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Benjamin Franklin

Failure in Britain

The First American

Failure in Britain, page 2

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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.


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.

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