At the beginning of 1748, Franklin was known in Pennsylvania as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly and in the Middle Colonies as the printer and editor of Poor Richard's Almanac and the Pennsylvania Gazette (the best colonial newspaper). By the middle of 1757, however, he had become famous in Pennsylvania as a public-spirited citizen and a soldier; well-known throughout America as a writer, politician, and the most important theorist of the American empire; and renowned in the western world as a natural philosopher. This volume tells the story of that transformation.
In late 1747, Britain's war with Spain and France had been under way since 1741 and 1744, respectively. French and Spanish ships were raiding up and down the Atlantic coast of the colonies and even in the Delaware Bay. With an organized force of less than several hundred, enemy troops could have plundered the entire city of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Assembly, dominated by the Quaker Party, refused to provide defense. Franklin proposed a volunteer militia, aroused the public, and raised more than ten thousand volunteer troops in Pennsylvania. He organized a successful lottery that raised funds to buy cannon and build fortifications to defend Philadelphia. When peace was proclaimed in August 1748, he was the most popular person in Pennsylvania.
During the same period, Franklin devoted whatever time he could spare to electricity. News concerning its inexplicable marvels had appeared in popular magazines in 1745. In 1746 European electrical experimenters created the Leyden jar, an early capacitor. It could build up and store an electric charge that would be released when the inside and outside of the bottle were connected. Its effects were astonishing. Two hundred Swiss guards, with hands joined, would all be shocked and jump instantaneously upon receiving the electric charge. No one understood how the Leyden jar worked. Franklin offered the first good explanation, based partly on the atomic theories of the Greeks. He theorized that electricity was not created; rather, it separated existing elements into positive and negative charges. He also suggested that atmospheric electricity existed; hypothesized that lightning was an electrical discharge; and experimented to test the hypothesis. During the first several years of his electric experiments, English electricians ridiculed him. Then, following Franklin's directions, the French tested and proved correct his theories that clouds could contain electric charges and that lightning was electrical in nature. He quickly became the best-known living natural philosopher, and the Royal Society of London awarded him its Copley medal in 1753—the most prestigious existing scientific award, comparable to today's Nobel Prize.
Franklin was also interested in weather, and like all almanac makers, he wondered if one could go beyond the comments on the seasons and prediction of eclipses. Almost by accident, he tracked the progress of hurricanes and found that although the winds in the great storms blew from the northwest, the storms actually moved up from the southeast. Having established the southeast-to-northwest direction in which the storms moved, he hypothesized why and where they started and why they traveled in a northwest direction. Taking into account the effects of trade winds, the Appalachian Mountains, and the behavior of hot and cold air, his hypotheses were simple, crude, and brilliant. So too were his ruminations on tornadoes, whirlwinds, and waterspouts. They were the best explanations, thought Captain James Cook, that existed. Franklin was America's first scientific weatherman.
In 1749 Franklin started the Academy and College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania). Franklin's basic idea for the academy was to educate youths from approximately the thirteen to eighteen in ways that would prepare them either for further study or for a career in business. It was a radically different education, which he projected as an alternative to the apprenticeship system and to the existing elite academic schools. The latter taught youths Latin and a little Greek, which were the requirements for entrance into the colleges of the day—Harvard, Yale, and William and Mary—where one further studied Latin and Greek. The apprenticeship system taught a youth a specific trade, which he then practiced for the remainder of his life. Franklin's Academy of Philadelphia would be primarily an English, mathematical, and agricultural school, with the study of modern languages (French, Spanish, and German) emphasized rather than Latin and Greek. But the major financial contributors to the Academy wanted the traditional curriculum; Latin and Greek at first supplemented and then gradually superseded Franklin's proposed curriculum.
While the academy was taking shape, Dr. Thomas Bond came to Franklin with a project for starting a hospital "for the Reception and Cure of poor sick Persons." Bond was finding it impossible to interest enough people to contribute funds. Franklin subscribed £25 and wrote "on the Subject in the Newspapers." Despite their joint efforts, the money was insufficient, so Franklin appealed to the legislature. When the proposal ran into trouble there, Franklin came up with the idea of the first matching grant. Partially because the assemblymen doubted that Franklin and Bond would be able to raise the necessary amount, the House unanimously passed the bill on 1 February 1750/1, granting £2,000 if the projectors first raised £2,000 privately. Years later, Franklin wrote: "I do not remember any of my political Manoeuvres, the Success of which gave me at the time more Pleasure. Or that in after-thinking of it, I more easily excus'd myself for having made some Use of Cunning" (A 123).
Although Franklin planned to add a college to the academy, when the Academy and College of Philadelphia was officially chartered in 1754, it featured, to Franklin's chagrin, the traditional subjects. It was even in danger of becoming primarily a school for ministers, like Harvard and Yale. It remained nonsectarian, however, and within a few years two medical students, whom Franklin had encouraged, started a medical school. That began the transformation of the Academy and College of Philadelphia into a university. The medical school offered superior training, partly because of the Pennsylvania Hospital. In it, the students could attend the doctors on their rounds of the patients and learn about various illnesses and possible remedies. The first medical school in the colonies, it featured empirical training comparable to the best anywhere in the world.
In imitation of the Union Fire Company (which Franklin had started in 1736), six other fire companies were founded in Philadelphia, and by 1751 they met together quarterly to practice fire fighting. That year, Franklin used these companies as a base for projecting an insurance company against loss by fire. Franklin served as its president for two years, but after it became successful and financially sound, he left it to its fortune.
While increasingly more of a national and international figure because of his improvements to the common stove and especially because of his electrical experiments, Franklin also took a greater interest in politics. Like numerous Americans, he was irritated by English condescension to Americans and by the English assumption of superiority. In the spring of 1751, his frequent rumblings of discontent with English attitudes erupted. England's dumping of felons into the American colonies, and the Board of Trade's sneering comment that transporting felons provided for "the better peopling of America," outraged him. In the most furious attack on the English authorities before the Stamp Act, Franklin compared the British transporting of criminals to dumping toilets on the dining tables of Americans. "Jakes on our Tables!" became the first widely reprinted editorial in American journalism. A month later, May 1751, Franklin reinforced his news reports and editorial with a savage satire, "Rattlesnakes for Felons," which proposed sending rattlesnakes to England as a suitable return for the English criminals.
Earlier that year, in January 1751, Franklin had proposed a plan for the union of the colonies. The farsighted proposal became a blueprint for Franklin's Albany Plan of 1754. Before the end of 1751, Franklin drafted the fundamental document of the American Revolution, "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Cities, etc." It showed that within every twenty-five years, America's population doubled, whereas England's and Europe's population would not double in five hundred years. Thus, within a century, America's population would be larger than England's, and if the colonies remained within the British empire, an American city would likely become the empire's capital. "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind" circulated widely in manuscript in England and America, but it was not published until 1755. All the major revolutionaries—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and so on—knew "Observations," and all of them, in part because Franklin had proven it, believed in the future greatness of America. As the most significant study of the influence of the frontier on American history, "Observations" influenced not only the future American rebellion but also the succeeding intellectual achievements of Richard Price, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin, and Frederick Jackson Turner.
Franklin officially entered politics in his annus mirabilis, 1751. Though he had been clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly since 1736, and though he had—as a writer, reporter, and editor—influenced votes and elections ever since his Modest Enquiry into the Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency (1729), he himself had no vote in the assembly. But in May 1751, after the death of a Philadelphia representative, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House. He quickly became its most active assemblyman, serving on more committees than anyone and writing the reports for the committees on which he served.
Though Governor James Hamilton and other Proprietary Party members hoped that Franklin might join them, the Proprietary Party tended to believe more in social hierarchy, in the privileges of the elite, and in the authority of the proprietors and of Great Britain than did the Quaker or Popular Party. In one area, defense, Franklin agreed with the Proprietary Party. He thought Pennsylvania should support troops for its defense on the Pennsylvania frontier and the Delaware Bay and should even contribute to colonial military expeditions like the one to Cape Breton in 1745. But in all other ways, Franklin's views were closer to those of the Quaker Party. The Proprietary Party could be regarded as Pennsylvania's version of England's Tory Party, and the Quaker Party as Pennsylvania's Whigs. Franklin was a radical egalitarian all his life. Not all Quaker Party members were Quakers, but many were, and some were pacifists. Nevertheless, he identified with the Quaker Party and immediately became its leader. The moderate Quaker Isaac Norris remained in the most powerful position in the Pennsylvania Assembly, Speaker, but Franklin became the Quaker Party's driving force.
In Franklin's first assembly session (which was the third and last for the assembly of 1750-51), Speaker Norris assigned him to a committee that focused on the expense entailed in conducting Indian affairs; as they had become increasingly expensive; the proprietors, who were the primary beneficiaries of the treaties, refused to bear any of the cost. For the assembly, Franklin wrote a message reminding Governor James Hamilton that the assembly had previously asked whether the proprietors would not contribute part of the expense of Indian treaties. Hamilton replied that the proprietors did not intend to pay for any part of the expenses and that they would prefer not to hear again about the matter. Franklin promptly drafted a series of resolves blasting the proprietors for their parsimony, unfairness, and arrogance. The assembly unanimously approved the resolves on 22 August 1751. It should have become clear at that time to anyone who was aware of the assembly's actions that Franklin had become a Quaker Party leader.
The chief proprietor of the Proprietary Colony of Pennsylvania, Thomas Penn, had resolved to raise all the money for himself that he could. He did so primarily by controlling the land: he sold land at a high price to Pennsylvania settlers and charged them a comparatively small quitrent thereafter. Though his grandfather William Penn had been given the land by King Charles II, William Penn had also bought the land that would be settled from the Indians. He then sold land to the colonists at a profit. Thomas Penn continued that practice but took greater advantage of the Indians and the colonists.
Believing that the Pennsylvania Assembly was becoming too powerful, Thomas Penn decided that he or his primary deputy, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania (in practice, the lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania was called the governor), would control the funds the assembly raised. Further, Penn forbade the governor to pass any act of assembly that taxed his estate in Pennsylvania. Penn demanded a £5,000 bond from his governors to observe the secret instructions.
Though Franklin had retired as a printer at the beginning of 1748, he remained active in selecting the contents of the Pennsylvania Gazette, and he annually compiled Poor Richard's Almanac. His income as postmaster of Philadelphia and comptroller of the postal service in America supplemented his income from his printing partnership. As comptroller, he improved the routines, routes, and schedules of the post office by traveling north to New England in the late summer of 1753. Because of his electrical experiments, he was granted an honorary master of arts degree by Harvard and then by Yale. Later in 1753, he was appointed joint deputy postmaster general of the American post office. He had previously, as postmaster of Philadelphia and then as comptroller of the American post office, designed a short and simple post office form that systemized postal accounting, and now he determined to improve the frequency and the geographical extent of the postal system. The American post office had never been profitable, but Franklin made it so.
In the early 1750s, the French began to build a series of forts from Lake Erie down the Allegheny River to present-day Pittsburgh. They claimed the land from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River and from it to the Mississippi River and to New Orleans. The French and the English colonists carried on an unofficial war, mainly on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains. While the colonists unofficially fought the French, the individual colonies competed with one another. Thus the Ohio Company of Virginia set up a post at what became Pittsburgh and indirectly claimed that part of Pennsylvania as its own. On 17 April 1754, a large French force ousted the small party of Virginians at that location and set up Fort Duquesne. Strategically, it was the key to the Ohio Valley and to the rivers that flowed from the northeast into the Mississippi. Encouraged by the French, Indians who were allied with them began to kill the English frontier settlers. The settlers asked for protection, and the Pennsylvania Assembly, despite its pacifist members, passed money supply bills—which Franklin wrote—to provide funds for armaments and troops. But the governor, following Thomas Penn's secret instructions, rejected the bills of 1753 and 1754 for two reasons: (1) he was not given control of all the funds raised, and (2) the bills would draw interest from the Loan Office, with which the assembly could finance the state. Later, when the bills became a direct tax, the governor rejected them because they would also tax the proprietors' Pennsylvania estates. Since the governor did not reveal to the legislature the real reasons for rejecting the bills, the assemblymen were not certain why the money bills were continually rejected, but they suspected it was because of Penn's secret instructions.
In the early fall of 1753, Isaac Norris and Franklin, representing the assembly, and Richard Peters, representing the governor, attended an Indian treaty at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, attempting to renew friendship with the Indians along the Ohio River whose lands the French were invading. The treaty was the first in which Franklin had an active role, but the treaty was inconclusive. One result was that Franklin wrote an Indian trade bill that would eliminate the whiskey-trading whites and supply the Indians with goods at less expensive prices. The assembly passed it, but the governor rejected it because the bill would lessen the proprietors' profits.
Although the English colonists vastly outnumbered the French in America, they were politically divided, while the French were united. The French military was stronger than that of any single English colony. The solution recommended by friendly Indians of the Six Nations (the great league of the Iroquois) was that the English colonies unite. On 4 May 1754, reporting news of the French taking the Virginians' fort at Pittsburgh, Franklin dramatized the English predicament with America's most famous cartoon: a drawing of a cut snake over the words "JOIN, or DIE." Initials of the various colonies appeared under the parts of the cut snake. Most American newspapers of the day copied the cartoon, and they resurrected it after the Stamp Act passed (1765) to urge colonial unity and, later, independence.
Alarmed by news that some of the Six Nations were dissatisfied with the behavior of the English, the British authorities recommended that the various colonies renew their friendship with the Iroquois and that the colonies join together to fight the French and hostile Indians. A meeting was called at Albany. Delegates came from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Franklin was one of the four councillors appointed from Pennsylvania. On the way to Albany, he revised his 1751 scheme of union and presented it at the Albany Conference. The Indian treaty went hand in hand with the meetings on the union of the colonies. The delegates presented other plans of union, but Franklin's was preferred. It was modified and subsequently approved on 10 July 1754 by a majority of the councillors present at Albany.
The Albany Plan, however, failed to win the approval of a single colony. Most colonies feared they would lose some portion of their autonomous power. By the time the British authorities received it, they believed they had settled the immediate problem by sending General Edward Braddock with an army to attack the French. The British authorities were also concerned that a united America might become a completely different entity than a group of separate, weak colonies. The Albany Plan did not recommend a political unification of the colonies, but it did call for their united defense and for a single policy for their future growth. Franklin no doubt hoped the colonies would gradually develop into a political federation. Most of the delegates who drew up the Articles of Confederation of the Continental Congress were familiar with the Albany Plan. Further, most members of the Constitutional Convention of 1788 were aware of both the Albany Plan and the Articles of Confederation when they wrote the constitution creating the United States. Perhaps the Albany Plan had no influence on later developments; perhaps it had some.
In January and February 1754, Franklin and William Hunter, joint deputy postmasters general of North America, went to Maryland to improve the mail service south of Philadelphia, and in the fall, they journeyed north as far as Maine. Franklin renewed old friendships in Boston and made new ones. The most amazing revelation was the frank Americanism of Franklin's letters to Massachusetts governor William Shirley. In December 1754, Franklin condemned English mercantilism, especially the Acts of Trade and Navigation; censured the English authorities for favoring small groups of English merchants over the thousands of American colonists; said that Americans would not accept representation in Parliament unless they were granted a fair number of seats and unless Parliament first repealed all the old anti-American acts; criticized English attitudes toward America; and claimed that if any group deserved favor, it should not be the stay-at-home English but the adventurous Americans. Governor Shirley must have been dumbfounded at Franklin's opinions. Bits and pieces of Franklin's Americanism had appeared earlier, but these statements were stronger than previous ones, partly because they were, comparatively, gathered together, and unlike Franklin's earlier anonymous or pseudonymous writings, these were not only signed by Franklin but directed to, arguably, the most important English official in America.
In the first days of January 1755, Franklin journeyed from Boston to Rhode Island with Catharine ("Katy") Ray, the first of several younger women who became infatuated with the fun-loving, flirtatious, famous American. Opinions differ, but I do not believe that they had sex. She was, however, evidently in love with him, and he was fond of her. Their letters are delightful and intriguing—Franklin's, in particular, are simply fun. They remained friends throughout their lives.
Back in Philadelphia (1755), Franklin found that Pennsylvania's new governor, Robert Hunter Morris, had already become embroiled with the Pennsylvania Assembly. Though Franklin remained the strongest advocate of a militia and of taxes for defense, the Quaker Party was reluctant to grant more than token amounts of money, and the governor rejected whatever money bills the House passed. Outraged by the inaction of the government, frontier settlers delivered the bodies of killed and scalped settlers to the steps of the statehouse (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. When General Edward Braddock arrived in America, he was furious that Pennsylvania had done nothing (so he had been told by Thomas Penn before leaving England and by Governor Morris after coming to America) to help the war effort.
Unofficially, the Pennsylvania Assembly asked Franklin to see Braddock and to explain that the governor consistently vetoed their bills for defense. With his son, Franklin visited Braddock's camp on the frontier in the late spring of 1755, set up a mail route for the British army, had the Pennsylvania legislature send food and supplies to the British officers, and secured wagons to haul Braddock's cannons and supplies to Fort Duquesne. Braddock celebrated Franklin's help. But the general was "shamefully defeated" (George Washington's words) near Fort Duquesne and died of his wounds. In the late summer of 1755, the Pennsylvania frontier was worse-off than before Braddock arrived.
The assembly had passed bills for defense in 1752, 1753, and 1754 that Governors Hamilton and Morris vetoed. In 1755, however, Franklin crafted and the House passed two small measures for defense: one lent money that the House borrowed on its own credit, and the other raised money from the General Loan Office. Another new governor, William Denny, arrived late in 1755 with the same secret instructions from Thomas Penn. As the Pennsylvania Assembly passed bills for defense and Denny refused them, public opinion became aroused against the proprietors and their governors—not only in Pennsylvania and in England but even within the ranks of the British authorities. Therefore, Thomas Penn decided to give a "free gift" of £5,000 toward the defense of the province. Upon that news, the legislature promptly passed a £55,000 bill for defense. With money forthcoming, Franklin ushered a militia bill through the legislature on 25 November 1755 and wrote a dialogue urging the bill's acceptance. The militia and the supply bills passed. As one of the commissioners in charge of spending the money, he journeyed with the governor and others to the frontier in December 1755.
Penn's "free gift" turned out to be funds raised from past-due quitrents, many of which were owed by settlers in or near the frontier. Raiding by hostile Indians left many settlers unable to farm. Penn ordered his receiver-general of rents to be merciless—pay or lose the land. In consequence, Franklin and others assailed Penn and the governor. Franklin thought Penn proud, avaricious, and despicable; Penn thought Franklin a rabble-rousing, contemptible leader of the poor and "lower sort" of people.
Hostile Indians had wiped out the Moravian town of Gnadenhütten, on the frontier in Northampton County, on 24 November 1755. Governor Denny and the commissioners sent a militia force there in December, but Indians attacked and killed the troops. Knowing that Franklin was the most popular commissioner, Denny asked him to take charge of the military in Northampton County. (This was a win-win situation: if Franklin succeeded, good; if he failed, the governor would be rid of the most popular opposition leader—permanently!) Franklin accepted. In January 1756, "General" Franklin went to Bethlehem, marched to Gnadenhütten in the miserable January weather, built a fort there, and sent out troops to build other forts. While at Gnadenhütten (and whenever he was away from Philadelphia for more than a week or so), Franklin wrote Deborah and she wrote him. Their letters are loving exchanges, none more so than those Franklin managed to pen while on the frontier.
In February, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and to the assembly sessions where a revised version of his former bill for improving the police passed. In March he traveled to Virginia to inspect postal routes from Philadelphia and, while in Williamsburg, received an honorary master's degree (his third) from the College of William and Mary. From 16 June to 28 July, he conferred in New York with America's new commander in chief, Lord Loudoun, on post office communications and Pennsylvania politics. In the fall, Governor Denny, James Hamilton, and he made a military inspection tour of the frontier, returning on 14 October for the new assembly's opening.
Governor Denny and the commissioners rode to Easton early in November 1756 for a treaty with Teedyuscung and the Delaware/Lenni Lenape Indians. Franklin wrote Governor Denny's Indian treaty speeches and inquired into the reasons why the Indians had become disaffected with the Pennsylvanians. The Delaware Indians suggested that fraud in land dealings and in trade were underlying causes, but they said the immediate cause was simply the war between France and England, with each side succeeding in getting some Indians to fight with them. After their return, Franklin and Isaac Norris renewed their attempts to pass an Indian trade bill. Their former one had passed the assembly on 11 November 1755, but the proprietary authorities had stalled, then suggested revisions for the bill, and then stalled on the revised bill. It never passed.
By November 1756 fighting on the frontier exhausted the funds. Only a little more than £1,000 of Thomas Penn's £5,000 "gift" had come in, and Governor Denny continued to veto the assembly's money bills because they either taxed the proprietors or did not grant the governor complete control of the funds. Franklin wrote the assembly's rallying cry: "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." But as the French and their Indian allies killed more people on the frontier, Franklin and the assembly submitted and passed a tax bill that did not tax the proprietors. The governor vetoed it, however, because he would not entirely control its funds. Refusing to concede further, the assembly instead voted to send Franklin as its agent to petition the British authorities. The assembly believed that it should have the right to tax Thomas Penn's holdings along with all others and that it should control how the money was spent.
Having agreed on 3 February 1757 to sail to England as the Pennsylvania Assembly's agent, Franklin prepared to go to New York to embark, but Lord Loudoun intended to come to Philadelphia to confer with various governors and asked Franklin to remain there, perhaps in part to discuss postal routes but certainly to discuss Pennsylvania politics. Franklin remained and conferred with Lord Loudoun, who finally advised Governor Denny to pass the assembly's tax bill. Franklin went to New York in March but had to wait until June before the indecisive Lord Loudoun finally allowed a packet to sail. At sea, the ever-curious Franklin began his observations on the effect of oil on water, and on the relation between the temperature of the sea and the course of the Gulf Stream. It was at sea, too, that he wrote one of his best-known but often misunderstood efforts, The Way to Wealth