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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Why then, Howe asked, was it not possible “to put a stop to these ruinous extremities?”

Because, Franklin replied, it was too late for any peace that required a return to allegiance to the king. “Forces have been sent out and towns have been burnt,” he said. “We cannot now expect happiness under the domination of Great Britain. All former attachments have been obliterated.” Adams, likewise, “mentioned warmly his own determination not to depart from the idea of independency.”

The Americans suggested that Howe send home for authority to negotiate with them as an independent nation. That was a “vain” hope, replied Howe.

“Well, my Lord,” said Franklin, “as America is to expect nothing but upon unconditional submission . . . ”

Howe interrupted. He was not demanding submission. But, he acknowledged, no accommodation was possible, and he apologized that “the gentlemen had the trouble of coming so far to so little purpose.”

Within two weeks of his return from meeting Lord Howe, Franklin was chosen, by a Congressional committee acting in great secrecy, to embark on the most dangerous and complex of all his public missions. He was to cross the Atlantic yet again to become an envoy in Paris, with the goal of cajoling from France, now enjoying a rare peace with Britain, the aid and alliance without which America was unlikely to prevail.

Franklin was elderly and ailing, but there was a certain logic to the choice. Though he had visited there only twice, he was the most famous and most respected American in France. In addition, Franklin had held confidential talks in Philadelphia over the past year with a variety of French intermediaries and believed that France would be willing to support the American rebellion. Franklin professed to accept the assignment reluctantly. “I am old and good for nothing,” he said to his friend Benjamin Rush, who was sitting next to him in the Congress. “But as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, I am but a fag end, and you may have me for what you are pleased to give.” But he was secretly pleased.

He knew he would love Paris, and it would be safer than America with the outcome of war so unclear. (Howe was edging closer to Philadelphia at the time.) Indeed, a few of Franklin’s enemies, including the British ambassador to Paris, thought he was finding a pretense to flee the danger.

Such suspicions were probably too harsh. If personal safety were his prime concern, a wartime crossing of an ocean controlled by the enemy’s navy at his advanced age while plagued with gout and kidney stones was hardly the best course. Surely the opportunity to serve his country, and the chance to live and be feted in Paris, were reasons enough. Before departing, he withdrew more than £3,000 from his bank account and lent it to the Congress for prosecuting the war.

His grandsonTemple had been spending the summer taking care of his forlorn stepmother in New Jersey. The arrest of her husband had left Elizabeth Franklin, who was fragile in the best of times, completely distraught. Benjamin sent some money to Elizabeth, but she begged for something more. Couldn’t he “parole” William so he could return to his family? Franklin refused, and dismissed her complaints about her plight by noting that others were suffering far worse at the hands of the British.


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