« ZurückWeiter »
THIRD VISIT TO ENGLAND, IN 1764. It seems proper here to notice, that during the last sitting of the Pensylvanian Assembly, before Franklin left America at this time, intimations had been given from the ministers at home, that they should certainly lay a stamp duty on the colonies in the next session of parliament. The colonial agents then in London, were desired to communicate this fact to their constituents in America. The observations then made upon this notice, says Franklin, were, that the principle was entirely new; that the colonists had been ever liberal of their money, when required to advance it in the regular way; and that to tax them in parliament where they were not represented was both cruel and unjust. In fact the Assembly came ultimately to this resolution of which Franklin was the bearer to England, " that as they always had, so they always should think it their duty to grant aid to the crown, according to their abilities, whenever required of them in the usual and constitutional manner." Other colonies forwarded similar resolutions, with which the British ministers were furnished before the celebrated Stamp Act was brought in.
Franklin, shortly after his arrival in England, received separate commissions of agency for the respective colonies of New Jersey, Georgia, and Massachusetts. But before following him into the important consequences of these appointments, let it be mentioned that he made an excursion to the continent of Europe at this period. Hither his wellearned reputation as an experimental philosopher had preceded him, so that he was received throughout Holland and Germany, as well as in Paris, with the most distinguished and respectful attention. In Holland, the watermen explained to him the effect which a diminution of the quantity of water in canals has in impeding the progress of boats, which upon his return to England, led him to make a number of interesting and instructive experiments on the subject. These, with an explanation of the phenomena, he communicated to his friend Sir John Pringle. In Paris he was introduced to a number of literary and scientific characters, to Louis XV., and to his sisters, Mesdames de France. He was also elected a foreign associate of the Academy of Science.
We are now come to the most interesting period of Franklin's life as well as of the general history of America, Henceforth the career of our
statesman is to be pursued on a broader theatre of action. Although he went to England as a special agent for Pensylvania, yet circumstances soon led him to take an active part in the political affairs of all the colonies, for they were soon involved in the famous Stamp Act. The ostensible ground of the proposed enactment was the expenses to which the mother country had been put in conducting the war with the French in Canada, which was for the protection of the colonies. To this project the provincial agents at once demurred, Franklin making strenuous opposition to its passing into a law. In spite of every remonstrance, however, the bill was passed by the House of Commons in March, 1765, by a vote of 250 members against 50. Franklin beheld the measure with consternation, Writing an account of it to Charles Thoinson, an American gentleman, he says, “ Depend upon it, my good neighbour, I took every step in my power to prevent the passing of the Stamp Act. Nobody could be more concerned and interested than myself to oppose it sincerely and heartily; but the tide was too strong against us. The nation was provoked by American claims of independence, and all parties joined by resolving in this act to settle the point. We might as well have hindered the sun's setting. That we could not do. But since it is down, my friend, -and it may be long before it rises again,-let us make as good a night of it as
We may still light candles. Frugality and industry will go a great way towards indemnifying us. Idleness and pride tax with & heavier hand than kings and parliaments. If we can get rid of the former, we may easily get rid of the latter."
This letter was dated in London, July 11th, 1765. Thomson said, in his answer, “The sun of liberty is indeed fast setting, if not down already in the American colonies. But I much fear instead of the candles you mention being lighted, you will hear of the works of darkness. They are in general alarmed to the last degree. It is not property only we contend for. Our liberty and most essential privileges are struck.” The result of the passing of the Stamp Act, as is well known, excited the Americans to passive obedience, the law in fact proving inoperative.
Under the administration of the Marquis of Rockingham, it appeared expedient to endeavour to calm the minds of the colonists; and the reneal of the odious tax was contemplated. Amongst other meaus of collecting information on the disposition of the people to submit to it, Dr. Franklin was called to the bar of the House of Commons. The exami. nation which he here underwent was published, and contains a striking proof of the extent and accuracy of his information, and the facility
with which he communicated that information, together with his saga. cious views. For example, having been asked " if no regulation with a tax would be submitted to by the colonists ?” he answered :-" their opinion is, that when aids to the crown are wanted, they are to be asked of the several assemblies, according to the old established usage, who will as they have always done, grant them freely; and that their money ought not to be given away without their consent by persons at a distance, unacquainted with their circumstances and abilities. The granting of aids to the crown is the only means of recommending themselves to their sovereign ; and they think it extremely hard and unjust that a body of men in which they have no representation, should make a pierit to itself by giving and granting what is not its own, but theirs; and thus deprive them of a right they esteem of the utmost value and importance, as it is the security of all their other rights.” It was in this manner that Franklin represented facts and the principles of resistance in so strong a light, that the inexpediency of the Stamp Act could not but have appeared manifest to any unprejudiced mind. The consequence was, that after considerable opposition, the act was repealed about a year after ic had been passed, greatly to the chagrin of its projectors.
In 1773 Franklin was involved in an affair of diplomacy which proved very annoying to him, although there can be no doubt now of his integrity and innocence, in relation to the vexatious matter. Certain letters written by Governor Hutchinson, and others in the British interest in the colonies, to individuals in authority in England, came somehow into the possession of a person unknown, who thought it right to put them into the hands of the Doctor. These documents were filled with the most violent invectives against the principal men in the province of Massachusetts, intemperately counselling the home government to have recourse to the severest and promptest measures, so as to reduce to implicit obedience the provincialists. The sentiments and principles set forth in these letters, struck directly at the foundation of the colonial interests, privileges, and rights; so that Franklin did not consider that he would honestly act if he did not transmit such dangerous documents to the legislature of Massachusetts, by whom they were received with the utmost indignant feelings and consternation, and forthwith published. Attested copies of them were also sent to England, with an urgent address, praying the king to discharge from office the individuals who had rendered themselves so odious to the colonists. A duel also between two gentlemen, arose out of the publication of the obnoxious
papers. But in order that no further misunderstandings or disputes should occur on this subject, Franklin, in one of the public prints avowed that he had sent the letters to America, although he refused all along to afford any information concerning the manner in which they had come into his hands.
When the address to the king from Massachusetts was taken up for examination before the Privy Council, Franklin was in attendance as colonial agent. Dr. Priestly, who was present on the occasion, --having been introduced as a spectator by Mr. Burke,--has given an account of the remarkable scene. The address was opposed by Wedderburn, at that time solicitor-general, in a torrent of the most abusive and exaggerated language, which seemed to be heartily listened to by the members of of the Privy Council. The intemperate orator not only violently and grossly assailed the conduct and principles of the colonists in relation to the larger questions which were distracting the Americans, but went so far out of his way and grew so personal as to describe Franklin as a thief-a stealer of letters--a cordial enemy to the mother countryand a person no longer to be trusted or esteemed. “ He has forfeited," said the solicitor-general, “all the respect of societies and men, Into what companies will he hereafter go with an unembarrassed face, or the honest intrepidity of virtue ? Men will watch him with a jealous eye; they will hide their papers from him, and lock up their escritoires, &c." To these bitter taunts and foul accusations, in which posterity has by no means and in no measure joined, Franklin listened with an unruffled countenance, not being otherwise allowed to repel the abuse. He maintained the most perfect composure; nor did he ever, as he has declared, feel so much the benefit of having a good conscience. As a matter of course, at that period, when coming from the colonists, the address was characterized as vexatious and scandalous, and therefore was not entertained either by the council or the king,
The Stamp Act had been repealed it is true, but it was only upon the principle of expediency that the British Parliament proceeded in this instance ; for the Commons-even most of those who had most strenuously opposed the particular enactment,--still insisted upon their right to tax the unrepresented colonists, so that the obnoxious and preposterous doctrine continued to be cherished and advocated. On the other hand, the opposition to the taxes and restrictions which Parliament persisted in imposing, was daily growing more stern and resolute in America, the people in several places breaking out into acts of violence.
At Boston especially was the law set at defiance, by the destruction of some ship-loads of tea which had been brought to that harbour. In return for this outrage, Parliament declared Boston no longer a port to which shipping should be allowed to repair ; and the news of this strong measure was the immediate signal for an armed assertion of rights. The vast majority of the British people, as well as of both Houses of Parliament and the sovereign himself, seemed to have thought of little else than the severest methods of coercion and subjugation. At any rate, Lord Chatham was the only man of great weight, who heartily espoused the cause of the Americans, and predicted the results of the course adopted by the legislature. This renowned statesman had begun to cultivate the acquaintanceship of Franklin, holding frequent interviews with him, in order to obtain the fullest possible information relative to the sentiments of the Americans, and the merits of their cause. At length, on the 1st of January, 1775, he brought forward his celebrated scheme of reconciliation. His lordship had taken care to have the Doctor made a spectator of the proceedings and an auditor of the debate on that notable occasion.
We are told that Lord Chatham, having explained and supported his motion with his wonted magnanimity and power, was followed by Lord Sandwich, who in the course of an intemperate harangue, declared that the motion“ was disgraceful to his name, and should be rejected! with contempt; that he did not believe it to be the production of any British peer ;” and added, turning towards Franklin, who leaned upon the bar, " I fancy 1 have in my eye the person who drew it up,one of the bitterest and most mischievous enemies that this country has ever known." Franklin, as on a former occasion when falsely and grossly treated, while the offensive and direct allusion drew upon him the eyes of the whole house, remained as if he had been unconscious of the furious attack; or, as he himself has reported, his countenance had been made of wood. He had, however, a valiant and able champion in Chatham, who said that were he the first minister of the country, he should not be ashamed to “ call publicly to his assistance a person so eminently acquainted with American affairs as the gentleman alluded to, and so ungenerously reflected on; one whom all Europe holds in the highest estimation for his knowledge and wisdom--whom she ranks with her Boyles and her Newtons-who is an honour, not to the English nation only, but to human nature."
About the same period, Franklin was told at the Royal Society, that