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London Years

 

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1725-1726

Franklin’s first visit to England was in 1725 where he expanded his knowledge of the printing trade. The area where he took up residence, Little Britain, was a great centre for printers and booksellers, and a lively hub of political and religious debate – founder of the Methodist church John Wesley regularly preached nearby.

He returned to America in 1726, where he set up his own printing business, publishing one of America’s first high-circulation newspapers, the Pennsylvania Gazette, as well as Poor Richard's Almanack, a series of homespun wisdom, still widely quoted today, which he published in 1733 through 1758.

Map of Craven St in 1747
Craven Street 1747

1757-1762

In the thirty years that transpired after his first visit to England, Franklin built a reputation as a civic leader, establishing the colonies’ first postal service, volunteer fire service, public library and one of the earliest medical facilities, the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. He founded Philadelphia’s American Philosophical Society in 1743, still a vibrant centre for research today, and in 1749 he set up an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania.

One year earlier, in 1748, he took on a partner for his successful printing business in order to concentrate on politics and scientific research. He was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1751 and made his pioneering discovery of lightning as electricity (the famed kite and key experiment) in 1752.

In 1757 he was sent to London as diplomat for the Pennsylvania Assembly, taking his son William (then aged 26) with him. There he took comfortable lodgings with the widowed Margaret Stevenson in her house at 36 Craven Street. Both Mrs. Stevenson and her daughter Polly were to become life-long friends of Franklin. Leaving his wife, Deborah (who was afraid of crossing the ocean) and daughter behind in Philadelphia, Franklin found a surrogate family. As Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Carl Van Doren noted, he became less a lodger than the head of a household living in serene comfort and affection!

When it seemed the Penns – founding family of Pennsylvania - finally conceded to Franklin’s demands in 1762 to provide financial assistance for events happening on the homefront like the French and Indian War (1754-1763), he left England for what proved to be a brief period. Although he had often been frustrated by Britain’s government, he had come to esteem the nation’s scientific, social and administrative life – it was (and continues to be) one of the world’s most exciting cities. In it, he thought, a model might be found for better international relations, particularly between the Crown and her colonies.

1764-1775

In 1764, Franklin was again sent to England to petition the King to make Pennsylvania a Royal colony rather than a proprietary province. Despite the defeat of France in the French and Indian War, the colony was racked by the strains of defending its frontier. Franklin arrived in London in December 1764 and returned to his home with the Stevensons in Craven Street.

Franklin's final stay in England was to last much longer than his first two visits. However his mission was obscured by commotion surrounding the Stamp Act, a fact that aroused great antipathy in America.

Having been asked by the colonists to defend the frontier, Britain gave them the choice of raising their own forces or paying for 10,000 British soldiers. The colonists did not like either choice. Parliament in 1765 imposed a stamp duty on among other things, colonial legal documents, newspapers, deeds, contract, and ship's manifests to pay for a defence operation.

Franklin, who opposed taxation without representation, argued against the tax. He used the press and social occasions to influence government leaders and also warned British merchants about colonial boycotts of British goods. In 1766, Franklin was called as a witness before the House of Commons where he gave a masterly performance answering over 170 questions. While the direct impact of Franklin's testimony can not be measured with certainty, the Act was indeed repealed a month later.

In 1767, relations between Britain and the colonies worsened as duties were levied on glass, paper and tea. Franklin received overtures from the French, desirous of exploiting the differences between Britain and the colonies.

Despite the tensions, Franklin worked tirelessly toward reconciliation, in the process, attracting criticism from both sides. As Franklin said in a letter from the House in 1768, “being born and bred in one of the countries, and having lived long and made many agreeable connections of friendship in the other, I wish all prosperity to both sides; but I have talked and written so much and so long on the subject, that my acquaintance are weary of hearing, and the public of reading any more of it...as I do not find that I have gained any point in either country except that of rendering myself suspected for my impartiality; in England, of being too much an American, and in America of being too much an Englishman.”

Although times were turbulent in this period, he maintained constant contact with friends, scientific and otherwise. He spent time in his Craven Street laboratory investigating topics as diverse as lead poisoning, the common cold and magnetism. He also took an active part in the everyday affairs of his beloved adopted Craven Street family. However, with his wife's death, his failure to limit escalation of misunderstanding on both sides (though he tried to the last, with the great British statesman William Pitt coming to Craven Street to explore last minute proposals for reconciliation), he could not avert a war of independence. Thus his third and final stay in London came to a close. By the time he stepped ashore in Philadelphia on 5 May 1775, the American Revolution had already begun.

Franklin had through his negotiations and writings aimed to reduce misconception and hostility between America and Britain. In this sense, he can be considered the founder of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the two countries, a relationship that remains a bedrock in international relations. To the end of his days he revered the best in British and American life and traditions.

In 1778 Franklin was sent to France to gain French support for American Independence, and eventually negotiated peace with England. He was eventually joined at his home in Passy, just outside Paris, by the widowed Polly Hewson (nee Stevenson), who eventually moved to Philadelphia with her young family. When he died in 1790, Polly and his daughter Sally were at his side.