J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

“I have therefore been backward in Writing”

As I described yesterday, in late 1775 David Hartley, an opposition Member of Parliament, sent two letters to Benjamin Franklin proposing an unlikely way to reconcile Britain’s central government and the rebellious North American colonies. The Crown would pull back its tough laws on Massachusetts and the colonies would guarantee all slaves the right to trial by jury.

In The House of Commons: 1754-1790, Lewis Bernstein Namier and John Brooke called Hartley’s proposal “a tribute both to his benevolence and naïvety”:
It never occurred to Hartley that even if the British Parliament could be induced to pass such an Act, it would merely be regarded in America as one more example of British tyranny.
Franklin must have been savvy enough to know that. So how did he respond?

He didn’t. The next surviving letter from Franklin to Hartley was sent from Passy, France, in 1777, over a year later. It began:
I received duly your Letter of May 2nd. 77. including a Copy of one you had sent me the Year before, which never came to hand, and which it seems has been the Case with some I wrote to you from America.
This is the equivalent of “Your email never arrived, something must have gone wrong with my emails, let’s start over.” Which, given the wartime conditions, was quite plausible.

But then Franklin protested a little more:
Filled tho’ our Letters have always been, with Sentiments of Good Will to both Countries, and earnest Desires of preventing their Ruin, and promoting their mutual Felicity, I have been apprehensive that if it were known a Correspondence subsisted between us, it might be attended with Inconvenience to you. I have therefore been backward in Writing, not caring to trust the Post, and not well knowing, who else to trust with my Letters. But being now assured of a safe Conveyance, I venture to write to you, especially as I think the Subject such a one as you may receive a Letter upon without Censure.
Which at least opens the door to another explanation: Franklin found Hartley’s letters so impolitic and impractical that he just didn’t make a priority of responding.

Either way, Franklin started right up where his last extant letter had left off, complaining about how badly the Crown was treating the colonies:
She has given us by her numberless Barbarities, in the Prosecution of the War, and in the Treatment of Prisoners, (by her Malice in bribing Slaves, to murder their Masters, and Savages to Massacre the Families of Farmers, with her Baseness in rewarding the unfaithfulness of Servants, and debauching the Virtue of honest Seamen, entrusted with our Property,) so deep an Impression of her Depravity, that we never again can trust her in the Management of our Affairs, and Interests.
Once again, even though Hartley had advocated more rights for enslaved people and eventual abolition, all Franklin had to say about slaves was that the British army was encouraging them to revolt. His personal opposition to slavery was growing, but at this point he was writing as a diplomatic representative of the U.S. of A.

In fact, by the time the two men resumed their correspondence, Hartley was advocating that Parliament ban the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He was the first British abolitionist to propose such a law. It took another generation for that idea to take hold.

TOMORROW: Hartley and Franklin meet again.

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