BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IN LONDON: THE BRITISH LIFE OF AMERICA’S FOUNDING FATHER
By George Goodwin
Yale University Press, $32.50, 352 pages
Considering that the U.S. Library of Congress already houses more than 10,000 books, articles, doctoral dissertations and ephemera about Benjamin Franklin, one can wonder what new can be said about our most multilayered Founding personality.
Happily, the answer is, quite a bit. It is hard to believe, but of all our compelling American historical figures, a complete literary biography of Franklin’s life has never been written. The late Leo Lemay, a leading Franklin authority, managed only three volumes of his projected seven-volume complete Franklin biography before he died. Other attempts to capture this scientist, master of the printing press and news format, philosopher, politician, spy, bon vivant, inventor, and mentor of most of the other Founding Fathers, all have foundered under the complexity of capturing his multitasked and often contradictory life with any coherence. Franklin’s life, it seems, can only be approached in slices, hence the groaning shelves of Frankliniana in the Library of Congress.
This complexity has meant that whole parts of Franklin’s life often are glossed over by other biographers. The biggest gap in the Franklin story is the more than one-quarter of his 84-year life when he was absent from North America, most famously the decade spent in France, where he single-handedly dragged a reluctant French king into providing the money, guns and troops that tipped the balance in our Revolutionary War.
But a more important, largely scanted period is the roughly 18 years Franklin spent in London. That is when he underwent the painful, and fateful evolution from loyal English subject to that of fierce rebel, revolutionary and underground master of spycraft.
Without his life in London there would have been no success in Paris, and Franklin might have been treated as a historical curiosity instead of the seminal catalyst he surely was.
The respected British historian and biographer George Goodwin provides us with a thoroughly researched and accessibly written chronicle of that important time of Franklin’s transformation from place-seeking provincial lobbyist to risk-taking revolutionary sparkplug who never stopped seeking a peaceful resolution of the colonial grievances even while he began plotting the unthinkable rebellion against the mother country.
Mr. Goodwin has done his homework. He undertook archival digging in American private papers stashes as well as unearthing previously unread correspondence between Franklin and his vast network of fellow scientists and intellectuals in the Britain of the Enlightenment. The result is a fascinating portrait of a man who cherished deep friendships even as he relished making dangerous and powerful enemies. The story Mr. Goodwin tells is a riveting adventure.
Franklin’s London adventure began in 1757 as something of a busman’s holiday. The colonial assembly of his Pennsylvania home was paying his expenses for an attempt to convince the grasping sons of founder William Penn to relent in their ruinous demands for tax revenues. But perhaps more compelling for Franklin, the trip offered the chance to meet in person and be feted by some of the leading lights of British science and philosophy — including Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly and Edmund Burke.
This was a golden opportunity for Franklin to be celebrated, to have stimulating relationships with the elite thinkers of the day, and to advance his own ambitions as a colonial officeholder through his role as the operational head of the Royal Mail bureaucracy for all of the colonies.
He was, at the age of 50, already the best known and most honored personality to arrive from the colonies. His ground-breaking discoveries of the properties of electricity had earned him a membership in the exclusive Royal Society and its Copley Medal, the equivalent of today’s Nobel Prize in physics. His more quotidian inventions of smokeless stoves, lightning rods and food preservation were only enhanced by his creation of the most popular literary publications read on both sides of the Atlantic — “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”
And for a time, Franklin had a ball. Everyone in intellectual Britain flocked to meet him. Honorary degrees came thick and fast, a satisfaction to someone who had had only three years of formal education. He settled into a comfortable domicile on Craven Street near Charing Cross, where he was doted upon by his landlady who served as a substitute for the wife he left behind in Philadelphia.
But Enlightenment Britain was not political Britain. Franklin was soon humiliated in countless ways, first by the greedy Penns, and then by a succession of British government ministers who sneered at his tradesman reputation and the general distain Englishmen of rank held for second-class Americans.
Franklin was a changeling if he was anything. Step-by-step he adjusted from conciliatory advocate for reform to danger-seeking revolutionary plotter, until early in 1775 he fled to avoid being jailed in the Tower of London. When he landed in Philadelphia, the battles of Lexington and Concord had occurred and the rebellion he helped start was underway.
Mr. Goodwin’s story is the stuff of suspenseful history.
• James Srodes’ “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father” (Regnery) won the City of Philadelphia’s One Book award during its 2006 celebration of Franklin’s 300th birthday.