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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As Franklin fully realized, this pretty much amounted to a declaration of independence from Britain and a declaration of dependence by the colonies on each other. Neither idea had widespread support yet. So he read his proposal into the record but did not force a vote on it.

By late August, when it was time for Temple to return from New Jersey to Philadelphia, William tentatively suggested that he might accompany the boy there. Franklin, uncomfortable at the prospect of his loyalist son arriving in town while the rebellious Congress was in session, decided to fetch Temple himself.

William tried hard to keep up the pretense of family harmony and in all his letters to Temple included kind words about his grandfather. William also tried to keep up with Temple’s frequent requests for money; in the tug-of-war for his affections, the lad got fewer lectures about frugality than other members of his family had.

Given his age and physical infirmities, Franklin, now serving as America’s first postmaster general, might have been expected to contribute his expertise to Congress from the comfort of Philadelphia. But always revitalized by travel, he embarked on a Congressional mission in October 1775.

The trip came in response to an appeal from General Washington, who had taken command of the motley Massachusetts militias and was struggling to make them, along with various backwoodsmen who had arrived from other colonies, into the nucleus of a continental army. With little equipment and declining morale, it was questionable whether he could hold his troops together through the winter. Franklin and his two fellow committee members met with General Washington in Cambridge for a week. As they were preparing to leave, Washington asked the committee to stress to the Congress “the necessity of having money constantly and regularly sent.” That was the colonies’ greatest challenge, and Franklin provided a typical take on how raising £1.2 million a year could be accomplished merely through more frugality. “If 500,000 families will each spend a shilling a week less,” he explained to his son-in-law, Richard Bache, “they may pay the whole sum without otherwise feeling it. Forbearing to drink tea saves three-fourths of the money, and 500,000 women doing each threepence worth of spinning or knitting in a week will pay the rest.” For his own part, Franklin forked over his postmaster’s salary.

At a dinner in Cambridge, he met John Adams’ wife, Abigail, who was charmed, as she noted in a letter to her husband: “I found him social but not talkative, and when he spoke something useful dropped from his tongue. He was grave, yet pleasant and affable. . . . I thought I could read into his countenance the virtues of his heart; among which patriotism shone in its full luster.”

On his way back to Philadelphia, Franklin stopped in Rhode Island to meet his sister, Jane Mecom, and take her home with him. The carriage ride through Connecticut and New Jersey was a delight for both Jane and Franklin. The good feelings were so strong that they were able to overcome any political tensions when they made a brief stop at the governor’s mansion in Perth Amboy to call on William. It would turn out to be the last time Franklin would see his son other than a final, tense encounter in England ten years later. They kept the meeting short. Until 1776, most colonial leaders believed—or politely pretended to believe—that America’s dispute was with the king’s misguided ministers, not the king himself. To declare independence, they had to convince their countrymen, and themselves, to take the daunting leap of abandoning this distinction. One thing that helped them do so was the publication, in January of that year, of an anonymous 47-page pamphlet entitled Common Sense. In prose that drew its power, as Franklin’s often did, from being unadorned, the author argued that there was no “natural or religious reason [for] the distinction of men into kings and subjects.” Hereditary rule was a historic abomination. “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” Thus, there was only one path for Americans: “Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation.”

Within weeks of its appearance in Philadelphia, the pamphlet had sold an astonishing 120,000 copies. Many thought Franklin was the author, but his hand was more indirect: the real author was a young Quaker from London named Thomas Paine, who had failed as a corset maker and tax clerk before gaining an introduction to Franklin, who took a liking to him. When Paine decided he wanted to immigrate to America and become a writer, Franklin procured his passage in 1774 and wrote to Richard Bache to help get Paine a job. Soon he was working for a Philadelphia printer and honing his skills as an essayist. Paine’s pamphlet galvanized the forces favoring outright revolution. On June 7, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee declared to Congress: “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” Although the Congress put off a vote on the motion for a few weeks, it ordered the removal of all royal governments in the colonies. Patriotic new provincial congresses asserted themselves, including one in New Jersey that on June 15, 1776, declared that Gov. William Franklin was “an enemy of the liberties of this country.” For his part, the elder Franklin was not acting particularly paternal. A letter he wrote to Washington the day that his son was being tried didn’t mention that painful fact. Nor did he say or do anything to help his son when the Continental Congress, three days later, voted to have him imprisoned.

On the eve of his confinement, William wrote to his son, now firmly ensconced in his grandfather’s custody, words that seem touchingly generous: “God bless you, my dear boy; be dutiful and attentive to your grandfather, to whom you owe great obligation.” He concluded with a bit of forced optimism: “If we survive the present storm, we may all meet and enjoy the sweets of peace with the greater relish.” They would, in fact, survive the storm, and indeed all meet again, but never to relish the peace. The wounds of 1776 would prove too deep.

As the congress prepared to vote on the question of independence, it appointed a committee for what would turn out to be a momentous task that at the time did not seem so important: drafting a declaration that explained the decision. The committee included Franklin, of course, and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, as well as Connecticut merchant Roger Sherman and New York lawyer Robert Livingston.


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