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- The Eve of the Revolution, - 1/28 -

The Eve Of The Revolution, A Chronicle Of The Breach With England

by Carl Becker


In this brief sketch I have chiefly endeavored to convey to the reader, not a record of what men did, but a sense of how they thought and felt about what they did. To give the quality and texture of the state of mind and feeling of an individual or class, to create for the reader the illusion (not DELUSION, O able Critic!) of the intellectual atmosphere of past times, I have as a matter of course introduced many quotations; but I have also ventured to resort frequently to the literary device (this, I know, gives the whole thing away) of telling the story by means of a rather free paraphrase of what some imagined spectator or participant might have thought or said about the matter in hand. If the critic says that the product of such methods is not history, I am willing to call it by any name that is better; the point of greatest relevance being the truth and effectiveness of the illusion aimed at--the extent to which it reproduces the quality of the thought and feeling of those days, the extent to which it enables the reader to enter into such states of mind and feeling. The truth of such history (or whatever the critic wishes to call it) cannot of course be determined by a mere verification of references.

To one of my colleagues, who has read the entire manuscript, I am under obligations for many suggestions and corrections in matters of detail; and I would gladly mention his name if it could be supposed that an historian of established reputation would wish to be associated, even in any slight way, with an enterprise of questionable orthodoxy.

Carl Becker.

Ithaca, New York, January 6, 1918.




CHAPTER I. A Patriot Of 1763

His Majesty's reign...I predict will be happy and truly glorious.--Benjamin Franklin.

The 29th of January, 1757, was a notable day in the life of Ben Franklin of Philadelphia, well known in the metropolis of America as printer and politician, and famous abroad as a scientist and Friend of the Human Race. It was on that day that the Assembly of Pennsylvania commissioned him as its agent to repair to London in support of its petition against the Proprietors of the Province, who were charged with having "obstinately persisted in manacling their deputies [the Governors of Pennsylvania] with instructions inconsistent not only with the privileges of the people, but with the service of the Crown." We may, therefore, if we choose, imagine the philosopher on that day, being then in his fifty-first year, walking through the streets of this metropolis of America (a town of something less than twenty thousand inhabitants) to his modest home, and there informing his "Dear Debby" that her husband, now apparently become a great man in a small world, was ordered immediately "home to England."

In those leisurely days, going home to England was no slight undertaking; and immediately, when there was any question of a great journey, meant as soon as the gods might bring it to pass. "I had agreed with Captain Morris, of the Pacquet at New York, for my passage," he writes in the "Autobiography," "and my stores were put on board, when Lord Loudoun arrived at Philadelphia, expressly, as he told me, to endeavor an accommodation between the Governor and the Assembly, that his Majesty's service might not be obstructed by their dissentions." Franklin was the very man to effect an accommodation, when he set his mind to it, as he did on this occasion; but "in the mean time," he relates, "the Pacquet had sailed with my sea stores, which was some loss to me, and my only recompence was his Lordship's thanks for my service, all the credit for obtaining the accommodation falling to his share."

It was now war time, and the packets were at the disposal of Lord Loudoun, commander of the forces in America. The General was good enough to inform his accommodating friend that of the two packets then at New York, one was given out to sail on Saturday, the 12th of April--"but," the great man added very confidentially, "I may let you know, entre nous, that if you are there by Monday morning, you will be in time, but do not delay longer." As early as the 4th of April, accordingly, the provincial printer and Friend of the Human Race, accompanied by many neighbors "to see him out of the province," left Philadelphia. He arrived at Trenton "well before night," and expected, in case "the roads were no worse," to reach Woodbridge by the night following. In crossing over to New York on the Monday, some accident at the ferry delayed him, so that he did not reach the city till nearly noon, and he feared that he might miss the packet after all--Lord Loudoun had so precisely mentioned Monday morning. Happily, no such thing! The packet was still there. It did not sail that day, or the next either; and as late as the 29th of April Franklin was still hanging about waiting to be off. For it was war time and the packets waited the orders of General Loudoun, who, ready in promises but slow in execution, was said to be "like St. George on the signs, always on horseback but never rides on."

Franklin himself was a deliberate man, and at the last moment he decided, for some reason or other, not to take the first packet. Behold him, therefore, waiting for the second through the month of May and the greater part of June! "This tedious state of uncertainty and long waiting," during which the agent of the Province of Pennsylvania, running back and forth from New York to Woodbridge, spent his time more uselessly than ever he remembered, was duly credited to the perversity of the British General. But at last they were off, and on the 26th of July, three and a half months after leaving Philadelphia, Franklin arrived in London to take up the work of his mission; and there he remained, always expecting to return shortly, but always delayed, for something more than five years.

These were glorious days in the history of Old England, the most heroic since the reign of Good Queen Bess. When the provincial printer arrived in London, the King and the politicians had already been forced, through multiplied reverses in every part of the world, to confer power upon William Pitt, a disagreeable man indeed, but still a great genius and War Lord, who soon turned defeat into victory. It was the privilege of Franklin, here in the capital of the Empire, to share the exaltation engendered by those successive conquests that gave India and America to the little island kingdom, and made Englishmen, in Horace Walpole's phrase, "heirs apparent of the Romans." No Briton rejoiced more sincerely than this provincial American in the extension of the Empire. He labored with good will and good humor, and doubtless with good effect, to remove popular prejudice against his countrymen; and he wrote a masterly pamphlet to prove the wisdom of retaining Canada rather than Guadaloupe at the close of the war, confidently assuring his readers that the colonies would never, even when once the French danger was removed, "unite against their own nation, which protects and encourages them, with which they have so many connections and ties of blood, interest, and affection, and which 'tis well known they all love much more than they love one another." Franklin, at least, loved Old England, and it might well be maintained that these were the happiest years of his life. He was mentally so cosmopolitan, so much at ease in the world, that here in London he readily found himself at home indeed. The business of his particular mission, strictly attended to, occupied no great part of his time. He devoted long days to his beloved scientific experiments, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with David Hume and Lord Kames, and with many other men of note in England, France, and Italy. He made journeys, to Holland, to Cambridge, to ancestral places and the homes of surviving relatives; but mostly, one may imagine, he gave himself to a steady flow of that "agreeable and instructive conversation" of which he was so much the master and the devotee. He was more famous than he knew, and the reception that everywhere awaited him was flattering, and as agreeable to his unwarped and emancipated mind as it was flattering. "The regard and friendship I meet with," he confesses, "and the conversation of ingenious men, give me no small pleasure"; and at Cambridge, "my vanity was not a little gratified by the particular regard shown me by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University, and the Heads of the Colleges." As the years passed, the sense of being at ease among friends grew stronger; the serene and placid letters to "Dear Debby" became rather less frequent; the desire to return to America was much attenuated.

How delightful, indeed, was this Old England! "Of all the enviable things England has," he writes, "I envy it most its people.... Why should this little island enjoy in almost every neighborhood more sensible, virtuous, and elegant minds, than we can collect in ranging one hundred leagues of our vast forests?" What a proper place for a philosopher to spin out the remnant of his days! The idea had occurred to him; he was persistently urged by his friend William Strahan to carry it into effect; and his other friend, David Hume, made him a pretty compliment on the same theme: "America has sent us many good things, gold, silver, sugar, tobacco; but you are the first philosopher for whom we are beholden to her. It is our own fault that we have not kept him; whence it appears that we do not agree with Solomon, that wisdom is above gold; for we take good care never to send back an ounce of the latter, which we once lay our fingers upon." The philosopher was willing enough to remain; and of the two objections which he mentioned to Strahan, the rooted aversion of his wife to embarking on the ocean and his love for Philadelphia, the latter for the moment clearly gave him less difficulty than the former. "I cannot leave this happy island and my friends in it without extreme regret," he writes at the moment of departure. "I am going from the old world to the new; and I fancy I feel like those who are leaving this world for the next; grief at the parting; fear of the passage; hope for the future."

When, on the 1st of November, 1762, Franklin quietly slipped into

The Eve of the Revolution, - 1/28

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