Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership by Edward J. Larson (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2020)
George Washington and Early Republic scholar Edward J. Larson (author of The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783-1789 and A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign) has produced a new work focusing on the partnership of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Although Washington’s other working relationships have received ample coverage (Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America by Stephen F. Knott and Tony Williams and The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined America, Then and Now by Thomas Fleming), his connection with Franklin was the oldest one among the Founders. Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership not only details how the two men had worked together for three decades, but it also offers biographical narratives of both.
Larson’s latest effort is divided into three sections. The first section, “Book I: Converging Lives,” traces the early lives of Franklin and Washington. Whereas Franklin’s enterprising spirit brought him out of servitude in Boston and Philadelphia and made him a successful businessman, Washington (twenty-six years Franklin’s junior) was growing up in the Virginia wilderness, finding his way as a surveyor and struggling to become a “gentleman farmer.” They first met each other at the start of the French and Indian War, and their early contact was a preview into how their relationship would function during the major events of the 1760s through 1789. Franklin was the idealist who based his worldview concerning a need for a united colonial front on the pragmatic observations of the young commander in the field, Washington. The contact was brief since Franklin left for London in 1757 and Washington left the front to get married and add more land to the Mount Vernon estate. There was no belief from either that they would work together again until the mid-1760s:
Although both men gloried in their Englishness and rejoiced in the victory that brought all of eastern North America from Florida to Canada under British rule, their paths might have never crossed again save for the Stamp Act crisis, which erupted in 1765 after Parliament imposed taxes directly on the colonists. It jarred their interests back into alignment, set them on parallel political courses, and reminded them of their essential Americanness. Yet neither saw it coming. [pages 61-62]
“Book II: Partners in a Revolution” saw the return of Franklin to Philadelphia to serve in the Second Continental Congress, taking on several committees. When Washington was chosen to head the new Continental Army and he embarked north to Boston, Franklin likewise headed north to meet with Benedict Arnold’s forces in Montreal in 1776. The two men wrote to each other frequently about the war and the needs of the army until Franklin left once again for Europe to negotiate a possible alliance with the French. Washington was at times irritated with Franklin’s constant recommendations of commissions for European volunteers (some of which proved to be invaluable: Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, and Count Pulaski), and he asked Franklin to cease these requests in 1777.
After the war and the Treaty of Paris of 1783 both men were concerned about the future of the new nation, as discussed in Chapter 5, “’The Most Awful Crisis.’” Franklin was acting as the ambassador to France, so his efforts were for the nation, the United States of America. Washington, however, was witnessing the possible collapse of the union of states because of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Franklin, in the sunset of his life, returned from France to lend his energies to the Philadelphia convention. Washington, weakened by years of war, came out of retirement to lead the convention. They were working closely together again (“Chapter 6: Rendezvous in Philadelphia”), each supporting a strong central government as set up in the Virginia Plan. Washington was the central figure whose stature was necessary to the convention’s success, but Franklin’s diplomatic genius was just as necessary to get all the delegates to work together. In the end, “Franklin and Washington embraced the Constitution because it realized their long-held ambition for a fortified federal government with consolidated authority over commerce, defense, and taxation.” (p. 221)
The seventh chapter, in the middle of “Book III: Working Together and Apart,” is appropriately titled “Darkness at Dawn.” Once the Constitution was ratified and Washington was ensconced as the first chief executive, one issue started to erode the close historical relationship between the Sage of Philadelphia and His Excellency: slavery. In the remaining years of his life, Franklin became the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. He finally saw slavery for the evil that is was, but Washington, the southern slave-holding aristocrat, could not conceive of a society without it: “Washington saw slaves as thieves as well but, lacking Franklin’s empathy, blamed them rather than their bondage. He distrusted his slaves, and they distrusted him. In short, he treated them like slaves. They were his human chattel.” (p. 249) Franklin presented several anti-slavery petitions to the new Congress. Having helped to form the government, he was hoping to use its power to contribute to the end of slavery. However, Washington and James Madison, who knew better than anyone how the government functioned, were able to table the petitions. Franklin later wrote his famous satire about the fictional Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim and Christian, or rather “white,” slavery. He died shortly after publishing it, but he demonstrated that he represented the United States of the future: optimistic and free. Washington, according to Larson, had taken a different path than Franklin and seemed to be a “marble icon from the past—a great but dated man.” (p. 260)
The final chapter of the book, “The Walking Stick,” refers to the gift of a walking stick with a golden liberty cap head that Franklin made to Washington in a codicil to his will. The symbolism of the gift was not lost on Washington, who accepted this “scepter” and completed the passing of the baton. Larson’s last paragraph brings the two men together in a final summary of their shared contributions to the new nation:
They were larger than-than-life American originals whose partnership in revolutionary times laid the foundation for the world’s first continental republic, which has lasted for nearly 250 years. Each recognized the other’s goodness and greatness, and they viewed one another as partners in the fight for liberty. Others saw this too. [p. 274]
Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership does not present any new scholarly material. Larson, however, has presented an original narrative of the nation’s history through the lives of these two icons. Using the lives of Franklin and Washington to explore the vital events leading to the Revolution and the Constitution and seeing how their lives ran parallel to each other and often intersected, Larson has succeeded in writing a valuable history and dual-biography, which is certainly no easy task. The book is a solid work that encompasses the beginning of the American constitutional experiment. Major characters such as Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and others take on minor roles in comparison to Franklin and Washington. Larson’s research into the plethora of letters that both men wrote was probably a Herculean task that the reader greatly benefits from. Just as Franklin described Washington’s chair on the dais during the sweltering summer of 1787, the image of the half-sun was of one rising.