Big Ben

Stephen Fender

  • Franklin of Philadelphia by Esmond Wright
    Harvard, 404 pp, £21.25, May 1986, ISBN 0 674 31809 9

Professor Wright’s third book on Benjamin Franklin is advertised as the ‘first comprehensive biography’ of the American printer, scientist and statesman ‘in fifty years’. What makes it possible is not only the life’s work of a British scholar but also, says the blurb, ‘Yale’s massive edition-in-progress of Franklin’s papers ... and the many specialised studies inspired by the correspondence’. Yet in one sense this claim is misleading. Although we do, of course, learn more about Franklin as the papers emerge, in another sense we are for ever rediscovering and re-inventing him according to our predilections. Franklin is a phenomenon very like what T.S. Eliot called a classic – entailing, to use Frank Kermode’s words in his book of that name, ‘the paradox that there is an identity but that it changes.’

Thus an American woman academic reviewing this book has drawn her readers’ attention to his marrying in order to avoid venereal disease, then abandoning his wife, while he was abroad on diplomatic business, to fifteen years of loneliness. D.H. Lawrence hated his rationality about sex, catching him out on one of his maxims: ‘Rarely use venery but for health or offspring.’ Don’t use it at all, said Lawrence. Early British commentators on America as a new republic could not sidestep Franklin’s manifest genius as a scientist and politician, but managed slyly to insinuate his case into the old trope of the degeneration of transplants. ‘Their Franklins and Washingtons, and all the other sages and heroes of [the American] revolution,’ said Sydney Smith in his ‘Who reads an American book?’ piece in the Edinburgh Review (1820), ‘were born and bred subjects of the King of England.’ The Tory Quarterly for January 1814, lamenting the victory in America of ‘democracy and Franklin’, had to admit that ‘Franklin, in grinding his electrical machine, and flying his kite, did certainly elicit some useful discoveries in a branch of science that had not much engaged the philosophers of Europe. But the foundation of Franklin’s knowledge was laid not in America, but in London.’ Even before this time the American Revolution had become associated in the minds of right-thinking people with certain events in France that Franklin had neither foreseen nor desired, so that journalists on the right, even in America, turned against his memory, as they had against that of Tom Paine. Joseph Dennie’s conservative Port Folio for 14 March 1801 called Franklin ‘one of our first Jacobins, the first to lay his head in the lap of French harlotry; and prostrate the Christianity and honour of his country to the deism and democracies of Paris’. Even his science was second-rate: ‘ “Our Benjamin” was no more distinguished for the originality of his conceptions, than for the purity of his life, or the soundness of his religious doctrine.’ Franklin, like that other classic, Paradise Lost, has not always had a good press.

He does better at the hands of Esmond Wright, not only because Wright is a scholar who writes with an enticing narrative sweep, but also because Franklin’s diverse achievements seem to suit an author who has followed a number of callings. Wright’s Franklin emerges as the instigator of a dozen projects both great and small, from street lighting in Philadelphia to the treaty of alliance with France that helped the American colonies win independence from Britain. Wright’s Franklin is like Wright’s narrative: tolerant of contradictions and complexity, yet willing to simplify to get the job done.

The author’s Anglo-American sympathies surface in the quantity and quality of his attention to Franklin’s apparently happy period in London from 1757 to 1762, when he acted for the Pennsylvania Assembly against the feudal interests of the colonial proprietors, the Penn family, now turned from Quakers to Anglicans and very much part of the establishment. Arriving in England a made man, already retired from his profitable printing business and a Fellow of the Royal Society on account of his electrical experiments, Franklin settled in lodgings in Craven Street, between the Strand and Hungerford Market, where he promptly proceeded to improve his fireplace, take regular ‘air baths’ in the nude, and conduct further scientific investigations. Abroad in the city, he divided his time between the coffee houses, where he got to know a ‘strikingly Scottish’ group of intellectuals and men of affairs, and the vexatious business of trying to bring the Pennsylvania proprietors within the British constitution.

During the French and Indian War the colonial Assembly had wanted to tax the Penns in order to help defray the cost of guarding the western frontier. As early as 1755 the members of the Assembly, in language largely drafted by Franklin, had complained against the feudal nature of the proprietorship, citing their own ‘Rights [as] British subjects to have their Bills granting money to the Crown accepted without Amendments’. Franklin’s first mission to London, therefore, was an appeal to the British Government over the heads of the proprietors, and he Finally succeeded, up to a point, when, in 1760, the King allowed a Bill drafted by the Assembly taxing all property owned by the Penns, except for unsurveyed waste land.

But the irony was that he thus moved Pennsylvania out of the frying-pan of private, into the fire of Royal prerogative. Three years after Franklin returned to America, Parliament extended the Stamp Act to the North American colonies, placing a duty on newspapers, legal documents and even playing cards in order to force all the Americans to bear a share of their own defence. So now ‘the people’, not just the proprietors, were being taxed – and by an authority a long way removed from the colonial assemblies. That same year of 1765, as Wright reminds us, saw the appearance of the first volume of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, which announced, in prose allowing very little latitude of interpretation, that ‘there is and must be in every state a supreme, irresistible, absolute and uncontrolled authority, in which the jura summa imperii, or rights of sovereignty, reside; this supreme power is by the constitution of Great Britain vested in the King, Lords and Commons.’ So Franklin returned to London, again as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly but now curiously allied with the proprietary party, to campaign against the Stamp Act. At first he tried arguments other Americans had used, and would use again: the Americans were unrepresented in Parliament – how then could Parliament tax them? (The same way they could tax the unrepresented citizens of Birmingham and Manchester, said the ebullient commissioner to the Board of Trade, Soame Jenyns in a pamphlet widely circulated in the year of the Stamp Act.) Or again, Parliament could levy external duties on the colonies, but not internal taxes. Unsurprisingly, George Grenville, Chancellor of the Exchequer, failed to grasp this distinction.

Yet oddly enough Franklin did manage to get the Stamp Act repealed only a year after it was brought to bear on North America. He did so by abandoning the more strenuous arguments of his compatriots in favour of an appeal to administrative practicality and a nostalgic evocation of the good old days before the Act, when Americans so loved and revered Old England that they were ‘governed by this country at the expense only of a little pen, ink and paper’ and were ‘led by a thread’. In reality, though, the generalities to which Franklin retreated in the face of the defeat of the more specific constitutional arguments were more radical than traditional. By the time the British re-imposed taxes on America, in the shape of the Townshend Acts of 1767 (to which other Americans like John Dickinson and Samuel Adams responded with ever more ingenious arguments like the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies, as against tax them), Franklin wrote his son William ‘that no middle doctrine can be well maintained ... Something might be made of either of the extremes; that Parliament has a power to make all laws for us, or that it has a power to make no laws for us; and I think the arguments for the latter more numerous and weighty, than those for the former.’ Two years later he would remove Parliament from the plan altogether, anticipating a kind of dominion status for the colonies, again paradoxically promoting the radical through the nostalgic evocation of a golden age – this time the relationship of equals supposedly enjoyed by Scotland and England before the 1707 Act of Union. In this retreat from specific to general, from constitutional quibble to revolutionary programme, Franklin was doing nothing more than anticipating the diplomatic and intellectual motion of the American colonies towards the Declaration of Independence, which would base the argument for separation on ‘certain unalienable rights’ under the law of nature. Franklin’s enemies, however, found it easy to represent him as a trimmer who made up arguments more or less as they occurred to him. They gave him his comeuppance in 1774 – after the Boston Tea Party had disposed of the one commodity still taxed at entry and after an election in Britain had returned a House much less friendly to the American cause. Implicated in the leaking of some blusteringly authoritarian letters from the Governor of Massachusetts to Grenville’s secretary, Franklin had to endure an hour-long tirade against his integrity at a meeting of the Privy Council. Poor Ben: standing in the cockpit in his Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit of Manchester velvet; the fond Anglophile disabused as imperial authority dropped its mask of civility at last. That, at least, is the traditional picture, and Wright, too, thinks that the experience set him finally against compromise with Great Britain and removed his affection for it. From then on it was France, and negotiations to secure aid.

Yet I wonder if this interpretation – the bemused, good-natured moderate brought up against the shock of reality – doesn’t reinforce the old view of Franklin as the amiable pragmatist, the cautious man of middle ways. This image is assiduously promoted in Franklin’s autobiography. But the autobiography is a complex tissue of facades which admits some still less favourable interpretations – such as Lawrence’s view that he was a smug, snuff-coloured little prig. East Coast journalists used to take Mark Twain at his own self-performed value too, referring to him as ‘the wild humorist of the Pacific slope’. It’s as though the metropolitan finds it difficult to think of a man from the provinces – from further ‘west’ – as anything other than what he claims to be, as though Westerners (or Americans, when seen from Europe) could never be sophisticated and complex.

Wright recognises Franklin’s complexity, at least to the point of setting out his contradictions in belief and policy, but since it is only at times that he puts these contradictions within the context of the history of ideas, it is not always clear what they amounted to, how they arose, or how they might have been resolved. An example might be of the essay of 1751, ‘Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind’ of which this book makes much, and in which Franklin, extrapolating from Pennsylvania census statistics, predicted a doubling of the American population every generation. In part, the ‘Observations’ sought to accommodate itself to the British mercantilist system, promising an endless increase in yeoman freeholders producing raw materials for the mother country and buying its manufactures in turn: but so great would be the increase, Franklin argued, that even British manufactures would not be able wholly to supply it. Therefore, American manufactures ought to be allowed to thrive too: ‘Britain should not too much restrain manufactures in her colonies. A wise and good mother will not do it.’ This implies a hesitation between mercantilism and Adam Smith’s ideas of free trade between sovereign nations. Was Franklin fudging a difficult issue, trying to please two opposing parties? Were his ideas in a state of transition? If so, between what and what? Wright thinks he was moving over to a British imperialist position, but one still based on London. In this he follows Gerald Stourzh’s argument, in Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (second edition, 1968), that Franklin was a ‘manifest destiny’ man before his time, dreaming of an Anglo-Saxon expansion eventually to cover the whole North American continent – but with this difference, that his vision was, as Stourzh writes, ‘under the perspective of the interests of the whole British Empire’.

But let’s try a more paranoid reading of the same document. Suppose Franklin was thinking, even in 1751, that America would one day be an independent empire, with its metropolis somewhere in the half moon between Philadelphia and Boston – that is to say, that he was already envisaging a day when North America would constitute a mercantilist system on its own, within the one continent. The reason for taking this idea seriously is embedded in an intellectual context not mentioned by Wright Franklin wrote the ‘Observations’ in answer to Count Buffon’s claim in his Histoire Naturelle (1749) that plants, animals and men degenerated in both size and number when transplanted from the old world to the new. (So impressed was Buffon by Franklin’s proof of American increase, that he published a supplement to the Histoire retracting his observations as they applied to human beings.) This means that Franklin was engaged in a discourse in which North America was posited as, not just distant, but geographically quite distinct from Europe – different in climate, topography, natural resources – and that he was already thinking of his native land as independent in nature, if not in positive law. Suppose those retreats to generality in the face of British constitutional rebuttals were not just expedient. Suppose Franklin moved first against the proprietors, then against Parliament, and finally against the King, because these were the necessary stages – in that order – of American national independence. Not that Franklin planned a separatist revolution from the moment of his debut in public life, but his instincts always tended in that direction, and under pressure it was his instincts that formed his policy. We must try to get over the idea of Franklin as the cautious temporiser. One might not agree with Dennie’s evaluation of Jacobins and deists, but at least he took Franklin seriously. He knew him as an adversary to all the conservative values he treasured.