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State of Affairs in Pennsylvania. -- Defects of the Government. — Legis
lation. — Conduct of the Proprietaries. — Object of Franklin's Agency in England. — Collinson, Miss Stevenson, Strahan, Governor Shirley, Beccaria, Musschenbroek. - Franklin's Interview with the Proprietaries. - He causes a Letter to be published respecting Pennsylvania. — Delays in his public Business. — He travels in various Parts of England. — Visits the Place in which his Ancestors
born. Forms an Acquaintance with Baskerville. — Publishes the “Historical Review of Pennsylvania." — Authorship of that Work.
The dissensions, which had long existed and continually increased, between the governors and assemblies of Pennsylvania, had their origin in the peculiar structure of the government, and the manner of its administration. The system, possessing in itself many excellent principles, became vicious, and almost impracticable, in its operation. William Penn, the founder and first Proprietor, while he was careful of his own interest, made to the original settlers some valuable concessions. The royal charter obtained by him was such, as to secure political rights on the broad basis of English freedom; and the charter of privileges, which he granted to the people, established unlimited toleration in religion, and gave them so large a share
in the making of the laws, as to place civil liberty, and the protection of property, almost entirely in their own keeping. These were substantial benefits; and the liberal and benevolent motives of Penn in conferring them, and his enlightened views on the subject of legislation, cannot be questioned. It was a maxim with him, that freedom can exist only where the laws rule, and the people are parties in making those laws.
Theoretically considered, his frame of government promised all that could be desired by a free people in a state of colonial dependence. But it was marred with defects, which admitted of no remedy, and which in practice often defeated the best aims for the general welfare. In the first place, there was a charter from the King, imposing restraints and conditions by which he and the inhabitants were equally bound. In the next place, as Proprietor, he retained for himself and his descendants certain rights of property and a political control, which conflicted with the public interests and abridged the freedom of legislation. During his lifetime these evils were so manifest, and perplexed him so much, that he was on the point of surrendering the jurisdiction of the province to the crown, reserving to himself and family the right of property only in the territory, which had been confirmed to him by the royal charter. And afterwards, when his sons became Proprietaries as successors to their father, the difficulties were constantly increased by their mode of administering the government. They sent out deputy-governors, armed with instructions so imperative and pointed, as to leave them neither discretion nor power to conform to circumstances by yielding to the will or wishes of the representatives of the people. Hence these governors refused their assent to laws, which the Assemblies regarded as of vital importance both to the safety and prosperity of the commonwealth.
Again, the King added his instructions, forbidding laws of a particular description to be passed by the governors, without a clause suspending their operation till they had received the royal sanction. This was a violation of the charter. By that instrument, all laws were permitted to take effect as soon as they were passed, although they were to be sent to England within five years, and, if disapproved by the King, they were then to be null and void. And even this process was slow, vexatious, and expensive. When a law had gone through all the forms in Pennsylvania, it was transmitted to an agent in London, by whom it was laid before the Board of Trade. It was next referred to the King's solicitor for his opinion, after which it came back to the Board of Trade, where it was considered and acted upon. Thence it made its way to the King's Council, and here it was at last confirmed or rejected. If the Proprietaries took exceptions to an act, they employed counsel to argue against it before the Board, and it was necessary for the agent of the Assembly to do the same on the other side. Meantime the business was attended with endless delays and heavy expenses.
Harassed in this way from year to year, it is no wonder that the patience of the Assembly was gradually worn out, and that they resolved to seek redress.
The conduct of the Proprietaries was censured chiefly on the ground of attempts to strengthen their pecuniary interests, though, in some instances, they also sought to extend their political powers. They owned large tracts of land in various parts of the province, which had been selected and surveyed for them whereever a new purchase was made of the Indians. This land was of the choicest quality, and it rose rapidly in value as the country around it became settled. The Proprietaries set up a pretension, that their lands ought not to be taxed for the public service, and they instructed their governors not to pass any bill in which such a tax was imposed. For many years this was not necessary, as the revenue for defraying the expenses of government was derived from an excise, and from the interest on bills of credit lent out to landholders.
In times of war, however, extraordinary contributions were required for the defence of the province, and for the King's use in prosecuting the war. A land tax was then resorted to; and the Assembly, considering it just that the Proprietaries should bear their proportion in providing the means for defending their own property, included their lands in the laws for raising money. The governors, bound by their instructions, uniformly rejected these laws, and insisted, that the proprietary estates should in no case be taxed. Frequent altercations ensued. Franklin was the champion of the Assembly, being well qualified for this task, not more by bis talents and skill as a writer, than by his perfect knowledge of the subjects in dispute. The able and elaborate replies, which from time to time were made to the objections and arguments of the governors, were nearly all from his pen.
When it was determined, therefore, to send an agent to England with a remonstrance to the Proprietaries, and, should this prove ineffectual, with a petition to the King, Franklin was selected as the most competent person for this important mission. His instructions embraced several objects, tending to a removal of the obstacles to the peace and prosperity of the province; but the principal one was the complaint against the Proprietaries for refusing to bear their just share of the public burdens for defence, in common with the inhabitants, and in proportion to the value of their estates in Pennsylvania. He was, in general, to make such representations, and demand such redress, as would restore the violated rights of the people, and establish them on the fundamental principles of charter privileges and English liberty.
Franklin's fame as a philosopher, and as a political writer, had preceded him in England. His brilliant discoveries in electricity had been made known to the world ten years before. He was already a member of the Royal Society, that body having rendered ample justice to his merits as an original discoverer, though tardily, and not till these merits had elicited the applause of the learned in France and other countries. When he arrived in England, therefore, he did not find himself a stranger or without friends.
His letters on electricity had been written to Peter Collinson, a member of the Royal Society, and a benevolent and worthy man, who had raised himself to usefulness and some degree of celebrity by his zeal and exertions in promoting the researches of others in various branches of science, and collecting the results of their labors. Mr. Collinson kindly invited him to his house, where he stayed till he took lodgings at Mrs. Stevenson's, in Craven Street, a few doors from the Strand. Mrs. Stevenson's house had been recommended to him by some of his Pennsylvania friends, who had lodged there ; and, so well was he pleased with the accommodations, and the amiable character of the family, that he remained in the same place during the whole of his residence in England, a period of fifteen years. This circumstance is the more worthy of being mentioned, as he often alludes to the family VOL. I.