William Cabell Bruce.

Benjamin Franklin, self-revealed; a biographical and critical study based mainly on his own writings online

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exact nature was, had become a subject for the historian rather than the
politician. Speaking of a controversy in which Williams had been involved,
he says: "It seems to me that instead of discussing When we ceas'd to be
British Subjects you should have deny'd our ever having been such. We
were Subjects to the King of G. Britain, as were also the Irish, the Jersey
and Guernsey People and the Hanoverians, but we were American Sub-
jects as they were Irish, Jersey and Hanoverian Subjects. None are
British Subjects but those under the Parliament of Britain."

Franklin as a Statesman 183

When he expounded it to Lord Chatham at Hayes, the
latter in his grand way declared that it was a sound one,
worthy of a great, benevolent and comprehensive mind.
And such it was. The truth is that Franklin was an
Imperialist, and the union which he saw was that of a vast
English-speaking empire, made up of parts, held in har-
mony with each other not only by their common English
heritage but also by a measure of self-government liberal
enough to assiire to each of them an intelligent and
sympathetic administration of its particular interests.
Until the colonial history of England began, all great
empires, he told Lord Chatham, had crumbled first at
their extremities, because

Countries remote from the Seat and Eye of Government
which therefore cotdd not well understand their Affairs
for want of full and true Information, had never been well
governed but had been oppress'd by bad Governors, on Pre-
sumption that Complaint was difficult to be made and sup-
ported against them at such a distance.

Had this process of disintegration not been invited in
recent years by wrong politics (which would have Parlia-
ment to be omnipotent, though it ought not to be so unless
it could at the same time be omniscient) they might
have gone on extending their Western Empire, adding
Province to Province, as far as the South Sea.

It has long appeared to me [he said in his Tract relative
to the Affair of Hutchinson' s Letters], that the only true British
Politicks were those which aim'd at the Good of the Whole
British Empire, not that which sought the Advantage of one
Part in the Disadvantage of the others; therefore all Measures
of procuring Gain to the Mother Country arising from Loss to
her Colonies, and all of Gain to the Colonies arising from or
occasioning Loss to Britain, especially where the Gain was
small and the Loss great, every Abridgment of the Power of
the Mother Country, where that Power was not prejudicial

i84 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

to the Liberties of the Colonists, and every Diminution of the
Privileges of the Colonists, where they were not prejudicial
to the Welfare of the Mo. Country, I, in my own Mind, con-
demned as improper, partial, unjust, and mischievous; tending
to create Dissensions, and weaken that Union, on which
the Strength, Solidity, and Duration of the Empire greatly
depended; and I opposed, as far as my little Powers went, all
Proceedings, either here or in America, that in my Opinion
had such Tendency.

But in no words of Franklin is his inspiring idea of
British unity more strikingly expressed than in one of his
letters to Lord Howe dviring the Revolutionary War.

Long did I endeavour, with unfeigned and unwearied Zeal
[was his touching language] to preserve from breaking that
fine and noble China Vase, the British Empire; for I knew,
that, being once broken, the separate Parts could not retain
even their Shares of the Strength and Value that existed in the
Whole, and that a perfect Reunion of those Parts could
scarce ever be hoped for. Your Lordship may possibly
remember the tears of Joy that wet my Cheek, when, at your
good Sister's in London, you once gave me Expectations that
a Reconciliation might soon take place.

That there was only one way in which the fair vase
upon which his eye lingered so fondly and proudly could
for certainty be preserved from irreparable ruin, namely,
by admitting the colonies to representation in the Brit-
ish Parliament, Franklin saw with perfect clearness. Re-
peatedly the thought of such a union emerges from his
correspondence only to be dismissed as impracticable.
As far back as 1766, he wrote from London to Cadwallader
Evans these pregnant words:

My private opinion concerning a union in Parliament be-
tween the two countries is, that it would be best for the whole.

Franklin as a Statesman 185

But I think it will never be done. For though I believe, that,
if we had no more representatives than Scotland has, we
should be sufficiently strong in the House to prevent, as they
do for Scotland, anything ever passing to oxir disadvantage;
yet we are not able at present to furnish and maintain such a
number, and, when we are more able, we shall be less willing
than we are now. The Parliament here do at present think
too highly of themselves to admit representatives from us,
if we should ask it; and, when they will be desirbus of granting
it, we shall think too highly of ourselves to accept of it. It
would certainly contribute to the strength of the whole, if
Ireland and all the dominions were united and consolidated
under one common council for general purposes, each retain-
ing its particular council or parliament for its domestic con-
cerns. But this should have been more early provided for.
In the infancy of our foreign establishments it was neglected,
or was not thought of. And now the affair is nearly in the
situation of Friar Bacon's project of making a brazen wall
round England for its eternal security. His servant. Friar
Bungey, slept while the brazen head, which was to dictate
how it might be done, said Time is, and Time was. He only
waked to hear it say, Time is past. An explosion followed,
that tumbled their house about the conjuror's ears.

In a subsequent letter to his son in 1768, Franklin
again indulges the same day dream, and again reaches
the conclusion that such a union wotdd be the best for
the whole, and that, though particular parts might find
particular disadvantages in it, they would find greater
advantages in the security arising to every part from
the increased strength of the whole. But such a union,
he concluded, was not likely to take place, while the
nature of the existing relation was so little understood on
both sides of the water, and sentiments concerning it
remained so widely different.

Nothing, therefore, remained for Franklin to do except
to fall back upon this relation and to make the best of it,
to insist that the only constitutional tie between England

i86 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

and the Colonies was the King, and that Parliament
had no more right to tax America than to tax Hanover,
though the legislative assemblies of the colonies would
always be ready in the future as they had been in the
past to honor the requisitions for pecuniary aids made
upon them by the King, through his Secretary of State;
to combat the political and economic dogmas and the
national prejudices which stood in the way of the full
recognition by England of the fact that her true interest
was to be found in the liberal treatment of the Colonies ;
to warn the Colonies that their connection with England
was attended with too many obligations and advantages to
be hastily or prematurely forfeited by rash resentments,
so long as there was any definite prospect of their appeal
to English self-interest and good-feeling not proving in
vain ; and finally to couple the warning with the suggestion
that they should unceasingly keep up the assertion of their
just rights, and be prepared, all else failing, to maintain
them with an unabated military spirit. It was not to
be expected of a man so conservative and constant in
nature, and bound to England by so many strong and
endearing associations, that he should wage a solitary
combat for American rights on English soil before he or
any man had reason to know how bitterly the Stamp Act
would be returned upon the head of Parliament by
America, but never, after the temper of his countrymen in
regard to it, was made manifest to him, were his elbows
again out of touch with those of his compatriots in
America. To their assistance and to the assistance as
well of the great body of wise and generous Englishmen,
who loved liberty too much at home to begrudge it to
Englishmen in America, he brought his every resoiu-ce,
his scientific fame, his social gifts, his personal popularity,
his knowledge of the world and the levers by which it is
moved, the sane, searching mind, too full of light for
bigotry, superstition, or confusion, the pen that enlisted

Franklin as a Statesman 187

satirical point as readily as grave dissertation in the
service of instruction. It cannot be doubted that his
exertions should be reckoned among the potent influences
that secured the repeal of the Stamp Act. To Charies
Thomson he wrote that he had reprinted everything
from America that he thought might help their common
cause. His examination before the House of Commons
was published and had a great run. "You guessed
aright, " he wrote to Lord Kames with regard to the repeal,
"in supposing that I would not be a mute in that play.
I was extremely busy, attending Members of both Houses,
informing, explaining, consulting, disputing, in a con-
tinual hurry from morning to night, till the afiEair was
happily ended."

Some years after the repeal of the Stamp Act, he wrote to
Jane Mecom that, at the time of the repeal, the British
Ministry were ready to hug him for the assistance that
he had afforded them in bringing it about. From the
time of the repeal until he returned to America in 1775,
his one absorbing object was to create a better under-
standing between England and her colonies, and to avert
the possibility of war between them. Among the things
with which he had to contend in accomplishing his aims
was the haughty spirit in which the English people were
disposed to look down upon the colonists, and to resent
any manifestation of independence upon their part as
insolent. It was this spirit which made him feel that
the assent of England would never be obtained to the
representation of America in Parliament.

I am fully persuaded with you [he wrote to Lord Kames],
that a Consolidating Union, by a fair and equal representa-
tion of all the parts of this Empire in Parliament, is the only
firm basis on which its political grandeur and prosperity
can be founded. Ireland once wished it, but now rejects it.
The time has been, when the colonies might have been pleased
with it; they are now indifferent about it; and if it is much

i88 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

longer delayed, they too will refuse it. But the pride of this
people can not bear the thought of it, and therefore it will
be delayed. Every man in England seems to consider himself
as a piece of a sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself
into the throne with the King, and talks of our subjects in the

This was the sentiment of England in general. In the
guard-room and barracks, it assumed at times the grosser
form of such contempt as that which led General Clarke
to believe as we have seen that the emasculation of all
the male Americans would be little more than a holiday
task for a handfiil of British grenadiers. Along with this
haughty spirit went a crass ignorance of America and
Americans which Franklin despaired of ever enlightening
except by good-natured ridicule. An illustration of the
manner in which he employed this agency is found in his
letter to the Editor of a iSTewspaper. It had been claimed,
he said, that factories in America were impossible because
American sheep had but little wool, and the deamess
of American labor rendered the profitable working of iron
and other materials, except in some few coarse instances,

Dear Sir [was his reply], do not let us suffer ourselves to
be amus'd with such groundless Objections. The very Tails
of the American Sheep are so laden with Wooll, that each has
a little Car or Waggon on four little Wheels, to support &
keep it from trailing on the Ground. Would they caiilk their
Ships, would they fill their Beds, would they even litter their
Horses with Wooll, if it were not both plenty and cheap?
And what signifies Deamess of Labour, when an English
shilling passes for five and Twenty? Their engaging 300
Silk Throwsters here in one Week, for New York, was treated
as a Fable, because, forsooth, they have "no Silk there to
throw." Those, who made this Objection, perhaps did not
know, that at the same time the Agents from the King of
Spain were at Quebec to contract for 1000 Pieces of Cannon

Franklin as a Statesman 189

to be made there for the Fortification of Mexico, and at N
York engaging the annual Supply of woven Floor-Carpets
for their West India Houses, other Agents from the Emperor
of China were at Boston treating about an Exchange of raw
Silk for Wooll, to be carried in Chinese Junks through the
Straits of Magellan.

Another thing, with which Franklin had to contend,
was the misrepresentations that the colonial governors
were constantly making about American conditions.
These misrepresentations were in keeping with the tm-
worthy character of some of them and with the transitory
relation that almost all of them bore to the Colonies,
of which they were the executives. What the Americans
truly thought of them is pointedly expressed in Franklin's
Causes of the American Discontents.

They say then as to Governors [he declared], that they are
not like Princes whose posterity have an inheritance in the
Government of a nation, and therefore an interest in its pros-
perity; they are generally strangers to the Provinces they are
sent to govern, have no estate, natural connexion, or relation
there, to give them an affection for the country; that they come
only to make money as fast as they can; are sometimes men of
vicious characters and broken fortunes, sent by a Minister
merely to get them out of the way ; that as they intend staying
in the country no longer than their government continues,
and purpose to leave no family behind them, they are apt to
be regardless of the good-will of the people, and care not what
is said or thought of them after they are gone.

That such men were biased and untrustworthy wit-
nesses touching American conditions goes without saying,
but, when discontent became deeply implanted in the
breasts of the colonists, their partisan and perverted
reports to the English Government as to the state of
America did much to mislead their masters. The burden
of these reports as a rule was that the disaffected were

igo Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

few in numbers and persons of little consequence, that the
colonists of property and social standing were satisfied,
and inclined to submit to Parliamentary taxation, that
it was impossible to establish manufacturing industries
in America, and that, if Parliament would only steadily
persist in the exercise of its legislative authority over
America, the non-importation agreements and other
defensive measures adopted by its people would be

But the most intractable of all the obstacles with which
Franldin had to contend was the policy of commercial
and industrial restriction, partly the result of economic
purblindness, peculiar to the time, and partly the result
of sheer selfishness, which England relentlessly pursued
in her relations to the colonies. Every suggestion that
this policy should be relaxed was met by its more extreme
champions, such as George Grenville, with the statement
that the Acts -of Navigation were the very Palladium of
England. On no account were the Colonies to be allowed
to import wine, oil and fruit directly from Spain and
Portugal, or to even import iron directly from foreign
countries. Enlarged as was the understanding of Lord
Chatham himself, it could not tolerate the thought
that America should be permitted to convert any form
of crude material into manufactured products. Every
hat made in America, every shipload of emigrants that
left the shores of England for America, was jealously
regarded as signifying so much pecuniary loss to England.
The colonists were to be mere adscripti glebes, mere tillers
of the American soil for the purpose of wringing from it
the price of the manufactured commodities, with which
they were to be exclusively supplied by the factories and
shops of the mother country. The idea that, in any
other sense, the expanding numbers and wealth of America
could inure to the benefit of England, was one that
seemed to be wholly foreign to its consciousness. To

Franklin as a Statesman 191

this Little England Franklin steadfastly opposed his
conception of an Imperial England, based upon the
freedom of all its parts to contribute to the wealth and
importance of the whole by the full enjoyment of all
their peculiar natural gifts and advantages.

No one can more sincerely rejoice than I do [he wrote
to Lord Kames in 1760], on the reduction of Canada; and this is
not merely as I am a colonist, but as I am a Briton. I have
long been of opinion, that the foundations of the future grandeur
and stability of the British Empire lie in America; and though,
like other fotmdations, they are low and little seen, they are,
nevertheless, broad and strong enough to support the greatest
pohtical structure human wisdom ever yet erected.

These words, splendid as was the vision by wmch they
were illumined, were but the utterance in another; form
of the thought that he had expressed nine years before in
America in his essay on the Increase of Mankind. Speak-
ing of the population of the colonies at that time he

This Million doubling, suppose but once in 25 years, will, in
another Century, be more than the People of England, and the
greatest Number of Englishmen will be on this Side the Water.
What an Accession of Power to the British Empire by Sea
as well as Land! What Increase of Trade and Navigation!
What Numbers of Ships and Seamen! We have been here
but little more than lOO years, and yet the Force of our
Privateers in the late War, united, was greater, both in Men
and Guns, than that of the whole British Navy in Queen
Elizabeth's time.

Indeed so fully possessed was he even as late as 1771
with the federative spirit, which has brought recruits
from Canada and Australia to the side of England in
recent wars that, after urging upon Thomas Gushing the
importance of a well-disciplined militia being maintained

192 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

by Massachusetts, for her protection against invasion by
a foreign foe, he added, "And what a Glory would it bfe
for us to send, on any trying Occasion, ready and effectual
Aid to our Mother Country!" It is only by reading
such words as these that we can begin to divine what the
divulsion of England and America has really meant to
the vast host of human beings throughout the world
who speak the English tongue.

To all the shallow sophistries or sottish errors, that
tended to falsify his glorious dream of world-wide British
unity, Franklin presented a merciless intellect. With
regard to the intention of Parliament to tax the colonies,
he had these pointed words to say in a letter to Peter
CoUinson in 1764: "What we get above a Subsistence
we lay out with you for your Manufactures.

"Therefore what you get from us in Taxes you must
lose in Trade. The Cat can yield but her skin."

Even more acute was his letter to the Public Advertiser
on a proposed Act to prevent emigration from England.
Such an Act, he declared, was unnecessary, impracticable,
impolitic and unjust. What is more, with an insight into
the laws governing population, superior to that of any
man of his time, he made his assertions good. To illus-
trate this claim in part, we need go no further than
what he had to say about the necessity of the Act.

As long as the new situation shall be far preferable to the
old [he said], the emigration may possibly continue. But
when many of those, who at home interfered with others of the
same rank (in the competition for farms, shops, business,
offices, and other means of subsistence), are gradually with-
drawn, the inconvenience of that competition ceases; the
number remaining no longer half starve each other; they find
they can now subsist comfortably, and though perhaps not
quite so well as those who have left them, yet, the inbred
attachment to a native country is sufficient to overbalance
a m.oderate difference; and thus the emigration ceases natu-

Franklin as a Statesman 193

rally. The waters of the ocean may move in currents from
one quarter of the globe to another, as they happen in some
places to be acctimulated, and in others diminished; but no
law, beyond the law of gravity, is necessary to prevent their
abandoning any coast entirely. Thus the different degrees
of happiness of different countries and situations find, or
rather make, their level by the flowing of people from one
to another; and where that level is once found, the removals
cease. Add to this, that even a real deficiency of people
in any country, occasioned by a wasting war or pestilence, is
speedily supplied by earlier and more prohfic marriages, en-
couraged by the greater facihty of obtaining the means of
subsistence. So that a country half depopulated would
soon be repeopled, till the means of subsistence were equalled
by the population. All increase beyond that point must
perish, or flow off into more favourable situations. Such
overflowings there have been of mankind in all ages, or we
should not now have had so many nations. But to apprehend
absolute depopulation from that cause, and call for a law to
prevent it, is calling for a law to stop the Thames, lest its
waters, by what leave it daily at Gravesend, should be quite

Twenty-three years before he had stated the same
truths more sententiously in his essay on the Increase oj

In fine [he said in that essay] a Nation well regulated is like
a Polypus; take away a Limb, its Place is soon supply 'd; cut
it in two, and each deficient Part shall speedily grow out of the
Part remaining. Thus if you have Room and Subsistence
enough, as you may by dividing, make ten Polypes out of
one, you may of one make ten Nations, equally populous and
powerful; or rather increase a Nation ten fold in Numbers
and Strength.

Franklin clearly saw that, with the increase of popula-
tion in the colonies, the demand for British manufactures
would increase pari passu, and that, with the increased

VOL II — 13

194 Benjamin Franklin Self-Revealed

demand for them, the population of Great Britain would
increase, perhaps, tenfold. Much as he made of the
economic conditions that tended to give a purely agri-
cultural direction to the energies of America, he laughed
to scorn the idea that America would always remain in a
state of industrial subjection to England.

Only consider the rate of our Increase [he wrote to Peter
Collinson, after stating that it was folly to expect that America
would always be supplied with cloth by England] and tell me
if you can increase your Wool! in that Proportion, and where,
in your little Island you can feed the Sheep. Nature has put
Bounds to j'our Abilities, tho' none to your Desires. Britain
would, if she could, manufacture & trade for all the World;
England for all Britain; — London for all England; — and
every Londoner for all London. So selfish is the human Mind !
But 'tis well there is One above that rules these Matters with
a more equal Hand.

The agency that Franklin held for Pennsylvania in the
first instance, and the agencies that he afterwards held
for Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia, too, afforded
him a solid standing for influencing public opinion both
in England and America. He was actually in England,
and, at the same time, in incessant correspondence with
the popular leaders in America. With the beginning of
the agitation for the repeal of the Stamp Act he entered
upon a course of political activity which added greatly,
in another form, to the reputation already acquired by
him as a man of science. For his services in securing
the repeal, including the flood of light that his answers,
when examined before the House of Commons, shed
upon the points at issue between the two countries, he was
repaid by the English Ministry with attentions which he
describes by a term as strong as ' ' caress. ' ' Even when the
dust of the conflict had thickened, and popular sentiment
in England had ranged itself more and more on the side

Franklin as a Statesman 195

Online LibraryWilliam Cabell BruceBenjamin Franklin, self-revealed; a biographical and critical study based mainly on his own writings → online text (page 16 of 47)