Benjamin Franklin and the Making of New America

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Benjamin Franklin came back to his adopted city, Philadelphia, in 1775. His decision to return coincided with the tensions between the colonies and the mother country that had exploded at Lexington and Concord. What happened next in America and in Franklin’s career?

Benjamin Franklin and his family in Philadelphia.
When Benjamin Franklin finally returned to Philadelphia, he was shocked to see the results of the Revolutionary War in his home country. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Rise of the New Order in the Colonies

The disruption of the colonies’ ties to Britain had been accompanied by the disruption of all the colonial governments which represented British rule. The Penns’ proprietorship was overthrown at the same time that Franklin was listening to Thomas Jefferson read drafts of his Declaration, and replaced by a bottom-up government just as much as the Penns’ had been a top-down government.

A state convention with Franklin as president proceeded to tear down the old proprietary government and replace it with a government, not of gentlemen, but of the people in the streets, of whom Franklin had once been one, and now was one again.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The New Constitution for Pennsylvania

By the time the convention finished its work on the new state constitution in September, they had produced a document which proposed to govern Pennsylvania through a simple, unicameral assembly of the representatives of all the freemen.

The new constitution abolished all property qualifications for voting—apart from paying public taxes; limited terms in the new legislature to four years out of every seven; and stipulated that elections be held annually every October.

A supreme executive council was created, but there would be no single governor. An independent judiciary would be created, but only to serve seven-year terms.

Features of the New Constitution

Also, a Council of Censors was created to serve as a permanent review board of the new constitution’s operations and pass public censures. The council was to order impeachments and recommend to the legislature the repealing of such laws as appear to them to have been enacted contrary to the principles of the constitution.

Pennsylvania’s official title was changed to Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, commonwealth being the term used by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans to describe England after they had abolished the monarchy in 1649. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was, in fact, nearly as radical as old Oliver, and a fair counterpart to the Articles of Confederation.

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

The New Pennsylvania Assembly

Without the checks and balances provided by a bicameral legislature, the new Pennsylvania Assembly bolted ahead to revoke college charters and override judicial decisions about property. It fixed the price of grain and issued £200,000 in tax anticipation notes.

The assembly shut down Robert Morris’s Bank of North America. It seized the property of suspected Tories and pacifists, imposed loyalty oaths, and shut down the College of Philadelphia. It revived the English practice of passing bills of attainder, and its courts indicted 45 people for treason against the Commonwealth.

In the eyes of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s critics, too much power was held by the Pennsylvania Assembly. The Revolution had been waged on the assumption that power was the enemy of liberty, and while no government could do without some power, it had to be carefully monitored.

Cooler heads in a second house might have tactfully pigeonholed such legislation, but not in a unicameral legislature. By that point, Franklin had little time to spare for Pennsylvania affairs.

Franklin: America’s Representative in France

The Continental Congress dispatched Franklin in October 1776 as American representative to the Court of Louis XVI of France in order to recruit French support and recognition for the new republic.

A painting of Benjamin Franklin on a ship on his way to France.
Benjamin Franklin went to France to garner support for the new American republic. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

As if to repudiate his own folly in trying to construct himself as an English gentleman, Franklin transformed himself yet again into the very model of Poor Richard, the wise but simple, purely American, nature’s nobleman, dressed in a round fur hat and a homespun coat.

In 1778, he was able to jockey the French into signing an alliance with the United States that turned the tide of the Revolution against Britain. Five years later, he had the even greater satisfaction of signing the peace treaty, which ended the Revolution and guaranteed an independent American Republic.

Learn more about Thomas Mifflin’s Congress.

Franklin’s Unhappiness in New America

From his perch in Paris, Franklin issued a stream of assurances to various European inquirers that the Articles of Confederation and the various state constitutions ensured “an enlightened People, with respect to our Political Interests.”

Yet, when he finally returned to Philadelphia, stepping onto the same Market Street wharf he had encountered 62 years before, Franklin was more than a little shaken by the results of the Articles and the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Pennsylvania Assembly promptly and unanimously elected him as its president, but that only forced Franklin’s face closer to the oddball operations of the Assembly.

Robert Morris had been Franklin’s chief ally in raising money in Europe for the United States, but Morris was now denounced as a criminal. The College of Philadelphia had been one of Franklin’s personal projects, but it was now replaced by the Assembly’s own University of the State of Pennsylvania, dominated by wild-eyed Scots-Irish Presbyterians.

The newspapers he had founded had become unrestrained engines of affronting, calumniating, and defaming one another.

Learn more about Robert Morris’s money.

The Road to Revision

If a leather apron philosopher-cum-gentleman like Franklin could gradually find fault with the new republican experiments he returned to discover on his doorstep, then the way clearly was open for a serious reconsideration of what the Revolution and the states had created.

And, not surprisingly, Franklin, even in his 81st year, bent with age and suffering from gout and kidney stones, would once again find himself one of the principal figures on the road to revision.

Common Questions about Benjamin Franklin and New America

Q: What did the state convention with Benjamin Franklin as president proceed to do?

A state convention with Benjamin Franklin as president proceeded to tear down the old proprietary government and replace it with a government, not of gentlemen, but of the people in the streets.

Q: What was a fair counterpart to the Articles of Confederation?

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was a fair counterpart to the Articles of Confederation.

Q: Why did the Continental Congress send Benjamin Franklin to France?

The Continental Congress dispatched Benjamin Franklin in October 1776 as American representative to the Court of Louis XVI of France in order to recruit French support and recognition for the new republic.

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