At the commencement of the Revolutionary War, the most prominent and influential man in the colonies was perhaps Benjamin Franklin, then sixty-nine years of age. Certainly it cannot be doubted that he was one of the most illustrious founders of the American Republic. Among the great statesmen of the period, his fame is second only to that of Washington.
I will not dwell on his early life, since that part of his history is better known than that of any other of our great men, from the charming autobiography which he began to write but never cared to finish. He was born in Boston, January 17, 1706, the youngest but two of seventeen children. His father was a narrow-minded English Puritan, but respectable and conscientious,--a tallow-chandler by trade; and his ancestors for several generations had been blacksmiths in the little village of Ecton in Northamptonshire, England. He was a precocious boy, not over-promising from a moral and religious point of view, but inordinately fond of reading such books as were accessible, especially those of a sceptical character. He had no sympathy with the theological doctrines then in vogue in his native town. At eight years of age he was sent to a grammar school, and at ten he was taken from it to assist his father in soap-boiling; but, showing a repugnance to this sort of business, he was apprenticed to his brother James at the age of twelve, to learn the art, or trade, of a printer. At fifteen we find him writing anonymously, for his brother's newspaper which had just been started, an article which gave offence to the provincial government, and led to a quarrel with his brother, who, it seems, was harsh and tyrannical.
Boston at this time was a flourishing town of probably about ten thousand or twelve thousand people, governed practically by the Calvinistic ministers, and composed chiefly of merchants, fishermen, and ship-carpenters, yet all tolerably versed in the rudiments of education and in theological speculations. The young Benjamin, having no liking for the opinions, manners, and customs of this strait-laced town, or for his cold and overbearing brother, concluded in his seventeenth year to run away from his apprenticeship. He found himself in a few days in New York, without money, or friends, or employment. The printers' trade was not so flourishing in the Dutch capital as in the Yankee one he had left, and he wandered on to Philadelphia, the largest town in the colonies, whose inhabitants were chiefly Quakers,--thrifty, prosperous, tolerant, and kind-hearted. Fortunately, there were several printing-presses in this settlement; and after a while, through the kindness of a stranger,--who took an interest in him and pitied his forlorn condition, wandering up and down Market Street, poorly dressed, and with a halfpenny roll in his hand, or who was attracted by his bright and honest face, frank manners, and expressive utterances,--Franklin got work, with small wages. His industry and ability soon enabled him to make a better appearance, and attract friends by his uncommon social qualities.
It does not appear that Franklin was particularly frugal as a young man. He spent his money lavishly in convivial entertainments, of which he was the life, among his humble companions, a favorite not only with them, but with all the girls whose acquaintance he made. So remarkable was he for wit, good nature, and intelligence that at the age of eighteen he attracted the notice of the governor of the province, who promised to set him up in business, and encouraged him to go England to purchase types and a printing-press. But before he sailed, having earned money enough to buy a fine suit of clothes and a watch, he visited his old home, and paraded his success with indiscreet ostentation, much to the disgust of his brother to whom he had been apprenticed.
On the young man's return to Philadelphia, the governor, Sir William Keith, gave him letters to some influential people in England, with promises of pecuniary aid, which, however, he never kept; so that when Franklin arrived in London he found himself without money or friends. But he was not discouraged. He soon found employment as a printer and retrieved his fortunes, leading a gay life, and spending his money, as fast as he earned it, at theatres and in social enjoyments with boon companions of doubtful respectability. Disgusted with London, or disappointed in his expectations, he returned to Philadelphia in 1726 as a mercantile clerk for a Mr. Durham, who shortly after died; and Franklin resumed his old employment with his former employer, Keimer, the printer.
On his long voyage home he had had time for reflection, and resolved to turn over a new leaf, and become more frugal and respectable. He would not give up his social pleasures, but would stick to his business, and employ his leisure time in profitable reading. This, Mr. Parton calls his "regeneration." Others might view it as the completion of "sowing his wild oats." He certainly made himself very useful to the old visionary Keimer, who printed banknotes for New Jersey, by making improvements on the copper plate; but he soon left this employment and set up for himself, in partnership with another young man.
The young printers started fairly, and hired the lower part of a house in Market Street, most of which they sublet. Their first job brought them but five shillings. Soon after, they were employed to print a voluminous history of the Quakers, at a very small profit; but the work was so well done that it led to a great increase of business.
The idea then occurred to Franklin to print a newspaper, there being but one in the colony, and that miserably dull. His old employer Keimer, hearing of his purpose accidentally, stole the march on him, and started a newspaper on his own account, but was soon obliged to sell out to Franklin and Meredith, not being able to manage the undertaking. "The Pennsylvania Gazette" proved a great success, and was remarkable for its brilliant and original articles, which brought the editor, then but twenty-three years old, into immediate notice. He had become frugal and industrious, but had not as yet renounced his hilarious habits, and could scarcely be called moral, for about this time a son was born to him of a woman whose name was never publicly known. This son was educated by Franklin, and became in later years the royal governor of New Jersey.
Franklin was unfortunate in his business partner, who fell into drinking habits, so that he was obliged to dissolve the partnership. In connection with his printing-office, he opened a small stationer's-shop, and sold blanks, paper, ink, and pedler's wares. His business increased so much that he took an apprentice, and hired a journeyman from London. He now gave up fishing and shooting, and convivial habits, and devoted himself to money-making; but not exclusively, since at this time he organized a club of twelve members, called the "Junto,"--a sort of debating and reading society. This club contrived to purchase about fifty books, which were lent round, and formed the nucleus of a circulating library, which grew into the famous Franklin Library, one of the prominent institutions of Philadelphia. In 1730, at the age of twenty-four, he married Deborah Reid, a pretty, kind-hearted, and frugal woman, with whom he lived happily for forty-four years. She was a true helpmeet, who stitched his pamphlets, folded his newspapers, waited on customers at the shop, and nursed and tended his illegitimate child.
After his marriage Franklin gave up what bad habits he had acquired, though he never lost his enjoyment of society. He was what used to be called "a good liver," and took but little exercise, thus laying the foundation for gout, a disease which tormented him in the decline of life. He also somewhat amended his religious creed, and avowed his belief in a superintending Providence and his own moral accountability to God, discharging conscientiously the duties to be logically deduced from these beliefs,--submission to the Divine will, and kindly acts to his neighbors. He was benevolent, sincere, and just in his dealings, abhorring deceit, flattery, falsehood, injustice, and all dishonesty.
From this time Franklin rapidly gained in public esteem for his integrity, his sagacity, and his unrivalled good sense. His humor, wit, and conversational ability caused his society to be universally sought. He was a good judge of books for his infant library, and he took a great interest in everything connected with education. He was the life of his literary club, and made reading fashionable among the Quakers, who composed the leading citizens of the town,--a people tolerant but narrow, frugal but appreciative of things good to eat, kind-hearted but not remarkable for generosity, except to the poor of their own denomination, law-abiding but not progressive, modest and unassuming but conscious and conceited, as most self-educated people are. It is a wonder that a self-educated man like Franklin was so broad and liberal in all his views,--an impersonation of good nature and catholicity, ever open to new convictions, and respectful of opinions he did not share, provoking mirth and jollity, yet never disturbing the placidity of a social gathering by irritating sarcasm.
Franklin's newspaper gave him prodigious influence, both social and political, in the infancy of journalism. It was universally admitted to be the best in the country. Its circulation rapidly increased, and it was well managed financially. James Parton tells us that Franklin "originated the modern system of business advertising." His essays, or articles, as we now call them, had great point, vivacity, and wit, and soon became famous; they thus prepared the way for his almanac,--originally entitled "Richard Saunders," and selling for five-pence. The sayings of "Poor Richard" in this little publication combined more wisdom and good sense in a brief compass than any other book published in America during the eighteenth century. It reached the firesides of almost every hamlet in the colonies. The New England divines thought them deficient in spirituality, rather worldly in their form, and useful only in helping people to get on in their daily pursuits. But the eighteenth century was not a spiritual age, in comparison with the age which preceded it, either in Europe or America. The acute and exhaustive treatises of the seventeenth century on God, on "fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute," on the foundation of morals, on consciousness as a guide in metaphysical speculation, had lost much of their prestige, if Jonathan Edwards' immortal deductions may be considered an exception. Prosperity and wars and adventures had made men material, and political themes had more charm than theological discussion. Pascal had given place to Hobbes and Voltaire, and Hooker to Paley. In such a state of society, "Poor Richard," inculcating thrift and economy, in English as plain and lucid as that of Cobbett half-a-century later, had an immense popularity. For twenty-five years, it annually made its way into nearly every household in the land. Such a proverbial philosophy as "Honesty is the best policy," "Necessity never made a good bargain," "Fish and visitors smell in three days," "God heals, and the doctors take the fees," "Keep your eyes open before marriage, and half-shut afterwards," "To bear other people's afflictions, every one has courage enough and to spare,"--savored of a blended irony and cynicism exceedingly attractive to men of the world and wise old women, even in New England parishes, whatever Calvinistic ministers might say of the "higher life." The sale of the almanac was greater than that of the "Pilgrim's Progress," and the wealth of Franklin stood out in marked contrast with the poverty of Bunyan a century before.
The business enterprise of the gifted publisher at this time was a most noticeable thing. He began to import books from England and to print anything that had money in it,--from political tracts to popular poems, from the sermons of Wesley to the essays of Cicero. He made no mistakes as to the popular taste. He became rich because he was sagacious, and an oracle because he was rich as well as because he was wise. Everybody asked his advice, and his replies were alike courteous and witty, although sometimes ironical. "Friend Franklin," said a noted Quaker lawyer, "thou knowest everything,--canst thou tell me how I am to preserve my small beer in the back yard? for I find that my neighbors are tapping it for me." "Put a barrel of Madeira beside it," replied the sage.
In 1736 Franklin was elected clerk of the General Assembly,--a position which brought more business than honor or emolument. It secured his acquaintance with prominent men, many of whom became his friends; for it was one of his gifts to win hearts. It also made him acquainted with public affairs. Its chief advantage, however, was that it gave him the public printing. His appointment in 1737 as postmaster in Philadelphia served much the same purposes. With increase of business, the result of industry and good work, and of influence based on character, he was, when but thirty years old, one of the most prominent citizens of Philadelphia. His success as a business man was settled. He had the best printing jobs in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware. No one could compete with him successfully. He inspired confidence while he enlarged his friendships, to which he was never indifferent. Whatever he touched turned to gold. His almanac was a mine of wealth; the sermons he printed, and the school-books he manufactured, sold equally well. With constantly increasing prosperity, he kept a level head, and lived with simplicity over his shop,--most business men lived over their shops, in both England and America at that period. He got up early in the morning, worked nine or ten hours a day, spent his evenings in reading and study, and went to bed at ten, finding time to keep up his Latin, and to acquire French, Spanish, and Italian, to make social visits, and play chess, of which game he was extravagantly fond till he was eighty years old. His income, from business and investments, was not far from ten thousand dollars a year,--a large sum in those days, when there was not a millionaire in the whole country, except perhaps among the Virginia planters. Franklin was not ambitious to acquire a large fortune; he only desired a competency on which he might withdraw to the pursuit of higher ends than printing books. He had the profound conviction that great attainments in science or literature required easy and independent circumstances. It is indeed possible for genius to surmount any obstacles, but how few men have reached fame as philosophers or historians or even poets without leisure and freedom from pecuniary cares! I cannot recall a great history that has been written by a poor man in any age or country, unless he had a pension, or office of some kind, involving duties more or less nominal, which gave him both leisure and his daily bread,--like Hume as a librarian in Edinburgh, or Neander as a professor in Berlin.
Franklin, after twenty years of assiduous business and fortunate investments, was able to retire on an income of about four thousand dollars a year, which in those times was a comfortable independence anywhere. He retired with the universal respect of the community both as a business man and a man of culture. Thus far his career was not extraordinary, not differing much from that of thousands of others in the mercantile history of this country, or any other country. By industry, sagacity, and thrift he had simply surmounted the necessity of work, and had so improved his leisure hours by reading and study as to be on an intellectual equality with anybody in the most populous and wealthy city in the country. Had he died before 1747 his name probably would not have descended to our times. He would have had only a local reputation as a philanthropical, intelligent, and successful business man, a printer by trade, who could both write and talk well, but was not able to make a better speech on a public occasion than many others who had no pretension to fame.
But a new career was opened to Franklin with the attainment of leisure and independence,--the career of a scientific investigator. The subject which most interested him was electricity, just then exciting great interest in Europe. In 1746 he attended in Boston a lecture on electricity by Dr. Spence, of Scotland, which induced him to make experiments himself, the result of which was to demonstrate to his mind the identity of the electrical current with lightning. What the new, mysterious power was, of course he could not tell, nor could any one else. All he knew was that sparks, under certain conditions, were emitted from clothing, furs, amber, jet, glass, sealing-wax, and other substances when excited by friction, and that the power thus producing the electric sparks would repel and attract. That amber, when rubbed, possesses the property of attracting and repelling light bodies was known to Thales and Pliny, and subsequent philosophers discovered that other substances also were capable of electrical excitation. In process of time Otto Guericke added to these simple discoveries that of electric light, still further established by Isaac Newton, with his glass globe. A Dutch philosopher at Leyden, having observed that excited electrics soon lost their electricity in the open air, especially when the air was full of moisture, conceived the idea that the electricity of bodies might be retained by surrounding them with bodies which did not conduct it; and in 1745 the Leyden jar was invented, which led to the knowledge that the force of electricity could be extended through an indefinite circuit. The French savants conveyed the electric current through a circuit of twelve thousand feet.
It belonged to Franklin, however, to raise the knowledge of electricity to the dignity of a science. By a series of experiments, extending from 1747 to 1760, he established the fact that electricity is not created by friction, but merely collected from its state of diffusion through other matter to which it has been attracted. He showed further that all the phenomena produced by electricity had their counterparts in lightning. As it was obvious that thunder clouds contained an immense quantity of the electrical element, he devised a means to draw it from the clouds by rods erected on elevated buildings. As this was not sufficiently demonstrative he succeeded at length in drawing the lightning from the clouds by means of a kite and silken string, so as to ignite spirits and other combustible substances by an electric spark similar to those from a Leyden jar. To utilize his discovery of the identity of lightning with electricity he erected lightning-rods to protect buildings, that is, to convey the lightning from the overhanging clouds through conductors to the ground. The importance of these lightning-rods was doubtless exaggerated. It is now thought by high scientific authorities that tall trees around a house are safer conductors in a thunder storm than metallic rods; but his invention was universally prized most highly for more than one hundred years, and his various further experiments and researches raised his fame as a philosopher throughout Europe. His house was a museum of electrical apparatus, and he became the foremost electrician in the world. His essays on the subject were collected and printed abroad, and translated into several languages, and among the scientists and philosophers of Europe he was the best known American of his time; while at home both Harvard and Yale Colleges conferred on this self-educated printers-apprentice the degree of Master of Arts.
The inquiring mind of Franklin did not rest with experiments in the heavens. As a wealthy and independent citizen of Philadelphia he interested himself in all matters of public improvement. He founded a philosophical society to spread useful knowledge of all kinds. He laid the foundation of what is now the University of Pennsylvania, and secured a charter from George II.; but he had little sympathy with the teaching of dead languages, attaching much more importance to the knowledge of French and Spanish than of Latin and Greek. We see in all his public improvements the utilitarian spirit which has marked the genius of this country, but a spirit directed into philanthropic channels. Hence he secured funds to build a hospital, which has grown into one of the largest in the United States. He established the first fire company in Philadelphia, as well as the first fire insurance company; he induced the citizens of Philadelphia to pave and sweep their streets, which were almost impassable in rainy weather; he reorganized the night-watch of the town; he improved the street-lighting; he was the trustee of a society to aid German immigrants; he started a volunteer military organization for defence of the State against the Indians; he made a new fertilizer for the use of farmers; he invented the open "Franklin stove" to save heat and remedy the intolerable smoky chimneys which the large flues of the time made very common; he introduced into Pennsylvania the culture of the vine; in short, he was always on the alert to improve the material condition of the people. Nor did he neglect their intellectual improvement, inciting them to the formation of debating societies, and founding libraries. His intent, however, was avowedly utilitarian, to "supply the vulgar wants of mankind," which he placed above any form of spiritual philosophy,--inculcating always the worldly expediency of good character and the poor economy of vice. Herein he agreed with Macaulay's idea of progress as brought out in his essay on Lord Bacon. He never soared beyond this theory in his views of life and duty. The Puritanic idea of spiritual loftiness he never reached and never appreciated.
But it was not as a public-spirited citizen, nor as a successful man of business, nor even as a scientific investigator, that Franklin earned his permanent fame. In each of these respects he has been surpassed by men of whom little is known. These activities might have elevated him into notice and distinction, but would not have made him an immortal benefactor to his country. It was his services as a diplomatist and a political oracle, united with his patriotism and wisdom, that gave to him his extraordinary prominence in American history.
It should be remarked, however, that before his diplomatic career began, Franklin had become exceptionally familiar with the affairs of the Colonies. We have already noted his appointment as postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737. This experience led to his employment by the Postmaster-General of the Colonies in regulating the accounts of that widely extended department, and to Franklin's appointment in 1753 to the head of it, which greatly increased his specific knowledge of men and affairs throughout the whole land. Besides this, he had gained some political experience as a member of the provincial General Assembly, of which he had been clerk for twenty years, and thus was well acquainted with public men and measures. The Assembly consisted of only forty members, who were in constant antagonism with the governor, James Hamilton, whom the Penns, the Proprietaries of the province, had appointed to look after their interests. This official was a narrow-minded, intriguing Englishman, while the sons of William Penn themselves were selfish and grasping men, living in England, far distant from their possessions, and regarding themselves simply as English landlords of a vast estate. Under the royal charter granted by Charles II. to William Penn, his heirs exacted £30,000 yearly from the farmers as rent for their lands,--more than they could afford to pay. But when, in 1756, at the beginning of the Seven Years' War, French and Indian hostilities put the whole province in jeopardy, and it became necessary for the Provincial Legislature to tax the whole population for the common defence, the governor thought that the estates of the Proprietaries should be exempted from this just tax. Hence a collision between the legislature and the governor.
The Quakers themselves, in accordance with their peace principles, were opposed to any war tax, but Franklin induced the Assembly to raise sixty thousand pounds to support the war, then conducted by General Braddock, while he himself secured a large number of wagons for the use of the army across the wilderness.
Meanwhile the Assembly was involved in fresh disputes with the governor. Although the Assembly taxed the Proprietaries but a small proportion for the defence of their own possessions, the governor was unwilling to pay even this small amount; which so disgusted Franklin that he lost his usual placidity and poured out such a volley of angry remonstrances that the governor resigned. His successor fared no better with the angry legislature, and it became necessary to send some one to England to lay the grievances of the Colonists before the government, and to obtain relief from Parliament.
The fittest man for this business was Franklin, and he was sent as agent of the Province of Pennsylvania to London, the Assembly granting fifteen hundred pounds to pay his expenses, which, with his own private income, enabled him to live in good style in London and set up a carriage. He held no high diplomatic rank as yet, but was simply an accredited business agent of the Province, which position, however, secured to him an entrance into society to a limited extent, and many valuable acquaintances. The brothers Penn, with whom his business was chiefly concerned, were cold and haughty, and evaded the matter in dispute with miserable quibbles. Franklin then resolved to appeal to the Lords of Trade, who had the management of the American colonial affairs, and also to the King's Privy Council.
This was in 1757, when William Pitt was at the height of his power and fame, cold, reserved, proud, but intensely patriotic, before whom even George III. was ill at ease, while his associates in the Cabinet were simply his clerks, and servilely bent before his imperious will. To this great man Franklin had failed to gain access, not so much from the minister's disdain of the colonial agent, as from his engrossing cares and duties. He had no time, indeed, for anybody, not even the peers of the realm,--no time for pleasure or relaxation,--being devoted entirely to public interests of the greatest magnitude; for on his shoulders rested the government of the kingdom. What was the paltry dispute of a few hundred pounds in a distant colony to the Prime Minister of England! All that Franklin could secure was an interview with the great man's secretaries, and they did little to help him.
But the time of the active-minded American was not wasted. He wrote for the newspapers; he prosecuted his scientific inquiries; he became intimate with many eminent men, chiefly scientists,--members of the Royal Society like Priestley and Price, professors of political economy like Adam Smith, historians like Hume and Robertson, original thinkers like Burke, liberal-minded lawyers like Pratt. It does not seem that he knew Dr. Johnson, and probably he did not care to make the acquaintance of that overbearing Tory and literary dogmatist, who had little sympathy with American troubles. Indeed his political associates among the great were few, unless they were patrons of science, who appreciated his attainments in a field comparatively new. Among these men he seems to have been much respected, and his merits secured an honorary degree from St. Andrew's. His eminent social qualities favored his introduction into a society more cultivated than fashionable, and he was known as a scientific rather than a political celebrity.
His mission, then, was up-hill work. The Penns stood upon their prerogatives, and the Lords of the Committee for Plantations were unfriendly or dilatory. It was nearly three years before they gave their decision, and this was adverse to the Pennsylvania Assembly. The Privy Council, however, to whom the persistent agent appealed, composed of the great dignitaries of the realm, decided that the proprietary estates of the Penns should contribute their proportion of the public revenue. On this decision, Franklin, feeling that he had accomplished all that was possible, returned home in 1762, little more than a year after the accession of George III. Through the kindness of Lord Bute, the king's favorite, Franklin also secured the appointment of his son to the government of New Jersey. This appointment created some scandal, and the Penns rolled up their eyes, not at the nepotism of Franklin, but because he had procured the advancement of his illegitimate son.
Franklin, during his absence of more than five years, had been regularly re-elected a member of the Assembly, and he was received on his return with every possible public and private attention. He had hoped now for leisure to pursue his scientific investigations, and had accordingly taken a new and larger house. But before long new political troubles arose between the governor of Pennsylvania and the legislature, and what was still more ominous, troubles in New England respecting the taxation of the Colonies by the British government, at the head of which was Grenville, an able man but not far-sighted, who in March, 1764, announced his intention of introducing into Parliament the bill known as the Stamp Act.
To this famous bill there was not great opposition, since a large majority of the House of Commons believed in the right of taxing the Colonies. Lord Camden, a great lawyer, took different views. Burke and Pitt admitted the right of taxation, but thought its enforcement inexpedient, as likely to alienate the Colonies and make them enemies instead of loyal subjects.
At this crisis appeared in America a group of orators who at once aroused and intensified the prevailing discontents by their inflammatory speeches, in much the same manner that Wendell Phillips and Wm. Lloyd Garrison, seventy years later, aroused public sentiment in reference to slavery. James Otis, the lawyer from Barnstable on the shores of Cape Cod, who had opposed the Writs of Assistance, "led the van of these patriots,--an impassioned orator, incapable of cold calculation, now foaming with rage, and then desponding, not steadfast in conduct, yet by flashes of sagacity lighting the people along their perilous ways, combining legal learning with speculative opinion." He eloquently maintained that "there is no foundation for distinction between external and internal taxes; that the imposition of taxes in the Colonies whether on trade, on land, or houses, or floating property, is absolutely irreconcilable with the rights of the Colonists as British subjects or as men, and that Acts of Parliament against the fundamental principles of the British Constitution are void."
More influential, and more consistent than Otis, was Samuel Adams, a lawyer of Boston, a member of the Massachusetts Assembly, at that time about forty years of age, a political agitator, a Puritan of the strictest creed, poor and indifferent to money, an incarnation of zeal for liberty, a believer in original, inherent rights which no Parliament can nullify,--a man of the keenest political sagacity in management, and of almost unlimited influence in Massachusetts from his long and notable services in town-meeting, Colonial Assembly, as writer in the journals of the day, and actor in every public crisis. Eleven years younger than he, was his cousin John Adams, a lawyer in Quincy, the leading politician of the colony, able and ambitious, patriotic and honest, but irascible and jealous, of whom I shall have more to say hereafter. Of about the same age as John Adams was Patrick Henry, of Virginia, a born orator, but of limited education. He espoused the American cause with extraordinary zeal, and as in the matter of the Virginia tax law, was vehement in opposition to the Stamp Act, as an unconstitutional statute, which the Colonies were not bound to obey. Christopher Gadsden, of So. Carolina, too, was early among the prominent orators who incited opposition to the Stamp Act and other oppressive measures.
These men were the great pioneers of American Independence, by their ceaseless agitation of popular rights, and violent opposition to English schemes of taxation. They were not, indeed, the equals of Franklin, then the agent of Pennsylvania in London. They had not his catholicity, his breadth of knowledge, his reputation, or his genius; but they were nevertheless foremost among American political orators, and had great local influence.
The first overt act of hostility on the part of the English government in coercing the Colonies was to send to Boston, the seat of disaffection, a large body of soldiers. In 1768 there were four regiments of British troops in Boston, doubtless with the view of intimidation, and to enforce the collection of duties.
The English did not overrate the bravery of their troops or the abilities of their generals, but they did underrate the difficulties in conquering a population scattered over a vast extent of territory. They did not take into consideration the protecting power of nature, the impenetrable forests to be traversed, the mighty rivers to be crossed, the mountains to be climbed, and the coasts to be controlled. Nor did they comprehend the universal spirit of resistance in a vast country, and the power of sudden growth in a passion for national independence. They might take cities and occupy strong fortifications, but the great mass of the people were safe on their inland farms and in their untrodden forests. The Americans may not have been unconquerable, but English troops were not numerous enough to overwhelm them in their scattered settlements. It would not pay to send army after army to be lost in swamps or drowned in rivers or ambushed and destroyed in forests.
It was in the earlier stages of the revolt against taxation, in the autumn of 1764, that Benjamin Franklin was again sent to England to represent the province of Pennsylvania in the difficulties which hung as a dark cloud over the whole land. He had done well as a financial agent; he might do still better as a diplomatist, since he was patient, prudent, sagacious, intelligent, and accustomed to society, besides having extraordinary knowledge of all phases of American affairs. And he probably was sincere in his desire for reconciliation with the mother-country, which he still deemed possible. He was no political enthusiast like Samuel Adams, desirous of cutting loose entirely from England, but a wise and sensible man, who was willing to wait for inevitable developments; intensely patriotic, but armed with the weapons of reason, and trusting in these alone until reconciliation should become impossible.
As soon as Franklin arrived in England he set about his difficult task to reason with infatuated ministers, and with all influential persons so far as he had opportunity. But such were the prevailing prejudices against the Colonists, and such was the bitterness of men in power that he was not courteously treated. He was even grossly insulted before the Privy Council by the Solicitor-General, Wedderburn,--one of those browbeating lawyers so common in England one hundred years ago, who made up in insolence what was lacking in legal ability. Grenville, the premier, was civil but stubborn, and attempted to show that there was no difference between the external, indirect taxation by duties on importations, and the direct, internal taxation proposed by the Stamp Act,--both being alike justifiable.
In March, 1765, the bill was passed by an immense majority. Then blazed forth indignation from every part of America, and the resolute Colonists set themselves to nullify the tax laws by refraining from all taxable transactions.
Franklin, undismayed, sedulously went about working for a repeal of the odious stamp law, and at length got a hearing at the bar of the House of Commons, where he was extensively and exhaustively examined upon American affairs. In this famous examination he won respect for the lucidity of his statements and his conciliatory address. It soon became evident that the Stamp Act could not be enforced. No one could be compelled to buy stamps or pay tariff taxes if he preferred to withdraw from all business transactions, wear homespun, do without British manufactures, and even refrain from eating lamb that flocks of sheep might be increased and the wool used for homespun cloth.
It was in March, 1766, that Franklin, after many months of shrewd, wise, and extraordinarily skilful work with tongue and pen and social influence, had the satisfaction of seeing the Stamp Act repealed by Parliament and the bill signed by the unwilling king. Although he was at all possible disadvantage, as being merely the insignificant agent of distant and despised Colonists, his influence in the matter cannot be exaggerated. He made powerful friends and allies, and never failed to supply them with ample ammunition with which to fight their own political battles in which his cause was involved.
On the repeal of the Stamp Act, Grenville was compelled to resign, and his place was taken by Lord North, an amiable but narrow-minded man, utterly incapable of settling the pending difficulties. Lord Shelburne, a friend of the Colonies, of which he had the charge, was superseded by Lord Hillsborough, an Irish peer of great obstinacy, who treated Franklin very roughly, and of whom the king himself soon tired. Lord Dartmouth, who succeeded him, might have arranged the difficulties had he not been hampered by the king, who was inflexibly bent on taxation in some form, and on pursuing impolitic measures, against the exhortations of Chatham, Barré, Conway, Camden, and other far-reading statesmen, who foresaw what the end would be.
Meantime, in 1770, Franklin was appointed agent also for Massachusetts Bay, and about the same time for New Jersey and Georgia. Schemes for colonial taxation were rife, and, although the Stamp Act had been withdrawn as impracticable, the principle involved was not given up by the English government nor accepted by the American people. Franklin was kept busy.
In 1773 Franklin was further impeded in his negotiations by mischievous letters which Governor Hutchinson of Massachusetts had written to the Colonial office. This governor was an able man, a New Englander by birth, but an inveterate Tory, always at issue with the legislature, whose acts he had the power to veto. Indiscreetly, rather than maliciously, he represented the prevailing discontents in the worst light, and considerably increased the irritation of the English government. Franklin in some way got possession of these inflammatory letters, and transmitted a copy to a leading member of the Massachusetts General Court, as a matter of information, but with the understanding that it should be kept secret. It leaked out however, of course, and the letters were printed. A storm of indignation in Massachusetts resulted in a petition for the removal of Governor Hutchinson and Lieutenant-Governor Oliver, which was sent by the House of Representatives to Franklin for presentation to the government; while, on the other hand, a torrent of obloquy overwhelmed the diplomatist in England, who was thought to have stolen the letters, although there was no evidence to convict him.
Franklin's situation in London now became uncomfortable; he was deprived of his office of deputy Postmaster-General of the Colonies, which he had held since 1753, was virtually discredited, and generally snubbed. His presentation of the petition afforded an opportunity for his being publicly insulted at the hearing appointed before the Committee for Plantation Affairs, while the press denounced him as a fomenter of sedition. His work in England was done, and although he remained there some time longer, on the chance of still being of possible use, he gladly availed himself of an opportunity, early in 1775, to return to America. Before his departure, however, Lord Chatham had come to his rescue when he was one day attacked with bitterness in the House of Lords, and pronounced upon him this splendid eulogium: "If," said the great statesman, "I were prime minister and had the care of settling this momentous business, I should not be ashamed to call to my assistance a person so well acquainted with American affairs,--one whom all Europe ranks with our Boyles and Newtons, as an honor, not to the English nation only, but to human nature itself."
From this time, 1775, no one accused Franklin of partiality to England. He was wounded and disgusted, and he now clearly saw that there could be no reconciliation between the mother-country and the Colonies,--that differences could be settled only by the last appeal of nations. The English government took the same view, and resorted to coercion, little dreaming of the difficulties of the task. This is not the place to rehearse those coercive measures, or to describe the burst of patriotic enthusiasm which swept over the Colonies to meet the issue by the sword. We must occupy ourselves with Franklin.
On his return to Philadelphia, at the age of sixty-nine, he was most cordially welcomed. His many labors were fully appreciated, and he was immediately chosen a member of the second Continental Congress, which met on the 10th of May, 1775. He was put on the most important committees, and elected Postmaster-General. He was also selected as one of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. It does not appear that he was one of the foremost speakers. He was no orator, but his influence was greater than that of any other one man in the Congress. He entered heart and soul into the life-and-death struggle which drew upon it the eyes of the whole civilized world. He was tireless in committee work; he made long journeys on the business of the Congress,--to Montreal, to Boston, to New York; he spent the summer of 1776 as chairman of the first Constitutional Convention of the State of Pennsylvania: on every hand his resources were in demand and were lavishly given.
It was universally felt at the beginning of the struggle that unless the Colonies should receive material aid from France, the issue of the conflict with the greatest naval and military power in Europe could not succeed. Congress had no money, no credit, and but scanty military stores. The Continental troops were poorly armed, clothed, and fed. Franklin's cool head, his knowledge, his sagacity, his wisdom, and his patriotism marked him out as the fittest man to present the cause in Europe, and in September, 1776, he was sent to France as an envoy to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce between France and the United States. With him were joined Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, the latter having been sent some months previously in a less formal way, to secure the loan of money, ammunition, and troops.
It is not to be supposed that the French monarchy had any deep sympathy with the Americans in their struggle for independence. Only a few years had elapsed since the Colonies had fought with England against France, to her intense humiliation. Canada had been by their help wrenched from her hands. But France hated England, and was jealous of her powers, and would do anything to cripple that traditionary enemy. Secret and mysterious overtures had been made to Congress which led it to hope for assistance. And yet the government of France could do nothing openly, for fear of giving umbrage to her rival, since the two powers were at peace, and both were weary of hostilities. Both were equally exhausted by the Seven Years' War. Moreover, the king, Louis XV., sought above all things repose and pleasure. It was a most unpropitious time for the Colonies to seek for aid, when the policy of the French government was pacific, and when Turgot was obliged to exert his financial genius to the utmost to keep the machine of government in running order.
Under these circumstances the greatest prudence, circumspection, and tact were required of a financial and diplomatic agent sent to squeeze money from the French treasury. If aid were granted at all it must be done covertly, without exciting even the suspicions of the English emissaries at Paris. But hatred of England prevailed over the desire of peace, and money was promised. There were then in France many distinguished men who sympathized with the American cause, while the young king himself seems to have had no decided opinions about the matter.
The philosophy of Rousseau had permeated even aristocratic circles. There was a charm in the dogma that all men were "created equal." It pleased sentimental philosophers and sympathetic women. I wonder why the king, then absolute, did not see its logical consequences. Surely there were rumblings in the political atmosphere to which he could not be deaf, and yet with inconceivable apathy and levity the blinded monarch pursued his pleasures, and remarked to his courtiers that the storm would not burst in his time: Après moi, le déluge.
Turgot, the ablest man in France, would have stood aloof; but Turgot had been dismissed, and the Count de Vergennes was at the helm, a man whose ruling passion was hatred of England. If he could help the Colonies he would, provided he could do it secretly. So he made use of a fortunate adventurer, originally a watchmaker, by the name of Beaumarchais who set up for a merchant, through whom supplies were sent to America,--all paid for, however, out of the royal exchequer. The name, even, of this supposed mercantile house was fictitious. A million of livres were transmitted through this firm to America, apparently for business purposes, Silas Deane of Connecticut, the first agent of the Americans, alone being acquainted with the secret. He could not keep it, however, but imparted it to a friend, who was a British spy. In consequence, most of the ships of Hortalez & Co., loaded with military stores, were locked up by technical governmental formalities in French ports, while the American vessels bearing tobacco and indigo in exchange also failed to appear. The firm was in danger of bankruptcy, while Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, complained to Vergennes of the shipment of contraband goods,--an offence against the law of nations.
Amid the embarrassments which Deane had brought about by his indiscretion, Franklin arrived at Paris; but he wisely left Deane to disentangle the affairs of the supposed mercantile house, until this unfortunate agent was recalled by Congress,--a broken-down man, who soon after died in England, poor and dishonored. Deane had also embarrassed Franklin, and still more the military authorities at home, by the indiscriminate letters of commendation he gave to impecunious and incapable German and French officers as being qualified to serve in the American army.
Probably no American ever was hailed in Paris with more éclat than Benjamin Franklin. His scientific discoveries, his cause invested with romantic interest, his courtly manners, his agreeable conversation, and his reputation for wisdom and wit, made him an immediate favorite among all classes with whom he came in contact. He was universally regarded as the apostle of liberty and the impersonation of philosophy. Not wishing to be too conspicuous, and dreading interruptions to his time, he took up his residence at Passy, a suburb of Paris, where he lived most comfortably, keeping a carriage and entertaining at dinner numerous guests. He had a beautiful garden, in which he delighted to show his experiments to distinguished people. His face always wore a placid and benignant expression. He had no enemies, and many friends. His society was particularly sought by fashionable ladies and eminent savants. While affable and courteous, he was not given to flattery. He was plain and straightforward in all he said and did, thus presenting a striking contrast to diplomatists generally. Indeed, he was a universal favorite, which John Adams, when he came to be associated with him, could not understand. Adams was sent to France in 1778 to replace Silas Deane, and while there was always jealous of Franklin's ascendency in society and in the management of American affairs. He even complained that the elder envoy was extravagant in his mode of living. In truth, Franklin alone had the ear of the Count de Vergennes, through whom all American business was transacted, which exceedingly nettled the intense, confident, and industrious Adams, whose vanity was excessive.
I need not dwell on the embarrassments of Franklin in raising money for the American cause. There was no general confidence in its success among European bankers or statesman. The French government feared to compromise itself. Many of the remittances already sent had been intercepted by British cruisers. The English minister at Paris stormed and threatened. The news from America was almost appalling, for the British troops had driven Washington from New York and Long Island, and he appeared to be scarcely more than a fugitive in New Jersey, with only three or four thousand half-starved and half-frozen followers. A force of ten thousand men had been recently ordered to America under General Burgoyne. Almost discouraged, the envoys applied for loans to the Dutch bankers and to Spain, but without success.
It was not until December, 1777, when the news arrived in France of the surrender of General Burgoyne and his army to the Americans at Saratoga, New York, in October, that Franklin had any encouragement. Not until it was seen that the conquest of America was hopeless did the French government really come to the aid of the struggling cause, and then privately. Spain joined with France in offers of assistance; but as she had immense treasures on the ocean liable to capture, the matter was to be kept secret. When secrecy was no longer possible a commercial treaty was made between the United States and the allies, February 6, 1778, but was not signed until Arthur Lee, of Virginia, one of the commissioners, had made a good deal of mischief by his captious opposition to Franklin, whom he envied and hated. The treaty becoming known to the English government in a few days, Lord North, who saw breakers ahead, was now anxious for conciliation with America. It was too late. There could be no conciliation short of the acknowledgment of American independence, and a renewal of war between France and England became certain. If the conquest of the United States had been improbable, it now had become impossible, with both France and Spain as their allies. But the English government, with stubborn malignity, persevered in the hopeless warfare.
After the recall of Silas Deane, the business of the embassy devolved chiefly on Franklin, who, indeed, within a year was appointed sole minister, Adams and Lee being relieved. Besides his continuous and exhausting labors in procuring money for Congress at home, and for nearly all of its representatives abroad, Franklin was always effecting some good thing for his country. He especially commended to the American authorities the Marquis de La Fayette, then a mere youth, who had offered to give his personal services to the conflict for liberty. This generous and enthusiastic nobleman was a great accession to the American cause, from both a political and a military point of view, and always retained the friendship and confidence of Washington. Franklin rendered important services in securing the amelioration of the condition of American prisoners in England, who theretofore had been treated with great brutality; after years of patient and untiring effort, he so well succeeded that they were now honorably exchanged according to the rules of war. Among the episodes of this period largely due to Franklin's sagacity and monetary aid, was the gallant career of John Paul Jones, a Scotchman by birth, who had entered the American navy as lieutenant, and in one short cruise had taken sixteen British prizes,--the first man to hoist the "Stars and Stripes" on a national vessel. He was also the first to humble the pride of England in its sorest point, since, with unparalleled audacity, he had successfully penetrated to the harbor of the town in which he was born. The "Bon Homme Richard," a large frigate of forty guns, of which, by the aid of Franklin, Jones secured the command, and which he named in honor of "Poor Richard" of the almanac, made his name famous throughout both Europe and America.
The turning-point of the American War was the surrender of Burgoyne, which brought money and men and open aid from France; the decisive event was the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, October 19, 1781, to Washington, commanding the allied French and American forces, with the aid of the French fleet. Although the war was still continued in a half-hearted way, the Cornwallis disaster convinced England of its hopelessness, and led to negotiations for peace. In these the diplomatic talents of Franklin eclipsed his financial abilities. And this was the more remarkable, since he was not trained in the diplomatic school, where dissimulation was the leading peculiarity. He gained his points by frank, straightforward lucidity of statement, and marvellous astuteness, combined with an imperturbable command of his temper. The trained diplomatists of Europe, with their casuistry and lies, found in him their match.
The subjects to be discussed and settled, however, were so vital and important that Congress associated with Franklin, John Adams, minister at the Hague, and John Jay, then accredited to Madrid. Nothing could be more complicated than the negotiations between the representatives of the different powers. First, there was a compact between the United States and their allies that peace should not be concluded without their common consent, and each power had some selfish aim in view. Then, England and France each sought a separate treaty. In England itself were divided counsels: Fox had France to look after, and Shelburne the United States; and these rival English statesmen were not on good terms with each other. In the solution of the many questions that arose, John Jay displayed masterly ability. He would take nothing for granted, while Franklin reposed the utmost confidence in the Count de Vergennes. Jay soon discovered that the French minister had other interests at heart than those of America alone,--that he had an eye on a large slice of the territories of the United States,--that he wanted some substantial advantage for the ships and men he had furnished. He wanted no spoils, for there were no spoils to divide, but he wanted unexplored territories extending to the Mississippi, which Jay had no idea of granting. There were other points to which Franklin attached but little importance, but which were really essential in the eye of Jay. Among other things the agent of England, a Mr. Oswald,--a man of high character and courteous bearing,--was empowered to treat with the "Thirteen Colonies," to which Franklin, eager for peace, saw no objection; but Jay declined to sign the preliminaries of peace unless the independence and sovereignty of the "United States" were distinctly acknowledged. At this stage of negotiations John Adams, honest but impetuous and irritable, hastened from The Hague to take part in the negotiations. He sided with Jay, and Franklin had to yield, which he did gracefully, probably attaching but small importance to the matter in question. What mattered it whether the triumphant belligerents were called "Colonies" or "States" so long as they were free? To astute lawyers like Jay and Adams, however, the recognition of the successfully rebellious Colonies as sovereign States was a main point in issue.
From that time, as Franklin suffered from a severe illness, Jay was the life of the negotiations, and the credit is generally given to him for the treaty which followed, and which was hurried through hastily for fear that a change in the British ministry would hazard its success. It came near alienating France, however, since it had been distinctly understood that peace should not be made without the consent of all the contracting powers, and this treaty was made with England alone. Franklin, in the transaction, was the more honest, and Jay the more astute.
Strictly speaking, all these three commissioners rendered important services in their various ways. Franklin's urbanity and frankness, and the high esteem in which he was held both in France and in England, made easy the opening of the negotiations, and he gained a special point in avoiding any agreement of indemnity to American royalists who had suffered in person or property during the war, while he maintained pleasant relations with France when Vergennes was pursuing his selfish policy to prevent the United States from becoming too strong, and when he became indignant that the treaty had been concluded with England irrespective of France. Jay, with keen sagacity, fathomed the schemes of the French minister, and persistently refused to sign a treaty of peace unless it was satisfactory and promised to be permanent and mutually advantageous. Adams was especially acquainted with the fisheries question and its great importance to New England; and he insisted on the right of Americans to fish on the banks of Newfoundland. All three persisted in the free navigation of the Mississippi, which it was the object of Spain to prevent. Great Britain, Spain, and France would have enclosed the United States by territories of their own, and would have made odious commercial restrictions. By the firmness and sagacity of these three diplomatists the United States finally secured all they wanted and more than they expected. The preliminary articles were signed November 30, 1782, and the final treaties of peace between England, France, and the United States on September 3, 1783.
These negotiations at last having been happily concluded, Franklin wished to return home, but he remained, at the request of Congress, to arrange commercial treaties with the various European nations. Reluctantly at last his request to be relieved was granted, and he left France in July, 1785. Thomas Jefferson was appointed to the position. "You replace Dr. Franklin," said the Count de Vergennes to the new plenipotentiary. "I succeed him," replied Jefferson; "no one can replace him."
Franklin would have been the happiest man in Europe at the conclusion of peace negotiations, but for his increasing bodily infirmities, especially the gout, from which at times he suffered excruciating agonies. He was a universal favorite, admired and honored as one of the most illustrious men living. His house in Paris was the scene of perpetual hospitalities. Among his visitors were the younger Pitt, Wilberforce, Romilly, and a host of other celebrities, French and English, especially eminent scientific men. He was then seventy-eight years of age, but retained all the vivacity of youth. His conversation is said to have been as enchanting as it was instructive. His wit and humor never ceased to flow. His pregnant sentences were received as oracles. He was a member of the French Academy and attended most of its meetings. He was a regular correspondent of the most learned societies of Europe.
When the time came for him to return home he was too ill to take leave of the king, or even of the minister of foreign affairs. But Louis XVI, ordered one of the royal litters to convey the venerable sufferer to the coast, as he could not bear the motion of a carriage. In his litter, swung between two mules, Franklin slowly made his way to Havre, and thence proceeded to Southampton to embark for America. The long voyage agreed with him, and he arrived in Philadelphia in September, in improved health, after an absence of nine years. No one would have thought him old except in his walk, his feet being tender and swollen with the gout. His voice was still firm, his cheeks were ruddy, his eyes bright, and his spirits high.
Settled in his fine house in Market Street, surrounded by his grandchildren, and idolatrous neighbors and friends, he was a rare exception to the rule that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country. He had fortune, friends, fame, and a numerous family who never disgraced his name. Of all the great actors in the stormy times in which he lived, he was one of the most fortunate. He had both genius and character which the civilized world appreciated, and so prudent had been his early business life and his later investments, that he left a fortune of about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars,--a great sum to accumulate in his times.
The last important service rendered by Franklin to his country was as a member of the memorable convention which gave the Constitution to the American nation in 1787. Of this assembly, in which sat Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Dickinson, Livingstone, Ellsworth, Sherman, and other great men, Franklin was the Nestor, in wisdom as well as years. He was too feeble to take a conspicuous part in the discussions, but his opinions and counsel had great weight whenever he spoke, for his judgment was never clearer than when he had passed fourscore years. The battle of words had to be fought by younger and more vigorous men, of whom, perhaps, Madison was the most prominent. At no time of his life, however, was Franklin a great speaker, except in conversation, but his mind was vigorous to the end.
This fortunate man lived to see the complete triumph of the cause to which he had devoted his public life. He lived also to see the beginning of the French Revolution, to which his writings had contributed. He lived to see the amazing prosperity of his country when compared with its condition under royal governors. One of his last labors was to write an elaborate address in favor of negro emancipation, and as president of an abolition society to send a petition to Congress to suppress the slave-trade. A few weeks before his death he replied to a letter of President Stiles of Yale College setting forth his theological belief. Had he been more orthodox, he would have been more extolled by those men who controlled the religious opinions of his age.
Franklin died placidly on the 17th of April, 1790, in the eighty-fifth year of his age, and his body was followed to the grave by most of the prominent citizens of Philadelphia in the presence of twenty thousand spectators. James Madison pronounced his eulogy in Congress, and Mirabeau in the French National Assembly, while the most eminent literary men in both Europe and America published elaborate essays on his deeds and fame, recognizing the extent of his knowledge, the breadth of his wisdom, his benevolence, his patriotism, and his moral worth. He modestly claimed to be only a printer, but who, among the great lights of his age, with the exception of Washington, has left a nobler record?
Mr. James Parton has, I think, written the most interesting and exhaustive life of Franklin, although it is not artistic and is full of unimportant digressions. Sparks has collected most of his writings, which are rather dull reading. The autobiography of Franklin was never finished,--a unique writing, as frank as the "Confessions" of Rousseau. A good biography is the one by Morse, in the series of "American Statesmen" which he is editing. Not a very complimentary view of Franklin is taken by McMaster, in the series of "American Men of Letters." See also Bancroft's "United States."