Franklin The Turncoat?

Benjamin Franklin, depicted in London in 1767. By: David Martin.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the most well-known and most revered Founding Fathers, had a more controversial history than most modern Americans realize.

In the late 1750s and early 1760s, Franklin was a “complete Anglophile.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 79. He made “disparaging comments about the provinciality and vulgarity of America in contrast with the sophistication and worthiness of England.” Id. He also believed that America, not England, was “corrupt and luxury-loving.” Id.

While living in England, Franklin was becoming more influential and had become a deputy postmaster. Id. at 84. In 1772, Franklin came into possession of some damning letters that would change his life. In the late 1760s, Thomas Hutchinson, the then-lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had written letters to an Englishman advocating taking away liberties from the colonists so as to “maintain the colonies’ dependency on Great Britain.” Id. at 83. Franklin sent these letters to Massachusetts, prompting a crisis that would result in Franklin being terminated as deputy postmaster. Id.

In March 1775, he came back to America a changed man: a passionate patriot. Some of this passion was feigned, so as to show his fellow colonists that he was not an Englishman masquerading as a revolutionary. Id. at 84. He would become one of the most popular and widely respected Americans in the world, with only George Washington outshining him.

By the time of his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin had created a legacy that lasts to this day. In the early Republic, that legacy was predicated on him showing that being self-made in America was not only possible, it was downright glamorous. Often forgotten or lost after those years of the early Republic, however, is that Franklin was not the same as the other Founding Fathers.

While Alexander Hamilton was not a full-blooded American and Thomas Jefferson spent a significant amount of time in Europe, Franklin so fully affiliated himself with England that it is difficult to draw a parallel to a contemporary American figure. In modern times, such an affiliation would certainly spell doom to a legacy.

Nonetheless, Franklin is remembered for his genius, his relatable nature, and his embodiment of the most American of ideals. Modern Americans’ forgiveness is likely warranted, but some may wonder: What if Franklin had not sent those letters? What would his legacy be then?

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