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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter I: A Patriot of 1763

His Majesty’s reign…I predict will be happy and truly glorious.–Benjamin Franklin.

The 29th of January, 1757, was a notable day in the life of Ben Franklin of Philadelphia, well known in the metropolis of America as printer and politician, and famous abroad as a scientist and Friend of the Human Race. It was on that day that the Assembly of Pennsylvania commissioned him as its agent to repair to London in support of its petition against the Proprietors of the Province, who were charged with having “obstinately persisted in manacling their deputies [the Governors of Pennsylvania] with instructions inconsistent not only with the privileges of the people, but with the service of the Crown.” We may, therefore, if we choose, imagine the philosopher on that day, being then in his fifty-first year, walking through the streets of this metropolis of America (a town of something less than twenty thousand inhabitants) to his modest home, and there informing his “Dear Debby” that her husband, now apparently become a great man in a small world, was ordered immediately “home to England.”

In those leisurely days, going home to England was no slight undertaking; and immediately, when there was any question of a great journey, meant as soon as the gods might bring it to pass. “I had agreed with Captain Morris, of the Pacquet at New York, for my passage,” he writes in the “Autobiography,” “and my stores were put on board, when Lord Loudoun arrived at Philadelphia, expressly, as he told me, to endeavor an accommodation between the Governor and the Assembly, that his Majesty’s service might not be obstructed by their dissentions.” Franklin was the very man to effect an accommodation, when he set his mind to it, as he did on this occasion; but “in the mean time,” he relates, “the Pacquet had sailed with my sea stores, which was some loss to me, and my only recompence was his Lordship’s thanks for my service, all the credit for obtaining the accommodation falling to his share.”

It was now war time, and the packets were at the disposal of Lord Loudoun, commander of the forces in America. The General was good enough to inform his accommodating friend that of the two packets then at New York, one was given out to sail on Saturday, the 12th of April–“but,” the great man added very confidentially, “I may let you know, entre nous, that if you are there by Monday morning, you will be in time, but do not delay longer.” As early as the 4th of April, accordingly, the provincial printer and Friend of the Human Race, accompanied by many neighbors “to see him out of the province,” left Philadelphia. He arrived at Trenton “well before night,” and expected, in case “the roads were no worse,” to reach Woodbridge by the night following. In crossing over to New York on the Monday, some accident at the ferry delayed him, so that he did not reach the city till nearly noon, and he feared that he might miss the packet after all–Lord Loudoun had so precisely mentioned Monday morning. Happily, no such thing! The packet was still there. It did not sail that day, or the next either; and as late as the 29th of April Franklin was still hanging about waiting to be off. For it was war time and the packets waited the orders of General Loudoun, who, ready in promises but slow in execution, was said to be “like St. George on the signs, always on horseback but never rides on.”

Franklin himself was a deliberate man, and at the last moment he decided, for some reason or other, not to take the first packet. Behold him, therefore, waiting for the second through the month of May and the greater part of June! “This tedious state of uncertainty and long waiting,” during which the agent of the Province of Pennsylvania, running back and forth from New York to Woodbridge, spent his time more uselessly than ever he remembered, was duly credited to the perversity of the British General. But at last they were off, and on the 26th of July, three and a half months after leaving Philadelphia, Franklin arrived in London to take up the work of his mission; and there he remained, always expecting to return shortly, but always delayed, for something more than five years.

These were glorious days in the history of Old England, the most heroic since the reign of Good Queen Bess. When the provincial printer arrived in London, the King and the politicians had already been forced, through multiplied reverses in every part of the world, to confer power upon William Pitt, a disagreeable man indeed, but still a great genius and War Lord, who soon turned defeat into victory. It was the privilege of Franklin, here in the capital of the Empire, to share the exaltation engendered by those successive conquests that gave India and America to the little island kingdom, and made Englishmen, in Horace Walpole’s phrase, “heirs apparent of the Romans.” No Briton rejoiced more sincerely than this provincial American in the extension of the Empire. He labored with good will and good humor, and doubtless with good effect, to remove popular prejudice against his countrymen; and he wrote a masterly pamphlet to prove the wisdom of retaining Canada rather than Guadaloupe at the close of the war, confidently assuring his readers that the colonies would never, even when once the French danger was removed, “unite against their own nation, which protects and encourages them, with which they have so many connections and ties of blood, interest, and affection, and which ’tis well known they all love much more than they love one another.” Franklin, at least, loved Old England, and it might well be maintained that these were the happiest years of his life. He was mentally so cosmopolitan, so much at ease in the world, that here in London he readily found himself at home indeed. The business of his particular mission, strictly attended to, occupied no great part of his time. He devoted long days to his beloved scientific experiments, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with David Hume and Lord Kames, and with many other men of note in England, France, and Italy. He made journeys, to Holland, to Cambridge, to ancestral places and the homes of surviving relatives; but mostly, one may imagine, he gave himself to a steady flow of that “agreeable and instructive conversation” of which he was so much the master and the devotee. He was more famous than he knew, and the reception that everywhere awaited him was flattering, and as agreeable to his unwarped and emancipated mind as it was flattering. “The regard and friendship I meet with,” he confesses, “and the conversation of ingenious men, give me no small pleasure”; and at Cambridge, “my vanity was not a little gratified by the particular regard shown me by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University, and the Heads of the Colleges.” As the years passed, the sense of being at ease among friends grew stronger; the serene and placid letters to “Dear Debby” became rather less frequent; the desire to return to America was much attenuated.

How delightful, indeed, was this Old England! “Of all the enviable things England has,” he writes, “I envy it most its people…. Why should this little island enjoy in almost every neighborhood more sensible, virtuous, and elegant minds, than we can collect in ranging one hundred leagues of our vast forests?” What a proper place for a philosopher to spin out the remnant of his days! The idea had occurred to him; he was persistently urged by his friend William Strahan to carry it into effect; and his other friend, David Hume, made him a pretty compliment on the same theme: “America has sent us many good things, gold, silver, sugar, tobacco; but you are the first philosopher for whom we are beholden to her. It is our own fault that we have not kept him; whence it appears that we do not agree with Solomon, that wisdom is above gold; for we take good care never to send back an ounce of the latter, which we once lay our fingers upon.” The philosopher was willing enough to remain; and of the two objections which he mentioned to Strahan, the rooted aversion of his wife to embarking on the ocean and his love for Philadelphia, the latter for the moment clearly gave him less difficulty than the former. “I cannot leave this happy island and my friends in it without extreme regret,” he writes at the moment of departure. “I am going from the old world to the new; and I fancy I feel like those who are leaving this world for the next; grief at the parting; fear of the passage; hope for the future.”

When, on the 1st of November, 1762, Franklin quietly slipped into Philadelphia, he found that the new world had not forgotten him. For many days his house was filled from morning till night with a succession of friends, old and new, come to congratulate him on his return; excellent people all, no doubt, and yet presenting, one may suppose, a rather sharp contrast to the “virtuous and elegant minds” from whom he had recently parted in England. The letters he wrote, immediately following his return to America, to his friends William Strahan and Mary Stevenson lack something of the cheerful and contented good humor which is Franklin’s most characteristic tone. His thoughts, like those of a homesick man, are ever dwelling on his English friends, and he still nourishes the fond hope of returning, bag and baggage, to England for good and all. The very letter which he begins by relating the cordiality of his reception in Philadelphia he closes by assuring Strahan that “in two years at fartherest I hope to settle all my affairs in such manner as that I may then conveniently remove to England–provided,” he adds as an afterthought, “we can persuade the good woman to cross the sea. That will be the great difficulty.”

It is not known whether it was this difficulty that prevented the eminent doctor, revered in two continents for his wisdom, from changing the place of his residence. Dear Debby, as docile as a child in most respects, very likely had her settled prejudices, of which the desire to remain on dry land may have been one, and one of the most obstinate. Or it may be that Franklin found himself too much occupied, too much involved in affairs after his long absence, to make even a beginning in his cherished plan; or else, as the months passed and he settled once more to the familiar, humdrum life of the American metropolis, sober second thought may have revealed to him what was doubtless a higher wisdom. “Business, public and private, devours my time,” he writes in March, 1764. “I must return to England for repose. With such thoughts I flatter myself, and need some kind friend to put me often in mind THAT OLD TREES CANNOT SAFELY BE TRANSPLANTED.” Perhaps, after all, Dear Debby was this kind friend; in which case Americans must all, to this day, be much indebted to the good woman.

At least it was no apprehension of difficulties arising between England and the colonies that induced Franklin to remain in America. The Peace of Paris he regarded as “the most advantageous” of any recorded in British annals, very fitting to mark the close of a successful war, and well suited to usher in the long period of prosperous felicity which should properly distinguish the reign of a virtuous prince. Never before, in Franklin’s opinion, were the relations between Britain and her colonies more happy; and there could be, he thought, no good reason to fear that the excellent young King would be distressed, or his prerogative diminished, by factitious parliamentary opposition.

“You now fear for our virtuous young King, that the faction forming will overpower him and render his reign uncomfortable [he writes to Strahan]. On the contrary, I am of opinion that his virtue and the consciousness of his sincere intentions to make his people happy will give him firmness and steadiness in his measures and in the support of the honest friends he has chosen to serve him; and when that firmness is fully perceived, faction will dissolve and be dissipated like a morning fog before the rising sun, leaving the rest of the day clear with a sky serene and cloudless. Such after a few of the first years will be the future course of his Majesty’s reign, which I predict will be happy and truly glorious. A new war I cannot yet see reason to apprehend. The peace will I think long continue, and your nation be as happy as they deserve to be.”

The Eve of the Revolution