When Ben Franklin Met the Battlefield

Most famous today as a founding father, inventor and diplomat, Franklin also commanded troops during the French and Indian War

Ben Franklin was made a military commander during the French and Indian War because of his experience in the Pennsylvania Assembly. (Michael Nicholson / Corbis)

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On February 2, Morris called for a meeting of the Assembly in Philadelphia. Franklin and his son set off for the capital city, relinquishing command of the Gnadenhütten garrison. About one day out, Franklin heard that citizens planned to greet him and march with him into the city. Franklin, who since a young man had striven for humility, was aghast. He quickened his pace to arrive at night, thus quashing a military show.

University of California professor Alan Houston, author of Benjamin Franklin and the Politics of Improvement, discovered copies of 18 previously unknown Franklin letters written during his military service. Houston says the foray into the war-ravaged territory expanded Franklin’s appreciation of the frontier as a source of growth, strength, and wealth. “Franklin’s life was spent in cities: Boston, Philadelphia, London, Paris. But he considered the western frontier a vital interest and in need of vigorous defense,” he says. “It also reinforced Franklin’s notion – especially in the ‘rum’ affair, that even if individuals had questionable motives, they could still be organized to effect a laudable end. Practicality was a Franklin hallmark.”

Within weeks of his arrival in Philadelphia, Franklin, who was deputy postmaster general for several colonies, set off on an inspection tour of Virginia. From there he sailed to New York to meet Lord Loudoun, the new military commander in chief of the colonies sent by King George. Then the Assembly—even more disgruntled with Penn in London—asked Franklin to be their representative to the British government. Franklin agreed, set sail within months and did not return to America for five years.

Houston believes the Gnadenhütten campaign is largely forgotten today because, he says, “being a soldier and commander does not fit our image of Franklin. We recall the kite flier, the clever writer of Poor Richard’s Almanack, the organizer of civic improvements and the sage of the Declaration of Independence debate. Military chief does not seem to be a notion we want to place among these.”


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