- - Wednesday, January 2, 2013


By Sheila L. Skemp
Oxford University Press, $22.95, 208 pages

In this tautly written account of one of the most dramatic moments in Benjamin Franklin’s many-faceted life, there is enough to engage one’s interest that a number of its imperfections can be overlooked.

Author Sheila L. Skemp is a University of Mississippi scholar who specializes in the history of our early founding period. With a keen eye for both context and the back story, she has focused on an incident often brushed over by other historians.

The story she tells is about a single day — Jan. 29, 1774 (a Saturday) — that marked the opening salvo from the government of King George III to checkmate Franklin’s troublesome machinations in London on behalf of the restive Colonies he represented. Behind the day’s humiliation loomed the prospect that Franklin could face imprisonment in a traitor’s cell in the Tower of London.

As Ms. Skemp describes it, Franklin “appeared before a raucous group of Englishmen in a room in Whitehall Palace known as the Cockpit. Most members of the Privy Council, a select group of the King’s advisers, were present. Other notables also managed to crowd into the tiny room. For a little more than an hour, Franklin stood silently as he was subjected to a vicious harangue at the hands of Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn. Wedderburn’s audience loved it. They laughed and clapped and jeered as Franklin’s tormentor hurled one verbal blow after another at his unfortunate victim.”

Seventeen years earlier, when Franklin had begun his long sojourn in London, he had arrived as the most celebrated North American, known throughout both Britain and most of Western Europe. He already had been awarded the Copley Medal (the Nobel Prize in Physics of the day) for his electrical discoveries, he was the highest-ranking Colonial official in the service of the British Crown (co-postmaster general), and through his Poor Richard’s Almanacks and other writings, he had acquired a devoted following among the more enlightened members of the British intelligentsia.

Moreover, his mission back in 1757 was limited in both time and purpose. It was merely to persuade then-King George II to wrest control of the Pennsylvania Colony away from the rapacious heirs of founder William Penn and restore a measure of self-government to one of the most prosperous (and thus most taxable) of the king’s North American properties.

As with all of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was a complicated human being with a number of flaws that could trip him up. Among them was a rigid belief in the inexorable power of logic to change the opinions of others. It all seemed so simple to Franklin: just present the facts to the king’s ministers and they would see the light.

What both King Georges, and successive ministers, could never see was that Britain’s North American Colonies were significantly different in culture and purpose than the empire’s other holdings, which ranged from India to China to the sugar-rich islands of the Caribbean. Throughout the long history of the empire, Colonies had existed for two purposes: one, to enrich adventurous upper-class Englishmen who provided the raw materials for British home industries and were expected to return with their wealth; and, two, as dumping grounds for convicts, dissenters, second sons and other troublesome weirdos who soon would vanish into the soil of faraway lands.

What British officialdom refused to recognize was that North American colonists were largely determined to settle there, to build farms and businesses that would last and not to rip raw wealth out of the ground to ship back to Mother England. Loyal British subjects they might still consider themselves, but increasingly, their self-interest collided with London’s never-ending slights, injustices and, ultimately, burdensome tax and trade policies.

Over a decade-and-a-half, Franklin prowled the Whitehall Palace maze of bureaucracies while the frustrations of other Colonies grew. He became the lobbyist for others as well — Georgia, New Jersey and, most radicalized of them all, Massachusetts.

Somehow (no one is quite sure how) in 1773, Franklin got hold of some confidential letters from Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, and his deputy, bound for the king’s ministers. Heatedly, they decried the outrages of the Boston radicals and urged a “shock and awe” response from the crown. Franklin sent copies back to opposition leaders, and the inevitable publication created a firestorm of outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.

The coincidental uproar over the Boston Tea Party also was laid at Franklin’s door. He was accused of fomenting revolution and was stripped of his lucrative role as Colonial postmaster, and his appearance before the Privy Council to present another Massachusetts petition was turned into a show trial.

Ms. Skemp lays all this out with a real flair. Then she gives way to the sin of what British critics call “overegging the omelet” — that is, loading on more significance to the event than is supported by fact. It is a common sin among authors these days and is reflected in the genre of books that declare such prosaic items as hatpins, codfish, table condiments and naval chronometers as hinges of history.

As humiliating as Wedderburn’s jeremiad must have been, the author overreaches and intones, “The confrontation at the Cockpit had inadvertently turned one of the King’s most loyal and dependable subjects into one of England’s most determined enemies.” It did no such thing.

Franklin would stay in London until March 1775 and, not surprisingly, he played a double game. Up to the last minute before he returned to Philadelphia, he continued to engage in secret talks with such British officials as Prime Minister William Pitt and the Howe brothers, the senior commanders of both Britain’s army and navy, to try to avert the possibility of revolution. Franklin was no hothead. He knew war with England could be damaging at best and possibly ruinous to those 13 fragile Colonies he loved.

At the same time, he opened equally secret talks with the French government and its potent merchant community to provide the material sinews of war that made our War of Independence possible. As with much else about Franklin, it is a many-layered story, but, aside from a bit of overenthusiasm, Ms. Skemp has produced a highly readable yarn about an often overlooked layer in that broader tale.

James Srodes’ “Franklin, the Essential Founding Father” (Regnery, 2003) won the 2006 Philadelphia One Book prize during the Franklin 300th birthday celebrations.

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