Benjamin Franklin’s Most Important Articulation of the Constitutional Basis of the American Revolution

Americans were never British at all, but were merely subjects of the British King

Thus the Americans were not really in rebellion against Britain, but in fighting for independence were merely seeking to establish what was by right theirs


The letter’s recipient, Jonathan Willams, was Franklin’s grandnephew, and the first Superintendent of West Point and first commander of the Army Corps of Engineers



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Explore & Discover

  1. The Great Inventor - This letter, like so few that have ever reached the market, mentions, describes one of his most famous inventions, an apparatus for reaching books high in his library
  2. Americans as "Subjects" - Franklin's definition of Americans as subjects of the King but not British subjects is remarkable
  3. The Convention on the horizon - This letter was written the year before the nation convened in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention

Benjamin Franklin’s Most Important Articulation of the Constitutional Basis of the American Revolution

Americans were never British at all, but were merely subjects of the British King

Thus the Americans were not really in rebellion against Britain, but in fighting for independence were merely seeking to establish what was by right theirs


The letter’s recipient, Jonathan Willams, was Franklin’s grandnephew, and the first Superintendent of West Point and first commander of the Army Corps of Engineers


Franklin also describes and sends for publication a description of his newest and among his most famous inventions: a “long arm” for reaching books in tall libraries; he also sends scientific papers he was publishing with the American Philosophical Society

Prior to the Revolution, Franklin was the preeminent American in both Britain and the colonies. He represented some of the colonies in London, and was well connected to the scientific and political communities there. His political activities and writings manifested a connection to the British empire, and he supported the military campaigns against the French during the 1740’s and the French and Indian War a decade later. His famous Albany Plan of 1754 would have united the colonies but also made governance from London simpler and more efficient. All of this, plus his wealth and lucrative Crown appointments, would have seemed to make him destined to be a loyalist. But in the end Franklin repudiated the mother country, embraced the infant republic, and threw his entire fame and effort into gaining independence and bringing the nations of Europe (particularly France) to the aid of that goal. The basis for the change of heart by the best-known American at the time is not only a fascinating story, but succinctly defines the reasons for the American Revolution. And in looking at it, we examine all three potential categories of causes: political, economic, and constitutional.

In 1764, in the wake of the victory in the French and Indian War, Parliament passed the Sugar Act, which increased on the American colonies duties on imported sugar and other items such as textiles, coffee, wines and indigo dye. It doubled the duties on foreign goods reshipped from England to the colonies and also forbade the import of foreign rum and French wines. That same year it also passed the Currency Act severely limiting the colonists’ ability to issue paper money as legal tender. This tight money policy reduced the amount of currency in circulation and threatened to destabilize if not devastate the colonial economies of both the mercantile North and agricultural South. Franklin was opposed to the measure, feeling it would prove detrimental to the future growth of America, and lobbied unsuccessfully for years to get it repealed. Then in March 1765, Parliament enacted the notorious Stamp Act imposing the first direct tax on the American colonies. For the first time in the 150 year old history of the British colonies in America, the Americans would pay a tax not imposed by their own local legislatures and paid locally, but by Parliament and the funds would end up in England. At first Franklin was not averse to this act, but when he discovered the depth of feeling and learned of the protests in the colonies against it, and heard the rationales, he too became an opponent.

In 1766 Parliament appointed a committee to investigate the causes of the disturbances in the colonies. Franklin testified, attributing them “To a concurrence of causes: the restraints lately laid on their trade, by which the bringing of foreign gold and silver into the Colonies was prevented; the prohibition of making paper money among themselves, and then demanding a new and heavy tax by stamps; taking away, at the same time, trials by juries, and refusing to receive and hear their humble petitions”. In his mind, these were the economic and political reasons for the breach at that time, and they remained as causes of the Revolution.

But in that decade of the 1760s, as he was buffeted by the winds of dispute between Britain and America, and he watched Britain’s brutal takeover of India, Franklin grew interested in the Constitutional question of sovereignty; who had it and the circumstances under which it was obtained, and how that might apply to America. He began to study Britain’s presumed sovereignty over Ireland, even as reports of land and tribal wars in India arrived in London. He studied the Pratt-Yorke opinion rendered on Britain’s takeover of lands in India, which held that those acquired by treaty or purchase were owned by the acquirers and not the Crown; the Crown’s rights of original ownership were limited to acquisitions by conquest. This was a meaningful definition in his mind. In addition, he read William Bolts’s “Considerations on India Affairs: Particularly Respecting the Present State of Bengal and Its Dependencies”, which detailed the arbitrary powers of the British authorities there. His loyalty to empire began to erode.

In 1767 Parliament passed the Townsend Acts, which were designed to raise revenue in the American colonies, create a more effective means of enforcing compliance with trade regulations, to punish New York for failing to comply with the 1765 Quartering Act, and most importantly to establish the precedent that the British Parliament had the right to tax the colonies. The Townshend Acts were met with resistance across America, prompting the occupation of Boston by British troops in 1768. Franklin now perceived that Parliament would never grant the expanding colonies autonomous status within the empire, that in fact things were getting worse, and rather than accept limits on America’s continental destiny, he must consider alternatives (and in time embrace the possibility of an independent, republican political community in America).

Franklin told Lord Kames in 1763, “The Power of a Single Man to do National Service, in a Particular Situation of Influence, is often immensely great.” Franklin knew he was a man of influence, and he had always considered “writers who inculcate good habits” to be performing great national service. In 1771 Franklin wrote his “Autobiography”, in which he defined his character as an autonomous, self-created, and self-sufficient American. In both a literal and a metaphorical sense, the autobiography was Franklin’s personal declaration of independence, and must be considered as a political act.

Also in 1771 Franklin visited Ireland (which was under British rule) and was shocked – and his view of the empire further devastated – by the poverty, absence of vitality, and depression of laboring people there. He wrote that they were living on potatoes and buttermilk, had no meat in their diets, and were barely clothed. With Ireland and India as examples before his eyes, Franklin knew the American colonies needed to be free to operate on their own in a collaborative network of enterprise, or they could end up impoverished and oppressed.

By 1773, as several pieces written then – including two essays, “On Claims to the Soil of America” and “An Edict by the King of Prussia” – indicate, Franklin’s constitutional ruminations had led to his legal conclusion that if land were obtained by purchase and settled and improved, sovereignty over the land belonged to the persons engaged in those activities, not to the monarch who ruled over them at the time they left their original location in order to settle a different location. Sovereignty derived from the Natives’ original title, which was valid, and sovereignty transferred to those who acquired Native lands by agreement or purchase. Thus Franklin conceived sovereignty over American land resided with Americans who acquired their land from the Native Americans, not with the Crown. This view, based on his understanding of the law of his day, placed power squarely in the hands of Americans. Using this line of thinking, since William Penn had acquired the land on which Franklin’s home town of Philadelphia was built directly by treaty and purchase from the Native Americans, then the British nation, Crown and government had never owned that land. The Native Americans had transferred their rights to the land directly to Penn and his successors. It is noteworthy that Franklin’s acceptance that Native people held original sovereignty was a liberal and somewhat revolutionary idea itself at the time.

We see that the economic and political reasons for the American Revolution in Franklin’s mind were Parliament’s claim of complete supremacy while ignoring pleas from the colonies, vast trade and currency controls that would stifle the colonies’ growth and success, taxation imposed from outside, Parliament’s direct control of American jurisprudence, and the specific actions Parliament had taken to control the colonies (like the occupation of Boston and restrictions imposed after the Boston Tea Party). His Constitutional justification was that colonists ceased being British upon their arrival in America, and held title to their lands independent of Britain. Thus the Americans were not really in rebellion against Britain, which had no right to their land, but in fighting for independence were merely seeking to establish what was already theirs by right.

Franklin’s view of the nature of the Constitutional tie that existed between the American colonies and Great Britain before the Revolution is crucial to his thinking, but has not received the same attention as the impact of political and economic issues, quite likely because it very seldom appears in his correspondence. One exception is Franklin’s biographer William Cabell Bruce, who wrote a century ago in his “Benjamin Franklin; Self-Revealed” that “one of the most concise” summations of that Constitutional view “is to be found in a letter to his grand-nephew Jonathan Williams”.

Jonathan Williams was Franklin’s grandnephew, and he spent most of the period from 1776 to 1785 in England and France assisting Franklin. He returned to the United States in 1785 when Franklin came back to Philadelphia. President Jefferson would make him the first Superintendent of West Point in December 1801. The following year Jefferson also appointed him to concurrently command the newly-established Army Corps of Engineers.

Mercator was a pseudonym of a British correspondent who wrote three letters to the London Public Advertiser in 1785 that were soon published in American newspapers. Mercator questioned the legitimacy of the Continental Congress as a government and of John Adams as its minister to Great Britain, while condemning the failure to properly compensate Loyalists and pay its war debts. He mocked American pretensions to trade with the East and West Indies, and spoke out against slavery. Williams defended the United States, replying in a Boston newspaper that independence was not a gift Britain gave in the peace treaty, that Anglo-American relations were bad because of British arrogance, and that Mercator’s condemnation of slavery rang hollow because the British controlled the slave trade. It is to this exchange that Franklin refers in the following letter, and which generated his remarkable statement that Americans were not British (and only seized what was theirs by right).

Franklin was a great lover of books. However, reaching books on high shelves was a challenge. So in 1786 the ever resourceful Franklin solved the problem by inventing the “long arm,” which is a wooden pole with a grasping claw at the end. By pulling on a cable, Franklin could bring the fingers together to grip a book off a high shelf. Versions of the long arm remain in use today. He mentions his newest invention in the following letter.

Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society with others in 1743 in order to “promote useful knowledge.” In 1786 it published in the Philosophical Society’s Transactions some scientific papers Franklin provided. These included his Oceanographic findings in Maritime Observations, which contained ideas for sea anchors, catamaran hulls, watertight compartments, shipboard lighting rods, and a soup bowl designed to stay stable in stormy weather.

This is the very letter cited by Bruce as a key statement of Franklin’s Constitutional view, and also referring to his new invention and scientific papers. Autograph letter signed, Philadelphia, February 12, 1786, to Williams. “Dear Jonathan, I wrote to you a few Days since, and sent you 4 philosophical Papers, which I permitted your communicating to Mr. Bowdoin. As they are chiefly speculative and hypothetical, and, (except the Description of the long Arm, a new Instrument for taking down Books from high Shelves) contain little of practical Utility. I apprehend he will not think them worth laying before the Society. I sent the pacquet by Mr. Allen, whom you may remember to have seen in France, so you will receive them free of Postage tho’ a little later; for I cannot frank as you suppose, and I pay for all Letters that come to me, except those from the Secretaries of Congress. I thank you however for your pacquet containing your Dispute with Mercator in which I think you have the Advantage, both in Temper, and Strength of Argument, tho’ it seems to me, that instead of discussing when we ceased to be British Subjects you should have deny’d our ever having been such. We were Subjects to the King of G. Britain, as were also the Irish, the Jersey and Guernsey People, and the Hanoverians; but we were American Subjects, as they were Irish, Jersey, and Hanoverian Subjects. None are British Subjects but those under the Parliament of Britain. Your affectionate Uncle, B. Franklin.”

So this letter discusses his Constitutional view of the Revolution, his newest invention, and his scientific publications. It is unquestionably the most historically significant letter of Franklin that we have carried in all our years in the field, and in fact one of the most important we have ever seen. Moreover, a search of public sale records going back 40 years fails to turn up even one letter on the Constitutional topic or mentioning an invention.


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