Benjamin Franklin: The Man of Public Affairs

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

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

Benjamin Franklin worked hard to become the model of the virtuous leather apron tradesman. By late 1740s, Franklin had become wealthy enough to retire from active business. He had become a gentleman. Let’s follow the steps he took to join the American Congress.

Benjamin Franklin's statue in Washington, DC.
As proof of his claim to gentility, Benjamin Franklin turned his attention to his scientific experiments with electricity and to civic leadership. (Image: Daniel M. Silva/Shutterstock)

A gentleman, in the 18th-century’s use of the word, was someone set apart from the common sort of people, by a good garb, genteel air, or good  education, wealth, or learning. A gentleman did not work with his hands or involve his time in commerce; wealth-getting was not an end in itself.

Franklin, in fact, suspected that “Power united with Great Wealth, is all that is necessary to render its Possessor absolute.” There seemed to be, to Franklin, but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth, all but the last tainted:

The first is by war as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbours—this is robbery; the second by commerce, which is generally cheating; the third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favour, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.

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

The Genteel Style of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin did not propose to become a farmer himself. It was the virtues of the farmer he wanted people to emulate. Industry and frugality were the way to wealth on the farm or in the shop, not risk-taking, and its goal: gentility.

The painting depicts Franklin's experiment in June 1752.
Benjamin Franklin had been awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal for his scientific experiments with electricity. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

As proof of his claim to gentility, Franklin turned his attention to his scientific experiments and curiosities, principally with electricity. He turned his attention to civic leadership—he founded a fire company, a hospital, a library, and transformed his Junto—the club he organized—into the American Philosophical Society in 1743; and to having his portrait painted in the approved genteel style by Robert Feke.

The Transformation of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin also transformed himself, as befitted a gentleman, into a man of public affairs. He struck an appearance of impartiality in the ongoing struggles of the Penn family—the owners of Pennsylvania—to cling to their proprietorship.

In 1757, he was rewarded with the lucrative appointment as the colony’s agent—the colony’s lobbyist—to Parliament, and moved to London with his son and two slaves. “Britain is now the first Maritime Power in the world,” Franklin exulted, and he meant to have a part in it.

Some of the Penn family’s friends were uneasy at Franklin’s appointment, considering the popularity of his character and the reputation gained by his electricity discoveries. But canny old Thomas Penn had a shrewder grasp of the realities of English life. “Mr. Franklin’s popularity is nothing here,” wrote Penn from London, “He will be looked upon coldly by great people.”

Learn more about George Washington’s doubts.

Benjamin Franklin: The Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly

It took some time for Thomas Penn’s prophecy to come true. Franklin  served as Pennsylvania’s agent until 1762, when he was recalled to become Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. 

He was to lead the effort to get rid of the Penn family’s proprietorship once and for all, and have Pennsylvania transformed into a royal colony, with a governor appointed by the king. When that failed, Franklin was again dispatched to England as Pennsylvania’s agent to continue the fight.

Benjamin Franklin’s Support for the Stamp Act

But the fight he became involved in was about the Parliament’s new Stamp Act. It seemed logical to Franklin that the Stamp Act, which extended royal taxing powers directly into the colonial economy, should be greeted by Pennsylvanians as being of a piece with the effort to replace the proprietors with royal government.

It wasn’t, and Franklin’s support for the Stamp Act caused ripples of outrage in Pennsylvania. Not that this mollified the British, though. When Franklin was appointed agent for the Massachusetts colony, the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Hillsborough, who thoroughly disliked Franklin, rudely rebuffed him.

The Summons of the Privy Council

A painting depicting Benjamin Franklin in London in 1767.
Franklin wrote articles for the London press to warn against the consequences of imperial taxation. (Image: David Martin/Public domain)

So, Franklin promptly switched sides again, writing a series of articles for the London press which warned against the consequences of further efforts at imperial taxation. He also released a collection of six letters which had come surreptitiously into his hands, detailing the machinations of  Massachusetts’s royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, for an abridgement of what are called English liberties in the colonies.

The Massachusetts Assembly demanded that the king remove Hutchinson as governor, and hearings were scheduled before the Privy Council to which Franklin was summoned as a witness.

Learn more about Thomas Mifflin’s Congress.

Franklin’s Insult in the Privy Council

If, up to this point, Franklin believed that he had earned the status of gentleman, the Privy Council hearings, led by Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn, soon disabused him of that.

Franklin’s behavior stripped him of any pretense to the status of gentleman, and returned him to what he was: a colonial laborer who dressed himself above his station, just as the colonies themselves were trying to do.

The Return of Benjamin Franklin

Well, hell hath no fury like that of the son of a tallow chandler scorned, and Franklin soon made the British feel it.

After the sudden death of his long-suffering wife Deborah in Philadelphia from a stroke, Franklin decided to quit England and return to his adopted city, just as the tensions between the colonies and the mother country exploded at Lexington and Concord.

He arrived in Philadelphia on 5 May 1775, and within 24 hours found himself selected by the Pennsylvania Assembly to sit in the Second Continental Congress. Twelve months later, he was appointed, along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to the committee to draft the colonies’ Declaration of Independence.

Common Questions about Benjamin Franklin, the Man of Public Affairs

Q: What did Benjamin Franklin think about the Stamp Act?

It seemed logical to Benjamin Franklin that the Stamp Act, which extended royal taxing powers directly into the colonial economy, should be greeted by Pennsylvanians as being of a piece with the effort to replace the proprietors with royal government.

Q: Who were part of the committee to draft the colonies’ Declaration of Independence?

Benjamin Franklin was appointed, along with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to the committee to draft the colonies’ Declaration of Independence.

Q: What was the Thomas Hutchinson affair?

Benjamin Franklin had released a collection of six letters which had come surreptitiously into his hands, detailing the machinations of  Massachusetts’s royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson, for an abridgement of what are called English liberties in the colonies. This caused a furor in the Massachusetts Assembly and it demanded the removal of Hutchinson by the king.

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