The Hated Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press. Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company. Source: Library of Congress

The front page of April 18, 1765, Pennsylvania Gazette featured one of the earliest American printings of the Stamp Act. “Printed by B. Franklin, Post-Master, and “D. Hall,” the newspaper offered no critical comment on the new law as threatening people’s liberties.

Franklin in London, 1767. Painting by David Martin, displayed in the White House.
Franklin in London, 1767, by David Martin. Current location: White House.

Benjamin Franklin became publisher of the Gazette in 1729. He took on Scottish immigrant David Hall as a printing partner in 1748, which gave him time to pursue his other activities in science and politics. Eventually he moved to London, where he served as Pennsylvania’s agent. Though Franklin had no active role in the daily printing operations between 1748 and 1766, he continued to receive half of the print shop’s profits in those years.

In London, Franklin watched the progress of the Stamp Act through Parliament. He and other colonial agents met with Prime Minister George Grenville and urged that his ministry raise any needed revenue through the colonies’ legislatures rather than through a direct or internal tax. Franklin also said, however, “I have never heard any objection to the [Parliament’s] right of laying duties to regulate commerce.” When the law passed over the agents’ polite objections, Franklin turned to lobbying for an associate, John Hughes, to become the stamp distributor in Pennsylvania.

For months, the question of taxation without representation in Parliament was debated in American newspapers and taverns until escalating tempers exploded in a Boston riot on August 14, 1765. Details of the Boston riot were printed in the August 29 Pennsylvania Gazette:

BOSTON, August 19.

Last Wednesday Morning, to the surprize and joy of the Public, was exhibited on the Great Trees in the High-street of this Town, the Effigies of a DISTRIBUTOR OF THE STAMPS, pendant, behind whom hung a Boot newly soaled with a GREENVILLE soal, out of which proceeded the Devil. This Spectacle continued the whole Day without the last Opposition, tho’ visited by Multitudes. — About Evening a Number of reputable People assembled, cut down the said Effigies, placed it on a Bier, and covering it with a Sheet, they proceeded in a regular and solemn Manner amidst the Acclamations of the Populace thro’ the Town, till they arrived at the Court-House, which, after a short Pause, they passed, and proceeding down King-street, soon reached a certain Edifice then building for the Reception of Stamps, which they quickly levelled with the Ground it stood on, and with the wooden Remains thereof, marched to Fort-Hill, where kindling a noble Fire therewith, they made a Burnt-offering of the Effigies for those Sins of the Popele which had caused such heavy Judgments as the STAMP-ACT, &c. to be laid upon them. — Unfortunately for the Gentleman (for so I must now call him, he having the next Day honourably resigned that invidious Employment) who was to have been the Distributor of Stamps, his House stood near the aforesaid Hill, and by that Means it received from the Populace some small Insults, such as breaking a few Panes of Glass in the Windows of his Kitchen, as they passed his House, which would have ended there, had not some Indiscretions, to say the least, been committed by his Friends within, which so enraged the People, that they were not to be restrained, tho’ hitherto no Violence had been offered to any Person, and the utmost Decorum had been preserved. But it is remarkable, tho’ they entered the lower Part of the House in Multitudes, yet the Damage done to it as not so great as might have been expected, and not one thing missing. Next Day the Resignation before mentioned taking Place, the Minds of the People were satisfied; but there being a Rumour that a certain honourable Gentleman in high Posts, had forwarded the Stamp Act, by recommending it as an easy Method of gulling the People of their Liberty and Property; many of the Inhabitants again assembled in the Evening, and paying their Thanks to the Gentleman who resigned, by Huazza’s, &c. they proceeded to the honourable Gentleman’s House aforesaid, in order to enquire about the Truth of that Rumour; but not finding him at Home, and being assured by some reputable Gentleman there was no foundation for the Report, they quietly dispersed; and God grant they may never have Occasion to meet again.

The Public is assured from Authority, that the Hon. Gentleman, who on Thursday last resigned the Employment of Distributor of Stamps, has wrote Home to the Lords Commissioners, &c. — That he cannot execute the Stamp-Act, and that it is his Opinion it will be impactible for any other Person to do it.

Two pages later, in the same issue, Franklin and Hall, in the last year of their printing partnership, included this advertisement for their almanac:

JUST PUBLISHED, and to be Sold at the NEW PRINTING OFFICE, in Market-street, Philadelphia.

POOR RICHARD’S ALMANACK, for the Year 1766; containing besides the usual Astronomical Calculations, The Substance of an ACT of PARLIAMENT, granting and applying certain STAMP DUTIES in the British Colonies and Plantations in America, which takes Place the First Day of November 1765; in which the Duties that are laid on the several Particulars are expressed; also such Things as are exempted from paying Duty by that Law, &c. &c. And as every Person is, almost, more or less, affected by this Act, it is absolutely necessary that all should become acquainted with it, in order to avoid the many Forfeitures they might otherwise be liable to, for the Want of a proper Knowledge thereof.

The details of Boston’s violent protest spread through many other newspapers, serving as an instruction manual, or Stamp Act riot to-do list, helping spark similar riots from New Hampshire to Georgia, each with similar mob elements: effigies, parades, property destruction, intimidation and forced public resignations of stamp officers.

The humiliation and forced resignations of stamp officers had the desirable effect of preventing the Stamp Act from being enforced and allowing business as usual to continue throughout the colonies after November 1, as demonstrated by the November 28, 1765, issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, which contained news of a riot that took place in the West Indies:

PHILADELPHIA, November 28.

By Captain Gregory, from St. Christophers, who sailed from thence the Fourth Instant; and was cleared out without Stamps, there are several Letters relating to the Proceedings of the People of that Place, with Regard to the Stamp Paper, the Distributor thereof, and his Deputy, the Substance of which is as follows, viz. That on Thursday Night, the Thirty-first of October, a great Number of the Inhabitants met at Noland’s Tavern, and, about Eight o’Clock, went to the House of Mr. John Hopkins, who was deputed by Mr. Tuckett, Distributor of the Stamp Papers, and in whose House was the Chest which contained them; when, after three Huzza’s, they demanded the Stamps, which were delivered to them, and burnt in a Bonfire, made before the Deputy’s Door, the said Deputy being obliged to swear, that he never would be concerned with Stamp Paper again, nor ever after suffer it to be lodged under his Roof. —- That upon this the People searched his House thoroughly, and being satisfied they had got all they wanted there, made Mr. Hopkins conduct them to the Place where Mr. Tuckett was concealed, about three Quarters of a Mile out of Town, where he delivered himself up to them, and was brought to the public Market, with Drums beating, &c. and sworn never to have any further Connection with Stamp Paper, and that he had no Commission (for that was what was most wanted to be burnt) and prudently submitted to every Thing else, as desired; by which he saved his House from being pulled down, and his Effects from being destroyed. — That when they finished their Business with Mr. Tuckett, they proceeded to the Secretary’s Office, where there were about four or five Quires of the Stamps; but the Keys not being at Hand to open the Door, Mr. Smith, the Secretary, desired them to break it open, and delivered the Stamp Paper, which was immediately burnt.; upon which he was conducted home, with loud Acclamations and Huzza’s. —- That they then marched to the Marshall’s Office, where there was one Quire of Stamped Paper, which being demanded, was delivered, and likewise destroyed before his Door. — And that they afterwards went to the Custom-House, imagining there were great Quantities of the Stamps there; but the Collector declaring, on his Word of Honour, that there was not a Stamped Paper in his Office, they were satisfied, and separated, without doing the least Mischief to any One.

Andrew Oliver, Jared Ingersoll, Henry Van Schaick, Martin Howard, John Hopkins, Thomas Moffat, James McEvers, William Tuckett, and a host of other stamp distributors and British sympathizers were all targeted during the Stamp Act riots. They were among the most hated people in the colonies in 1765-66. Another name that belonged on that list was Benjamin Franklin.

On July 11, 1765, Franklin wrote a friend back home:

Depend upon it my good Neighbour, I took every Step in my Power, to prevent the Passing of the Stamp Act; no body could be more concern’d in Interest than my self to oppose it, sincerely and Heartily. But the Tide was, too strong against us. The Nation was provok’d by American Claims of Independance, and all Parties join’d in resolveing by this Act to Settle the Point.

We might as well have hinder’d the Suns setting. That we could not do. But since ’tis down, my Friend, and it may be long before it rises again, Let us make as good a Night of it as we can. We may still Light Candles. Frugallity and Industry will go a great way towards indemnifying us. Idleness and Pride Tax with a heavier Hand then Kings and Parliaments; If we can get rid of the former we may easily bear the Latter.[i]

The letter, which was made public, sparked a public relations crisis for Franklin. It didn’t help that his Gazette just a few months earlier (April 18) printed the entire Stamp Act without comment, a tacit sign of compliance and moderation, or that weeks later (August 29) his Gazette publicized the Stamp Act as incentive to sell more of his almanacs. And sure enough, the following month, Franklin’s home was targeted by a mob, much like other mobs had done across the colonies.

According to Walter Isaacson’s 2003 Franklin biography:

The frenzy climaxed one evening in late September 1765 when a mob gathered at a Philadelphia coffeehouse. Leaders of the rabble accused Franklin of advocating the Stamp Act, and they set out to level his new home, along with those of John Hughes and other Franklin supporters… Franklin’s house and his wife were saved when a group of supporters, dubbed the White Oak Boys, gathered a force to confront the mob. If Franklin’s house was destroyed, they declared, so too would the homes of anyone involved. Finally, the mob dispersed.[ii]

Benjamin’s wife, Deborah, provided her first-hand account of the nightmare evening in a September 22 letter to Benjamin:

You will se by the papers what worke has hapened in other plases and sumthing has bin sed relaiteing to raising a mob in this plase. I was for 9 day keep in one Contineued hurrey by pepel to removef and Salley was porswaided to go to burlinton for saiftey but on munday laste we had verey graite rejoysing on a Count of the Chang of the Ministrey and a preyperaition for binfiers [bonfires] att night and several houses thretened to be puled down. Cusin Davenporte Come and told me that more then twenty pepel had told him it was his Duty to be with me. I sed I was plesed to reseve Civility from aney bodey so he staid with me sum time to words night I sed he shold fech a gun or two as we had none. I sente to aske my Brother to Cume and bring his gun all so so we maid one room into a Magazin. I ordored sum sorte of defens up Stairs such as I Cold manaig my selef. I sed when I was advised to remove that I was verey shuer you had dun nothing to hurte aney bodey nor I had not given aney ofense to aney person att all nor wold I be maid unesey by aney bodey nor wold I stir or show the leste uneseynis but if aney one Came to disturbe me I wold show a proper resentement and I shold be very much afrunted with aney bodey.[iii]

Benjamin worked remotely from London to restore his reputation and convince colonists that he was working diligently to repeal the act. According to Isaacson’s biography, “He began with a letter-writing campaign. To his partner David Hall and others, he strongly denied that he had ever supported the act. He also had prominent London Quakers write on his behalf.”[iv]

Franklin’s PR crisis counterattack came to a crescendo on February 13, 1766, as he delivered a clutch A-game performance in front of Parliament. “In one afternoon of highly charged testimony, he would turn himself into the foremost spokesman for the American cause and brilliantly restore his reputation back home,” according to Isaacson, who does an equally brilliant job at summarizing Franklin’s testimony on three pages of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.[v]

The combination of Franklin’s letter campaign and performance at Parliament can be found in the May 6, 1766, Pennsylvania Journal:

PHILADELPHIA.

Extract of a letter from London, dated February 25th, 1766.

“B. Franklin has served you ably and uprightly. He also was examined, and gave the house sufficient proofs of his abilities, your distressed condition, and the absolute necessity of relieving the Americans, by repealing the act.”

Extract of a letter, dated London Feb. 27, 1766, from a gentleman who tho’ never in America, has for many years proved himself a disinterested firm friend to her true interests.

“I can safely assert from my own certain knowledge, that Dr. Franklin did all in his power to prevent the stamp-act from passing; that he waited upon the ministry that then was, to have informed them fully of its mischievous tendency, and that he was uniformly opposed it to the utmost of his ability; that in a longer examination before the house of commons within these few weeks, he asserted the rights and privileges of American with the utmost firmness, resolution and capacity.

“I can further assert likewise upon my own knowledge, that he has deligently, steadily, and judiciously pursued the business recommended to him, when he came over as agent.

“He has been an able, useful advocate for America in general, and the province of Pennsylvania in particular during his stay here, and of this they will receive from persons undoubted information as well as this, from &c.”

As Isaacson explains, Franklin “became, in effect, the ambassador for American in general; besides representing Pennsylvania, he was soon named the agent for Georgia, and then New Jersey and Massachusetts. In Philadelphia, his reputation was fully restored.”

[Featured Image: Benjamin Franklin (center) at work on a printing press. Reproduction of a Charles Mills painting by the Detroit Publishing Company. Source: Library of Congress]

 


[i] Benjamin Franklin to Charles Thomson, July 11, 1765, Franklin Papers, vol 12, 206.

[ii] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2003), 224.

[iii] Deborah Franklin to Benjamin Franklin, September 22, 1765, Franklin Papers, vol. 12, 270.

[iv] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2003), 226.

[v] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2003), 229-231.

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