Benjamin Franklin retired from an active role in his printing business in 1748 at the age of 42. His work had made him a wealthy man, and he decided to devote the remainder of his life to civic improvements and governmental affairs. Franklin became a member of the Philadelphia City Council that same year, beginning a period of more than four decades of involvement in American politics and statecraft.
In 1753, Franklin, who had been Philadelphia’s postmaster since 1737, was named deputy-postmaster general for the northern colonies. At this point, he began to think more about America as one body instead of 13 individual parts. He even wrote to several friends about the idea of greater cooperation among the colonies.
At the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, the British government asked colonial leaders to meet and discuss ways to coordinate their efforts with Indian treaties and other matters. This conference, called the Albany Congress, met in the summer of 1754 and Franklin was chosen by Pennsylvania to lead its delegation.
Although dealing with Indian affairs was the stated purpose of the gathering, the delegates soon began debating how the colonies could work together in a more general sense for the betterment of all. Franklin proposed a Plan of Union which called for greater cooperation among the colonies and it was unanimously approved by the Albany Congress on July 10, 1754.
The obvious benefits of consolidating efforts to afford greater protection to the citizens and promote economic interests was apparent to all. However, the pact met with a cold reception from colonial legislatures and royal governors who did not want to give up any of their control and power.
A few years later, in 1757, Franklin was sent to London as the agent for the Pennsylvania legislature to lodge a complaint against the Penn family, the founders and proprietors of the state.
Franklin’s “anti-proprietors” group opposed the Penn family’s right to veto legislation passed by Pennsylvania’s elected assembly. Franklin lost this fight but developed a real taste for England and Europe and was to spend all but two of the next 18 years abroad.
While most of his time was initially spent with fellow scientists, Franklin kept an interested eye on issues pertaining to the American colonies.
When Prime Minister George Grenville and Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765 to pay for the recently concluded French and Indian War, Franklin spoke against the legislation. He opposed the Act not so much because of the tax itself but rather because it violated constitutional principles.
Specifically, based on the English constitution, colonists in North America, like all Englishmen, could only be taxed with their consent. Importantly, this consent rested with elected officials which in this case resided in the thirteen colonial legislatures not in Parliament. In 1766, after violence broke out in the colonies against the Stamp Act, Franklin wrote several articles arguing for moderation on both sides and defending the Americans’ right to tax themselves.
He even created a political cartoon depicting to what dangerous ends the Stamp Act might lead if a resolution to the issue was not soon found. His drawing showed Britannia dismembered, with the moral that “the colonies might be ruined, but that Britain would thereby be maimed.”
But his most significant part in the debate came during a “committee of the whole” meeting convened in the House of Commons in February 1766.
Franklin was the main witness and gave a remarkable performance. He testified for four hours and faced numerous questions.
When asked by Grenville if Franklin thought the colonies should pay a portion of the cost of the French and Indian War, Franklin stated they had had already done so. Franklin argued the colonies had essentially defended themselves in that conflict, raising 25,000 soldiers and spending millions of pounds.
Another questioner asked Franklin if he felt Parliament had the right to lay taxes on the colonies. Franklin responded there was no objection to duties to regulate commerce, but “a right to lay internal taxes was not supposed to be in Parliament, as we are not represented there.”
Franklin’s testimony galvanized support for repealing the Stamp Act.
William Strahan, a London printer and friend of Franklin’s, stated “from that very day, the repeal (of the Stamp Act) was generally and absolutely determined.”
Franklin’s resistance to Parliament and their tax schemes made him a sort of American hero and a recognized advocate for American interests in England. In fact, three states (Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) asked Franklin to represent them in London.
Despite his testimony, Franklin continued to hope for a reconciliation between England and her American colonies. At this point, he still felt “a firm loyalty to the Crown and faithful adherence to the Government of this Nation” was the most prudent course to take.
Next week, we will talk about Ben Franklin and the American drive for independence.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.