Ben Franklin In The Cockpit, Part I

England’s American colonists were a serious problem for the British Empire by 1774. Mad old King George was pretty…well…you know.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this episode of History’s Trainwrecks).

***

Great Britain was the world’s foremost military power, which meant it had bills to pay. The American colonies were prosperous, what with all their self-starting go-getterism, so Parliament and the king decided they should bear some of the financial burden of being subjects of the world’s foremost military power.

England did, after all, kick the French out of Canada and the land east of the Mississippi, which opened all that territory for development by the colonists.

Here’s your bill, said the King.

But the French and Indian War had taught the colonists some important lessons. Their own contribution to the war effort had been significant, bringing men like George Washington into the fray. The colonists saw that British military tactics didn’t work so well in the American wilderness and brought their knowledge of guerilla warfare and frontier fighting to the aid of the English. They also saw what would happen when an army had to maintain long supply lines back to the mother country. The resources of the colonies meant that the British could feed themselves and equip their armies without having to wait twelve weeks for ships to come from England. As long as the colonies were on their side.

Even as they watched the British give the French a continental whuppin, the Americans learned all the ways in which their colonial overlords could be beaten on their turf.

Not to mention, the British had removed most of their enemies from the colonists’ backyard, which made them believe they didn’t need to be quite so dependent on England going forward.

For its part, Great Britain saw things quite differently. They had sent their soldiers to die in the American wilderness and gone deep into debt so that the colonists could move freely throughout the land and enrich themselves from farming and trapping and all the things you get when there’s no one in your way.

So here’s your bill, guys.

Somehow, I don’t see this ending well.

***

Parliament leveled its first tax on the American colonies two years after the end of the French and Indian War with the Stamp Act of 1765. Instead of a consumer tax on trade goods like sugar, this was a direct tax, ordering that legal documents and printed materials like wills, deeds, newspapers, pamphlets and even playing cards had to have a stamp on them. The fee was paid directly to the Crown’s tax collectors. Violators wouldn’t be tried by colonial juries; British Admiralty courts had jurisdiction over Stamp Act trials.

Part of the income from the stamp fees would be used to garrison British troops in the colonies. The high fees hit lawyers and printers especially hard, since their professions produced quite a lot of the documents that required the tax. This was a none-too-subtle attempt on the part of Parliament to stifle the growth of a professional class of American colonists.

John Adams was a lawyer. Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer, as was Patrick Henry of “give me liberty or give me death” fame. Benjamin Franklin was a printer, although he was kind of retired by then and didn’t fully realize the extent of colonial disaffection. He could also afford to pay a little extra for his playing cards.

But there were a whole bunch of angry lawyers.

Taxation Without Representation Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty Seven: Don’t make a bunch of guys who argue for a living mad at you.

The low-hanging fruit was this: the colonists couldn’t vote for members of Parliament, so they had no say in taxation. It was one thing to pay a tax on things they consumed, where they could decide to go without. It was quite another to pay a fee for the documents they needed to conduct business on a daily basis and the newspapers they read.

All those lawyers pointed out that the Stamp Act was a test balloon — if it succeeded without the colonists raising all manner of hell and damnation, Parliament would roll out more taxes. “..If our trade may be taxed, why not our lands?” Sam Adams, who had once been a colonial tax collector wanted to know. “Why not the produce of our lands and every thing we possess or make use of? If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?”

America has benefited mightily from its irritating curmudgeons, and the Adams family produced some of the most infuriating.

They really are quite adorable.

***

By contrast, Benjamin Franklin was diplomatic and reasonable. He recommended to George Grenville, the British prime minister, that if the Crown needed money they should do it in the usual way, where the King asked the colonial assemblies to levy the tax.

He offered a couple of other alternatives to a direct tax, all of which were shot down. When the Stamp Act passed, he accepted it and recommended a friend of his to be the collection agent for Pennsylvania. He said, “a firm loyalty to the Crown and faithful adherence to the government of this nation will always be the wisest course…to take, whatever may be the madness of the populace.” He said that, as Pennsylvania’s agent in London, he had done his best to prevent the Stamp Act from passing, “but the tide was too strong against us. We might well have hindered the sun’s setting. But since it is down…let us make as good a night of it as we can. We may still light candles.”

This was a serious miscalculation on Ben’s part. His Candle Letter went public, and it gave the colonists the idea that he had actually advocated in favor of the tax. A mob went to the new home he just built, intending to burn it to the ground. They were going to show Ben how to light a candle, as it were.

Ben’s wife Deborah was quite the homebody and was disinclined to flee. Plus, with her husband away in England, she had been the one who had overseen the building of the house. She wasn’t leaving. Deborah had some of her cousins come over with guns and she stood guard in the upstairs window. The mob dispersed. Her husband wrote, “I honor much the courage you showed. The woman deserves a good house that is determined to defend it.”

I’m pretty sure Ben knew Deborah was not to be trifled with.

Neither were the American colonists. New leaders emerged in the colonies under the banner of the Sons of Liberty: the insufferable Adams curmudgeons and John Hancock of Massachusetts, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. A Congress formed in New York with representatives from nine colonies. Ironically, they adopted a symbol Ben himself had designed ten years before — a dismembered snake, with each segment labeled with the name of an American colony. Below it was the motto, “Join or Die.”

We shouldn’t get the impression that Benjamin Franklin was a firebrand or a revolutionary. He believed that a peaceful and harmonious British empire was conducive to trade and the rise of the prosperous middle class that he saw himself a big part of. He believed that colonial unity was the best way for America to not be pushed around by Britain, but burning stuff down wasn’t going to accomplish anything. He saw himself as a loyal Englishman. All the Empire had to do was meet him halfway.

Ben was an innovator, though, and he launched a damage control campaign to repair his reputation in the wake of the Stamp Act, which he did by turning his pen and his wit to attacking the Act. Always pragmatic, he pointed out that a boycott on British goods was a far more effective tactic than rioting in the streets and tossing tax collectors out windows and into nearby bodies of water. He wrote satirical essays under pseudonyms that took taxation without representation to its eventual end — military rule of the colonies by the British. “The colonies may be ruined,” he said. “but…Britain would be thereby maimed.”

Benjamin Franklin was likely the most famous American in the world. His inventions and experiments with electricity, as well as his Poor Richard’s Almanac, had gained worldwide acclaim. He appeared before Parliament in 1766 to lobby against the Stamp Act, and when he did he had their attention.

He told them that there was “not gold and silver enough in the colonies to pay the stamp duty for one year.” When confronted with the idea that the colonies should bear some of the costs of the recent war, he said, “the colonies raised, clothed and paid, during the last war, near 25,000 men and spent many millions.” And that only some of it had been reimbursed as the British had promised during the war.

He argued again for taxes on trade instead of direct taxes, and that Parliament work through the colonial assemblies to raise money. He was asked if the colonists could be compelled to pay the tax by military force.

He replied that if the British sent a tax collecting army, “They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”

Franklin was wise, pragmatic, and reasonable. The Stamp Act was repealed. In this case, he was the best friend the colonies and the British could have hoped for. Outright rebellion was avoided, and Benjamin Franklin remained a loyal Englishman.

I sure hope the British don’t make him mad.

***

Parliament, facing its creditors, took another swing at the pinata, imposing taxes on paint, paper, lead, glass and tea. By 1773, Ben Franklin wrote his son, the Loyalist governor of New Jersey, that “Parliament has no right to make any law whatever binding on the colonies.”

The Crown repealed all the taxes except the one on tea. Back then, Americans drank quite a lot of it, and many members of Parliament were heavily invested in the British East India Company, which had a hammerlock on the American tea trade. The company could bring the tea in duty-free; the colonists paid the taxes. It was a pretty good deal for the British East India Company and their shareholders back in London.

For a while.

***

The Stamp Act firebrands — the Adams boys, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere and the others from a few years ago got the band back together for a reunion tour, advocating a straight-up boycott on British tea. Passions were so high that the substitute Dutch tea that was smuggled in ultimately cost more than the taxed British tea, but the colonists paid a premium to drink it.

As it turns out, it wasn’t really about the tea.

In December 1773, a group of Bostonians disguised as Indians dumped a million dollars’ worth of tea into Boston Harbor. The Adams boys, those pesky troublemakers, were thrilled. George Washington, a firm proponent of the sanctity of private property, was not. Neither was Ben Franklin, who said the British East India Company should be reimbursed the cost of the tea. He even offered to pay for it himself.

He’s still on your side, British Empire. Let’s not do anything to mess that up, shall we?

***

A bunch of letters from Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, fell into Ben’s hands in 1772. The correspondence was “filled with advice about how to subdue colonial unrest.” Hutchinson wrote that “there must be an abridgment of what are called English liberties.”

Franklin sent them to a friend of his in Boston as an example of how the tensions between the Crown and the colonies were being stoked by the kind of bad advice Hutchinson was giving. He asked that they not be made public, but John and Samuel Adams made sure they were.

Curmudgeons. Can’t live with them, can’t gain independence from oppressive tyranny without them.

The Massachusetts Assembly passed a resolution that it was not subservient to Parliament. Franklin urged the British not to overreact. “It is words only,” said the fellow who had made his fame and fortune from them.

London was all in a tizzy about the release of the Hutchinson letters. Franklin admitted that he had sent them to Boston, but only as private correspondence he had never intended to be made public.

He was summoned to appear before the King’s Privy Council in January 1774 to answer to the charges that he had improperly obtained Governor Hutchinson’s private letters and even more improperly made them public. The Crown’s solicitor general, “a nasty and ambitious prosecutor who had voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act,” said that the government “had the right of inquiring how [the letters] had been obtained.”

Franklin, under the impression that he had been summoned only in his capacity as the London agent for the Massachusetts Colony to give testimony on a petition from the Assembly to remove Hutchinson as governor, found himself accused of what was starting to sound like a crime.

“I thought this a matter of politics and not of law,” he told the council, and asked essentially, “do I need a lawyer?”

“Dr. Franklin may have the assistance of counsel, or go without it, as he shall choose,” was the reply.

Which Ben heard as, “you better find yourself a lawyer.”

He asked for three weeks to arrange for counsel, which was granted. In the meantime, news of the Boston Tea Party reached the capital.

Everyone in London got hopping mad at the Americans, and as luck would have it the most famous one of them was right there in town, already scheduled to appear before the Privy Council in an octagonal room Henry VIII once used for cockfights. London papers called him “an incendiary” and said he should be thrown in jail.

On January 29th, 1774, Benjamin Franklin went to the Cockpit.

Stay tuned for Part Two…

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.