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Ben Franklin

Temple's Diary

A Tale of Benjamin Franklin's Family

In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution

June 12, 1776

I can almost hear you protesting, dear descendants: what's the matter with Temple? After dating all his entries so carefully, he is now skipping from March 2 to June 12? Has he sailed back to England? Has he been expelled from school and felt too ashamed to tell us? Has he run off with Abigail?

No, no, none of the above, though the last of those guesses would have been bliss. In fact, it has been a tumultuous and devastating period. Like the rest of the family, I thought Grandfather would not survive it — and then what would happen to me in a world at war and a father on the "wrong" side of the conflict? I lost all interest in my studies and my grades plummeted to the point that the school compelled me to spend all my time trying to catch up. (I have, almost.)

But today, as some of those dark clouds are lifting, I will fill you in on the lives of the Franklin family as it approaches the country's momentous hour.

First of all, a look back at one of the principal actors — as always, Grandfather.

New York Public Library
General Charles Lee

One morning in early March, I was sleepily copying a letter he wrote to General Charles Lee, an expatriate Englishman now serving under General Washington. Tom Paine, who is to deliver that letter to Lee, asked Grandfather for a line of introduction, and Grandfather wrote that Paine, in his view, is the author of Common Sense. A few lines down, to my surprise, Grandfather tells Lee: "I hope for the pleasure of conferring with you face to face in Canada."

CANADA? At his age? At this time of year? Grandfather must have been sleepy, too, when he wrote this. Proud to have spotted a mistake, I asked him at breakfast what he really meant. All I got for my pains was a curt summons to join him in his room. Yet Canada was plainly legible in his manuscript. Was our Dr. Franklin wrapping himself once more in secretiveness?

— "You've clearly written Canada," I declared coldly.

— "Of course I did. But I don't want Jane and Sally to know. Not yet. Women always feel it is their duty to stop their man in any new enterprise, even when they know he'll go anyway. Now they'll implore and cry and pester me to stay home. Good thing they don't know that I myself don't feel like going..."

— "So why are you going?"

— "I have no choice, Billy. It is the usual story: Congress wants me to head the commission they are sending to plead with the Canadians to join our fight for independence. I'm sure it is a hopeless mission."

— "Can't you tell them that in Congress?"

— "No. I have pledged my life — whatever is left of it — to independence. I cannot back away." A pause. He opens his desk and hands me a sealed envelope. "You are to turn sixteen very soon. This is my birthday present. Don't open it right away."

As we reached the door to the breakfast room, he whispered: "Quick, think of a place beginning with a C!"

— "Well," exclaimed Aunt Jane, "what was the mystery word?"

— "Congress," I said. Disbelief could be seen all over her face.

As I passed Uncle Richard, smoking his post-breakfast pipe, he whispered: "Come to my room during your midday break."

And so I did.

— "Here I am, Uncle Richard. Tell me, why is Grandfather acting so strangely?"

— "Billy, how much do you know about Canada?"

— "I remember vaguely that when I was in New Jersey last summer the colonists invaded Canada to promote, they said, the peace and security of the people living there, but I was having so much fun at the time, learning to ride, that I never enquired any further."

— "Indeed. First of all, let me point out that history is full of ironies. By the time people finally obtain what they want, they discover that, alas, it is no longer what they want."

— "Did that happen to Grandfather?"

— "And how! Let us go back to the days of the French and Indian War. France and England, as you know, have been fighting each other for centuries. On the battlefields of Europe. When the New World was discovered, it became a new stage for their rivalry. As the English colonies settled along the coast, the French occupied vast tracts of what is now Canada and even pushed south all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi. A confrontation was inevitable. It took place around Quebec, with the French garrison entrenched behind formidable cliffs, and the British attacking from below. The British finally won, but at a heavy price in lost lives."

— "But that was long ago..."

— "Wait a minute, Temple. A problem arose in 1762, when the peace negotiations were taking place. It was difficult for the diplomats to decide whether to give Canada to Britain and let the French have the sugar islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, or vice- versa. This has to do with what is called the balance of power, the principle of not letting one country grow much stronger than the others.

"Your Grandfather, at that time a great admirer of the British Empire, and of King George III, published article upon article in the newspapers in favor of keeping Canada English. When it did happen that way, he was elated."

— "Now I understand his problem! He must wish the French were in power in Canada these days, now that France is America's best hope for independence."

— "Exactly. That is why he is in low spirits and feels that he has to compensate for his past error in judgment, even at the risk of his life."

— "And do you believe, Uncle Richard, that this is really a hopeless mission?"

— "It looks that way. The Americans are getting nowhere in their siege of Montreal. Their army is freezing, hungry, desperate, out of funds. Why would the Canadians want to abandon their allegiance to England at this point, no matter how well Dr. Franklin pleads the colonies' cause?"

I told Uncle Richard how grateful I was that he should take time to explain things to me and he answered that he was grateful to have someone to talk to. What did he mean by that?

— "I mean that since Mrs. Jane Mecom has honored us with her presence, my wife has been so busy living up to Bostonian standards that she has no time for me anymore."

— "Are Bostonian standards different from Philadelphia standards?"

— "They are the very opposite. Boston is rigid; I lived there, I know. Philadelphia is tolerant. Bostonians are almost all Anglo-Saxon and Puritan. Philadelphians come from many countries, a wonderful diversity. No wonder your grandfather ran off from Boston at seventeen."

We let it go at that. I had to get back to school. I related this conversation to George Fox and he agreed with Uncle Richard.

Looking pale and drawn, Grandfather departed for Canada in late March. As he was finally stepping away from the family wails and ultimate recommendations, Aunt Jane shouted after him: "Give my love to William and Elizabeth!" He turned around and replied icily: "I'm avoiding Perth Amboy."

I still had in my pocket my father's last letter lamenting Grandfather's plan to undertake this journey. Nothing, he wrote, had ever given him more pain. Would there be a way to dissuade Dr. Franklin, he asks.

Of course not, Father, no more than there is a way to dissuade you. I just heard that of all the royal governors you are the one who has been serving the longest. Wouldn't it be time to quit? And give me, your son, a normal life, finally?

American Philosophical Society
Franklin, in the fur cap he acquired on the trip to Cananda, in 1776.
Engaving by A.H. Ritchie after Cochin.

News of the Canada-bound commissioners arrived only in dribbles. We heard that after sailing up the Hudson they had to pause in Saratoga because Lake George was frozen. Grandfather wrote from there to a friend: "I have undertaken a fatigue that at my time of life may prove too much for me. So I sit down to write to a few friends by way of farewell." Farewell? He's giving up on life? Panic grips Franklin Court.

We learn a little later that at St. John's he spent two nights sleeping on the floor of a house destroyed in battle and vandalized after that ... but he carried on.

It took the commission one month to reach Montreal, and once there, they realized the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen an expedition launched so far from home without adequate money, supplies, and reinforcements. After discussing the situation with the gravely wounded Colonel Benedict Arnold, my grandfather wrote to Congress: "If money cannot be had to support your army here with honor, so as to be respected instead of hated by the people, we repeat it as our firm and unanimous opinion that it is better immediately to withdraw it." Whereupon he decided to go home.

He reached us in June, more dead than alive and was immediately put to bed. The doctor mentioned the names of various illnesses of which I only understood "boils" and "gout." There was also something that began with pso — and had to do, I believe, with his skin, but I decided not to ask. The aunts are frantic enough as it is and my role is to keep the little boys fed, washed and quiet.

I'll use this relative quiet to relate what has been going on in Perth Amboy, not that the news from there is either happy or glamorous. My father sends me his usual list of errands, to be promptly fulfilled, of course, while urging me to improve my French and my Latin, along with my fencing and horsemanship.

I don't seem to do anything right these days. Thinking my father and Elizabeth would enjoy some youthful company, I accepted their invitation to spend the Easter holiday in Perth Amboy. What a mistake! All I accomplished was to get on their nerves. Money is the bone of contention. Now that Uncle Richard, for reasons unknown, refuses to advance me my allowance, in spite of Father's promise to reimburse him, that modest sum has become a sore point. Allright, allright, I spend it too fast even though I have been shown the proper way to establish a budget, I'm disorderly, I always seem to be in one place while my socks and shirts are in another, I forget half the stupid errands they entrust me with, I forget to send the issues of the newspapers they want, and so on. The list of my sins is long, and I don't even pretend to care.

Yes, I know, Father's dream of a fortune in Vandalia, out West, has been crushed; he is even unsure of his future salary as a governor, my allowance is more than what he received at my age and he refuses to see me indulge in excesses that will "ruin my constitution, hinder my growth, and make me miserable thereafter." (Can't he see that I am healthy and tall?)

Meanwhile, momentous events are happening. The Provincial Congress of New Jersey assumes more and more authority in the colony. It holds elections and appoints its own delegates to the Continental Congress. Father is totally by-passed.

Back in Philadelphia, I opened the envelope Grandfather had given me and found myself with more money than I'd ever held in my hand. I rushed to the shop where I'd seen the ruby-red shawl. Upon hearing my name, the old lady who runs it gave me a nice discount in honor of Dr. Franklin, her hero. My plan was to have Abigail wear the shawl during our walks, after which I would stuff it in a bag and hide it somewhere in my room. Brilliant!

No, not so brilliant. As I was hovering near the City Tavern with the precious shawl in its bag, a man hailed me: "Billy Franklin!"

— "Yes, Sir?"

— "Pay close attention. I have a message for you. Don't you ever come here again and wait for Abigail. That's what her father wants me to tell you, and he means it."

— "What harm have we done? We only walked..."

— "I don't care what you did. Abigail has been slapped and locked up in her room until she promises to obey. As to you, if you don't want a black eye or two, keep away. What's in that bag?"

He snatched it from me before I could answer. "I will give it to her mother. Be on your way, now. I want to see you disappear."

So that's why Abigail looked so anxious on our last walks. She must have guessed that a spy was lurking somewhere.

I'll never kiss her dimples again. Goodbye, first love. I can't write more than that.