07/03/07 - benjamin franklin unloved

In today's excerpt - Benjamin Franklin. Far from the benign, avuncular and aphoristic image we hold today, Franklin was a figure whose life was filled with risk, controversy and reversal. Here, we see two of several periods in Franklin's life where, although he was already both wealthy and world famous, the public turned against him. The first was in a 1764 re-election campaign for the Pennsylvania Assembly, and the second was in 1765 during the imposition of the hated Stamp Act, at a point where Franklin was once again in London and was viewed as forsaking the interests of the colonies in his zealous loyalty to Britain:

"The campaign for elections to the Pennsylvania Assembly in October 1764 was one of the most scurrilous in American colonial history, and both Franklin and [his young political lieutenant Joseph] Galloway lost their seats. Franklin was accused of a host of sins—of lechery, of having humble origins, of abandoning the mother of his bastard son, of stealing his ideas of electricity from another electrician, of embezzling colony funds, and of buying his honorary degrees. But what ultimately cost Franklin his seat was the number of Germans who voted against him, angry at an earlier ethnic slur [he had made] about 'Palatine Boors.'

"Franklin was stunned by his defeat. He had completely misjudged the sentiments of his fellow colonists, something he would continue to do over the succeeding decade. ...

"The stamp tax seemed to Americans such a direct and unprecedented threat to their constitutional right not to be taxed without their own consent that resistance was immediate, spontaneous, and widespread. ... Since many people in Pennsylvania actually blamed Franklin for bringing about the Stamp Act, the mobs threatened to level his newly built Philadelphia house as well. His partner David Hall wished that Franklin were in Philadelphia to deal with the events, but then added, 'I should be afraid for your Safety.' His wife, Deborah, and several of her relatives resolved to defend the new house, and that determination encouraged friends to protect her and her house successfully. But Franklin's reputation in America was not so easily defended. His enemies in Pennsylvania accused him not only of framing the Stamp Act but also of profiting from it. 'O Franklin, Franklin, thou curse to Pennsylvania and America, may the most accumulated vengeance burst speedily on thy guilty head!' exclaimed the young Benjamin Rush, not yet the famous Philadelphia physician and friend of Franklin. Some warned that Franklin might be hung in effigy."


Gordon S. Wood


The Americanization of Ben Franklin


Penguin Books


Copyright Gordon Wood, 2004


101, 111-112
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