The British Empire Library

Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father

by George Goodwin

Review by Tim Stanley
When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris in 1776 to serve as ambassador for the United States, he wore a beaver hat to protect his bald head.“By luck or by design" Writes George Goodwin, he had created exactly the image that the French aristocracy Wanted, that ofthe frontiersman savant'.

One suspects it was by design. Goodwin's enjoyable biography argues that as Well as a polymath, Franklin was also a genius of disguise.The reason why his Personality seems so complex - so multifaceted, so difficult to summarise - is because he wore a different mask for each audience. To Americans, he was the defender of colonial interests and values. To Europeans, he was an enlightenment sophisticate: a 'Prometheus of modern times' (Immanuel Kant) and 'the sage whom two worlds claim' (Mirabeau). Not everyone fell in love with him instantly. Louis XVI 'commissioned a chamber pot with Franklin's face on the bottom of its inner surface'.

Goodwin's book focuses on the years Franklin spent in London, from the mid-1750s to the mid -1770 , a period that shaped his colonial politics. On the one hand, the scientist lived rather well : a house in a nice, central location, honorary degrees, friendship with luminaries and access to the higher reaches of power. On the other hand, he endured humiliation from aristocratic snobs. Despite the insults, he remained a royalist almost until the end, until he was forced to flee abroad to escape arrest. Goodwin's work reminds us that the American War of Independence was really a civil war between men who both claimed liberty for their cause. Sometimes the emphasis upon Franklin's intellectual revolutionary spirit clouds some of the baser motivations for independence: hunger for Native American land, hatred of Catholicism in Canada and a refusal to pay for the huge upkeep of a contested colony on the frontier of civilisation.

Goodwin's tour ofrSthcentu ry society is full ofwonderful detail. London is a place of shade and dark: of poverty and crime but also the luxury of Empire. Anyone who was anyone ate turtle; there were curries with spices from India. Gout struck, along with kidney stones and bad skin: an allergic reaction, Benjamin fancied, to his excessive consumption of beef. Franklin exercised with dumbbelis and walking up and down the stairs, having deduced that it ate up far more calories than travelling along flat roads.

Thi wa a society that was obsessed with exploring the natural and physical worlds, like a child discovering the proper use of its own feet. In France, the king's official experimenter tested his theories about conductivity by passing an electric current between 200 Carthusian monks and making them jump up into the air simultaneously. Franklin, of course, was famous for having done something similar with a kite. No physical event, great or small, passed by without examination or comment. After Franklin fled England following the Hutchinson Affair and the Boston Tea Party, he spent part of the voyage 'taking water samples in an attempt to understand the workings ofthe Gulf Stream'.

Franklin was not a perfect politician. He misunderstood the mood of his fellow Americans, seeking conciliation where many preferred resistance to the British. He admitted that he was not the best of speakers, but believed that the new media of publishing rendered demagoguery unnecessary (he was wrong about that). And he would sometimes slip into long silences that were mistakenly thought enigmatic. Goodwin does not say it explicitly but some readers might infer that he was a gadfly, drawn to politics in the same way that he was drawn to nature studies or chess. He relied heavily on charm and sometimes came across as a suck-up.

For all his sycophancy, he failed to promote a vision of an empire that was a fair and equal partnership, for which he can not take the blame. That rested with an arrogant London administration which cast aside one of the best friends that the Empire ever had. Franklin said au revoir to England and bonjour to France and secured the latter's aid in a war that would sever the British Empire for good. In a final twist of irony, it was an absolutist monarchy that rescued the republican revolution from the armies of a parliamentary democracy.

British Empire Book
George Goodwin
Weidenfeld & Nicholson


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