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past News – 2011

From Subject to Citizen - The Political Transformation of Benjamin Franklin


In 1757 Benjamin Franklin arrived in London a British gentleman of the Empire – a loyal subject to His Majesty the King.  He departed in March 1775 a radical republican, a man dedicated to separating his country of birth from its motherland.  How did Franklin arrive at that end?  How and why did he transform from loyal subject of a crown to citizen of a republic?

Franklin’s initial response to parliamentary legislation toward the American colonies was moderate and he attempted to bridge the differences between the sides and explain one to the other.  When parliament tried to raise revenue to offset losses during the Seven Years War through the 1764 Sugar Act, Franklin’s response to Americans was that they should work harder to offset that new tax.  Yet he also issued a cautionary note to British leaders that too heavy tax burdens on Americans could only, in the long-run, hurt imperial trade.

Franklin initially accepted the 1765 Stamp Act and acquired for his Pennsylvania friend, John Hughes, the royal position of stamp commissioner.  In this case, Franklin badly misread opinion in America.  Riots occurred throughout the colonies due to the imposition of this internal tax, and even Franklin’s Philadelphia home was the scene of protests.

Standing before the House of Commons in 1766 on the issue of repealing the Stamp Act, Franklin reversed his acceptance of the tax and requested repeal.  When indeed parliament did repeal the Stamp Act, Franklin saw this as evidence that the Empire did work well as a political unit and that American interests did have a legitimate voice in imperial governance.

Franklin’s standing among British leaders and his own view of America’s future within the British Empire began to change with his January 1771 meeting with Lord Hillsborough, then Secretary of State for the Colonies.  Hillsborough refused to accept Franklin’s diplomatic credentials as agent for Massachusetts because they were given by the Massachusetts assembly and not the Royal Governor.  This was the first of many snubs Franklin was to receive on his road to republicanism.

The most spectacular miscalculation Franklin made and the one which was his turning point to rebellion, was the Hutchison Affair.  In 1772 an anonymous source gave Franklin letters written by Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchison.  These letters from Hutchison to London authorities suggested the curtailment of English liberties for Massachusetts citizens in order to squash growing unrest.  Franklin sent these letters confidentially  to dissident leaders in Massachusetts as proof that the threat to liberty did not emanate from London, but from in-country authorities.  When the letters were made public and Franklin admitted to having sent the letters to Massachusetts, he was called before the Privy Council where Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn publicly humiliated Franklin. 

On January 29, 1774, Franklin entered the Cockpit and stood before the Privy Council a humbled but still loyal subject of the King.  He left Whitehall that day humiliated, and a transformed revolutionary.

He made once last attempt at reconciliation, working with Pitt, Lord Chatham, on legislation that would reconcile the American colonies to parliament.  When that legislation failed in February 1775, Franklin knew all hope was lost.  Benjamin Franklin departed London on March 20, 1775, sailing home to Philadelphia where he joined the Second Continental Congress as revolutionary sage and editor to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

By Dr. Steve Neiheisel of St. Mary’s University in Texas

Second Benjamin Franklin House Young Supporters Debate

Thursday, 1 September 2011, saw the Young Supporters of Benjamin Franklin House gather for the latest in their Current Affairs Debate Series. The theme was journalism: This House Believes Journalism is Dead. Chaired by Young Supporters member Ella Weston (WPP), the House speaker was Richard Peppiatt (former Daily Star journalist). The Opposition speaker was Gavin Freeguard (The Media Standards Trust/The Orwell Prize).   Speaking to a full crowd, the debaters persuasively argued their points but in the end, the motion was denied – journalism is very much alive. To get involved or attend future debates, please contact Ella Weston ( or register here


250 years of the Glass Armonica

“Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction” – Benjamin Franklin

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin developed a musical instrument called the glass armonica while lodging at 36 Craven Street. So this year marks the 250th anniversary of the invention of Franklin’s unique arrangement of glass bowls. The glass armonica belongs to a family of instruments called Crystallophones which make sounds from glass.  Tones emitted by rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a goblet were first noted during the Renaissance. But it was the Irish musician Richard Poekrich (c.1695–1759) who is credited with creating an instrument comprised of glass vessels.

While living on Craven Street, Franklin had seen water filled wine glasses played by Edmund Delaval at Cambridge in 1758.  Inspired by the unique sounds, Franklin considered how he could improve on the general design of musical glasses. He worked with the London glassblower, Charles James, to build a new instrument. 37 bowls were mounted horizontally and nestled on an iron spindle, turned by a foot-operated treadle. The rims were painted different colours according to the pitch of the note. A's were indigo, B's lighter blue, C's purple, D's red, E's orange, F's yellow, G's green and the ‘black keys’ white. Franklin named his new musical invention the armonica, which was taken from the Italian word for harmony. To play the instrument, performers applied pressure to the rims of the bowls with moistened fingers, with the possibility to play up to ten glasses simultaneously. Franklin advocated using fine powdered chalk on each finger to help produce clear tones.

The glass armonica proved to be popular with composers including Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti and Camille Saint-Saens who all wrote works for the instrument. Tchaikovsky originally intended to use the armonica in the famous ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ but instead used a celesta, an orchestral percussion instrument resembling a small upright piano.  Marie Antoinette supposedly received armonica lessons as a child from celebrated British armonica player, Marianne Davies.

Eventually, purported dangers associated with the ethereal sounding instrument were reported: playing the instrument could prompt insanity.  The armonica’s reputation was not helped by the fact that notorious doctor Franz Mesmer used the instrument to ‘mesmerize’ his patients, and it was was also used in 19th century séances to help conjure spirits.  Today it is felt the source of any madness may have come from lead paint used to mark the bowls, with players having licked their fingers to help moisten them. 

The armonica eventually faded from fashion but has had a revival over the last 40 years. In 1984, Franklin's armonica was reinvented by glassblower and musician, Gerhard B. Finkenbeiner. After much experimentation, Finkenbeiner developed a prototype consisting of clear glasses and those marked with gold bands. The company he founded continues to produce these instruments today. There are a number of professional armonica players who perform for recordings and concerts, including friends of Benjamin Franklin House, Thomas Bloch, Cecilia Brauer, and Alastair Malloy. The armonica has also been used in music and film scores; some notable examples include the original film score for Frida (2002) by Elliot Goldenthal; the music for the stage adaptation of Monkey: Journey to the West (2007) by Damian Albarn; and the original score for the HBO series True Blood (2008) by Nathan Barr.

During an evening reception on 11 August, House Operations Manager Sally James, who is a talented pianist, demonstrated the fully working, modern replica of the glass armonica at Benjamin Franklin House. Ours turns thanks to a motor of which Franklin would no doubt have approved considering his important work on electricity. Visitors can request to see the armonica following a Historical Experience show, or can book an appointment with Sally: + 44 20 7839 2006 or

Armonica Event

Armonica Performance

The United States Constitution:  Blueprint for a Republic

By Scott Varland

During the summer of 1787, fifty-five men, including Benjamin Franklin, convened near his Philadelphia, Pennsylvania home for the purpose of creating a government.  (Franklin acted as the unofficial host.)  On September 17 of that year, they published their handiwork:  the four page United States Constitution.  What had they wrought?

The Constitution rejected tyranny, aristocracy, and established religion and installed a limited government for a vast Republic intended to last generations.  Beyond that, the Constitution addressed the greatest threat to popular government.

From the ancients up to the writing of the Constitution, tyrannical majorities that oppressed the minority built their power on one idea, interest, or passion sweeping through the people. The Constitution, however, set loose so many ideas, interests, and passions over a massive and diverse land that no single one could dominate sufficiently to generate the formation of a tyrannical majority.  For example, the Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, expression, association, and contract. 

The structure of the American government under the Constitution also prevented the formation of tyrannical majorities.  Governmental power was divided among political institutions at the federal and state level.  With regard to the federal government, legislative power was divided between the Senate and the House of Representatives; the President held executive power; and the Supreme Court the judicial.  According to the Constitution’s tenets, these three branches of government are in constant conflict with the others thereby checking them to prevent tyranny and to promote compromise and justice.

For over 200 years, the American people have lived under a Constitution written by Benjamin Franklin and others.  More often than not, the Constitution has functioned well, but there have also been glaring failures.  Most notably, the Constitution failed to provide a mechanism for peacefully ending slavery.  A five year horrific Civil War had to be fought before the blood-stained Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were adopted, abolishing slavery and expanding human rights.         

Listen to the full lecture on the subject by Scott Varland, recorded from Benjamin Franklin House in June 2012 below.

Scott Varland

Image taken from Scott Varland's lecture at Benjamin Franklin House

Could Franklin have been a spy?

There are several books that accuse Franklin of being a spy: first, as an agent for the Colonies while he was in London, and later as a British spy when he was an American agent in Paris. He could not really have been both, so what is the truth about all this?

No one seemed to trust anyone in the eighteenth century. Espionage systems were very much in their infancy, but all communication methods were compromised (a timely topic given recent events in Britain which have been making headlines) – overheard, stolen, opened and resealed, copied, deciphered and recoded. Little attempt was made to distinguish between what was insignificant or relevant.  Franklin was used to having his mail stolen and read.

During his last two years in London, when his star was waning, culminating in a humiliating condemnation before the government’s Privy Council, Franklin had a French secretary who dealt with his letters, particularly useful for those in French.  There is a record of him paying visits to a port on the South Coast to meet two French merchants, who would become involved in procuring military equipment for the colonial army. This information is enough to convince us that Franklin was a committed rebel or patriot, but not sufficient to brand him a spy.

While residing in Paris he was accused of being so untidy that anyone could read and copy his correspondence, which is indeed what happened. Lord Auckland had reorganised the British espionage system with excellent people, mainly Americans, paid to provide detailed information about activities of Americans in Paris. It is claimed ministers in London knew about the movement of goods and shipping on behalf of the Americans long before those in charge in Philadelphia. But Franklin believed that because there was so much false information about, hiding correspondence was pointless.

For some, Franklin’s association with fellow American agent Silas Deane, about whom suspicions of spying have swirled, were a cause to label him as working on behalf of the British while in Paris (Deane was friendly with French diplomat, spy, and arms trader, Pierre Beaumarchais).  Deane was accused of diverting goods and funds to himself, and working towards a compromise with the British. Deane was hauled up before Congress and never was able to account for his money transactions. During this period, Franklin’s secretary in Paris was Edward Bancroft, an American born friend.  Bancroft moved easily between France and England during the war, ostensibly bringing back bits of information, but in reality, providing details to the British.  Bancroft was in fact a fully paid up member of the British Spy system, which was not officially revealed until the late 19th century, when the scale of his espionage activity became apparent.

It is a tangled story full of tantilising events, including swashbuckling ships’ captains, a bisexual French informer, and an American wax model artist based in Paris at the time, Patience Wright, who offered her services as a “go-between.”  By by its very nature, espionage is secret and difficult to verify, so Franklin is best left, not as a spy, but at the centre of a maze of intrigue.

By Lady Joan Reid, Governor and Franklin scholar


Image taken from Lady Reid's June 2011 lecture entitled 'Franklin the Spy?'

Independence Day Celebration

We celebrated Independence Day on the 4th of July at Benjamin Franklin House with a fun midday reception. Perhaps the most fitting location for such an event in Britain: the House served as the first de-facto American Embassy.  Guests, including visitors from Texas and Boston, enjoyed cake and bubbly kindly donated by Whole Foods Market.  

Independence Day Party Guests


Independence Day Party

United States Congressional Visit

Congress Visitors

Members of the United States Congressional Caucus and their partners, congressional staff, and a member of the diplomatic team from the British Embassy in Washington, DC came to Benjamin Franklin House on Sunday, 5 June 2011 to see the Historical Experience!   They discovered more about Franklin’s tumultuous yet fulfilling years at Craven Street, the United States’ first de facto embassy.

Robert H. Smith Lecture

Sir Meyer

On Monday, 16 May 2011, we hosted the first annual Robert H. Smith Lecture in American Democracy, in association with the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the United States, drew on his background as a diplomat, public servant, and author, to share his views on the lessons of history. Listen to the full lecture below.  


International Museums Day

On 18 May 2011, Benjamin Franklin House celebrated International Museums Day. The theme for 2011 was memory and in honour of the day we asked our visitors 'Do you think museums capture and share memories?' See below for a selection of their thoughts and opinions.



Benjamin Franklin House Young Supporters Host Debate

On 4 May 2011, the House was the scene of an impromptu debate on electoral reform. Organised by the Young Supporters of Benjamin Franklin House, the debate brought together a group of twenty to debate the merits of the then forthcoming referendum on the alternative vote system.  The motion, This House Believes that AV is Right for Britain, was lead by Amisha Ghadiali, Vice-Chair of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign, and an ethical fashion campaigner and award winning jewellery designer. Opposed by Alan Mak, a solicitor at Clifford Chance LLP and Co-Chairman of Conservative Fastrack and Chaired by Ella Weston of the Young Supporters. Quick wit met some fast debating and despite some excellent points - the vote matched the result of the subsequent referendum, with two-thirds of the audience opposing the introduction of AV. The event runs ahead of the official launch of the Young Supporters later this summer.  Please do get in touch if you'd like to be included in future events:


Second Annual Benjamin Franklin Fellowship Debate with the US Embassy London

On 5 April 2011, we held our second annual Benjamin Franklin Fellowship Debate Competition at the US Embassy, London. Students from Burntwood School, Saint Cecilia's School and Southfields School persuasively argued the motions 'Universities should be free for all' and 'Internet freedom is a human right' as they competed for a number of prizes, including a place at the Benjamin Franklin Summer Institute at Wake Forest University in North Carolina for the overall winner

After much deliberation, the judges including Benjamin Franklin House Director Dr Márcia Balisciano and Michael Lea, speechwriter to American Ambassador Louis Susman, awarded first prize to Burntwood School's Emily Cunningham.  Emily will be one of 50 students from across Europe and the US taking part in the Summer Institute which fosters awareness of shared values – including the principles of freedom and cooperation – and transatlantic friendships.


The debators on stage with the countdown clock behind them



Students congratulate the winners


Judges and winner

Contest winner Emily Cunningham with the judges


Benjamin Franklin House 'Blue' Plaque


On 17 January 2011, in celebration of Benjamin Franklin’s 305th birthday, and the 5th anniversary of the opening of Benjamin Franklin House to the public as a dynamic museum and educational facility, the original ‘blue’ plaque intended to commemorate Franklin’s nearly sixteen year tenure at 36 Craven Street, London was finally erected. One of history’s great polymaths, Franklin is famous for his contributions to science, letters, invention, diplomacy, music, and more.

In 1869, the (Royal) Society of Arts, originators of what became the popular blue plaque scheme to recognise the lodgings of London’s important past residents, commissioned a large terracotta plate surrounded by a wooden frame to honour Franklin, their first international member.  However, they accidentally erected it on the wrong building. 

Prior to two rounds of renumbering and the construction of new buildings on the street, Franklin lived at 7 Craven Street which had become 36 by the late 19th century.  It was affixed incorrectly, however, to the 7 Craven Street of 1869, but this was discovered too late; it was cemented tight.  In the course of investigations, the Clerk of the London County Council proved by consulting City of Westminster rate-books (which tracked annual assessments) that Franklin’s landlady, leaseholder Margaret Stevenson, had lived two doors from Craven Passage on the east side of the street – number 36 – not at the top of the west side, where number 7 was then located. 

In 1914, 7 Craven Street was demolished to make way for a restaurant (which no longer stands) and the plaque was finally removed.  It was donated to the London Museum, then at Stafford House, St. James’s, the forerunner to the Museum of London.  It eventually came to rest in the Museum’s Hackney storehouse where it has been ever since.  It was kindly donated by the Museum to Benjamin Franklin House last year. 

In 1914, the London County Council put up a new ‘blue’ plaque on 36 Craven Street, a bronze scroll and the only one of its kind, which denotes Franklin’s only surviving residence anywhere in the world.  Now there are two plaques.

According to Benjamin Franklin House Director Dr. Márcia Balisciano, “For the first time in 136 years, on an auspicious Franklin day, the original plaque [to feature on an interior brick wall] will finally be displayed where it was always intended!”

House 5th and Franklin 305th Birthday Celebration

On 17 January 2011, we hosted a reception to celebrate the 5th anniversary of opening the House to the public and Franklin’s 305th birthday. The House’s original 1875 ‘blue’ plaque was unveiled for the first time.

Ben Franklin 


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