Ben Franklin: Caught Between Worlds

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…

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