Dinner with Benjamin Franklin (1787)

10th of May, 1787

Dear Sir,

It is with great care I write this letter to you detailing my discussions with the venerable Benjamin Franklin. This gentleman’s boundless curiosity—which appears remarkably untouched by his advanced age—produced a great many topics of conversation. However, out of respect for your time, this letter shall be limited to our discussion of his loyalty to the crown early in life, and his subsequent devotion to the patriot cause beginning a mere decade ago. 

Franklin began by telling stories of his time in London at mid-century, often making reference to a Mrs. Polly Stevenson whom he seems to carry a great affection for. Though not exceeding his affection for Polly, Franklin expressed no small amount of love for the city of London itself, which offered much more “cosmopolitan excitement” than the humble colonial towns he’d grown up in.1 He confessed there was a time when he expected to spend the rest of his days in London, and had hoped he would “prevail with Mrs. F. to accompany” him.2 In these years, Franklin developed a deeply personal attachment to London, and to the Mother Country as a whole, all the while becoming detached from his home across the great sea. This led him to remain steadfast in his loyalty to the crown far longer than his fellow countrymen back in America.

Franklin went on to boast (despite his own admonitions against such behavior) of his Plan of Union presented in Albany three decades ago. He contends that should this plan have been adopted, the colonies would have been strong enough to defend themselves without British troops, thus removing the justifications for taxation, “and the bloody contest it occasioned, would have been avoided.”3 I suspect Parliament would have simply discovered another justification for taxing the colonists and the result would be the same, but out of respect for the man very much my senior, I indulged his claim and kept my silence. 

Franklin continued on discussing his ardent support of a united empire which lasted far beyond his attempts in Albany. In 1765 when the Stamp Act passed, Franklin admits he did not foresee the outcry that erupted in the colonies. In an effort to be tactful—as is Franklin’s modus operandi—he appointed a collections officer by the name of John Hughes in Pennsylvania and instructed him that, “firm loyalty to the crown (…) will always be the wisest course”.4 He then added, with a bit of wry laughter, that there was soon a mob gathered at his doorstep! But Franklin has always been one for appearances, and he was quick to mend his reputation. (Earlier in the night he regaled us with a story how he would cart around rolls of paper for his print shop through town so people would see how industrious he was.5) In February of 1765, Franklin gave a speech to Parliament rationally condemning the Stamp Act, which was thereafter repealed. This “fully restored” his reputation in Pennsylvania.6

Still, this was not a line of demarcation for the devoted Doctor, as he pressed on with his attempts to maintain the empire. Franklin recalls censuring the patriots who participated in the Destruction of the Tea in Boston Harbor, declaring it an “act of violent injustice”.7 He even offered to pay for the damage out of his own pocket.8 Though at this point he had lost his once fervent affection for Great Britain, and his attempts to lobby on behalf of the colonies continued to bear no fruit. Franklin was later embarrassed in the Cockpit after the Hutchison letters ordeal (though he notes that he betrayed no such emotions), and his fighting on behalf of America made living in London increasingly tenuous. Franklin proudly recounts the torrent of sardonic wit he unleashed upon Britain during this period, but soon it became clear that he no longer had any place there. On May 5th, 1775, Franklin landed in Philadelphia and became what history will forever remember him to be: a patriot.

I find myself in agreement with other enlightened men9 that Franklin’s sincere belief in a united empire, and his hopes of having a part in it, are what made the degradations he endured in Britain all the more painful. Franklin had long hoped for reconciliation between England and America. When it became abundantly clear that war was inevitable, his eyes welled with tears until it became, “impossible for him to read.”10 All of this emotion turned into a zealous support of the patriot cause, and ultimately led to Franklin’s integral role in securing the independence of this nation.

Franklin’s gaiety resumed as he began to recount his time as America’s ambassador in France. The fame he enjoyed there is quite extraordinary. The French were obsessed with him, adorning every object they could with Monsieur Franklin’s face.11 If we were to ask John Adams, I have no doubt he would tell of the frivolous indulgences Franklin routinely embraced as part of his popularity. (Only once did Franklin give mention of John Adams and appeared to wince in pain upon doing so, though it is hard to say whether that was due to his reflecting upon his interactions with the notoriously puritanical Adams, or due to the gout and kidney stones that have plagued Franklin in his later years.) Despite the frivolities, Franklin was able to leverage this popularity on behalf of America. He managed to procure a great many loans for our embattled nation and also proved indispensable in peace negotiations with Britain at the end of the war. Indeed, it is hard to say how America would have faired without Franklin’s diplomatic efforts in France. 

Still, I expect Franklin will prove himself even more indispensable to the forming of this nation by contributing his talents to the Federal Convention. He confesses that if this convention cannot remedy the ailments of our current constitution, “it will show that we have not the wisdom enough among us to govern ourselves.”12 He then bestowed us with some of his ideas—no salaries for office holders, an executive council, a unicameral legislature.13 I believe, however, that it is Franklin’s lifelong commitment to tolerance and pragmatism that will prove most beneficial to the convention.

In summary, though Franklin once longed for a united empire, he has since become one of America’s most valuable patriots. His endeavors in France were vital to securing independence, and I expect his contributions to the Federal Convention will be even more beneficial to this nation.

With sentiments of the highest regard and esteem,

Your most humble and obedient servant, 

Gray Winsler


End Notes

  1. Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (United States: Penguin Books, 2004), 85.
  2. Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 202.
  3. Et al. 162.
  4. Et al. 223.
  5. Et al. 54.
  6. Et al. 231.
  7. Et al. 275.
  8. Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (United States: Penguin Books, 2004), 148.
  9. Et al. 158.
  10. 10.Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 289.
  11. 11.Gordon Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (United States: Penguin Books, 2004), 177.
  12. 12.Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 445.
  13. 13.Et al. 447.

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