Benjamin Franklin; painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, late eighteenth century

Musée Franco-Américain du Château de Blérancourt/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

Benjamin Franklin; painting by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, late eighteenth century

There could hardly be two more different treatments of Ben Franklin than the studies by Carla Mulford and George Goodwin.1 Mulford’s Benjamin Franklin and the Ends of Empire is the fruit of a lifetime’s study of the statesman and polymath, a polemically engaged and bold attempt to lend coherence to a famously multifaceted career. Goodwin’s Benjamin Franklin in London is altogether more modest. Elegantly written, it serves as an enjoyable introduction to Franklin’s time in the imperial metropolis. Replete with anecdote, it is short on analysis, and tends to defer to the scholars on whose researches it often depends, while Mulford’s arguments are clearly intended to challenge scholars (though the book is illuminating for nonexperts).

But both, in rather different ways, wrestle with two of the major questions addressed by Franklin studies in recent years—the degree to which he was a British imperialist and officeholder (some would say even a “royalist” or “Tory”) before he became an American patriot, and how, why, and when he shed his considerable imperial connections for the cause of American independence.

After his success in the printing business, Franklin served for twenty years as a deputy postmaster general for the colonies. During the French and Indian Wars he provided transport for British troops. In 1757, at the age of fifty-one, he moved to London where he remained for about eighteen years, representing Pennsylvanians who opposed the Penn family and acting as an agent for several other colonies. He returned to America in 1775.

Goodwin, following such scholars as Gordon Wood, reminds us of Franklin’s excellent connections in London with figures including George III’s powerful but much hated Scottish favorite, Lord Bute, and with officials within the colonial bureaucracy, emphasizing his links with the British establishment in London and his embeddedness within the imperial system (although at the same time he was friendly with fellow scientists and philosophers). In this view, Franklin’s attachments made his conversion to the Revolutionary cause both reluctant and painful, and never alienated him “from the entire British political class.”

But Mulford, whose account focuses more on Franklin’s ideas (she calls her book a “literary biography”), argues that Franklin’s early imperialism and later patriotism are all of a piece: part of a long-standing vision of the place of America and its peoples in the world. For her, Franklin’s prime allegiance is not to a political entity but to a political vision, one she characterizes as “early modern liberalism,” which could apply to the governance both of colonies and a new republic. There was no change of heart, only a change of circumstances.

Mulford therefore challenges accounts that make much of Franklin’s humiliation in London before the Privy Council on January 29, 1774, when he was attacked as a traitor to the empire. This is seen as a moment of Damascene conversion, when he finally realized the profound intransigence of the British governing classes, and threw his hand in with the Revolutionaries.2 Not that she underplays the drama and cruelty of the scene; on the contrary, her account of the incident is one of the fullest, most vivid, and most thoughtful.

As the agent for Massachusetts, Franklin had been summoned to attend the discussion of the petition by the colony’s assembly to dismiss the governor, Thomas Hutchinson. The meeting to consider the petition, in the so-called Cockpit in Whitehall, was fraught. News of the Boston Tea Party had just reached London and prompted widespread condemnation of the colonists; Franklin had publicly acknowledged in the London press that he had sent letters between Hutchinson and government officials back to Boston where their contents—widely construed as advocating an abridgment of colonial rights—had intensified calls for the governor’s dismissal.

It quickly became clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to consider the petition—which was rejected out of hand—but to denigrate and demean Franklin. The gruff Scots solicitor general, Alexander Wedderburn, acting as Hutchinson’s counsel and egged on by many of those present, launched a brutal, ad hominem attack on Franklin, portraying him as an arch-conspirator fomenting colonial rebellion. Two days later Franklin was fired from his position as deputy postmaster for the colonies. In March he left for America, never to return except for a four-day stop in Southampton in July 1785.

Mulford is fully aware of how painful this rejection was, citing (as other scholars have done) the account by his close friend and fellow scientist Joseph Priestley of Franklin’s profound sadness at the escalating conflict. But Mulford wants us to see this crisis as one incident in a life that, from its very early days, was shaped by a deeply held commitment to a set of political beliefs. She fully accepts that Franklin was an indefatigable political fixer whose first reflex was toward compromise and negotiation, but she underscores that there were some ideals about which he was steadfast and unbending. Her Franklin is as much ideologue as pragmatist.


What then was Franklin’s “liberalism” and where did it come from? Mulford sees liberalism as a product of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Protestant thought, a creed committed to “two key freedoms,” namely

liberty of person (freedom from oppression by a tyrannical monarch and freedom to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor) and liberty of conscience (freedom to worship in the ways that one chose to worship the Christian God).

Its main proponents were, in her view, John Locke, John Milton, the republican martyr Algernon Sidney, and the classical republican journalists of the early eighteenth century, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.

This genealogy is familiar; it has been discussed at least since 1959, when Caroline Robbins published her pioneering The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (subtitled “Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought…”); and such brilliant scholars as John Pocock, Bernard Bailyn, and Quentin Skinner have made this tradition central to Anglo-American political thought. But a schism exists (and here I have to simplify an extremely complex debate) between scholars who see republicanism as classical, looking back to an (idealized) Roman republic of free landed proprietors and citizen soldiers whose economic independence made them capable of understanding and guarding the public good, and those who see republicanism as protoliberal, looking forward to a polity in which private interests, commerce, and consumption, when properly managed, promote the public welfare.3 Mulford wishes to associate Ben Franklin with this latter, newer tradition.

Mulford makes her case through a process of accretion, in which a succession of examples are deemed to demonstrate Franklin’s adherence to “liberalism.” She points out, quite rightly, that Franklin saw politics not, like the classical republicans of the seventeenth century, as the pursuit of disinterested political virtue, but as a process that had to harness man’s natural propensity toward self-interest. He also saw, in a way that would have been anathema to his republican predecessors, that some vices might bring forth virtues. As he wrote to an English friend, Benjamin Vaughan, in the summer of 1784:

Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury therefore produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent?

She points to Franklin’s pride in his radical dissenting British ancestors as well as his youthful reading as shaping his commitment to freedom of conscience and from arbitrary oppression, and to his fervent adherence to freedom of the press when he worked for his brother’s printing house in Boston. Free trade, paper money and banks, the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor—all these for Mulford are beliefs that put Franklin in the liberal camp. And as she points out, Franklin, an artisan and craftsman by calling, was hostile to an empire based on absentee landlords and slavery, and to any society that was radically unequal. His draft amendment to the Pennsylvania constitution of 1776 included a provision to discourage large concentrations of property: “An enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is,” he wrote, “dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of the Common Happiness, of Mankind.”

Whether this adds up to a coherent creed of early modern liberalism is a moot point, but Mulford is on stronger ground when she makes the case for Franklin’s persistent and consistent vision of empire. Here she sets great store by the letters that Franklin wrote in December 1754 to William Shirley, the governor of Massachusetts, a correspondence that was published in 1766 in the London Chronicle during the Stamp Act crisis and repeatedly reprinted thereafter. The letters, she maintains, “mark his first clear public statement that the colonies could, if they cooperated with one another, form a more cohesive state, of themselves, than as colonies bound to Great Britain.” They were, she writes, “Franklin’s first major statement that the liberties associated with early modern liberalism were more important to him than any attachment to an empire that did not care about its peoples.”

‘Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky’; painting by Benjamin West, circa 1816

Philadelphia Museum of Art

‘Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky’; painting by Benjamin West, circa 1816

This seems to me a strained interpretation. The letters certainly talk about the value of colonial cooperation in support of Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union of 1754, by which each colonial legislature would select delegates to an assembly presided over by a royal governor, but there is no mention of secession, independence, or of going it alone. On the contrary, in Franklin’s letters there are repeated professions of American loyalty to Britain (“the Body of the People in the Colonies are as loyal, and as firmly attach’d to the present Constitution and reigning Family, as any Subjects in the King’s Dominions”), accompanied by calls for incorporation of the colonists, not separation.


Moreover, Franklin endorsed the idea, which was given more credence than most historians have subsequently acknowledged, of an imperial legislature. As he wrote to Shirley:

On the subject of uniting the Colonies more intimately with Great Britain, by allowing them Representatives in Parliament, I have something further considered that matter, and am of opinion, that such an Union would be very acceptable to the Colonies.

The publication of Franklin’s letters to Shirley in 1766 coincided with proposals for an imperial legislature from English radical critics of government and by the colonial administrator Thomas Pownall and the attorney general of Quebec, Francis Maseres, who joined Franklin in calling for “a consolidating Union, by a fair and equal representation of all the Parts of this Empire in Parliament.”4 But as Franklin made clear in 1754, such a move could not be unconditional: it had to be accompanied not just by a fair representation of Britain’s colonies, but by the repeal of “all the old Acts of Parliament restraining the trade or cramping the manufactures of the Colonies,” so that “the British Subjects on this side the water [were] put, in those respects, on the same footing with those in Great Britain.” This, as Mulford shows, was Franklin’s constant theme. As he put it pithily to his friend Lord Kames, the Scottish judge, philosopher, and agricultural improver, there had to be “a fair and equal Representation of all the Parts of this Empire in Parliament.”

From the 1750s onward Franklin considered two different solutions to the conflict between the metropole and the colonies, both of which began with the assumption that all subjects in the British Empire should enjoy the same rights, and that these could only be protected by representation in a legislature. As he explained in an essay published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in January 1768:

The allegiance of the distant provinces to the crown will remain for ever unshaken, while they enjoy the rights of Englishmen; that is, with the consent of their sovereign, the right of legislation each for themselves; for this puts them on an exact level, in this respect, with their fellow subjects in the old provinces, and better than this they could not be by any change in their power. But if the old provinces should often exercize the right of making laws for the new, they would probably grow as restless as the Corsicans, when they perceived they were no longer fellow subjects, but the subjects of subjects.

Unaccountable power over others is not simply unethical, it is counterproductive because it provokes resistance. One route to follow, despite its obvious logistical difficulties, was to create an imperial legislature for imperial legislation. (The proposal of Franklin, Thomas Pownall, and Francis Maseres would have retained colonial legislatures to make local laws.) The other, which Franklin took up with particular enthusiasm, was to follow the dominion model of empire in which all imperial subjects owed allegiance to the crown, but each province, colony, or nation had its own legislature.

Both these schemes failed to gain support—it is tempting to say, were bound to fail—in the light of the British government’s intransigence. The British imperial system was consolidated and legalized by the Navigation Acts—a series of laws passed from 1651 to 1764 that confined legal trade to commerce between the colonies and the mother country. The result was an asymmetry in which the colonies’ subordinate role was to provide for the welfare of the mother country by furnishing raw materials and consuming finished goods. As a member of the Board of Trade put it, the system was designed “to secure the Advantage of their Commerce to Us.” Whether that system was sustained by royal powers or, as in the 1760s, through parliamentary statute was immaterial; it had, in the eyes of most members of the British political class, to be centrally controlled. The “pre-eminency of Great Britain over her colonies”—or, as they were often called, to Franklin’s chagrin, “dependencies”—was taken for granted.

Both Mulford and Goodwin chart Franklin’s growing disillusionment with the imperial authorities. Mulford is especially illuminating about the effect on Franklin of his journeys to Scotland and Ireland in 1771, where he witnessed unprecedented levels of poverty and deprivation, which he blamed on absentee landlords and a fundamentally exploitative attitude on the part of the English. Seeing the operations of empire in other countries helped convince him that exploitation and expropriation, not sharing and equality, lay at the heart of imperial rule. But despite what Mulford argues, it is difficult to see Franklin’s attitudes before the 1770s as anything other than “imperial”: all his proposals were not just conciliatory, they were designed to cement and strengthen the empire.

So we return, once more, to the question of the tipping point: When was it that Franklin came to see that his vision of empire was unsustainable? The desire for a decisive historic moment of rupture, a fit scene for a history painting, is attractive, but it is important to understand that Franklin did not jump: he was pushed by British officialdom—not decisively off a cliff but progressively into a corner. There are plenty of signs that he came to recognize this starting in the late 1760s, and that from then on he was refashioning his idea of the Americas. Writing a rebuttal in the margin of an English pamphlet published in 1770, Franklin commented: “The British Nation had no original Property in the Country of America. It was purchas’d by the first Colonists of the Natives, the only Owners. The Colonies not created by Britain, but by the Colonists themselves.”

Here was a new colonialism, first sketched in the wake of the Stamp Act, that was anti-imperial. As Mulford puts it: “He argued…that sovereignty fell not to the imperial governments that chartered territories but to the individuals who made the original treaties with indigenous peoples and paid for the land thus acquired by treaty with them.” The path to independence was open, even if Franklin continued to hanker after a reconciliation.

What then of Mulford’s thesis that Franklin’s liberalism underpinned his attempts at imperial reform and his eventual recognition that these values could only be preserved in a new independent nation? She certainly shows that there was a consistency of vision about empire throughout Franklin’s career, that his positions as a promoter of royal power, an empire of dominion, and an imperial legislature, as well as his decision to support secession, were of a piece. As Mulford reminds us, Franklin, based on his remarkably prescient demographic analysis of the colonies, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1755), was convinced that colonial expansion was both inevitable and to the benefit of both the mother country and the North Americans. His view was consistently that of an expanding empire of shared liberty, one that (eventually) rejected the practice of slavery.5

Whether this constituted an adherence to something called “early modern liberalism” is something of a distraction from Mulford’s powerful and persuasive account of Franklin’s progress. When we try to recover Franklin’s conception of political economy, it seems, in Sophus Reinert’s words, to be altogether more “eclectic” and “pragmatic” than Mulford’s account implies.6 Franklin’s early object was to secure colonial inclusion within an imperial mercantilist system. He described the Navigation Acts as “wise with regard to foreigners. Selfish with Regd. to Colonies,” but by the 1780s, like many other Americans, he had embraced free trade. As he explained to John Adams, “It is possibly an erroneous Opinion, but I find myself rather inclined to adopt that modern one, which supposes it best for every Country to leave its Trade entirely free from all In-cumbrances.”

On other matters Franklin also flipped and flopped, at one point embracing a labor theory of value, then, under the influence of the French physiocrats, switching to an agrarian view of wealth, denying that trade and industry produced any added value. He was in favor of trade, but often suspicious of merchants and commercial interests, and though his outlook was artisanal, he repeatedly imagined and argued for a society of small landed freeholders, in much the same manner as the classical republican James Harrington had argued in the seventeenth century for an agrarian law limiting the size of land holdings.

This does not seem to me to add up to a coherent concept of political economy, much less one that could be characterized as “liberal.” What Franklin held on to, what lent coherence to his political career, was the radical Protestant tradition in which he was raised (despite his ongoing flirtation with deism), his views about rights and justice (rather than his views on interests, though they were vital to his modus operandi), an attachment to civil discourse and human sympathy, and what Alan Houston has called an ethic of improvement, a commitment to human amelioration.

Franklin’s politics were always instrumental, aimed at accomplishing practical goals. Attempts to cloak him in ideology and to belittle him as a mere self-serving, self-interested pragmatist seem wide of the mark. He was neither a great political theorist nor an unscrupulous self-server. Well established in London and concerned to defend the colonies, he had, as Mulford shows, an exceptionally lucid understanding of the imperial crisis, but one whose implications he was reluctant to embrace. We should be thankful and admiring that he eventually did so. He may have been pushed but, quite typically, he leapt at the opportunity his difficult situation created.