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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by James Parton

Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.

Part 5


JULY, 1776.

            PHILADELPHIA had been the scene of the keenest party strife during the absence of Dr. Franklin in Canada. After a series of elections most warmly contested, in which all the old electioneering artifices were employed, the party for Independence stormed the citadel of the Assembly, and deprived Mr. Dickinson of his ancient, compact majority. Then the doom of the Proprietary Government was sealed, and it only remained to execute the sentence. Yet it died hard. When Congress had decreed the extinction of all authority derived from the king of England, the Assembly still hesitated, adjourned from day to day, knew not what to do, until the will of the people was manifested in ways so various and unequivocal, that they could not disregard it. The struggle was given up at length; the government of Pennsylvania was declared to be dissolved; and the Assembly melted away.

            For four months the great and populous province of Pennsylvania was without any thing that even pretended to be a government. There was no authority vested in any one to arrest a malefactor, suppress a riot, or compel the payment of debt. Franklin assured Sir Samuel Romilly that, during that long period, public order was perfectly preserved in every part of the State, and that no man who should have attempted to take advantage of the circumstances to evade the payment of a debt, could have borne the contempt in which he would have been held. (1) The easy, simple manner in which the people extricated themselves from a dilemma so unprecedented was still more remarkable. The process seems to have been this: The Committee of Safety recommended the people of Pennsylvania to elect delegates to a CONFERENCE. The people proceeded to elect delegates -- Philadelphia choosing twenty-five, of whom Franklin was one. On the eighteenth June the Conference met at Philadelphia, sat five days, including a Sunday, renounced allegiance to the king, swore obedience to Congress, and called upon the people to elect delegates ?? eight from Philadelphia and eight from each county -- to meet in CONVENTION, and form a constitution. The elections were held accordingly, and Dr. Franklin was one of the eight chosen by Philadelphia. All this was done, and the Convention actually assembled, in thirty-one days.

            The great event of the contest had taken place, meanwhile, in Congress; where still sat seven Pennsylvanians, though the body which had elected them had, in effect, ceased to exist. Of these seven, four were opposed to the Declaration of Independence, and their leader, Mr. Dickinson, stated his objections in a last speech of much force, which would have carried conviction to the minds of' most men of large property and no enthusiasm. A man standing upon the bank of a river, in which a child was struggling for life, could make an argument against jumping in to save it, which the soundest logician in the world would pronounce unanswerable. But if he jumps in and saves the child, and bears it limp and dripping to its mother's arms, what does the sound logician say then? He says nothing. He rushes up to the wet hero, clasps him to his breast, tries to speak his love and admiration, but chokes, and cannot, and has to content himself with wringing his hand and garments, running a mile to the nearest brandy bottle, and doing the distance in twelve minutes. Great is prudence. Every great man is greatly prudent. But there come times in the lives of men and nations when the true prudence is to risk all for the sake of securing that which, being lost, nothing is worth having. A nation's freedom, a man's self-respect, when they are irrecoverably gone, every thing else may as well go.

            Franklin's part in the Declaration of Independence was not important. A committee of five was elected by ballot to draft the declaration: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Mr. Jefferson, as we all know, was pressed by his colleagues to write the draft, and yielded to their solicitations. When he had finished it he showed it to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams, neither of whom suggested any alterations except very few verbal ones quite unimportant. Approved unanimously by the committee, it was submitted to the House, where it was subjected to sharp criticism, and where John Adams, "the colossus of this debate," "the Atlas of the Declaration," defended it with consummate ability. Two anecdotes of Dr. Franklin, both extremely well worn, are all that we possess of him in connection with these memorable days. Mr. Jefferson relates one of them:

            "When the Declaration of Independence was under the consideration of Congress, there were two or three unlucky expressions in it which gave offense to some members. The words 'Scotch and other foreign auxiliaries,' excited the ire of a gentleman or two of that country. Severe strictures on the conduct of the British king, in negativing our repeated repeals of the law which permitted the importation of slaves, were disapproved by some southern gentlemen whose reflections were not yet matured to the full abhorrence of that traffic. Although the offensive expressions were immediately yielded, these gentlemen continued their depredations on other parts of the instrument. I was sitting by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to ('that I was writhing under,' he says elsewhere) these mutilations.

            "'I have made it a rule,' said he, 'whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprenticed hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells Hats for ready Money, with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word hatter tautologous, because followed by the words makes hats, which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next, observed that the word makes might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats; if good and to their mind they would buy, by whomsoever made. He

struck it out. A third said he thought the words for ready money were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats?' says his next friend; 'why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What, then, is the use of that word?' It was stricken out, and hats followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to John Thompson, with the figure of a hat subjoined.'"

            When the members were about to sign the document, Mr. Hancock is reported to have said: "We must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together. Tradition assigns to Franklin the well-known, witty reply: "Yes; we must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

            Franklin's signature to the Declaration has the exuberant flourish under it with which he was accustomed to decorate his name. He had the gratification, at length, of seeing the vote of Pennsylvania cast for the Declaration; but it was only because Mr. Dickinson and Robert Morris chose to avoid taking their seats that day, though present in the House.

            The People of Pennsylvania instantly swept aside the relics of the old proprietary party. Four days after the Fourth of July, the elections for delegates to the Constitutional Convention occurred. The result of the election in the city and county of Philadelphia, John Adams dashed off to his wife: "Dr. Franklin will be governor of Pennsylvania! The new members from this city are all in this taste chosen because of their inflexible zeal for Independence. All the old members left out because they opposed Independence, or were lukewarm about it, Dickinson, Morris, and Allen, all fallen like grass before the scythe, notwithstanding all their vast advantages in point of fortune, family, and abilities." In the evening of this great day the triumph of the liberal party was celebrated in Philadelphia by "bonfires, bells and other great demonstrations of joy," reports Christopher Marshall. July 20th, the Convention elected nine members of Congress of whom Dr. Franklin received the highest number of votes.

            When Congress had completed the great affair of the Declaration, the next business in order was to form the thirteen States into a confederacy, and to settle the terms of union. The debates on the several articles proposed were long, and, not unfrequently, warm and acrimonious, but we know little of the details, and only catch glimpses of the leading performers on the scene. Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, in their diaries and correspondence, rescue from oblivion a few words of Franklin uttered in these important discussions.

            The most perplexing difficulty was to arrange a plan of voting in Congress which would give the large States their just weight, and, at the same time, afford the small States a share of real sovereignty. This is managed in our present Constitution by assigning to each State two senators, but admitting to the other House a number of representatives proportioned to population. Thus, the big brother is still the big brother, but the little brother is always a brother, equal to the biggest in every thing but inches. The old Congress could agree upon no better way than to vote on all questions by Sates, and to give to every State, great or small, one vote. To Franklin this system seemed equally absurd and dangerous; he thought that Virginia and Pennsylvania could not long be content to exert no more influence in the counsels of the Union than Delaware and Rhode Island; and that, in attempting to change the system to one more just, extreme danger to the Union would arise. He never opposed any thing with more vehemence than he did the adoption of this plan of voting. There was, indeed, one short period of this summer, when he meditated advising his State not to come into the confederation unless this article was changed, and nothing but the absolute necessity of immediate union prevented his doing so.

            Mr. Adams records this remark of Franklin -- a speech in two sentences: "Let the smaller colonies give equal money and men, and then have an equal vote. But if they have an equal vote without bearing equal burdens, a confederation upon such iniquitous principles will never last long." Again: "If we had been born and bred under an unequal representation, we might bear it; but to set out with an unequal representation is unreasonable. It is said the great colonies will swallow up the less. Scotland said the same thing at the union." Here comes in a passage from Mr. Jefferson to complete the illustration. Dr. Franklin observed that "at the time of the union of England and Scotland, the Duke of Argyle was most violently opposed to that measure, and among other things predicted that, as the whale had swallowed Jonah, so Scotland would be swallowed by England. However," said the Doctor, "when Lord Bute came into the government, he soon brought into its administration so many of his countrymen, that it was found, in event, that Jonah had swallowed the whale." This little story produced a general laugh, and restored good humor.

            In the course of the same debate, one of the Southern members spoke of slaves and sheep as property equally liable to taxation. To this Dr. Franklin made a reply, which Mr. Adams condenses into a sentence: "Slaves rather weaken than strengthen the state, and there is, therefore, some difference between them and sheep; sheep will never make any insurrections." In the conversation that arose on this subject, the Southern members gave free utterance to the self-evident proposition, that slavery is monstrous policy.

            I should add, perhaps, that this subject of representation was one which Dr. Franklin had well considered, and upon which, while still residing in England, he had reached opinions one hundred years in advance of England. Among his papers was found a printed sheet upon which he had written, as descriptive of its contents, "Some good Whig Principles." The paper was entitled, "Declaration of those Rights of the Commonalty of Great Britain without which they cannot be free." The leading propositions were these three: "That every man of the commonalty (excepting infants, insane persons, and criminals) is, of common right, and by the laws of God, a freeman, and entitled to the free enjoyment of liberty. That liberty, or freedom, consists in having an actual share in the appointment of those who frame the laws, and who are to be the guardians of every man's life, property, and peace; for the all of one man is as dear to him as the all of another; and the poor man has an equal right, but more need, to have representatives in the Legislature than the rich one. That they who have no voice nor vote in the electing of representatives, do not enjoy liberty; but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes, and to their representatives; for to be enslaved is to have governors whom other men have set over us, and be subject to laws made by the representatives of others, without having had representatives of our own to give consent in our behalf."

            These principles so familiar to us now, and so obviously just, were startling and incredible novelties in 1770; abhorrent to nearly all Englishmen, and to great numbers of Americans. They serve to show us why Franklin should have opposed, with such unusual pertinacity, a plan of voting which gave to the smallest States as much weight in Congress as the largest. It savored of the injustice which gave to a borough of twenty cottages as many members of parliament as a great manufacturing town of a hundred thousand inhabitants, abounding in talent, intelligence, and capital.

            In this memorable month of July, 1776, Congress appointed Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams a committee to prepare a device for the seal of the Confederacy. Each of the committee, as we learn from one of Mr. Adams's letters to his wife, had an idea:" (2)  Dr. Franklin proposes, Moses lifting up his wand, and dividing the Red Sea, and Pharaoh, in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters. This motto, 'Rebellion to Tyrants is obedience to God.' Mr. Jefferson has proposed, The children of Israel in the wilderness; led by a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night; and on the other side, Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon Chiefs, from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed. I proposed, The choice of Hercules, as engraved by Gribelin, in some editions of Lord Shaftesbury's works. The hero resting on his club; VIRTUE pointing to her rugged mountain on one hand, and persuading him to ascend; SLOTH, glancing at her flowery paths of pleasure, wantonly reclining on the ground, displaying the charms both of her eloquence and person, to seduce him into vice."

            The committee deliberated on the matter for nearly six weeks, not reporting until the tenth of August. They then recommended that the Great Seal of the United States should have on one side the national arms; which arms they proposed should contain something emblematic of each of the nations from which America had been peopled; a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a harp for Ireland, a fleur-de-lis for France, a black eagle for Germany, a lion for the low countries. The border should consist of the arms and initials of each of the United States. For supporters, the committee recommended the goddess of Liberty in armor, holding in her right hand the spear and cap, and with her left supporting a shield; also, a figure of Justice bearing the sword and balance. Crest: "The eye of Providence in a radiant triangle, whose glory extends over the shield and beyond the figures." Motto: E Pluribus Unum. Legend round the whole: "Seal of the United States of America, MDCCLXXVI." For the other side of the seal the committee adopted Franklin's device: "Pharaoh sitting in an open chariot, a crown on his head and a sword in his hand, passing through the divided waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. Rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud,  expressive of the Divine presence and command, beaming on Moses, who stands on the shore, and extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overflow Pharaoh. Motto: 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.'"

            Congress appears not to have approved of this elaborate design. It was ordered to lie on the table, where it remained until Dr. Franklin was gone from the country. Other committees took the seal in hand, and suppressed, at length, all of the original design except that most felicitous of mottoes, E Pluribus Unum, and the Eye of Providence.

            On the arrival of the Hessians this summer, Franklin was active in carrying out the plans of Congress for their seduction.  A short address was drawn up, and translated into German, offering, in the name of Congress, a tract of land to every Hessian soldier who should abandon the ignominious service to which his sovereign had sold him. Some of these addresses were printed on such paper as was commonly used for tobacco at that time; the design being to put up tobacco in them and distribute the packets among the Hessians. Another address was prepared for circulation among the officers. Whether Dr. Franklin was the originator of these devices, or only assisted in giving them effect, does not appear; nor are we informed as to their success. A few months later, if Dr. Franklin had been in Philadelphia, he would have had the delight of seeing nine hundred of the Hessian soldiers marching through the streets as prisoners of war.

            The convention elected to form a Constitution and frame a government for the State of Pennsylvania, met at Philadelphia on the sixteenth of July, and sat until the twenty-eighth of September. Dr. Franklin was unanimously chosen president of the convention. Although his occupations as a member of Congress prevented him from attending regularly the sittings of this body, yet he was present during the more important debates, and exerted a controlling influence over some of its conclusions. The system of government finally adopted by the convention had the peculiarity of providing for only one House of Representatives; and in this Franklin concurred. He had seen the ill effects of a divided authority in the old proprietary government, and he had come to regard the British House of Lords in the light of an obstructive nuisance merely. He was of opinion that a single representative body would be more effective in promoting good measures, and less liable to intrigue and corruption than two bodies. He afterwards defended this feature of the Constitution of Pennsylvania in these terms:

            "The wisdom of a few members in one single legislative body may it not frequently stifle bad motions in their infancy, and so prevent their being adopted? whereas, if those wise men, in case of a double legislature, should happen to be in that branch wherein the motion did not arise, may it not, after being adopted by the other, occasion long disputes and contentions between the two bodies, expensive to the public, obstructing the public business, and promoting factions among the people, many tempers naturally adhering obstinately to measures they have once publicly adopted? Have we not seen, in one of our neighboring States, a bad measure adopted by one branch of the legislature for want of the assistance of some more intelligent members who had been packed into the other, occasion many debates, conducted with much asperity, which could not be settled but by an expensive general appeal to the public?... The division of the legislature into two or three branches in England, was it the product of wisdom, or the effect of necessity, arising from the pre-existing prevalence of an odious feudal system? which government, notwithstanding this division, is now become, in fact, an absolute monarchy; since the king, by bribing the representatives with the people's money, carries, by his ministers, all the measures that please him; which is equivalent to governing without a Parliament, and renders the machine of government much more complex and expensive, and, from its being more complex, more easily put out of order. Has not the famous political fable of the snake, with two heads and one body, some useful instruction contained in it? She was going to a brook to drink, and in her way was to pass through a hedge, a twig of which opposed her direct course; one head chose to go on the right side of the twig, the other on the left; so that time was spent in the contest, and, before the decision was completed, the poor snake died with thirst."

            If Dr. Franklin had lived to our day, he might have drawn a different inference from the example of the English House of Lords. He would, perhaps, have pointed to Great Britain, and said: "Behold, my Pennsylvanians, a vast empire governed by a single House, namely, the House of Commons! The House of Lords as a governing power, is so nearly extinct, that if it were to vanish entirely, the chief practical effect of the event would be to give the Times a little more room for the debates of the other House." Perhaps, too, he would have made some observations upon the long periods when the Senate of the United States seemed the impregnable stronghold of every thing that was false, corrupt, and reactionary; and shown how, between the two houses, the most indubitably just measures have often been slipped into oblivion. He might have quoted, with very good effect, a remark made by the late Senator Douglas to Mr. Horace Greeley, when the latter gentleman was a member of the House of Representatives: "If the House does not stop passing retrenchment bills for Buncombe, and then running to the Senate and begging Senators to stop them there, I, for one, will vote to put through the next mileage-reduction bill that comes to the Senate, just to punish members for their hypocrisy." However, this is a great question, and much may be said on both sides. Experience, not argument, will settle it.

            The last act of the Constitutional Convention of Pennsylvania was to pass the following Resolution: "Resolved unanimously; That the thanks of this Convention be given to the President for the honor he has done it by filling the chair during the debates on the most important parts of the Bill of Rights and frame of Government, and for his able and disinterested advice thereon."

            Such are the slight, occasional traces of Franklin, in these summer weeks of 1776, which the writings of the time afford us. How inadequate they are! How little they reveal to us of the mighty stir and ferment of the period! The chroniclers of those important days tell us scarcely any thing of what they felt; their drawing is mostly in outline, without color or shading. For example, when a British fleet in the Delaware brought the war within hearing of the Philadelphians, Christopher Marshall begins the entry in his diary for that day with the business-like expression, that "Sundry pieces of news are circulated about town;" one of which was the arrival of the British fleet. The worthy druggist catalogued the most startling items of intelligence as he would a new invoice of herbs. Other sundries of the same day were, the arrival off Sandy Hook of a prodigious British fleet and army; the conveyance to Connecticut of Governor Franklin; and the total ruin of the patriot cause in Canada. Think what must have been the effect, as the tidings flew from street to street, from house to house, from room to room, of sedate, domestic Philadelphia; neighbor hurrying with it to neighbor, the well whispering it to the sick, Committees of Safety gathering, and all the streets in the warm evenings filled with knots and groups of anxious men. Awful rumors were in the air. July the first, Mr. Marshall records that information had been brought in to the Committee of Safety by a combmaker, that "not less than four different clubs of Tories" were in the habit of meeting in Philadelphia: and that frequently! At such a time as this! Under the very nose of Congress!

            In those first days of July down came all the King's Arms, from court rooms, from taverns, from government houses and pretentious shops; those of the State House being taken down with ceremony  in the presence of thousands of people, placed upon the top of a vast heap of tar barrels, and gloriously burnt. All this, while a British fleet of a hundred and twenty sail lay in New York harbor. What a hurrying forward of troops, too, as the greatness of Lord Howe's fleet, and the number of the troops in it, became known! Six thousand Pennsylvanians, encamped at Lancaster, were ordered to make all speed to Brunswick, in New Jersey, the rendezvous of the troops of both provinces; and Christopher Marshall went about the streets of Philadelphia collecting awnings to make tents for them. Troops passed through the city nearly every day on their way to New York. July 14th, "sixteen shallops with Maryland troops going to Trenton, amounting, it is said, to eleven hundred." Same day, two or three companies from Cumberland County came in; they stay all night; to Trenton on the morrow: "the whole, it is said, in high spirits."

            August 28th, Dr. Franklin concluded one of his letters to General Gates with these words: "While I am writing comes an account that the armies were engaged on Long Island, the event unknown, which throws us into anxious suspense. God grant success." It was three days before the people of Philadelphia knew all the extent of the disaster, including the retreat from Long Island.

            Mr. Marshall, in his diary for August 31st, gives information to posterity of two events. One was, that the said Christopher, on that day, got in his winter's wood, eleven cords and a half, price 10, and for hauling, carrying, and piling, 2 2s. 10d. Having recorded this always cheering circumstance, he proceeded to state, in the same number of lines, namely six, that Gen. Washington had got his army safely and in good order over the East River to New York, with all his field-pieces and stores; and that, while General Sullivan and Lord Stirling were prisoners in the enemy's hands, it was rumored that "our people" had killed two of the British generals. Still the troops went forward. Three thousand left Philadelphia within two days after the news came of the defeat upon Long Island.

            Amid such scenes and such events, Dr. Franklin lived and labored during the summer of 1776.


1. Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, Appendix.

2. "American Archives," Fifth Series, i., 944.

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