Benjamin Franklin’s years in France, from 1776 to 1785, are the stuff of legend. He dressed as an American farmer, flaunted his rustic manners and became a sensation. His portrait appeared on snuff boxes and medallions. His signature fur cap inspired a woman’s wig, the “coiffure à la Franklin.” Ladies delighted to sit on his lap (much to the disgust of Abigail Adams). The spectacle was crowned with astonishing success: French military aid and recognition of American independence. Over the years “Ben Franklin in Paris” has been celebrated in words and Broadway song.
“Benjamin Franklin in London” has never had quite the same ring. It is, nevertheless, the title of George Goodwin’s new book, which chronicles the nearly two decades that Franklin spent in Britain, intermittently, before 1775. The subject is certainly worthwhile. Franklin postured and performed for the French, but he considered himself a Briton. And his diplomatic failures at Westminster proved as consequential as his triumphs at Versailles.
Franklin first visited England for two years in the 1720s, as a mere printer’s apprentice. When he returned in 1757, for the better part of the next 18 years, he was a “gentleman philosopher,” having established himself as a wealthy printer and as a political player in Philadelphia. Living just south of the Strand, Franklin acted as the colonial agent for Pennsylvania and later for Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia. Mr. Goodwin’s interesting, lively account of Franklin’s “British life” is dominated by two themes: Enlightenment and imperial crisis.
Though Franklin eventually associated with Diderot, Voltaire and other philosophes of the Parisian Enlightenment, French radicalism and atheism did not really suit his temper. The British Enlightenment of England and Scotland—coolly nondogmatic, empirical and moderately conservative in outlook—better matched his natural disposition. By midcentury, Franklin was an acclaimed man of science. His experiments on electricity had earned him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1753. Kant referred to him as “the Prometheus of modern times.” On his voyages to London, Franklin charted the Gulf Stream. While in the capital he perfected the Franklin Stove and the “armonica” (a kind of glass harp).
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IN LONDON
By George Goodwin Yale, 365 pages, $32.50
Mr. Goodwin presents a diverting portrait of Franklin’s place in British Enlightenment culture, but his real forte is political history. Franklin’s career as a colonial agent to the king’s government was a tale of mutual incomprehension and optimism dashed. His efforts as a representative stretched from the glorious British victories of the Seven Years’ War to the revolutionary crisis of the 1770s. Mr. Goodwin’s detailed narrative of Franklin’s diplomatic failures offers a fascinating perspective on this descent from imperial triumph to imperial catastrophe.
If “the gentlemen and aristocrats of the scientific community” admired Franklin, as Mr. Goodwin notes, imperial officials tended to treat him as an “uncouth provincial.” This was certainly true of the Penn family, proprietors of Pennsylvania, who resented Franklin’s efforts to diminish their quasi-feudal power in favor of the authority of the king. But the king’s colonial administrators were scarcely friendlier to Franklin and were generally suspicious of colonial agents. This was unfortunate, because Franklin was in many ways a proud citizen of the empire. He espoused a mutually beneficial economic relationship between the colonies and the metropole. When George III assumed the throne in 1760, Franklin was full of praise for his “virtue” and “steadiness.” Many American associates considered him somewhat sycophantic.
Mr. Goodwin’s assessment is gentler. “Franklin was a proud Briton, but he was not starry-eyed.” By 1770 he was frustrated by Britain’s “treatment of her American colonies as one giant farm and forest of raw materials.” His relations with Lord Hillsborough, secretary of state for the colonies, became venomous. Lord North, the prime minister, icily ignored him. Franklin began to produce anonymous satires rebuking British attitudes toward America.
The nadir came in December 1773, when word reached London of the Boston Tea Party. Incensed, the king’s Privy Council summoned Franklin to Westminster. He was already in bad odor for having leaked impolitic correspondence from the royal governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. The Privy Council chamber was, on this occasion, packed with counselors and curious members of the public. Other than Edmund Burke, they were hostile. Franklin stood grimly motionless as the solicitor general pounded the table and subjected him to “an hour-long verbal assault.” The council roared approval as he accused Franklin of acting for “the most malignant purposes.” The American had “forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.”
The humiliation of Benjamin Franklin gratified the grandees of George III’s government, but the episode epitomized their arrogant maladministration. Franklin was hardly an anti-British zealot. He favored reconciliation and might have been an effective mediator had he been respected and trusted. Franklin was so appalled by the Boston Tea Party that he offered to personally repay the East India Co. That this rather Anglophilic colonial served as the Privy Council’s whipping boy demonstrates how obdurate the government had become.
Franklin’s revenge was served hot. He left England in March of 1775 under threat of arrest. Twenty months later he arrived in France, where his diplomacy would deliver a mortal blow to Britain’s American empire.
Mr. Collins is a professor of history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.