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Monday, June 01, 2015

The humiliation of Ben Franklin

     As the relationship between England and its North American colonies deteriorated, Massachusetts contacted the venerable Benjamin Franklin, who was living in England, to petition the Crown. He had after all prevailed in 1757 in a dispute Pennsylvania had with the Crown, and Franklin lobbied successfully for the repeal of the dreaded Stamp Act of 1765.
     On January 29, 1774, Franklin appeared before the Privy Council, advisors to the king, which humiliated him.
     That may have cost Britain her colonies, for Dr. Franklin went into that meeting an Englishman who was loyal to the crown. But he emerged from that meeting with the realization that he was an American. His decision to declare independence came a full two years before the formal declaration by the Continental Congress, which he edited.
     Tensions between Massachusetts and the British Crown had simmered for a long time. During King George's War -- a war against the French and Indians from 1744 to 1748 -- the Massachusetts did the unexpected and captured Louisbourg in Canada, then called New France, in 1745. The Americans lost 180 men to disease and combat, while the Royal Navy sat off shore and did not fire a round. They lost one sailor. When the Americans won, British sailors swooped in an looted the place.
     The British eventually gave the fort back. Americans would have to capture the fort again in the subsequent (and final) French and Indian War a decade later.
     By the early 1770s, a showdown between the colonies and mother country was shaping. The elevation of Lord North to prime minister in 1770 pushed the government in the direction of second class citizenry for the Americans. Franklin obtained 33 letters that showed the detest toward Americans of certain high officials. Parliament was upset -- with Franklin for publishing the letters.
     Which led to his final appearance before the Privy Council, which advises a king. He thought it was to discuss the grievances of Massachusetts, four weeks after the Boston Tea Party. No, it was the letters. Alexander Wedderburne hectored him on and on.
     "The letters could not have come to Dr. Franklin by fair means. The writers did not give them to him; nor yet did the deceased correspondent, who from our intimacy would otherwise have told me of it: Nothing then will acquit Dr. Franklin of the charge of obtaining them by fraudulent or corrupt means, for the most malignant of purposes; unless he stole them, from the person who stole them. This argument is irrefragable," Wedderburne said.
     At the end of the harangue, Franklin declined to speak in his defense. That night, he returned to his lodgings at 7 Craven Street, London, feeling all of his 68 years. He removed his clothes and vowed not to wear the outfit again until he could degrade the British government. And he would, when he wore the same suit to the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
     First, Franklin had to return home to America in 1775 to help her declare her independence and sovereignty.
     Born on January 17, 1706, at a house on Milk Street in Boston, he was one of the 17 children fathered by Josiah Franklin, and one of the 10 born by Josiah's second wife, Abiah Folger Franklin. The family's means were modest and at 12, his father apprenticed Ben to Ben's older brother James, who taught him the printing trade.
     Franklin would earn a fortune in Philadelphia, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette and later Poor Richard's Almanac. His wit and charm in print were matched in real life. At 25, he joined the Freemasons. Within three years, his fellows elected him Grand Master.
     At 17, he proposed to Deborah Read, 15, while boarding at her home. Her mother declined because Franklin's finances were unstable and forbid the nuptials. Instead her daughter married John Rodgers, who took the dowry and fled for Barbados. Because of criminal statutes against bigamy and the inability to obtain a divorce, Deborah was now unable to marry. On September 1, 1730, Franklin took her as his common law wife but he was about as faithful as a snake, and already had one illegitimate son, William, for Deborah to raise. They had two more children. Franklin would secure William the royal governorship of New Jersey, however, the son remained a loyalist and the two never spoke or corresponded with one another again.
     Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod, a stove, the urinary catheter, the glass armonica, and other items, including a lost printing process for protecting against counterfeiting paper money. He never sought patents, which given his wealth and the expense of battling patent piracy, likely saved him money and heartache. He organized lending libraries and volunteer fire departments. He read everything he could get his hands on.
     What made him internationally famous was his discovery that lightning is electricity. This gained him world renown and the honorific title of Doctor Franklin. His doctoral thesis involved a kite and a key.
     But his greatest invention was America. He shepherded a young lawyer named Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence, lightly editing the work by changing "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable" to the bolder "We hold these truths to be self-evident" and God became "endowed by their Creator" under Franklin's hand. At 70, he was quite an accomplished editor.
     However, his greatest moment was just ahead. Five months after signing the declaration, Franklin headed to France with a party of diplomats, which included John Adams. Their mission was to get French financial and military support for the rebel government. When they arrived at the port of Nantes to begin a 250-mile journey to Paris, pandemonium broke out. By virtue of his experiments with electricity and lightning, Franklin enthralled the French.
     "His reputation is greater than that of Newton, Frederick the Great or Voltaire, his character more revered than all of them. There's scarcely a coachman or a footman or scullery maid who does not consider him a friend of all mankind," John Adams wrote.
     Franklin got a big kick out of his celebrity, writing to a daughter, "My picture is everywhere, on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings, busts. The numbers sold are incredible. My portrait is a best seller, you have prints, and copies of prints and copies of copies spread everywhere. Your father's face is now as well-known as the man in the moon."
     While it would take years for Franklin and company to secure the aid, he was determined to do so, win the war, and show the Privy Council. Not only would he live to avenge his humiliation but would help found the Republic. Indeed, he helped establish a bicameral Congress, which due to its lower house made it a democratic republic. His life spanned 84 years of the 18th century. he made the most of each of them.
     Some people like to think that our nation's success in its founding was pre-ordained. If so, God sent the right men to make it so.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.

5 comments:

  1. Young Ben was quite the bounder. I recall reading he kept on bounding.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Methinks there is a typo in the following line. I don't think the new and old calendars were that much off.

    Born on January 17, 1706, which was January 6, 1705, under the old calendar,

    ReplyDelete
  3. After it's separation from the town of Wrentham, Massachusetts, the town of Exeter found that it could not afford a church bell. This town of farmers needed a bell so as to call the populace to meeting, to fire, to warn of invasion by Indians, etc. So they changed their name to "Franklin" and wrote Benjamin Franklin asking him to donate the money for a church bell as recompense for the honor.
    In a letter to his nephew in London that is still extant, he said that "sense being preferable to sound", his nephew should buy a set of books using the list provided in the letter, send the books to the good farmers of Franklin and tell them to start a library. His nephew did so. The good farmers of Franklin did so. Some years later the Ray family, having gotten wealthy, funded a large library building. The library still exists, the oldest public lending library in the United States, in that building - and if you're real nice to the librarians you can examine some of the original books that Ben paid for.

    ReplyDelete
  4. After it's separation from the town of Wrentham, Massachusetts, the town of Exeter found that it could not afford a church bell. This town of farmers needed a bell so as to call the populace to meeting, to fire, to warn of invasion by Indians, etc. So they changed their name to "Franklin" and wrote Benjamin Franklin asking him to donate the money for a church bell as recompense for the honor.
    In a letter to his nephew in London that is still extant, he said that "sense being preferable to sound", his nephew should buy a set of books using the list provided in the letter, send the books to the good farmers of Franklin and tell them to start a library. His nephew did so. The good farmers of Franklin did so. Some years later the Ray family, having gotten wealthy, funded a large library building. The library still exists, the oldest public lending library in the United States, in that building - and if you're real nice to the librarians you can examine some of the original books that Ben paid for.

    ReplyDelete