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Benjamin Franklin

Trouble at Home

Drawn into Politics

The First American

Summary

In 1762, after an enjoyable and largely successful five years in England, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. His son William had just been appointed Governor of New Jersey, extending the Franklin family's fame and influence. The situation at home was troubled, however. The problem of the frontier would simply not go away. Settlers were as restless as ever and now had the support of the proprietors, who supported the settlers against the assembly as revenge for the assembly's attempts to make the proprietors pay taxes.

The settlers' anger boiled over in the fall of 1763, when a gang of young men massacred a group of friendly Christian Indians near Lancaster. Franklin was outraged. He denounced this group of murderers, known as the "Paxton Boys," in a newspaper article. The Paxton Boys were not amused. In the spring they marched on Philadelphia to frighten the assembly into agreeing to their demands. Franklin met them at the outskirts of the city and personally urged them to turn around and go home peacefully. Thanks to his bravery and cool head, they did.

Though the Paxton Boys went back home, politics in Pennsylvania got ugly. The proprietors resisted being taxed and resented the growing power of Philadelphia businessmen. In 1764, fed up with the proprietors, Franklin and the majority of the Pennsylvania assembly decided to ask the king to change Pennsylvania's government. The colony was a proprietorship, meaning that most of the power belonged to the proprietors–the descendents of William Penn. Franklin and his supporters wanted to give Pennsylvania a royal government instead. This meant that the king, rather than the proprietors, would have the final say in making laws. Franklin's enemies suspected that Franklin was secretly trying to make himself the governor, and they mounted a campaign to defeat him. In the election of October 1764, by only eighteen votes, Franklin lost his seat.

Franklin's supporters were not daunted, however. Later that month, the assembly again appointed Franklin representative, with instructions to plead with the king for a royal government. As Franklin was preparing to leave for Britain, however, bigger political problems overshadowed the debate in Pennsylvania. The British government was preparing to pass the Stamp Act. Colonists across America feared and resented the Act, believing it was an unfair tax, and were determined to fight it. When Franklin reached London in December, he tried to talk the king's ministers out of passing the Act, but they would not budge. Against Franklin's pleading, the Stamp Act was passed on February 27, 1765.

Commentary

Though we now think of Franklin as an inventor, scientist, man of letters, and American patriot, we sometimes forget how deeply he was involved in the politics of his own colony. William Penn, a devout Quaker, founded Pennsylvania in 1681 as an experiment in religious freedom and representative government. Penn signed a peace treaty with the Indians and founded a City of Brotherly Love. The colony had long welcomed pacifist Quakers (mostly English and Welsh) and German farmers. Around the time of Franklin's youth, large numbers of Scots and Irish moved into the colony, settling the frontier. Meanwhile, the descendants of William Penn maintained power. These groups all had different interests, different values, and in some cases different languages. Keeping the place together was a challenge.

Franklin rise to power in Pennsylvania was quiet but complete. By the 1750s, he was involved in nearly every aspect of running the colony. Many people, including Governor Thomas Penn (William Penn's descendant), feared his growing power. Franklin's first adventure with the militia made him a hero; the second made him a bona fide military leader. His reputation was magnified by the Paxton Boys affair. Franklin was frustrated with the Quakers–most of whom were farmers with a limited perspective–because their pacifist beliefs blocked the colony from organizing a permanent militia. Though Franklin was sympathetic toward farmers, he opposed the brutal tactics of frontier settlers against the Indians.

When Franklin became a leader in the movement to dump the Penns as proprietors and switch to a royal government, he touched off a political storm. The pro-Penn faction unleashed a steady stream of accusations and rumors about Franklin. They called him an Indian-lover and anti-German, they claimed he opposed religious freedom and had embezzled money while in England, and they even accused him of burying his illegitimate son's mother in an unmarked grave.

Franklin withstood these accusations as he had in the past and would in the future. Yet he was not afraid to play hardball, either. Though he never directly responded to such attacks, he did everything in his power to defeat the Penns. He manipulated members of the Pennsylvania assembly and used his newspaper to fight his cause. His struggle with the Penns could easily have ended his political and ruined his reputation, had it not been overshadowed by a much bigger battle looming on the horizon–Britain against the colonies.

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