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Benjamin Franklin

The First American

Trouble at Home

Failure in Britain

Summary

When the Stamp Act passed, Franklin believed there was nothing to be done. The battle was over, he thought–but he did not understand how deeply Americans resented the Act. When he saw how many Americans refused to obey the Stamp Act, however, he changed his mind. Energized by the American resistance, he sprang into action and argued against the Act in a series of brilliant essays. On February 13, 1766, he testified against the Act before the House of Commons, answering the questions put to him so skillfully that the Members of Parliament could not help but see the foolishness of their actions. The Act was soon repealed, thanks in part to Franklin's efforts.

Though Franklin worked hard to fight the Stamp Act and lobby for royal governorship in Pennsylvania, he still found time in England for other interests. He continued his scientific experiments, investigating the relationship between the depth of canals and the speed of boats in them. He also developed a new method for manufacturing wheels from a single piece of wood. In January 1769, he was elected President of the American Philosophical Society, a position he held until his death.

Franklin also traveled widely. In 1767, and again in 1769, he visited France, where aristocrats and scientists greeted him as a celebrity. In 1771, he toured Scotland and Ireland, meeting more famous writers and thinkers. During that year, on vacation in the English countryside, Franklin began work on his Autobiography, which would ultimately become his most famous written work. He began the Autobiography in the form of a letter to his son William, intending to show his children and grandchildren how he achieved his success in life. Grandchildren were probably on his mind: Franklin had been overseeing the education of William's illegitimate child, William Temple Franklin. Meanwhile, Franklin's daughter, Sarah (who had married Richard Bache in 1767) had her first child, Richard Franklin Bache, in 1769. Seven more were to follow.

Franklin's success in dealing with the British government earned him the respect of colonists across America. In April 1768, Georgia appointed Franklin as its representative in London. New Jersey did the same in November of 1769, and Massachusetts followed suit in October of 1770. Combined with his original job as representative from Pennsylvania, Franklin now looked after the interests of four colonies. Increasingly, he was the voice of America in Britain.

Commentary

Franklin misjudged American opposition to the Stamp Act. It must have surprised him to realize that Americans had grown so hostile to British rule during his time in London. In 1762 to 1762, during the brief interlude between his two missions to Britain, he had been neck-deep in Pennsylvania politics. The Paxton Boys affair and the fight with the proprietors probably kept him busy enough that when he returned to London in 1764, he was out of touch with American attitudes.

Franklin treated the Stamp Act as inevitable. After it was passed, the British minister in charge of the Act asked Franklin to recommend someone in Pennsylvania to be appointed the stamp distributor, responsible for selling the stamps required by the Act on contracts and other official documents. Franklin suggested John Hughes, a good friend in Philadelphia. When the Act came into force, Americans directed their anger toward these distributors. John Hughes soon feared for his life as angry mobs surrounded him. Franklin's role in the appointment caused many Philadelphians to mistakenly believe he had supported the Act as a way to get rich. At one point a mob marched on Franklin's home, threatening his wife Deborah. Home alone and frightened, she reached for her gun and called on friends to help. Fortunately the mob went home without doing any harm.

News of American resistance probably struck Franklin like a lightning bolt. It energized him, sending him into action. The British had always known he was an advocate for American interests, but they also respected him as a man of letters and science. He was a man of the Enlightenment, an international figure. They may not have also realized how much of a patriot he was. This must have changed when Franklin made himself into a one-man propaganda army to fight the Act. His opinions filled the British press; to most Britons he became the symbol of American patriotism. In France, too, Franklin came to symbolize America–homespun, intelligent, and wise. He was our first and best diplomat.

It is difficult to pin down the precise moment when Franklin came to believe that America should be independent of Britain. He predicted American independence long before the war began, but at the time of the Stamp Act he didn't support the idea. He, like many Americans, held out hope that the differences could be resolved. He also knew that if any single person in America or Britain would be able to resolve the differences, it would probably be him.

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