Benjamin Franklin’s Mission to London, 1757-1762

Prewar Politics (<1775)

September 25, 2017
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Thomas Penn, the son of founder William Penn, inherited majority control of the proprietorship of the colony of Pennsylvania in 1746. At the time the colony’s legislative body was called the Assembly; it was unicameral, made up of thirty-four popularly elected members and had been autonomous for the first half of the eighteenth century. Penn as the chief executive of the colony set out to reduce the power of the Assembly by taking control over its taxing and spending capabilities. However, because he lived 3000 miles away in England, he had to appoint a (lieutenant) governor or deputy who would carry out his instructions and oversee the day to day running of the colony. Over the next twenty years the Assembly would protest any instruction issued to a governor that attempted to curtail their power and deprive them of any share in the colony’s governance.

In December of 1754, the Assembly passed a supply bill that would raise 20,000 pounds for the defense of the colony’s frontier against the French and Indians. The Governor, Robert Hunter Morris, refused to sign the bill. To understand his refusal, it is necessary to understand how a money bill was constructed at the time. If money was needed, the Assembly would first determine the amount that was needed, then marry that amount or “sink” it to a tax, and finally determine the length of time that the tax would be in effect. In the above case, the Assembly set the length of time to twelve years; Morris wanted five years.[1] On January 7, 1755, the Assembly petitioned the King in Council to overturn the governor’s instructions. The petition was dismissed out of hand.

Following the defeat of General Braddock in July of 1755, the Assembly passed another supply bill in the amount of 50,000 pounds sunk by a tax on all estates in the colony. On August 6, Morris refused to sign the bill, this time because it violated an instruction that stated all lands owned by the proprietors were not subject to taxation. [2] The Assembly believed that it was perfectly just and equitable that the proprietors should pay their fair share for the defense of the colony. On August 13, Morris used an argument that would later be used by the colonists: since the proprietors did not have a vote in the elections of the Assembly, they could not be taxed by the body. Three days later, a group of men who were supporters of the proprietors offered to pay a portion of the assessment, but the Assembly declined the offer. They believed there was “a Design in the Proprietors and Governor, to abridge the people … of the Privileges.” [3]

On November 3, Morris refused to sign another supply bill even though the Assembly granted all of his amendments because the proprietors’ estates were still not exempt from taxation. The Assembly made it clear that they would not sacrifice the colony’s liberty for the sake of its defense. On November 24, Governor Morris announced that Penn had made a gift of 5,000 pounds to the colony for its defense. The Assembly, in turn, agreed to accept the donation but recorded it as the tax that would have been laid on the proprietor’s estates. [4]

On June 29, 1756, Morris informed the Assembly that the money emitted the previous November was nearly expended. The Assembly passed another supply bill sunk by an alcohol tax, but again Morris refused to sign it. This time he claimed it violated another instruction, that the Assembly was not to possess the sole right to dispose of the funds.

Due to continual stalemates and the pressing needs of the French and Indian War, Thomas Penn on August 19 appointed a new governor of the colony, William Denny. [5] In his inaugural speech to the Assembly, Denny laid out the instructions given to him by Penn. The three that stood out to the Assembly were: that all money raised could only be used for the specific purpose(s) defined in the bill; that the proprietary estates were to be exempt from all land taxes; and the governor set the limit on the length of time a tax could be existence, i.e. a land tax could only be for one year. Others instructions prescribed how property would be taxed, how long the taxes would run, at what rates the property would be taxed, and how appeals could be made.

To test Denny’s resolve, on September 11 the Assembly passed a supply bill for 60,000 pounds that was sunk by a twenty-year tax. Denny refused to sign it because it left the disposition of the money in the hands of the Assembly and extended the tax for too long. A compromise was reached and the re-written supply bill signed by the governor was for 30,000 pounds sunk with a ten-year tax. [6] The money was quickly used up, so at the end of January 1757 the Assembly passed another supply bill, but this time sunk with a property tax. Denny informed the Assembly that he could not sign it. Benjamin Franklin wrote to Robert Charles in London that the Assembly was

So confin’d as to the Time of Raising, the Property to be tax’d, the Valuation of that Property, and the Sum per Pound to be Tax’d on the Valuation that tis demonstrably Impossible by such a Law to raise one Quarter of the Money absolutely necessary to defend us[7]

Unable to get the governor to reconsider and knowing that a second petition to the King in Council was pointless, the Assembly decided to send one of their own as an agent to England. The person they selected was Benjamin Franklin. His purpose was meet with Thomas Penn and “solicit the Removal of our Grievances occasioned by Proprietary Instructions.” [8] On March 31, the Assembly gave Franklin a list of five grievances and they instructed him to seek their redress.[9] On June 6, the day Franklin set sail for England, Governor Denny asked the Assembly for additional funds in order to raise more troops. The Assembly refused to pass a bill, stating they believed that they had given enough for defense and

We shall think it happy for ourselves and our posterity, if, in this Time of Distress, we can guard against the many Attempts on the People’s Rights and Liberties, and preserve to the Constitution those Principles of Freedom on which it was originally founded.

Three months later, they begged the governor to “let not arbitrary Proprietary instructions be the sole Rule of your Conduct; exercise your own Judgement and Reason in your publick Acts.” [10]

On July 17, Franklin arrived at Falmouth, England. His arrival did not surprise Penn. He had been informed of the probability seven months earlier

Certain it is that B.F.’s view is to effect a change in Government, and considering the popularity of his character and the reputation gained by his Electrical Discoveries which will introduce him into all sorts of Company he may prove a Dangerous Enemy. Dr Fothergill and Mr. Collinson can introduce him to the Men of most influence at Court and he may underhand given impressions to your prejudice. [11]

Franklin was scheduled to meet with Thomas and Richard Penn on August 13, but Richard was not able to attend; so it was pushed back one week to August 20. The document he presented was entitled “Heads of Complaint” and listed only three grievances; he did not address it to Penn using his formal title “True and Absolute Proprietary” because it was meant to be a short discussion paper. The grievances listed were: first, the proprietors instructions prevented the governor under the threat of personal financial penalties from using his discretion when considering bills; second, contrary to the proprietors instructions, the Assembly had the right “to judge the Mode, Measure and Time of Granting Supplies;” and third, the instruction that the governor was to refuse any money bill that did not exempt the proprietors estates from taxation was arbitrary and unjust. [12] Following the meeting, Penn, angry that he was not shown the respect he believed he deserved, did not treat the document as Franklin planned, but rather, as a formal document. Being a royal official, he directed his lawyer, Mr. Ferdinand John Paris, to present it to the Attorney General and Solicitor General for their consideration. Paris, a well-regarded attorney, did not submit an application to the Law Officers for their legal opinions until the beginning of November; the application and document were accompanied by his own legal analysis and comments.

During this same period of time, Franklin suffered then was on the road to recovery from a bout with malaria.[13] The stress he was under probably did not help his recuperation. Then, on November 23, he received the following letter from Mr. Paris

As the proprietaries of Pensilvania think it highly probable, that the House of Representatives, on sending over their Agent, may have charged him with some Application to the Crown, for Aid or Assistance; Their [the proprietors’] Concern, for the safety of the Inhabitants, obliges them to inform the Agent, they they are ready and very desirous to use their utmost Endeavours to promote any such Application. [14]

This author has not been able to locate the exact date that Franklin learned of the action taken by Thomas Penn, but based upon what happened shortly after the first of the year, it had to have been before the end of 1757.

On January 13, he learned that the Solicitor General, Charles Yorke, had ruled in favor of the proprietors; now he had to wait for the Attorney General, Charles Pratt, to announce his ruling.

Back in Pennsylvania, the situation on the frontier had become dire. The Assembly passed another supply bill, but did not exempt the proprietors estates from taxation. Denny as expected refused to sign it. It was not until the end of April that the Assembly gave in because the need for men and supplies was so desperate.

On February 17, Franklin wrote to Joseph Galloway,

My Patience with the Proprietors is almost tho’ not quite spent. They continue to profess a sincere Desire of settling everything with the Assembly amicably on reasonable Terms … But that they may act safely they would have the Attorney and Solicitor General’s Opinion on some Points that relate to the Prerogative of the Crown … I think … that Matters will not continue in this Situation much longer.[15]

On April 6, 1758, Franklin received a letter from both Thomas and Richard Penn. It again attempted to explain the delay ,

We … laid before the Attorney and Sollicitor General, intending to be governed by their opinions [the grievances] … We have since that several times applyed … [to] the Attorney [who] promised to take the case into the Country, and consider it there. Our Agent has attended at his Chambers since his return, but has not yet seen him, and til we receive both these opinions we cannot give an answer to your Paper.[16]

And so the wait continued.

On April 24, Franklin wrote to Richard Jackson, a friend who was a member of Parliament and a solicitor, inquiring if Pennsylvania would retain all of its privileges under a Royal government. Jackson responded,

Altho the Rights the Quakers enjoy in Pennsylvania are much more extensive than they enjoy in England … so far as they are warranted and supported by the legislature of Pennsylvania, they cannot be legally abridged.[17]

On November 28, the Attorney General, Charles Pratt, handed down his ruling – he refuted the complaints and repudiated Franklin. Even though the Law Officers had ruled, the matter was not over. Their rulings had to be sent to the Privy Council who would make the final determination.

The next day Penn sent a letter to the Assembly describing Franklin

as a man without candour, attacked the slipshod nature of his paper, deliberately misrepresented him as saying that he lacked the authority to act for the Assembly and added that he had been disrespectful towards [him].[18]

One week later, Mr. Paris in a letter to Franklin wrote, the proprietors

have, since, wrote to the [Assembly], what seemed to them to be proper, on this Occasion, and therefore cannot conceive it will answer any good purpose, to continue a Correspondence with a Gentleman, who has already acknowledged his Want of Power to conclude proper Measures.[19]

Thomas Penn had not only slammed the door in Franklin’s face going forward, but also wanted him recalled in disgrace.

On January 19, 1759, Franklin wrote to Isaac Norris, the Pennsylvania Speaker of the Assembly.

In the House, grown at length sensible of the Danger, to the Liberties of the People, necessarily arising from such growing Power and Property in one Family with such Principles, shall think it expedient to have the Government and Property in different Hands, and for the purpose shall desire that the Crown would take the Province into its immediate Care, I believe that Point might without Difficulty be carried, and our Privileges preserved; and in that I think I could still do Service. [20]

When Joseph Galloway, Franklin’s friend in the Assembly, learned of the response, he published a pamphlet entitled A True and Impartial State of the Province of Pennsylvania. Galloway claimed that Penn’s instructions were

calculated for the Advancement of private Interests and ambition … [and if the proprietors had their way] Pennsylvania, the Seat of Virtue, Liberty and Commerce, would be transformed into a Monarchy more Tyrannical and Despotic, than that of an Eastern Sultan.[21]

Even though Franklin, Norris, and Galloway were beginning to believe that only under a Royal government could the colony obtain a satisfactory resolution to their grievances, the rest of the Assembly was not yet convinced that such a change would be advantageous.

With the money running out, Governor Denny on December 21, 1758, requested the Assembly to pass another supply bill. The Assembly put off consideration until the spring, when they would have a better understanding of what military campaigns were being planned.

On March 25, the Assembly did as they promised and passed a supply bill for 100,000 pounds, but again did not exempt the proprietor’s estates from taxation. The reason was that they had received Thomas Penn’s letter about Franklin. Their anger was expressed in their refusal to acquiesce to the governor. On April 12, Denny had a meeting with Speaker Norris – following the meeting he announced that he would sign the supply bill. Five days later, he wrote to Thomas Penn and informed him of his actions. What he did not tell Penn was that the Assembly granted him 1,000 pounds “for his support” and he would receive another 2,000 pounds from the money paid out by the supply bill. Penn claimed it was a bribe; the Assembly which annually gave the governor a gift of 1,000 pounds claimed it was for the years they had withheld the gift. [22] Penn decided to replace the governor and to petition the Privy Council for repeal of the bill. [23]

Franklin informed the Assembly of the attempt to repeal the bill on January 9, 1760. [24]

Norris was immediately concerned that a repeal would throw the colony into chaos because the money already circulated would be worthless. Fortunately for the Assembly, the Lords Commissioners were not holding their first meeting until April 18 and it would be a number of months before a ruling could be handed down.

The new governor, James Hamilton who had served as governor from 1748-1754, did not arrive in Philadelphia until November. The Assembly had recently passed another supply bill for 100,000 pounds and it was pending the new governor’s signature. Penn had anticipated the need for another supply bill between the dismissal of Denny and the arrival of Hamilton. Prior to his leaving, Penn instructed Hamilton that if he could not get the Assembly to accept any amendments, the frontier situation required that “you must pass it as you get it from them, and we must be left to our remedy here.” [25]

In August of 1759, the Privy Council after reviewing the Law Officers’ decisions and in consultation with the Lords Commissioners announced their ruling – the Assembly had the right to tax the proprietary estates and the proprietors were granted legislative protection by the enactment of six amendments that would govern all future bills:

First, unsurveyed wasteland belonging to the proprietors could not be taxed;

Second, uncultivated land belonging to the proprietors must be taxed at the lowest rate of any colonist’s uncultivated land;

Third, ungranted lands in cities and towns be rated as uncultivated lands rather than a city lots;

Fourth, any dispersal of money required the governor’s consent;

Fifth, commissioners would be appointed to hear any appeals; and

Sixth, any money that came into existence by an act of the Assembly could not be used at dace value to pay quitrents to the proprietors.

As to the supply bill, it was ruled “wrong and unjust,” but because “Some inconveniences should arise from the Repeal of the said Act in respect of the good purposes thereof, the Lords of the Committee are humbly of Opinion that … this Act to stand unrepealed.” [26]

When news of the ruling reached Philadelphia in January of 1761, the Assembly was irate. Over a period of six weeks, Governor Hamilton sent three letters to the Assembly demanding they agree with the amendments. The Assembly compared the amounts of taxes most recently paid by the proprietor (566 pounds) to the amount of taxes paid by the colonists (27,103) and concluded that no injustice was being done to the estates. They rejected the amendments.

On April 2, Governor Hamilton informed the Assembly that he had received a message from Lord William Pitt asking the colony to raise a force for the upcoming campaign. The Assembly, realizing that the colony had accrued a significant debt over the past five years, was unwilling to increase the debt and voted against the request. Eventually the Assembly figured out a way to fund a force of 500 men – they covered the new money bill with 30,000 pounds that Parliament had allotted the colony for the war. Hamilton refused to sign the bill because it violated two of the amendments. [27] The force never came into existence.

In March of 1762, the Assembly again passed a bill for 50,000 pounds sunk in part by the money Parliament had allotted and in part by an alcohol tax. Hamilton again refused to sign it citing the same two amendments.

The Assembly, concerned about the colony’s debt, the salary owed to Franklin, and the expenses he had accumulated over nearly five years, decided to recall him. His efforts were recognized but for the most part, only mildly successful. He did, though, establish some relationships that he hoped would later pay off for the colony – Lord Bute, Richard Jackson, Dr. John Fothergill, Charles Jenkinson, Thomas Whately, and William Strahan, to name a few. He knew he was coming home to attacks from the Proprietary party. Hamilton wrote to Jared Ingersoll in July of 1762,

I cannot find that his five years negotiation at a vast expense to the province, hath answered any other purpose with respect to the public, than to get every point that was in controversy, determined against them. [28]

Franklin did not return to Philadelphia sullen and defeated. He had work to do with the Assembly. The question of colonial governance still had to be resolved and he was convinced that Pennsylvania would be better off as a Royal colony. Little did he realize that within two years he would be back in London – not to resolve grievances but to change the colony’s charter.


[1] Benjamin Franklin to James Wright, June 26, 1755 in Leonard W. Labaree, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: 1959-), 6:90.

[2] Votes and Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania, (Philadelphia: Henry Miller, 1775), 4:420.

[3] Ibid., 4:467.

[4] Ibid., 4:519-23.

[5] Pennsylvania Gazette, August 19, 1756.

[6] Votes and Proceedings, 4:605.

[7] Franklin to Robert Charles, February 1, 1757, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 7:116.

[8] Ibid., 7:110.

[9] Pennsylvania Assembly: Instructions to Benjamin Franklin, March 31, 1757, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 7:163.

[10] Votes and Proceedings, 4:745, 747.

[11] Richard Peters to Thomas Penn, January 27, 1757, in John D. Kilbourne and Nicholas B. Wainwright, eds., The Thomas Penn Papers, 1729-1832, microfilm (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1968), reel 8.

[12] “To the Proprietors: Heads of Complaint,” in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 7:248.

[13] Franklin to Deborah Franklin, November 22, 1757, ibid., 7:273-4.

[14] Ferdinand John Paris to Franklin, November 23, 1757, ibid., 7:279.

[15] Franklin to Joseph Galloway, February 17, 1758, ibid., 7:373.

[16] Thomas and Richard Penn to Franklin, April 6, 1758, ibid., 8:3.

[17] Richard Jackson: Answers to Questions Asked, April 24, 1758, ibid., 8:6.

[18] George Goodwin, Benjamin Franklin in London (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 123.

[19] Paris to Franklin, 1-7? December, 1758, ibid., 8:193.

[20] Franklin to Isaac Norris, January 19, 1759, ibid., 8:232.

[21] Joseph Galloway, A True and Impartial State of the Province of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: W. Dunlap, 1759).

[22] Votes and Proceedings, 5:47, 68.

[23] “Thomas Penn to Richard Peters, June 28, 1759, in The Thomas Penn Papers, 1729-1832, reel 2; Ibid., Thomas Penn to William Logan, June 28, 1759,” reel 2.

[24] Franklin to Galloway, January 9, 1760, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 9:15.

[25] Thomas Penn to James Hamilton, May 10, 1760, in The Thomas Penn Papers, 1729-1832, reel 2.

[26] Orders in Council, September 2, 1760, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 9:196.

[27] Votes and Proceedings, 5:167-69, 171.

[28] Hamilton to Jared Ingersoll, July 8, 1762, in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 10:112.


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