Letters that trace how Benjamin Franklin ‘became an American’
Written between 1760 and 1775, Franklin’s letters to Lord Kames, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, chronicle his transformation from British patriot to an advocate for American independence. They come to auction in New York on 12 June
The news of the fall of Quebec to British forces in 1759 set off a wave of celebration on both sides of the Atlantic. Church bells rang in Boston, cannons roared in New York, and Philadelphians illuminated their windows in honour of the event.
In London, Benjamin Franklin — then serving as the London agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly — was jubilant. To his friend, Lord Kames, a Scottish advocate, judge, philosopher and writer, he admitted that ‘no one can rejoice more sincerely than I do on the Reduction of Canada.’
Franklin, a champion of the British Empire, believed firmly that this heralded a new age of greatness, rejoicing, ‘not merely as a Colonist’ but as ‘a Briton’. He had long believed ‘that the future Grandeur & Stability of the British empire’ lay in America.
This letter marked the start of an important 15-year correspondence between Franklin and Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782). On 12 June in New York, nine of these letters will be offered at auction in Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts including Americana at Christie’s.
The letters present the Philadelphia polymath — already a successful printer and scientist, as well as a skilled politician and diplomat — at an important moment in his life. The years 1760 to 1775 witnessed Franklin’s political transformation from a champion of the British Empire into a staunch advocate for American independence.
When Franklin travelled to Scotland during the late summer of 1759, his reputation preceded him. Franklin, who undertook the journey with his son William, enjoyed Kames’s hospitality twice during the journey, which he fondly recalled as ‘six weeks of the densest happiness I have met with in any part of my life’.
His host was a prominent judge and a key figure of the Scottish enlightenment, deeply involved in the intellectual life of 18th-century Edinburgh. By the time he met Franklin, Kames had authored five major published works on law and philosophy.
Franklin and Kames proved to be kindred spirits. Apart from questions of statecraft, their correspondence from this period covered a variety of subjects, most notably the issue of Kames’s ‘smoaky Chimnies’ in his home and a fascinating discourse on the value of labour, among other things. (Sadly, Kames’s letters in return are lost, so the reader can only guess as to his responses to Franklin’s observations.)
Franklin’s primary mission in Britain, however, was political: to wrest control of Pennsylvania from the Penn family in favour of royal government.
After five years, his efforts had borne no fruit — a state of affairs that led him to return to Philadelphia in 1762 for a brief period. It was at home in Philadelphia that he would learn that Britain was to retain Canada as a provision of the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which was signed after the British victory in the Seven Years’ War and saw France give up all its territories in North America.
The treaty heralded a new era for the British Empire — especially among its North American colonists, who, like Franklin, were fiercely proud to be members of ‘the greatest Political Structure Human Wisdom ever yet erected’.
The conquest of Canada also presented a host of problems for the newly enlarged empire, the most serious of which was revenue. Not only had the war been expensive, but now Britain had to also permanently station troops to police her possessions. Believing it only fair that the colonies take on some of the responsibility for this expense, Parliament sought new ways to collect revenue from the colonies and further regulate their commerce.
After a year-long sojourn in Philadelphia, Franklin returned to London in late 1764 and found himself in a new role: organising the merchants ‘trading to New York, Pensilvania, Maryland, Virginia &c.’ against the Currency Act of 1764, which banned the issue of inflationary-prone paper currency by the colonies — one of the first of many attempts by Parliament to strengthen its control.
But the Currency Act would be the least of his problems in the coming year. In March 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which sought to raise revenue by means of taxes levied on all manner of legal documents, books, pamphlets, and even playing cards. Although Franklin strongly disagreed with the idea, he sensed that he would not prevail against it and took a pragmatic approach of accommodation, even going so far as to nominate a close friend to the post of stamp agent for Pennsylvania.
The strategy backfired. His political opponents in Pennsylvania vehemently protested the Stamp Act and placed the blame squarely on Franklin. A mob surrounded his Philadelphia home and threatened to pull it down.
Realising his miscalculation, Franklin embarked on a very public campaign against the Stamp Act, reporting to Kames that he had been ‘extremely busy’, in the effort, ‘attending Members of both Houses, informing, explaining, consulting, disputing, in a continual Hurry, from Morning to Night ‘till the Affair was happily ended’.
Not only did Franklin help secure the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, he regained his stature in America as a champion of colonial rights. Now he embraced their protest, especially boycotts of British goods, hoping it would encourage the colonies to indulge in two of his favourite qualities: ‘Industry and Frugality’.
In 1754, years before the Stamp Act Crisis, Franklin had earned the title ‘The First American’ for his advocacy of a Union for the North American colonies. Although his plan failed to gain traction at the time, it did give rise to Franklin’s famous cartoon of a divided snake representing the unified colonies — ‘Join, or Die’ was a motif Paul Revere repurposed two decades later to great effect.
Franklin’s model for a colonial union, he told Kames in 1767, was ‘a consolidating’ one, to be built upon ‘a fair and equal Representation of all the Parts of this Empire in Parliament’ and was ‘the only firm Basis’ upon which Britain's ‘political Grandeur and Stability’ could be founded.
‘Things daily wear a worse Aspect, and tend more and more to a Breach and final Separation’ — Benjamin Franklin, writing to Lord Kames in February 1769
By this time, however, the situation had changed radically enough for Franklin to conclude that while there had been a time ‘when the Colonies might have been pleas’d’ with the idea of representation in Parliament’, they were now ‘indifferent about it’. Worse still, he wrote, ‘if ‘tis much longer delay’d, they too will refuse it’.
While Franklin believed that America would eventually be able ‘to shake off any Shackles that may be impos’d on her’, the idea of American independence by means of a violent schism remained anathema to him.
It was only when all avenues had been exhausted that Franklin turned his energies towards independence. Indeed, a letter Franklin wrote to Kames on 21 February 1769 underscores the transformation he had undergone: ‘Things daily wear a worse Aspect, and tend more and more to a Breach and final Separation’.
A gap of several years separates this letter from Franklin’s final letter of farewell to Kames in March 1775. In that time further disturbances, most notably the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party, had closed the Port of Boston, making the ‘Breach’ still deeper.
Franklin, who had also become agent for Massachusetts, found himself in a very different position from when he had lobbied for the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1765. Incensed at colonial insolence, the king’s ministers spent an hour in the Privy Council heaping abuse on Franklin, accusing him of being the cause of Britain’s troubles. Once a champion of the British Empire, Benjamin Franklin had now become its enemy.
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Within a week of writing his farewell to Kames, Franklin would be at sea aboard the Pennsylvania Packet bound for Philadelphia. He arrived on 5 May 1775 to discover that hostilities had already erupted in Massachusetts.
The following day, the Pennsylvania Assembly appointed Franklin to the delegation representing the province in the Continental Congress, while the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety would appoint him its president. The ‘final Revolt’ he had predicted eight years before had arrived, and he would be at the centre of affairs once again.
The ‘final Separation’, a drama in which he would again play a central role, would come just 13 months later. Benjamin Franklin, the unabashed British patriot of 1760, had become an American.