Benjamin Franklin Joins the Revolution

Returning to Philadelphia from England in 1775, the "wisest American" kept his political leanings to himself. But not for long

Just as his son William had helped him with his famed kite-flying experiment, now William’s son, Temple, a lanky and fun-loving 15-year-old, lent a hand as he lowered a homemade thermometer into the ocean. Three or four times a day, they would take the water’s temperature and record it on a chart. Benjamin Franklin had learned from his Nantucket cousin, a whaling captain named Timothy Folger, about the course of the warm Gulf Stream. Now, during the latter half of his six-week voyage home from London, Franklin, after writing a detailed account of his futile negotiations, turned his attention to studying the current. The maps he published and the temperature measurements he made are now included on NASA’s Web site, which notes how remarkably similar they are to ones based on infrared data gathered by modern satellites.

The voyage was notably calm, but in America the longbrewing storm had begun. On the night of April 18, 1775, while Franklin was in mid-ocean, a contingent of British redcoats headed north from Boston to arrest the tea party planners Samuel Adams and John Hancock and capture the munitions stockpiled by their supporters. Paul Revere spread the alarm, as did others less famously. When the redcoats reached Lexington, 70 American minutemen were there to meet them. “Disperse, ye rebels,” a British major ordered. At first they did. Then a shot was fired. In the ensuing skirmish, eight Americans were killed. The victorious redcoats marched on to Concord, where, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it, “the embattled farmers stood, and fired the shot heard round the world.” On the redcoats’ daylong retreat back to Boston, more than 250 of them were killed or wounded by American militiamen.

When Franklin landed in Philadelphia with his grandson on May 5, delegates of the Second Continental Congress were beginning to gather there. Among them was Franklin’s old military comrade George Washington, who had become a plantation squire in Virginia after the French and Indian War. Yet there was still no consensus, except among the radical patriots in the Massachusetts delegation, about whether the war that had just erupted should be waged for independence or merely for the assertion of American rights within a British Empire. For that question to be resolved would take another year.

Franklin was selected as a member of the Congress the day after his arrival. Nearing 70, he was by far the oldest. Most of the 62 others who convened in the Pennsylvania statehouse— such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry from Virginia and John Adams and John Hancock from Massachusetts—had not even been born when Franklin first went to work there more than 40 years earlier. Franklin moved into the house on Market Street that he had designed but never known and where his late wife, Deborah, had lived for ten years without him.His 31-year-old daughter, Sally, took care of his housekeeping needs, her husband, Richard Bache, remained dutiful, and their two children, Ben, 6, and Will, 2, provided amusement. “Will has got a little gun, marches with it, and whistles at the same time by way of fife,” Franklin wrote.

For the time being, Franklin kept quiet about whether or not he favored independence, and he avoided the taverns where the other delegates spent the evenings debating the topic. He attended sessions and committee meetings, said little, and dined at home with his family. Beginning what would become a long and conflicted association with Franklin, the loquacious and ambitious John Adams complained that the older man was treated with reverence even as he was “sitting in silence, a great part of the time fast asleep in his chair.”

Many of the younger, hotter-tempered delegates had never witnessed Franklin’s artifice of silence, his trick of seeming sage by saying nothing. They knew him by reputation as the man who had successfully argued in Parliament against the Stamp Act, not realizing that oratory did not come naturally to him. So rumors began to circulate. What was his game? Was he a secret loyalist?

As the Pennsylvania delegate William Bradford confided to the young James Madison, some of the other delegates had begun to “entertain a great suspicion that Dr. Franklin came rather as a spy than as a friend, and that he means to discover our weak side and make his peace with the ministers.”

In fact, Franklin was biding his time through much of May because there were two people, both close to him, whom he first wanted to convert to the American rebel cause. One was Joseph Galloway, who had acted as his lieutenant and surrogate for ten years in the Pennsylvania Assembly but had left public life. The other was even closer to him—his 44-year-old son, William, who was the governor of New Jersey and loyal to the British ministry. William, having read of his father’s return to Philadelphia in the newspapers, was eager to meet with him and to reclaim his son.

Benjamin and William chose a neutral venue for their summit: Trevose, Galloway’s grand fieldstone manor house north of Philadelphia. The evening started awkwardly, with embraces and then small talk. At one point, William pulled Galloway aside to say that he had avoided, until now, seriously talking politics with his father. But after a while, “the glass having gone around freely” and much Madeira consumed, they confronted their political disagreements.

William argued that it was best for them all to remain neutral, but his father was not moved. Benjamin “opened himself and declared in favor of measures for attaining to independence” and “exclaimed against the corruption and dissipation of the kingdom.” William responded with anger, but also with a touch of concern for his father’s safety. If he intended “to set the colonies in flame,” William said, he should “take care to run away by the light of it.”


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