Franklin's House
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The Provincial of 1762 Returns

"I got home well the first of November, and had the happiness to find my little family perfectly well, . . . My house has been full of a succession [of my friends] . . . from morning to night ever since my arrival, congratulating me on my return with the utmost cordiality and affection . . ., and they would . . they say, if I had not disappointed them by coming privately to town, have met me with five hundred horse." Benjamin Franklin, Esquire, late Agent of the Province of Pennsylvania at the Court of His Most Serene Majesty, Deputy Postmaster-General of North America, and Fellow of the Royal Society, recently admitted by Oxford University to the degree of doctor of civil laws honoris causa, had already eclipsed the achievements of any and every American up to that time.

Yet during the five years of his agency Franklin had never once succeeded in arranging a meeting with William Pitt to discuss the affairs of Pennsylvania. Bursting with imperial vision, Franklin made several attempts to see him and unveil his conception of what could become, so he thought, the "greatest political structure human wisdom ever yet erected." But Pitt, Franklin found "was then too great a man, or too much occupied in affairs of greater moment." Directing a war fought on battlefields of India, Europe, and America, Pitt then viewed Franklin as "merely the agent of a remote colony squabbling with its proprietors." [1]

Although his reputation as a scientist had preceded him and Beccaria from Turin penned him a letter of welcome in Latin, Franklin in 1757 as yet had but a small circle of acquaintance on that side of the Atlantic. Printer William Strahan, his correspondent of fourteen years, had already printed Dr. Johnson's dictionary and later was to publish the works of Gibbons, Adam Smith, and Blackstone. Peter Collinson, recipient of Franklin's reports on his experiments in electricity, like Franklin was a member of the Royal Society. They received him and pointed him in the right direction. His first days at the Bear Inn were succeeded by the comforts of four rooms in Mrs. Margaret Stevenson's home at 7 Craven Street, Strand, where he was looked after by two servants brought from Philadelphia. There he acquired a wardrobe of the latest fashions and foibles, silver shoe and knee buckles to go with them. He bought the Gentleman's Magazine; he hired a coach. Son William he entered at the Middle Temple to study law. Guided by the tastes of Mrs. Stevenson, he filled a "large Case" and a "small Box" for shipment to Deborah Franklin with ". . . something from all the China Works in England . . . 4 Silver Salt Ladles, newest, but ugliest, Fashion; . . . Breakfast Cloths; they are to spread on the Tea Table, for no body breakfasts here on the naked Table, . . . fine Damask Table Cloths and Napkins . . . [and] a Pair of Silk Blankets," among other things. He was shopping for a harpsichord to present to Sally, and in the box sent her sets of the books entitled The World and Connoisseur. He also was buying a "compleat Set of Table China, 2 Cases of silver handled Knives and Forks, and 2 pair Silver Candlesticks" as he was "obliged sometimes to entertain polite Company." [2]

The Franklin who returned from London to Philadelphia in 1762 thus had tasted life abroad, exposed his mind to a cosmopolitan company and emerged a different person. Although he protested Strahan's blandishments designed to keep him in England ("I feel here like a thing out of its place . . . I must go home."), he felt tempted to remain. On the eve of departure he admitted that Strahan's "almost irresistible eloquence, secretly supported and backed by . . . [his] own treacherous inclinations" tested his resolve. [3] By sailing time he confessed: "Nothing will prevent returning if I can, . . . prevail with Mrs. F. to accompany me." [4] Once in Philadelphia he missed England and planned to return: "In two Years at farthest I hope to settle all my Affairs in such a Manner, as that I may then conveniently remove to England." [5]

In the end Deborah Franklin prevailed and Franklin himself apparently had second thoughts. Within four months of disembarking he had taken the first steps to provide a permanent residence, and on April 25, 1763, William Franklin informed Strahan: "My mother is so averse to going to sea, that I believe my father will never be induc'd to see England again. He is now building a house to live in himself." [6] This was the first house he had built during his many years in Philadelphia. And he built it in a style consistent with his newfound station in life—moderate of proportions, plain on the exterior, richly worked on the inside; dignified in its courtyard site.

That he would end his years in the house as then planned he had no reason to doubt. Already in his fifty-eighth year, by the simple act of building he abandoned any pretense of leaving America again, apparently writing finis to the hopes of friends in England. Finding malicious reports that the "diminution of [his] friends were all false," he looked forward to basking happily among those whom he held dear. Family considerations must have weighed heavily in the balance. As memories of England faded, the prospective joys of the family reunited must have stirred him deeply. Deborah Franklin bidding goodby to the plain sixteen by thirty-two-foot rowhouse she had rented the year before from Adam Eckhart; son William Franklin, newly appointed governor of New Jersey and his bride Elizabeth their guests now and again; daughter Sally, now a grown young lady of nineteen and marriageable, receiving suitors in a fine home. Deborah Franklin had lost her mother tragically only the year before and found his presence a comfort [7] He had gained sole ownership of the properties on High Street (or the "Market Street" as it was commonly called) formerly owned by his wife's family to add to the properties already under lease. And now he received a windfall payment from the Assembly of Pennsylvania—£2214, 10 shillings, 7 pence over the £1500 already advanced for his agency in Britain. Having ideas of his own on how to live, he now pressed them into service, erecting as he explained years later "a good house . . . contrived to my mind." [8] Suddenly, the arrangements had been made and the work begun. Nothing that survives shows that he made any attempt to explain himself to correspondents abroad. Franklin, the Philadelphian, had come home to stay, or so it appeared.

The World Figure of 1785 Returns

Philadelphians had never before quite seen the like of it. The outpouring of popular feeling loosed on Franklin as he returned from France defied description. News of his coming preceded him to Philadelphia by nine days, putting the city on edge and enabling arrangements to be made for a gala reception. Wednesday, September 14, 1785, was the great day. As he neared the wharf cannons boomed and thousands cheered. Bells peeled as he made his way home. By his side from beginning to end, grandson, William Temple Franklin, reported the next day:

we found all the buildings there decorated with flags (of every nation, including even English) and streamers &c. and, from the moment we set foot on land we were surrounded by an immense [crowd of] people . . . which was made remarkable by the most lively acclamations [demonstrating] their satisfaction upon seeing their Friend and Benefactor again. All of the crowd, which is to say all of the City, followed him up to the entry of our Court, . . . I am unable, my friend, to express to you all that I felt pleasurable on that occasion! I cried for joy the length of the streets, and my tears were redoubled when I saw that I was not the only one so moved.—I shall not speak to you of his interview with his daughter, who was as you may imagine, [9]

Thomas Mifflin reflected later on the event, that "they almost killed the old man with parading him around the streets, but old as he is he was obliged to go through the ceremony." [10] The welcome continued day after day. Before it subsided he had received President of Congress Richard Henry Lee, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and a delegation from that body, the Provost and professors of the University, and the officers of the militia. He chaired a meeting of the American Philosophical Society and met with survivors of his fifty-year old Union Fire Company. The day after his arrival Pennsylvania's politicians put him at the head of the Constitutionalist ticket, leading a month later to the office of President of Pennsylvania. At last on September 19, finding a moment to send off a line to his sister in Boston, he explained "I am continually surrounded by congratulating friends which prevents my adding more." [11] The Pennsylvania Packet hardly overstated the consensus of feeling in editorializing that his

utmost endeavours have been . . . invariably turned to promote the prosperity of the human race . . . The glory of this father of American Independence will continue to . . . increase . . . Latest posterity will be wrapt in admiration at the prodigious efforts of native genius which . . . shone forth the bright luminary of the western hemisphere. [12]

Franklin's emergence as a world figure was achieved gradually, in the years following his short-lived settling back into colonial society during 1763. Within a year Franklin had become deeply involved in the politics of Pennsylvania on the side of the anti-proprietary party. [13] When the time came for someone to present the Assembly's petition for revoking the Penn family charter to imperial authorities, Franklin was as always willing and ready. Three hundred followers on horseback accompanied him to Chester as he boarded ship on November 7, 1764. In leaving the family with a half-finished mansion on their hands, he expected to be gone for no more than a few months. In fact, he did not return for ten long years and then to a family circle no longer his own. During the course of this separation, his immediate family was transformed by the death of Deborah Franklin and the marriage to Richard Bache of daughter Sally. Developments he could not have foreseen changed a short mission abroad for the Pennsylvania Assembly into what became virtually a ministry for all the American colonies. And Franklin himself in his person was elevated to the status of a symbol of the entire colonial cause.

Once back in England, Franklin found Pennsylvania's troubles to be of small moment against the larger issue of the Stamp Tax. Not until November was he able to get the Assembly petition as far as the Privy Council, and then only to an adverse ruling. From the day of his arrival Franklin had, in biographer Carl Van Doren's words, "walked everywhere on eggshells." He could not make concessions and could not be too insistent; he had to protest the Stamp Act and boost the petition but at the same time protect his post office position. The furor at home following passage of the tax, Franklin's attitude having been misrepresented, almost cost him his reputation. As British ministries changed and the tax was debated in the House, he wrote for his friend Strahan's London Chronicle the best statement of the American position to date. Already he looked forward to the time when he would be called on to appear publicly as American advocate, and with a "stage manager's foresight" prepared for it. [14] Called at last on February 12 and 13, 1766, to be examined at the bar of the House of Commons, Franklin answered the Speaker's request to identify himself electrifyingly,


From the exchanges that followed he emerged one of the world's most famous men. He disarmed the Stamp Act's defenders by arguing for ministerial wisdom as well as colonial rights. In full view before the world's most celebrated deliberative body he exposed his listeners to a method and quality of erudition unknown to that age of Pitt's and Burke's eloquence:

no other man alive could have delivered the argument as Franklin did. The most backward squire . . . would have heard of Franklin the philosopher. Now here he was at the bar of the House, a philosopher who had the affairs of a continent—from statistics to sentiments—at the end of his tongue. Nobody else had ever known or thought so much about America. The members could not surprise Franklin with any question for which he had not a reasoned and pointed answer. If they pressed him hard he was firm. If they tried to catch him he turned the answer deftly on the questioner . . . Reasoning was his persuasion . . .

Franklin, whose arts were silent ones, had never before spoken so long before so large an audience, and he never did again. His answers were hardly oratory, but they brought him an orator's triumph . . . In the jubilation over repeal in America Franklin was its hero. He had upheld the cause of America before Parliament and won a great victory for his countrymen. [15]

The world of this pre-Adam Smith era of mercantile empires, was hearing for the first time a fresh voice on colonial affairs. Recorded on the spot, the Examination was published during 1766 in Boston, New London, New York, Philadelphia (in German as well as English), and Williamsburg. The next year it was published in French at Strasbourg. Of such delicious moments in history as these are made great reputations and enduring fame.

Now surely he would no longer be needed in England and could return home. But the Assembly thought differently and appointed him for another year—to his manifest inconvenience. Building the mansion had cost him dearly. The partnership with David Hall ended in 1766 and with it the five hundred or so pounds annual income upon which he depended. With only his post office salary, rents and interest on moneys to sustain himself, the family, and establishments on both sides of the Atlantic, Franklin retrenched as best he could, inviting no one to dinner and taking but a single dish when dining home alone. He expected the family to practice like economies, and when Sally married the next year he was able to afford no more than to fit her out "handsomely" with £500 worth of clothes and furniture. [16] By 1770, however, his circumstances had improved greatly; appointed agent of Georgia in 1768, New Jersey in 1769, and Massachusetts in 1770, secure in his postmastership, he now had salaries totalling £1500 per annum. The wages of fame, perhaps, but they obliged him to remain at his post.

As the years sped past and Franklin experienced more the workings of the English government, he came to despair that his grand design for the Empire would ever take form. He detected an essential difference between Great Britain and America that would tend always to keep them apart, for they were endowed differently by nature: "The boundless continent could live by agriculture, the true source of prosperity, while the narrow islands must confine themselves largely to manufactures and trading." [17] If American interests must always be subordinated to British, reconciliation would be impossible. [18] Each new ministry enacted regulatory measures designed to raise revenue as well as serve the interests of British merchants and manufacturers. A partisan warfare of pamphlets and embargoes supplied the colonial response. For now they asserted their rights and defended themselves through economic coercion. The time would come when constitutional interpretations would cease to matter and they would resort to revolution. The great colonial champions, Dickinson, Henry, and the others, retorted in challenging rhetoric that inflamed people on one side of the Atlantic and won them applause on the other. Franklin, still trying to compose the differences of the two sides, wrote notable pamphlets expounding reason as well as right—and satisfied neither side. In Whitehall they regarded him as a nuisance, albeit one to be accorded the respect of his adroitness and public reputation. [19] In colonial drawing rooms, they called him a temporizer although his popularity among the general populace remained high.

Earlier than most, Franklin had come to believe that "Parliament has the right to make all laws for us, or that it has the power to make no laws for us." And he thought "the arguments for the latter more numerous and weighty than those for the former." He advocated union under the King, leaving the colonies to govern themselves as they should see fit, though he doubted acceptance and wearied of suggesting it to "so many different inattentive heads." [20] Eventually, the Townshend duties were found to cost five thousand times their return in cost of troop-enforced compliance. They were repealed on March 5, 1770, excepting the tax on tea, left standing as a matter of principle. The same day the Boston Massacre took place. With the conflict between Britain and America narrowed to the single point of the tea tax, Franklin could forecast the result, as he did in a letter of May 15, 1771, to the Massachusetts Committee of Correspondence. [21] Although the celebrated Tea Party was still two year's distant, a rupture could be counted on. Despite his convictions on this head, Franklin remained at his station, hoping to postpone the catastrophe. He remained the herald of the American Independence his thinking had foretold.

The years after 1770 were full of honors and mounting fame. Late in 1771 journeying through the British Isles, he found himself a public figure, attended the Irish Parliament in Dublin, and visited with famous Scotsmen in Edinburgh and Glasgow. That year and the next he travelled extensively in England, greatly enlarging his circle of acquaintance with that country's literati. In August 1772 he received a letter informing him that he had been chosen an associate member of the French Royal Academy. In all of Europe only eight of the most distinguished scientists outside of France belonged. [22] In 1773 Dubourg printed the two volume Oeuvres de M. Franklin (Works of Franklin), bringing him fame in France. Franklin finally had taken on the character that legend preserves to the present. Van Doren sees in the Martin portrait of 1767 a Franklin, "past sixty and easy in the fame which had followed his examination before the House of Commons . . . he looked intent, detached, humorous, kind, firm, and wise: no longer a man of the current fashion but a self-made man who with knowledge and experience had passed through changing fashions to the more lasting status of scholar and philosopher." [23]

Little more could be done in England. As relations between England and America worsened, Franklin ran afoul of the government over the Hutchinson letters, and having given Privy Council the pretext they so long sought, was denounced roundly before them on January 29, 1774. He ever after felt his silence won him a moral victory. Dismissed from the post office, discredited in official circles, Franklin lingered on a year more, negotiating unofficially with such ministerial contacts as Lord Howe while a shred of hope remained. He left London for Philadelphia reassured by his friends there that not only the rights of Americans but the "salvation of English liberty depended now on the perseverance and virtue of America." They hoped the colonies would stand firm behind the Continental Association (boycotting English goods) until inevitably Lord North's ministry would topple. But while Franklin was still on the high seas before arriving back in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775, Lexington and Concord had closed that chapter and the war was on.

Franklin's hour of departure had struck too late for Deborah Franklin. So many years before in November of 1765 she had written wistfully "This day makes a year since you left home." [24] During this last melancholy, husbandless period of her life, she had longed for his return, saving the finery he had sent from London to wear for him. She had known happiness with daughter Sally Bache's family, especially her little "King bird," grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache. But time and again Franklin's postponements disappointed her. Some time before December 1774 she suffered a stroke "which greatly affected her memory and understanding." [25] In the fall of that year she confided her fears of the worst to son William Franklin: "she never expected to see you unless you returned this winter, for that she was sure she should not live till next summer." To which he added, not without asperity, "I think her disappointment in that respect prayed a good deal on her spirits." [26] A saddened Richard Bache furnished Franklin with the particulars of her death:

By a vessel via Bristol, under date of the 17th cur't., I sent you the unwelcome information of my mother's being attacked by a paralytick stroke, the 14th of this month, but at the same time I mentioned that we were not then without hopes of her getting through it, and indeed Dr. Bond fed us with these hopes till Sunday evening when we discovered a considerable change in her for the worse; she continued without seeming to suffer much pain till Monday morning about 11 o'clock when without a groan or even a sigh she was released from a troublesome world, and happily relieved from all pain and anxiety. [27]

In a final, sad scene the funeral procession formed in the snows of Franklin Court on December 22, 1774. William Franklin and Richard Bache were chief mourners; Hugh Roberts, one of the oldest of Franklin's circle, was a bearer. And as Bache reported, "A great number of your old friends [and a very respectable number of the inhabitants] attended on this mournful occasion to pay their last respects to a memory which will be ever held dear by all who knew her; for the good she has done in this life; and this is no small consolation to her numerous friends and relations. . ." [28] She had not seen Franklin for ten years.

The mansion house, not yet viewed complete for the first time by its master, now bereft of its mistress, continued to house Sally and Richard Bache and their two sons, Benjamin Franklin Bache and William Bache. When Franklin returned they were on hand as the most agreeable of alternatives to loneliness in an empty house.

He came by night; the supercharged atmosphere of war precluded a hero's welcome. Right away, the next morning in fact, the Pennsylvania Assembly chose him to be one of the delegation for the meeting of Congress to be convened in four days. Soon he was chairing meetings of the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety. His arrival at this juncture brought with it the gift of assurance: Lending his skills to Congress' deliberations would be "the genius of the day and the great patron of American liberty."

From the first day the public closed in on him. Writing to his erstwhile ally in Pennsylvania politics, Joseph Galloway, with whom he very much wanted to discuss the situation, he described his predicament the Monday after his arrival: "At present I am so taken up with People coming in continually, that I cannot stir, & can scarce think what is proper or practicable." [29] According to Van Doren his "history from May 1775 to October 1776 is a synopsis and calendar of activities which touch almost every phase of the Revolution except actual fighting." [30] With his characteristic knack for being in the right place at the right time and signing all the most notable declarations and treaties and serving on the most important committies and attending the most important conventions, he helped cause events to happen and is associated in everyone's mind with them. Before Independence had been discussed above a whisper by the most radical or most daring, he had dusted off the Albany Plan of Union of 1755 and presented it to Congress as Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. As the chief working member of the Secret Committee, he made the first contacts with France's agents, looking to that great power as the ally through whose aid the colonies would triumph. As a member of the Congressional committee sent to Cambridge for conferences with Washington, he helped lay the basis for a Continental Army under Congress' general responsibility. As a member of yet another committee of Congress, he made an arduous and fruitless trip to Canada in an attempt to win its French inhabitants to the colonies' side. As a member of the committee appointed to draw up a certain Declaration of Independence, he left amendments in his hand on Jefferson's draft even before signing the engrossed copy. As a member of the committee chosen to devise a seal for the United States, he contributed to coining the motto E Pluribus Unum. Before going abroad as Congress' chief commissioner to France, he presided over the Pennsylvania constitutional convention, and negotiated abortively with Lord Howe, now officially, for peace. He was much in demand.

The remarkable success of his mission to France represented the crowning achievement of his long career in public life. Along the way he managed the military and financial assistance necessary to winning the war, signed the French Alliance, the Treaty of Commerce with that nation, and the preliminary and definitive Treaty of Peace with Great Britain. Previously, he had been the peace treaty's principal negotiator. Congress appointed him Minister Plenipotentiary to the French court on September 14, 1778. When he returned home for the last time in 1785, ill with stone, worn out, and superannuated, he nevertheless was viewed by many as the one man who could "hoop the barrel" of the lagging Confederation.

If he harbored ambitions on this score, he kept them well concealed. In fact, he found nothing very seriously defective on the domestic scene, as he was at pains to inform friends in Europe. People generally prospered, and government could be expected to flourish in time. Called upon repeatedly to endorse good causes, to remain active and prominent in the life of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, he yielded as often as he was approached. But with the understanding that all had to be done at times and places within easy reach. In the remaining four-and-a-half years of life, he never again left Philadelphia, and seldom ventured far from the mansion house itself. Often as not journeys two blocks to the State House, where as President of Pennsylvania he presided over meetings of the Supreme Executive Council, he made in the well-known sedan chair.

Franklin lost little time in discovering an alternative to attending meetings in other places. It was to hold the meetings at home. True, a fine home it was. What there was of it, that is. Adequate as it had been for all calls of hospitality and use of a family of three when planned in 1763, it was now barely adequate for Richard and Sally Bache and the six little Baches who thronged its rooms, passageways and stairs. Also his years in France had greatly increased his personal possessions. Upon his return he shipped no fewer than 128 boxes, containing books, expensive types, fine furniture, and objets d'art, the famous Houdon bust among them. [31] A caller on December 4, 1785, found him in the little room on the first floor used as an office, and noted that it made "a Singular Appearance, being filled with old philosophical Instruments, Papers, Boxes, Tables, and Stools." [32] The need for more space to accommodate "this venerable Nestor of America," as his guest called him, was apparent. With the good weather in 1786, he began construction of an addition to the mansion which would enlarge it by nearly one-half, and give the family as well as Franklin himself ample room for all functions. A large chamber on the first floor would provide a meeting place for all manner of groups from the handful of members of the Supreme Executive Council to the more than a score of members attending meetings of the Society for Political Inquiries. A spacious library directly over it took care of Franklin's need for room, quiet, and a place to hold his books and apparatuses.

Despite Franklin's advanced age and the fatigue resulting from depleted energies and illness with stone, his mind remained keen, and America's first citizen and the World's most famous private citizen, comfortable in his completed house, would yet play out one more important role, as Constitution-molder, in the time left to him.

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Last Updated: 30-Jun-2008