Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin.
The great American Founding Father and scientist, Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790), spent 20 of his long 84 years living in London. I suspect not many people know that. One hopes, with the publication of this excellent new book, more will come to do so.
Franklin spent three spells here, each distinctly different, even the two latter ones in the 1750s to 1770s which were separated by an 18 month spell back home in Philadelphia.
First, in 1724, he arrived as a very young man of 18 ostensibly on a business mission which turned out to be something of a fool’s errand. But as a fully trained and skilled printer, he soon found work in the Little Britain area, then a nexus of the print trade. Barely a decade following the first daily newspaper, there could barely have been a more exciting time to be a printer in London. This was the London of Defoe and Addison and young Ben wallowed in it, hanging out in the coffee houses, soaking up the atmosphere, the intellectual buzz, a vibrant, competitive and intellectual landscape like nowhere else in the world. As a supremely confident and un-selfconcious American, he approached Sir Hans Sloane and sold him an asbestos purse, still in the collection of the Natural History museum. While he was diligent and hard working, he enjoyed hanging out with young fellows who were anything but, losing a lot of money in their hare-brained schemes. Investing money wisely was not always Franklin’s strongest suit as we discover later in the book. Ben returned home to Philadelphia in 1726.
Fast forward thirty years. Franklin had made his fortune as a writer, a printer and a publisher. He co-founded libraries and Pennsylvania’s first college. Early on he also started an intellectual gentlemen’s club: The Junto. He didn’t forget London though, corresponding with – among others – the Royal Society about his scientific endeavours, being awarded their Copley Medal in 1747. In 1753 he had become Deputy Postmaster General for North America, by his 50th birthday a very big fish indeed.
Pennsylvania was different from other colonies in that it was under the proprietary rule of the Penn family since its founding charter of 1681. This was personified by Thomas Penn who ruled in absentia from London. Franklin’s 1757 mission as the Pennsylvania Assembly’s agent was to gain concessions from Penn himself or failing that, from the king and parliament. He sailed to England with his son William and two slaves [whither #FranklinMustFall?]. They soon found digs at 7 Craven Street near the Strand (today renumbered number 36), which was Franklin’s base almost continuously until he left London for the last time in 1775.
Franklin’s second mission to London (1764 – 1775) was entirely different. First he was without William (who thanks to his work in London previously had won himself the governor-generalship of New Jersey). Second, this time his brief was to wrest government from the Penns and to direct rule of the crown. However this aim became completely sidetracked through the unforeseen Stamp Act, Townshend duties and other impositions which led inexorably to war and American independence. This third stay in London was also characterised by Franklin’s growing disillusionment with successive administrations leading finally to his hasty return to America in time to escape arrest. It had an altogether darker aspect.
Although Franklin met with some success – in particular with regard to the hated Stamp Act – both of his missions ended in failure. This through no fault of his own it must be said, although he did make some major misjudgements. Problems included’ rapidly changing administrations: there was no cohesion of policy; a change in the monarchy; more pressing issues for the government, such as the Seven Years War and frequent street violence typically by followers of John Wilkes; post-war recession and criminality; probably most damaging of all, having the anti-American Lord Hillsborough as Secretary of State for the Colonies and also the Board of Trade for four years. In other words, America was just another problem, and it was far away.
These, then, are the bewildering issues that Franklin in London was faced with and which lie at heart of this book. Author George Goodwin does a wonderful job of navigating us through the whirlpools and rapids of a neo-colonial administration run by aristocratic big beasts. Franklin was no less an Empire builder than they, but their vision of how that should play out was utterly, utterly different from his.
More than anything, then, this book demonstrates through Franklin’s experience the casual (and fatally misjudged) disdain with which the London political establishment treated the American colonies. This was also very much a class issue. Franklin may have dined with kings, dukes, earls and prime ministers, it is true. But he was among them as a famous and feted scientist, never as an equal (except possibly Pitt, of course “the Great Commoner”). He may have been primus inter pares in America, but in London to the ruling elite he was still – and always would be – Trade.
Especially enjoyable are the accounts of Franklin’s man to man meetings with his enemies, in particular Thomas Penn (whom he had called in print a “low Jockey”!) and dastardly Lord Hillsborough. You sense the air crackling with tension.
I have spoken here mainly of the politics of Franklin’s second and third stays in London, because this is the real value of this work, particularly to historians of the mid-Georgian period, the British Empire and the American War of Independence. It’s important to note that the author does not neglect the more biographical aspects of Franklin’s life. There is plenty on his family, his writings, outlook, philosophy, religious beliefs, diet, likes and dislikes, foibles and so on. To the historian of London there is plenty to enjoy on Craven Street, his landlady Margaret Stevenson and her daughter Polly. And of course, Goodwin addresses Franklin’s scientific achievements, theories and inventions. I particularly enjoy his ahead-of-their-time thoughts on fresh air and keeping fit.
The book has two colour sections, mainly comprising portraits of the men and women of his circle plus other worthies – friends and enemies alike. Like all good history works, this has a comprehensive bibliography, index and end notes.
This is a deeply researched, well-balanced and thoughtfully written book of an American Great living in a rapidly changing, fascinating period of London and world history.
Benjamin Franklin in London: the British Life of America’s Founding Father by George Goodwin is published today by Weidenfeld and Nicholson with a cover price of £25. The dust jacket features a rather pleasing image of the 1767 David Martin portrait (The White House) superimposed on the 1762 William Marlow painting of Blackfriars Bridge and St Paul’s (Guildhall Art Gallery), an image which featured on London Historians member cards a few years ago!
Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street is open every week Wednesday to Sunday.
A signed copy of Benjamin Franklin in London is London Historians’ member book prize for March 2016.
George Goodwin is giving two talks hosted by London Historians and Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street, W1. The first is fully booked. The second on 28 April still has places at time of writing.
Benjamin Franklin in London is BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week starting on Monday.