• Email
  • Print

The Reluctant Republicans

The title of this beguiling study is a little misleading, taken from a sympathetic Englishman’s reference to the people of Boston who defied British authority. The book itself is not about bravery in Boston. It is about a year in the lives of three people who happened to have been born there but who spent most of the year in question, from mid-1774 to mid-1775, in London. Since their lives in that year intersected only incidentally and the biographical details are pretty well known, this would seem an unlikely means for approaching “the coming of the American Revolution.” Because it is so unlikely, Philip McFarland’s success in creating a coherent and revealing narrative is a small tour de force, especially as the point of no return in the coming of the Revolution may have been reached by the time he brings his characters into view.

For ten years before that time the American colonists had been denying the right of the British Parliament to tax them, while Parliament had adamantly insisted on the right, albeit through levies that actually brought in less than the cost of collection. Each side stood its ground as a matter of principle, demonstrated in acts of righteous indignation that invited righteous retaliation. By 1774 Parliament had answered the Boston Tea Party with a set of punitive measures (closing the port of Boston and reducing popular participation in the local government) that left the colonists no choice between a humiliating submission and armed resistance to what was then the most powerful country in the world.

The three Americans in London were caught in the middle. They could have prevented the coming of the Revolution only by persuading Goliath to back off from David’s slingshot. As we learn in these pages, Thomas Hutchinson, the colonial governor of Massachusetts, had no disposition for so thankless an effort, and the other two found it an exercise in frustration. What all three discovered was the limitations of rational discourse in the conduct of imperial politics. McFarland makes good use of their own words in diaries and letters to convey their dismay and despair in making that discovery.

Josiah Quincy, Jr., the least well known of the three, serves well as an illustration of the illusions a bright young provincial could still harbor in 1774 about talking the British to their senses. Before trying it in person, he had published a powerful attack on the unfairness of the Boston Port Act. Arriving in London in November, he surprisingly succeeded in meeting at length with the ministry as well as with some leaders of the opposition. He doubtless believed that his face-to-face statement of the American cause might avert the disastrous policies of military coercion then forming. But after four months of fruitless entreaties tuberculosis sent him prematurely back to America, where he died just as his ship docked, cutting short what promised to be a brilliant career as a Revolutionary leader.

Hutchinson and Benjamin Franklin were much more in the thick of things in London. Hutchinson was there because the Massachusetts representative assembly had made his life as royal governor of the colony almost unbearable, and Franklin had had a hand in making it so. As London agent of the assembly Franklin had somehow obtained private letters of Hutchinson’s in which Hutchinson endorsed the view that people in the colonies could not and should not enjoy the same rights as people in England. “There must be,” he had written, “an abridgment of what are called English liberties.” The public disclosure of those words, confirmed by his official insistence that the Massachusetts representative assembly bow to the supreme authority of the British Parliament, had resulted in the assembly’s petition to the King for his removal, sent to Franklin for presentation.

Franklin had probably credited Hutchinson with more influence on British colonial policy than he ever had. Franklin had calculated that leaking the letters to prominent patriots would soften colonial resentment of British measures by shifting the onus to Hutchinson, himself an American. The letters had no such effect; and Franklin’s presentation of the petition before the Privy Council earned him a withering denunciation by the solicitor general and the loss of his own government office as deputy postmaster general for North America.

That happened in January 1774. When Hutchinson arrived in London at the end of June, Franklin’s view of Hutchinson’s role in shaping British measures seemed to be borne out by his reception. The secretary of state for the colonies immediately ushered him into the presence of the King for a two-hour interview, in which he learned that the abridgment of liberties in America had proceeded a good deal farther than he had hitherto known or asked for. Despite the hostility he had endured from his countrymen, Hutchinson wished them well and knew that closing the port of Boston could spell ruin to the town he loved. His recollection of what he told the King, as compared with the King’s recollection, is symptomatic of the way British policy was made at this point and of how little it was affected, contrary to Franklin’s supposition, by anything an American might have to say. Hutchinson recalled that in talking to the King he had “made it my chief object to represent matters so as to obtain relief for the T[own] of B[oston] on the easiest terms.” The King’s report of the conversation to his minister, Lord North, was different: “He [Hutchinson] ownes the Boston Port Bill was the only wise effectual method that could have been suggested for bringing them to a speedy submission.” As McFarland observes, “His majesty (being human) had heard, in fact, precisely what he had wanted to hear.”

Watching the quarrel escalate, with still more punitive measures on the one hand and resistance to those measures on the other, Hutchinson was more and more at a loss to offer advice to ministers who had no use for it anyhow, bent as they were on crushing what they took to be (and thereby made) a rebellion. For the remainder of his life in London—he died there in 1780—Hutchinson was increasingly isolated from the corridors of power, a lonely and pathetic figure, yearning for a homeland that continued to despise him. He had become, in McFarland’s words, irrelevant.

Franklin’s role is another story. It is skillfully compressed in these pages (all of which could have been profitably devoted to him alone). He, too, counted for little in the end, but as McFarland unfolds his despairing efforts to enlighten uncomprehending statesmen, we are driven to conclude that if Franklin could not redirect British policy in this fateful year, no American could have. And the personal frustrations he experienced may have enabled him to save his countrymen from greater ones. Franklin was not infallible in his assessment either of British or of American politics and public opinion. He had not expected American resistance to the Stamp Act in 1765 to be as widespread or as violent as it was. He overestimated the influence of provincial officials like Hutchinson on imperial policy. And he overestimated the effect that American boycott of British goods would have in bringing down the ministry whose acts precipitated the Revolution. But he recognized American strength and future importance as hardly anyone else at the time did, and to follow him in his futile meetings with less prescient statesmen is to understand why American independence became a foregone conclusion in the year of his life depicted here.

Twenty years earlier Franklin had calculated that the American population, doubling every twenty-five years, would outstrip Britain in another century. At the time he foresaw this as a huge addition to imperial power, muting the suggestion that it could also be a subtraction. By 1775 the suggestion was a pointed warning. Later that year, after returning to America, with war already begun during his passage at sea, he supplied a friend in London with some pertinent facts: “Britain, at the expense of three millions, has killed 150 Yankies this campaign, which is å£20,000 a head; and at Bunker’s Hill she gained a mile of ground…. During the same time 60,000 children have been born in America. From these data,” he suggested, his friend’s “mathematical head will easily calculate the time and expence necessary to kill us all, and conquer our whole territory.”

Franklin had spent his last year in London trying to make such reckonings unnecessary. It was a hopeless struggle. When he presented petitions from America, they went unanswered and unnoticed, never seriously considered by king or Parliament. (It was an irony of the situation that parliamentary rules forbade giving a hearing to petitions against taxation because the people’s representatives in Parliament were there specifically to speak for them about taxation and therefore had no need of petitions. That American petitions came from people who had no representative to speak for them made no difference.)

Franklin’s own computations persuaded him that Americans were already strong in numbers and much stronger in determination than British policymakers supposed. Armchair generals in Parliament dismissed any threat of military resistance by Americans as laughable. And among people who mattered, only one recognized American power and importance as Franklin did. William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, had seen long before what control of the continent could mean for England and had made the conquest of America his primary goal in the war with France that ended in 1763. Pitt was now ailing and eccentric, revered for his success in the war but unwilling to play the politics of the time. When he spoke in Parliament, as he rarely did, people listened, but he did not command the votes needed to put an end to the insular politics that were alienating the continent he had won.

Pitt conferred with Franklin, then a pariah among the powerful, and on his advice, in a motion in Parliament on January 20, 1775, proposed as a first step the withdrawal of the troops that had been sent to Boston. No true reconciliation, he pointed out, could be achieved at gunpoint. Pitt’s motion was defeated in the House of Lords by a vote of 68 to 18. On February 1, after further discussions with Franklin, he tried again with a full plan for repealing or suspending the offending acts of taxation and the punitive measures that had followed them. Franklin sat in the gallery and witnessed the Lords’ contempt for so preposterous a proposal, to which they refused even the second reading required for considering it. Their performance, he concluded, “made their Claim of Sovereignty over three Millions of virtuous sensible People in America, seem the greatest of Absurdities, since they appear’d to have scarce Discretion enough to govern a Herd of Swine.”

Franklin continued to deal, through discreet go-betweens, with another noble, Viscount Richard Howe, who still hoped for a reconciliation. Howe, like many other uninformed statesmen, seemed to think that Franklin could speak and negotiate for all America as some kind of plenipotentiary. Even without disabusing him of this notion, Franklin could assure him that nothing short of a repudiation of everything Parliament had done since 1763 was likely to keep the colonies within the Empire. They would stay as loyal subjects of the King, he predicted, only if each had its own supreme legislative assembly, as Scotland had done before the union. Three years later, in 1778, England officially and formally offered what amounted to such an arrangement. But by then it was too late. The colonies had not only gone to war and declared independence but had made an alliance with France, negotiated by—who else?—Benjamin Franklin.

During the year that McFarland follows him around London, Franklin had been reluctantly but decisively preparing himself for a separation as the only way for Americans to retain their rights and liberties and, perhaps most importantly, their self-respect. He had been in England ten years, explaining the American position in meetings with secretaries of state and in a host of pamphlets and newspaper articles, phrased with the biting eloquence that grew from his impatience with a feckless ministry’s apparent death wish for the Empire. His appeals gradually turned from reasoned argument to a satirical rage, as in his suggestion in the public prints in May of 1774 that a hundred sow gelders be sent to accompany the British army to the colonies, where they could systematically castrate all the American males and thus put a stop to the dangerous increase of the rebellious population.

He continued to present humble petitions from his unbelieving countrymen, but admonished them that “from the constant Refusal, Neglect or Discouragement, of American Petitions, these many Years past, our Country will at last be convinc’d that Petitions are odious here and that petitioning is far from being a probable Means of obtaining Redress.” The only effective means short of war, he believed, was the total stoppage of trade with England, which the Continental Congress had already mandated in October 1774: a nonimportation, nonconsumption, nonexportation agreement, enforced throughout the colonies by extra-legal local committees. By early 1775, while still hoping that the impact of this embargo would awaken a government lost in corruption, he feared that the effect of a continued union with that government, even if it could place the colonies on an equal footing with Britain, “will only be to corrupt and poison us also.”

Franklin’s London experience, not to mention Hutchinson’s and Quincy’s, is enough to convince us, as it convinced Franklin, that the British government had locked itself into a position which made independence not only inevitable but necessary to the life, liberty, and happiness of his compatriots. Franklin carried that experience to the Continental Congress, which he joined at once upon his arrival in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775. There he found that the time for action short of war had already ended about two weeks before with the battles of Lexington and Concord. It is a little surprising that only the three years of desultory warfare that followed were enough to make the previously intransigent British government offer their former colonists everything Franklin had asked for. What is more surprising is that it took more than a year of fighting to turn the Americans themselves from rebellion to revolution. And what is still more surprising is that once they declared independence, they could not accept an offer of what they had gone to war to get.

Historians have puzzled over these surprises ever since they occurred, as did the many Americans who remained loyal to Britain. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, appearing in January 1776, is generally given credit for swinging huge numbers toward independence. And Pauline Maier has recently argued that the people of many particular colonies opted for independence before the Continental Congress did. * But the progression of Benjamin Franklin in London from imperialist to republican may offer a clue to the way other Americans eventually moved in the same direction. He was always a little ahead of them. It did not take a year of warfare but several prior years of dealing with a corrupt monarchy to make a republican of him.

Like other Americans Franklin was a reluctant republican. He was quite willing to be a subject of the King. What he had objected to from the beginning was subjection to other subjects. In Pennsylvania it had irked him to live under a government entrusted to a proprietor; and in 1764 he had carried to England a petition from the Pennsylvania Assembly asking the King to withdraw power from that mere subject and take the government of the colony to himself. The treatment of the petition, buried in the Privy Council, was the beginning of Franklin’s disillusionment with petitions and the beginning, too, of his recognition that the King’s American subjects, not only in Pennsylvania but in all the colonies, were under the rule of other subjects who had usurped the King’s authority. Parliament in 1766 expressly declared its own sovereign power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” In the ensuing years, as not only Pennsylvania but Georgia, New Jersey, and the Massachusetts Assembly enlisted him to speak for them, Franklin rang the changes in one newspaper article after another on the absurdity and inequity of one set of the King’s subjects claiming sovereignty over another.

Franklin did not wear his pride on his sleeve. He was too sure of himself to brag about anything, but he was pleased to find himself recognized among the intellectual luminaries of the time as their equal. His experiments with electricity and the conclusions he drew from them placed him in the top rank of the world’s scientists, and he knew it. Learned societies and universities showered him with honors. In England and Scotland, men like Lord Kames, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestly became close friends. But when he spoke as an American to his intellectual inferiors at Whitehall, he had to confront them as a political inferior. He had to listen to talk about “our” colonies and what they would be allowed to do or not to do. Other Americans encountered that insulting possessive in print, but Franklin endured the attitudes behind it in every meeting with the King’s ministers. For as long as possible he affirmed the loyalty of Americans, including himself, to the King but affirmed it as a statement of their equality with the King’s other subjects.

By the time he left England, he knew from direct experience that the King was the creature of a ministry and a Parliament that would not acknowledge that kind of equality. McFarland’s three men in London were all trying to save the British Empire as they knew it, and his account of their different efforts conveys their sense of how precious a thing the Empire had been to Americans. But in concentrating on Franklin, who inevitably upstages not only his fellow Americans but also the moguls with whom he had to deal, McFarland brings home the imbecility of the unreformed British monarchy at the end of the eighteenth century. In this final year in London, as Josiah Quincy slowly died and Thomas Hutchinson could only stand bewildered by the turn of events, Franklin gave up on monarchy altogether. When he helped Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence a little more than a year later, they directed it only against the present king of Great Britain, but they both knew that they could never subject themselves to another one without endangering the equality they affirmed as their right. If Franklin was ahead of other Americans, he was not far ahead, and in his personal experiences of this last year in London, we can indeed watch the coming of the American Revolution.

  1. *

    American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Knopf, 1997). See Gordon Wood’s review in The New York Review, August 14, 1997.

  • Email
  • Print