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Benjamin Franklin

Failure in Britain

The First American

Radical at Home, Celebrity Abroad

Summary

Many Americans came to trust Franklin as their advocate in Britain. They saw him as someone who could help Britain and America work out their differences in a positive way. They were wrong. In the 1770s, even after helping to defeat the Stamp Act and (later) the Townsend Acts, Franklin grew frustrated with the British leaders' ignorance of America and condescending attitude toward the colonies. He wrote more essays denouncing British policies toward America, including his famous "Rules By Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One" and "An Edict by the King of Prussia" (both in September 1773).

Though Franklin's reputation as an American patriot was growing, his credibility was about to suffer. In Massachusetts, anti-British sentiment was on the rise. Radicals there believed that Britain was bent on their destruction. Franklin hoped the colonists in Massachusetts would be less angry with the British if they realized that Britain's heavy-handed behavior was the result of letters sent to the British government from their own leaders, Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. These men, fearing revolt, had asked the British government to crack down on the radicals. Franklin acquired the letters–how he did it remains a mystery–and sent them to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Though Franklin had asked the House of Representatives not to publish the letters, they were somehow leaked to the press. The letters were soon published and created even more anger at the British among Massachusetts colonists. After another man was wrongly accused of having stolen the letters, Franklin came forward and took sole responsibility for the scandal. In London he was denounced as a thief and traitor. Though humiliated and angry, he made no reply.

Franklin's fall from grace continued two days later, when he was dismissed as deputy postmaster general for North America. This began his final years in London, where Franklin continued to write pro-American essays and grew increasingly bitter toward Britain. By early 1775, after the British closed the Port of Boston in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party, Franklin gave up hope of reconciling American and British differences. He left Britain for good in January.

Commentary

Franklin's humiliation in Britain over the Hutchinson-Oliver letters was the lowest point in his career. His carefully cultivated image was shattered. In London, at a hearing with the government, the British solicitor Alexander Wedderburn spent an hour calling Franklin a criminal. Dozens of British officials, most of whom Franklin knew, watched and snickered. They made him into America's scapegoat. Franklin sat stone-faced, refusing to show any emotion–but he was furious.

Every American who wanted independence from Britain–and we should remember that even at the beginning of the war these people were a minority–had his or her own reasons for wanting it. Some knew they would benefit politically or financially. Others believed in the ideals of liberty and equality–ideals an independent America was supposed to represent. Others simply thought independence was inevitable. For everyone, though, the decision to support independence was personal as well as political. Many people had simply gotten fed up with everyday indignities, tired of feeling like second-class citizens.

There may not have been a single, particular moment when Franklin became a revolutionary. Probably his feelings changed gradually. That said, Franklin's humiliation in front of his British colleagues might have been the defining moment. He was deeply hurt and disillusioned. He may have concluded once and for all that the British could not and would not understand America and Americans. He may have decided that America was better off without its mother country. He may have decided, for good, that he would support independence.

We cannot know for sure, as Franklin never publicly lashed out at his critics. He stayed in London for another year, trying to help Britain and the colonies reach a compromise. He seemed pessimistic, though. His essays grew more critical of the British, more sarcastic and bitter. After he finally gave up and went home, he sprang into action and instantly became–at the age of sixty- nine–one of the most radical revolutionary leaders. Though Franklin carefully guarded his inner feelings from the public, we can only assume that he was deeply, personally disappointed in Britain.

Another aspect of Franklin's life during this time deserves mention. In 1774, his wife Deborah died in Philadelphia. She had not seen Franklin in a decade. He would have brought her to London with him, but she was afraid of crossing the ocean. Instead, she waited for years to see her husband again–and never did. Historians have wondered how close Benjamin and Deborah were. The two were very different: he was a brilliant scientist and diplomat; she was uneducated and unworldly. Franklin loved her dearly and insisted on being buried with her, but his long separation from her suggests that their relationship was distant. Franklin never got too close to anyone; he was always on the move, always socializing, always leading some new project or writing a new essay. He probably was not the best husband and family man.

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