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

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So William, with Temple at his side, rode back to New Jersey, defeated and dejected, to resume his duties as royal governor. The boy would spend the summer in New Jersey, then return to Philadelphia to be enrolled in the college his grandfather had founded there, the University of Pennsylvania. William had hoped to send him to King’s College (now Columbia) in New York City, but Benjamin scuttled that plan because he believed the school had become a hotbed of English loyalism.

It is hard to pinpoint when America decided that complete independence from Britain was necessary and desirable. Franklin, who for ten years had alternately hoped and despaired that a breach could be avoided, made his own private declaration to his family at Trevose. By early July 1775, a year before his fellow American patriots made their own stance official, he was ready to go public with his decision.

But it is important to note the causes of Franklin’s evolution and, by extension, that of a people he had come to exemplify. Englishmen such as his father who had immigrated to a new land gave rise to a new type of people. As Franklin repeatedly stressed in letters to his son, America’s strength would be its proud middling people, a class of frugal and industrious shopkeepers and tradesmen who were assertive of their rights and proud of their status. Like many of these new Americans, Franklin chafed at authority. He was not awed by established elites. He was cheeky in his writings and rebellious in his manner. And he had imbibed the philosophy of the new Enlightenment thinkers, who believed that liberty and tolerance were the foundation for a civil society.

For a long time he had cherished a vision in which Britain and America flourished in one great expanding empire. But he felt that it would work only if Britain stopped subjugating Americans through mercantile trading rules and taxes imposed from afar. Once it was clear that Britain remained intent on subordinating the colonies, the only course left was independence.

The bloody Battle of Bunker Hill and the burning of Charleston, both in June 1775, further inflamed the hostility that Franklin and his fellow patriots felt toward the British. Nevertheless, most members of the Continental Congress were not quite as far down the road to revolution. Many colonial legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s, had instructed their delegates to resist any calls for independence.

On July 5, the same day that Franklin signed the Olive Branch Petition, which blamed Britain’s “irksome” and “delusive” ministers for the troubles and “beseeched” the king to come to America’s rescue, he made his rebellious sentiments public. In a letter to his longtime London friend (and fellow printer) William Strahan, he wrote in cold and calculated fury: “You are a Member of Parliament, and one of that Majority which has doomed my country to destruction. You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends: You are now my enemy, and I am Yours. B. Franklin.”

Curiously, Franklin allowed the letter to be circulated— but he never sent it. Instead, it was merely a vehicle for publicizing his view. In fact, Franklin sent Strahan a much mellower letter two days later, saying, “Words and arguments are now of no use. All tends to a separation.”

By early July, Franklin had become one of the most ardent opponents of Britain in the Continental Congress. No longer was there any doubt where Franklin stood. “The suspicions against Dr. Franklin have died away,” Bradford now wrote to Madison. “Whatever was his design at coming over here, I believe he has now chosen his side and favors our cause.” Likewise, John Adams reported to his wife, Abigail: “He does not hesitate at our boldest measures, but rather seems to think us too irresolute, and I suppose [British] scribblers will attribute the temper and proceedings of this Congress to him.”

For the colonies to cross the threshold of rebellion, they needed to begin conceiving of themselves as a new nation. The draft of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union that Franklin presented to the Congress on July 21 contained the seeds of the great conceptual breakthrough that would eventually define America’s federal system: a division of power between a central government and the states.

Under Franklin’s proposal, the Congress would have only a single chamber, in which there would be proportional representation from each state based on population. The body would have the power to levy taxes, make war, manage the military, enter into foreign alliances, settle disputes between colonies, form new colonies, issue a unified currency, establish a postal system, regulate commerce and enact laws. Franklin also proposed that, instead of a president, the Congress appoint a 12-person “executive council” whose members would serve for staggered three-year terms. Franklin included an escape provision: in the event that Britain accepted all of America’s demands and made financial reparation for all of the damage it had done, the union could be dissolved. Otherwise, “this confederation is to be perpetual.” Franklin’s proposed central government was more powerful than the one eventually created by Congress.


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