FRANKLIN, Benjamin (1706-1790), Signer (Pennsylvania). Autograph letter signed ("B Franklin") to his partner David Hall (1714-1772), London, 8 June 1765. 2¼ pages, folio (7¾ x 12½ in.), minor fold tears neatly mended.
IN THE MIDST OF THE STAMP ACT CRISIS, FRANKLIN REPORTS FROM LONDON, PONDERING ITS EFFECT ON AMERICA
A fine letter in which Franklin passes on additional news of the recently enacted Stamp Act (passed by Parliament on 22 March) and speculates about its probable effect on his publishing firm and his nation. The idea of a tax on paper had been proposed by George Grenville almost a year before its passage as a means to defray the cost of maintaining the British army and royal authorities in the colonies. Colonial opposition to the tax, which applied to newspapers, almanacks, deeds, licenses, and even playing cards, was immediate and very vocal. In 1764, following passage of the Sugar Act, the Pennsylvania Assembly had sent Franklin to London, both to seek a Royal Charter for Pennsylvania and "also to do everything possible to get the Sugar Act repealed and to prevent the passage of the Stamp Act" (E.S. and H.M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prelude to Revolution, p.310). Accordingly, Franklin and a colleague met on several occasions with Grenville in the spring of 1765, but their pleadings and suggestions of alternative revenue sources were to no avail.
Franklin writes: "...Since my last Packet...I have taken a good deal of Pain relating to the Stamp Office Affair. The 2s. for each Advertisemt was not reduc'd to 1s. as intended, but slipt in Passing the Bill. I have however some Expectations given me, that it may be alter'd next Sitting [the next session of Parliament], with other Amendments which it is supposed the Bill may be found then to want, as it is new. -- I am told also, that we may another year hope for an Allowance of a Person to strike the Stamps at Philadelphia on all Paper for Newspapers & Almanacks; but this Year it must, it seems, be sent ready struck...."
He goes on to discuss paper he intended for use in the Poor Richard's Almanacks and in other publications: "...I had some Difficulty to prevail that Demi Paper should be sent for Pennsylvania Almanacks, it having been concluded to send Foolscap such as is used here;-- and tho' I think the Demi is not so good by sixpence a Ream, as ours, you will find it near as dear Sterling as we pay Currency. The molds for large Papers for your Gazette [the Pennsylvania Gazette], which I desired Mr [William] Strahan to bespeak, will therefore be sent, that whether we get a Stamp Office there or not, the Paper may be made with you. Since it will be worth while to send it here to be Stampd, rather than buy it here at such Rates; and I believe we shall at least get the Charges allow'd, of sending & returning it, & the Duty on Paper not required."
He promises to do "every thing in this affair for the Printers & Paper-makers, as zealously as if I were still to be concern'd in the Business," and predicts the effect stamped paper will have in America: "The Number of Newspapers will probably drop a little at first, perhaps a tenth Part, which I am told was observ'd to be the Case here;-- but they will gradually recover again. The Necessity you must be under of paying Ready Money to the Office, will however be a good reason for not giving Credit for the Papers, and I advise you therefore to require a Year's Pay beforehand of every Subscriber, and make it a Rule never to send a Paper beyond the Time without a further Advance. You will also undoubtedly raise the Price of the Paper proportionally, and demand ready Money for all Advertisements. By these Means I doubt not but the clear Profits will be as great as ever they have been considering our prodigious Loss by giving Credit. One Advantage you will also find; that it will not be so easy for any new Printer to set up a new Paper." He concludes with reassurances: "No one has insinuated anything to me to your Disadvantage as you seem to apprehend...I have known you too long & too well for such Insinuations to make the least Impression..." Published in Papers, ed. Larabee and Bell, 12:170-172.
The Stamp Act, the first direct tax Parliament tried to levy in America, aroused determined opposition there, and gave birth to the phrase (first used by James Otis) "taxation without representation is tyranny." On the same day as Franklin's letter, the Massachusetts House of Representatives sent a circular letter to the colonies inviting them to meet at New York in October, an assembly Caesar Rodney of Delaware termed "an assembly of the greatest ability I ever yet saw" (A Rising People, p.5). Franklin himself appears to have been unprepared for the storm of resistance the act set off, but in the course of the next year became the most active and influential advocate for the Act's repeal. Franklin and Hall, on the day stamped paper went on sale in Philadelphia, 31 October 1765, put out a single sheet with the headline "No stamped paper to be had," and, in one of the most dramatic incidents of his careeer, Franklin testified brilliantly before the House of Commons on 13 February 1766. With Royal assent, the Stamp Act was finally repealed in March 1766, though Parliament passed at the same time the Declaratory Act, which asserted Parliament's authority over the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." Despite what appeared to be a settlement of the Stamp Act crisis, the dispute had radicalized many colonists, given ammunition to many patriots like Otis, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, and had discredited or weakened moderates on both sides of the Atlantic. It would not be the last time Britain attempted to tax the colonies, and the stage was now set for disagreements of a more serious, more violent and uncompromising nature, and for a profound reassessment of the constitutional principles themselves.
Provenance: "A Gentleman on the West Coast" (sale, Sotheby's, 23 May 1984, lot 154).