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4 July 2023

How to start a revolution

As an ambassador in London, Benjamin Franklin honed his satirical, subversive art.

By Peter Moore

One of the most curious sights to see in Georgian London occurred at sunrise most mornings on Craven Street, near Charing Cross. As Benjamin Franklin described it himself, he would rise early, “and sit in my chamber, without any clothes whatever, half an hour or an hour, according to the season, either reading or writing”. Franklin, the famous tamer of lightning, was convinced there was something rejuvenating in these “air baths”, which animated him for the day ahead. A shock, presumably, was also experienced by anyone who had the misfortune to glance up towards his open windows. Franklin, it seems, had forgotten one of his own maxims: “Love your Neighbour; yet don’t pull down your Hedge.”

Franklin had always enjoyed scenting out aphorisms. He used them as tools to guide him through the perils of 18th-century life. One can trace a biography of sorts through the pages of his cherished production, Poor Richard’s Almanack. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” he wrote in 1735 when he was an ambitious young printer in Philadelphia. “The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise,” he reflected some years later after his election as clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Shortly after this, following the betrayal of a business associate, he grumbled, “If you would keep your secret from an enemy, tell it not to a friend.” On his retirement from trade in 1748 Franklin reminded himself, “Lost time is never found again.” Then, just before his departure for London in 1757 as the colonial agent – a new type of ambassadorial role – for Pennsylvania, he braced himself for Westminster politics. “Silence is not always a Sign of Wisdom, but Babbling is ever a Folly.”

It only took a few days for Franklin to find lodgings upon his arrival in London. Unlike Philadelphia, where he had lived in a dozen different places, he was not restless here. The first-floor suite of rooms halfway along Craven Street would remain his home for much of the next two decades. Part of this durability was due to his affection for Margaret and Polly Stevenson, his landlady and her inquisitive daughter. But there was something about Craven Street’s geography, too, that strongly appealed to Franklin. It was simultaneously close to the centre of action and yet buried away. “The full tide of human existence,” as Samuel Johnson termed it, might well be milling a minute’s walk away at Charing Cross, but few people ever had cause to branch off the Strand and into Craven Street, which led only to a timber yard and the banks of the River Thames.

The seclusion that resulted suited Franklin’s temperament. He was an intensely political creature, but he did not like the glare of attention. A chandler’s boy from Boston, he had none of the so-called hereditary honour of those who were born to take centre stage. He was, perhaps, his generation’s Cromwell. He knew the use of administrative positions. He valued intelligence and cultivated good sources. He spoke little and wrote much. He liked to see without being seen.

All this, in his younger days, had earned him a reputation in Philadelphia. Franklin was, one of his enemies wrote, “a man so turbulent, and such a plotter, as to be able to embroil the three kingdoms, if he ever has an opportunity”. Such people believed that his spectacular transformation from humble printer into the vaunted philosopher, “Dr Franklin”, was wholly owing to his use of “every Zig Zag Machination”. In Westminster, as the colonial dispute deepened in the early 1770s, for all that some regarded him as a benign eccentric, a growing number of others were starting to think the same thing.

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The story of Franklin’s shift from proud monarchist to revolutionary republican is one of the most consequential in Western political history. And like any story that involves a prominent figure changing their mind on the central issue of the age, it is a messy one. Franklin had a deep love for Britain and its freewheeling, questing, expressive spirit. For a great many years his heart ruled his head. Long after the ructions instigated by the Stamp Act in 1765 and the loathed “duties” two years later; long after British redcoats marched down the Long Wharf at Boston, and the customs schooner HMS Gaspee was burned in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, Franklin sought to find a solution to the quarrel between the mother country and the colonies. At the start of November in 1773, six weeks before the Boston Tea Party, Franklin was still clinging to the frailest of threads. “I thank you for your good Wishes,” he wrote to his sister Jane, “that I may be a means of restoring Harmony between the two Countries. It would make me very happy to see it.”

[See also: How to end the war between Scotland and Westminster]

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Franklin could not know it then, but on that November day he was teetering on the brink of the greatest political catastrophe of his life. The scandal that would envelop him over the months ahead would bring an end to his happy London life, it would destroy some of his closest friendships, it would see him stripped of his official posts and it would accelerate events towards revolution. Today readers can detect some of this peril in his note home to Jane in Boston. She was one of the very few in whom Franklin confided. In this letter he confessed that, having grown tired of continued “meekness”, recently he had become “saucy”. To help Britons grasp the American point of view he had written two anonymous pieces for the newspapers. These, he revealed, had made quite the stir.

Throughout his career Franklin had deployed anonymous journalism as a political weapon. In the days before op-eds this was a common enough thing to do, but Franklin had a particular gift for the form. He was a master of mimicry and satire. He knew how to blend the serious and the absurd to create humour and make a point. All this was done at speed, according to the needs of the moment, before Franklin moved decisively on. Once Jane had requested that he send her a list of his political pieces. He replied: “I could as easily make a Collection for you of all the past Parings of my Nails.”

In the autumn of 1773, however, he took more care than usual. He secured for Jane a hard copy of the first of his two articles and sent it along with his latest letter. This piece was titled Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One, and it was presented as a crib sheet for hapless politicians. “In the first Place, Gentlemen,” ran the first of twenty items on Franklin’s list, “you are to consider, that a great Empire, like a great Cake, is most easily diminished at the Edges. Turn your Attention therefore first to your remotest Provinces; that as you get rid of them, the next may follow in Order.”

Franklin’s Rules were printed under the signature “Q.E.D.” in the Public Advertiser on 11 September 1773. The Public Advertiser was a politically moderate title that was edited with a great sense of style and a dash of mischief by Henry Sampson Woodfall. That autumn it was experiencing an rise in its daily circulation, which stood at around three thousand, due to its recent printing of the letters of Junius, an anonymous polemicist. Like those thrilling letters, Franklin’s Rules had, he wrote, “been much taken Notice of”. A greater flutter followed a couple of weeks later when Franklin’s An Edict by the King of Prussia appeared in the same paper. This was a brilliant, Swiftian piece of imposture. It was inserted devilishly in the column of foreign news, and it was, on the face of it, a pompous, belligerent pronouncement by King Frederick the Great. The Edict pointed out that German peoples had first settled the foggy, desolate island of Britain. Hitherto the colony had “yielded little Profit”. To set matters straight a balancing tax was to be levied on the British people, “on all Goods, Wares and Merchandizes”, on all exports and imports, of 4.5 per cent. With these words, Franklin turned the colonial quarrel on its head. In the Edict it was the British, rather than the Americans, who became prey to the rapacious parent.

As ever, Franklin kept quiet about his authorship. This allowed him to watch with satisfaction as the article did its work. He was visiting a friend, the former chancellor, Lord Le Despencer, on the day of its appearance. Sitting in company in the breakfast parlour, Franklin watched with glee as a poet named Whitehead came hurtling in. “Here!,” he exclaimed. “Here’s news for ye! Here’s the king of Prussia, claiming a right to this kingdom!” The party listened as Whitehead read aloud. It took several minutes for the satire to be detected. At length the poet fixed his gaze on Franklin. “I’ll be hanged if this is not some of your American jokes upon us,” he said.

Franklin did not respond, but he did reflect on the episode to his sister. “I have held up a Looking-Glass in which some Ministers may see their ugly Faces, and the Nation its Injustice,” he explained. While many people had enjoyed the joke, Franklin knew that he was dancing on the edge. For years now he had noticed the odd way that people were looking at him. These people – ministers, secretaries of state – had started to gaze at him in much the same way that Whitehead had. Franklin had detected the risk, but he had decided to bear any resentment that came his way. “A little Sturdiness when Superiors are much in the Wrong,” he wrote to Jane, “sometimes occasions Consideration. And there is Truth in the Old Saying, That if you make yourself a Sheep, the Wolves will eat you.”

Much historical weight lies on these words. For in them we can clearly see the emergence of a new revolutionary spirit. No longer was Franklin the cautious printer who knew very well that “the Honey is sweet, but the Bee has a Sting” or that “He makes a foe, who makes a jest”. By mid-1773, Franklin had decided that the time had come to assert the colonists’ rights. His timing was unlucky. As his Rules and Edict were doing the rounds, two other stories were simmering in the papers. The first concerned the progress of the East India tea ships – those tangible emblems of British tax policy – as they approached the North American coast. They will meet “a warm reception” predicted one report, “as we are determined the Captain shall not land one Chest of it”.

[See also: Who are the 31 male MPs on Westminster’s list of shame?]

But it was another story that would prove calamitous for Franklin. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1773 the papers had been filled with a series of scandalous reports. In Boston there had been an extraordinary leak of private letters written by the colony’s governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The contents of these letters were explosive. In them Hutchinson had stated that, in the name of good order, an “abridgement” of English liberties was needed in Massachusetts Bay. To colonists, who were already neurotic about their rights and convinced that a conspiracy against liberty was under way, these letters were the ultimate proof of their fears.

Some questions lingered. Hutchinson’s letters had originally been sent to a correspondent in Britain. But how had they been obtained? Who had returned them to Hutchinson’s enemies in Boston? In London that autumn accusations flew and a duel between innocents was fought. And then, on Christmas Day, Franklin submitted another of his letters to the press. Unusually this one was accompanied by his own signature. “I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question,” it owned. The fallout was immense. Combined with the news of the Boston Tea Party, which arrived in Britain weeks later, it brought about a series of endings. Craven Street, his quiet life, Great Britain – Benjamin Franklin was soon to turn his back on all of these for good.

It is 250 years since the dramatic events of 1773. Today at 36 Craven Street Franklin’s lodgings still stands. As Franklin’s only surviving residence and a property that could be regarded as the first American Embassy, it is curious that it is not better known or visited. But the sense of respectable anonymity the building exudes is fitting. Franklin, like few other politicians, knew the value of restraint. That even he, with all his wit and composure, could be undone tells us much about the peril of politics and the challenges of his time.

[See also: The Green awakening]