For the past two hundred years, the United States of America has existed as a sovereign country. Most Americans could never imagine having loyalties beyond the borders of this great land. It was not always like this, however. For years colonial Americans were proud to belong to the British Empire. During the French and Indian War in the 1750s and 1760s, colonists even fought to protect and expand the Empire in North America. It was only when British authorities began to treat them as second-class citizens that many colonists expressed a desire to separate from the Empire. One of these was the most internationally respected American of the age. He served British interests in the heart of the Empire, but he saw firsthand how the colonies were treated by the mother country. His experiences ultimately convinced him the colonies would be better off on their own. His name was Benjamin Franklin. This is the story of his transformation from a loyal British subject into a radical revolutionary.
For most of his early life, Benjamin Franklin was an ardent imperialist. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts in January 1706 but moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at age eighteen. As he grew to manhood, he watched the thirteen colonies grow so populous he concluded that within another century “the greatest number of Englishmen will be on this side [of] the water.” He foretold how this growth would result in an increase in power of “the British Empire by sea as well as land.” He wished to pave the way for this increase by uniting the colonies under a British official. To that end, he lobbied for and received a royal appointment as Postmaster General of North America. Later, under the Albany Plan, he proposed a Crown-appointed “president-general” who would head a grand council of colonial representatives. Although his plan was ultimately rejected, Ben still wished to see Britain dominate the continent. In the quest to drive the French out of North America in the 1750s, Ben supplied British armies with horses and wagons and directed militia operations along the Pennsylvania frontier. When it became clear the French would be defeated, he drew up plans for the establishment of two new colonies in the interior. The new colonies would promote a “great increase of Englishmen, English trade, and English power.” In Franklin’s mind, the future of British North America seemed bright.
Having helped unify much of North America under the Union Jack, Ben now threw himself into the task of solidifying that control. In 1757 the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned him as their representative to London. He arrived in the city determined to revoke the control of William Penn’s London-based successors and to replace them with a royal governor. He spent eight years petitioning the Crown to assume a greater role in Pennsylvania’s affairs, even if it meant the power of the colonial assembly would diminish somewhat. Upon learning of riots in 1763, he warned the colony was in danger of falling into anarchy. The only hope was that the “Crown will see the necessity of taking the Government into its own hands, without which we shall soon have no Government at all.” Royal authority, he claimed, would bring stability. To ensure the success of his mission, he devoted himself to “constantly and uniformly promoting the measures of the Crown.” He wrote his fellow Pennsylvanians that this was consistent with the duty owed by every faithful subject of the Crown. His words persuaded colleagues in Rhode Island and Connecticut to express their desire that he be given authority to plead on all the colonies’ behalf as to these measures. Despite years of work, however, he was no closer to achieving a satisfactory result in 1765 than when he had begun. That year, however, his efforts turned from securing royal authority to bridging the divide between the colonies and the mother country.
Benjamin saw himself as a loyal subject of King George III, so he was distraught when he found himself caught in the middle of the dispute over Parliament’s taxation of the colonies. He understood Parliament’s need to raise revenue to pay for the defense of North America, but it came as a shock when he learned of the Stamp Act, a law that would collect money on all printed papers used by colonists. To Benjamin it appeared to go too far. The act was tantamount to “treating [the colonists] as a conquer’d People, and not as true British Subjects.” Unable to provide a suitable alternative, however, he accepted the measure and was tasked with naming Stamp distributors in Pennsylvania. Many colonists believed him guilty of complicity and reacted with violence. They targeted the distributors and almost destroyed his house in Philadelphia. When word of the violence reached him, Franklin began to revise his opinion of Parliament’s actions. He appeared before the House of Commons and argued how the colonists would never submit to taxes like the Stamp Act. After urging repeal of the act, he suggested the colonists might be willing to pay customs duties on goods entering the colonies. Parliament seized on this advice, and in 1767 it passed the Townsend Acts imposing duties on ink, paper, glass and tea. Once again, however, colonists launched vigorous protests and boycotted British goods. To many in London it seemed like the colonists refused to accept any act of Parliament and instead wished to set up a new and unconstitutional authority — an open act of defiance. To Ben’s dismay, it was decided to crush the rebellion before it could start.
In 1768 Parliament directed Secretary of State for American Affairs Lord Hillsborough to dispatch 4,000 soldiers to Franklin’s hometown of Boston, the center of colonial protests. Ben argued that the arrival of the troops might destroy what pro-British sentiment remained in the hearts of what had once been “truly a loyal people.” He soon received reports from friends telling of the “Boston Massacre” on March 5, 1770. Franklin denounced the offending British soldiers as “detestable murderers.” Upon learning of Franklin’s support, the Massachusetts Assembly appointed him the colony’s agent in London. His new position, however, convinced Lord Hillsborough he was in league with the upstart Bostonians. In January 1771 Ben visited the secretary and asked to be confirmed in his new position. Hillsborough sneered at the man in front of him and denied his request. Hillsborough then haughtily declared he had no intention of receiving any agent who had not received the consent of the governor. As he rose to leave, Ben voiced his belief that any representative of the colonies to the British government would be wasting his time. His defiant response, however, placed him on bad terms with not only Lord Hillsborough personally but also with the entire British ministry. As the ministry grew more hostile to the colonies, and by extension to him as their primary representative, he found himself aligned with those like-minded colonials who opposed the increasingly oppressive government.
In late 1772 an unknown “gentleman of character and distinction” approached Franklin and presented him with letters written by several prominent royalists. Among the letters was one belonging to Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, advocating the denial of traditional English rights to control the colonies. To Franklin, Hutchinson stood for all that was wrong with the Crown’s attitude toward the colonials. That attitude demonstrated that the colonials would never be viewed as anything but second-class citizens. Ben immediately had the letters published in Britain and in Massachusetts. When it became known that Franklin was responsible, he was denounced as the source of all Britain’s troubles. Since 1765 he had publicly tried to mediate the colonies’ demands for fair treatment with Britain’s obligation to manage its far-flung Empire. Now he had leaked private and sensitive information that was sure to ignite a new wave of colonial resentment. The British ministry was pleased to finally have a scapegoat to turn their venom on.
On January 29, 1774, Franklin appeared before the Privy Council in the amphitheater at Whitehall, known as the Cockpit. He arrived with the intention of presenting a petition to recall Thomas Hutchinson, but he never got the chance. No sooner had the session began than British Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn pointed at him and called him “the true incendiary.” Over the next hour, Wedderburn viciously degraded the elderly man. Franklin, Wedderburn said, was “the first mover and prime conductor” for all the unrest in Massachusetts. Spectators in the gallery cheered and shouted their agreement. Others heaped their own insults on Franklin. Throughout all this, Benjamin stood by silently with an impassive look on his face. He was frozen on the outside, but on the inside, he was boiling with rage. He took the abuse, but it was clear that his love for the Empire died that day. It was later said that as he prepared to leave, Ben whispered to Wedderburn, “ I will make your master a LITTLE KING for this.” Despite staying in London for another year, he had made his decision and no longer sought reconciliation. He privately denounced those in Parliament as unfit to “govern a Herd of Swine,” let alone “three millions of virtuous sensible People in America.” Convinced the time for action had finally come, Franklin left Britain in May 1775 bound for Philadelphia and a seat in the Continental Congress.
For the remainder of his life, Benjamin Franklin devoted himself to the best interests of his new country. As a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, he provided insights into how the colonists’ grievances had continually been rejected. He knew the colonists could not defeat Britain on their own, so in late 1776 he travelled to France to convince King Louis XVI to aid Americans in the conflict against their common enemy. Two years of skillful statesmanship finally bore fruit. In February 1778 a treaty of alliance was formalized, and the outcome of the war, though still years away, was evident to all — even to the staunchest of Britons. Franklin continued to serve as U.S. ambassador to France until the end of the Revolution. In 1783, he once again appeared before British officials. This time, however, he came as an equal, the victor at the peace table. He returned to America in September 1785 as a national hero, and two years later, in 1787, he helped give the country a functional government with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. By the time of his death in April 1790, Benjamin Franklin was no longer seen as the ardent British imperialist but as the devoted American patriot who had dared to oppose the mightiest empire in the world.
The seeds of the American Revolution were sown over a long period in individuals who for most of their lives viewed themselves as faithful British subjects. Ben Franklin was one of these. He was as loyal to King George III as any Englishman and had no desire to separate himself from Britain. Throughout his time in London, however, he watched as those in authority treated the colonists with increasing contempt. For years he tried to mediate the differences and bridge the divide. Ultimately, he could not and was forced to choose between his homeland and the country he had always been a part of. It was also a choice of principles. For Benjamin Franklin, the metamorphosis was complete — he chose America and liberty.