break free of this "enveloping social world" in order to become autonomous. See introduction to R. Jackson Wilson, ed., The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin ( ), pp. xx-xxix. Back