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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Friday, May 06, 2016

Franklin “integrated easily into parts of the British establishment”

The transformation of the house where Benjamin Franklin lived in London into a museum has prompted new public interest to his second career as a lobbyist.

George Goodwin, the museum’s Honorary Writer in Residence, has addressed the topic in Benjamin Franklin in London. Colin Kidd recently reviewed it for The Guardian:
In London he integrated easily into parts of the British establishment. He became a pillar of the Royal Society, to which he had already been elected, and formed close friendships with Francis Dashwood, 11th Baron le Despencer, and – notwithstanding his exiguous religious beliefs – with Bishop Jonathan Shipley and his family. Yet when Franklin ran into outright snobbery and chilling aristocratic hauteur, these – which existed aplenty – brought out a prickly, assertive pride in his artisanal origins. Franklin vacillated uneasily between a leather-apron identity as a tradesman who had risen in life through his own efforts, and a relaxed acceptance of inherited privilege and hierarchy. Although Goodwin records several instances of slights and putdowns, Franklin still possessed considerable clout. In 1763 his son William was appointed the royal governor of New Jersey.

During his years in London the focus of Franklin’s lobbying activities shifted from the Pennsylvania charter to the emerging crisis in relations between London and the colonies. While a policy of coercion prevailed, from which flowed a demand for American independence, the struggle in the highest circles of British policymaking between the proponents of coercion and conciliation was a close-run thing. There was nothing inevitable about independence. The chance play of personality – and especially a handful of wilfully obtuse characters such as Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts in the early 1770s, and the Earl of Hillsborough, the secretary of state for the colonies between 1768 and 1772 – played as large a part in the eventual estrangement of the colonies from Britain as the brute realities of geography.

George III emerges from Goodwin’s story not as a tyrant, but “most emphatically” as “a pedant”. Where did authority lie – with the British parliament, or with the parliament-like bodies found in the colonies? Franklin believed that the monarch was the “ultimate protector” of the colonial legislatures against the pretensions of Westminster. But George III was reluctant to overstep the bounds of British constitutional convention. The tyrant of patriot demonology was a straw man.
Franklin’s influence in London came to a crashing end in January 1774 when Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn lambasted him in front of the Privy Council for leaking Gov. Hutchinson’s letters. Sheila Skemp’s The Making of a Patriot focuses just on that confrontation. Though Franklin remained in Britain for more than a year, he had lost his standing with all but the radical Whigs who were supporting America anyway. Franklin sailed back to America in the spring of 1775 and started his third career as an American politician and diplomat.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Dear John:

I thought the portion of the review you quoted quite nicely encapsulates the ironies of the imperial crisis and how it has come to be remembered here in the States (e.g., the supposedly "tyrannical" George III).

However, I bristle at the labeling of Thomas Hutchinson as obtuse! Stubborn, yes, lacking good political "radar," yes, but still an intelligent man possessing at least some of the skills of an able administrator, no?


J. L. Bell said...

Hutchinson seems like a Cassandra figure during the imperial crisis. When he was right, as when he advised against enacting the Stamp Act, London didn't listen to him. When he was wrong, especially in gauging the depth of the popular opposition, London relied on him.

Hillsborough was on the other end of some of those messages, so he bears some of the blame for misinterpreting Hutchinson, but I don't get the sense he was notably obtuse, either.

There was a fundamental conflict the review describes—whether Parliament or the Parliament-like legislatures of the colonies should determine laws in the colonies. Neither Hutchinson nor Hillsborough was able to come up with and institute a way to resolve that conflict short of war, but Franklin didn't manage that, either.