Book Review: Benjamin Franklin in London
by George Goodwin
Yale University Press, 2016
George Goodwin’s previous two books were works of military history: 2012’s Fatal Colours, about the Battle of Towton in 1461, and 2013’s Fatal Rivalry, about the 1513 Battle of Flodden Field. The only battles in his new book, Benjamin Franklin in London, take place off-stage; the book concentrates instead on the long London career of the Englishman who’s now one of the most iconic Americans of them all. Franklin first visited the imperial capital of the North American colonies in 1724 as a young apprentice to the art of printing, and he returned in 1757 he returned as a diplomatic emissary for the Pennsylvania Assembly. And in 1764 he went back again, this time staying for over a decade, hob-nobbing more than ever before with the upper crust of British society.
Goodwin deals with each of these British sojourns in turn, and the same narrative gifts that made his two Fatal books so enjoyable to read lift this book into the front ranks of Franklin biographies, especially the sub-set of such biographies that likewise try to study the man mainly through one period in his life (Arthur Bernon Tourtellot’s wonderful book about Franklin’s Boston years, for instance, or David Schoenbrun’s equally-wonderful Triumphant in Paris, about the good doctor’s stay in the City of Light). During the lulls in the narrative, when Franklin was simply scarfing up country house food or merrily swapping coffee house banter or eagerly rogering anything female with a pulse, Goodwin works in a great deal of color commentary on the little detail of the famous man’s daily life, from his dealings with admirers and con artists to his culinary adventures, the gist of which will be familiar to anybody who’s ever dealt with English food:
Franklin was delighted to be shipped American ‘goodies’ to add to the English standard fare of bread and butter for breakfast. The former might be toasted. Pehr Kalm, the Swedish botanist friend of Peter Collinson who in 1748 stayed in England en route to America, alleged, somewhat fancifully, that toast was a response to the difficulty of spreading bread with hard butter in cold English houses. Breakfast bread could be fruited and there was the option of ‘wigs’, light yeast-raised bread buns flavoured with ground ginger, cloves, nutmeg and caraway seeds. Wealthier houses had honey and, more rarely, what Boswell called ‘that admirable viand, marmalade.’
But the real heart of the book, of course, is the appearance in Franklin’s settled, comfortable, and admired London life of the American Revolution, which was brought on through a series of blunders on the part of the British Parliament that Franklin was able to watch at close proximity, and Goodwin’s account makes it clear all over again that the sheer mulish stupidity of much of what Franklin saw in the British lawmakers with whom he spent so much of his time exasperated him. He watched the furor over the Stamp Act and over the Coercive Acts, known in Boston as the Intolerable Acts, and Goodwin has a high opinion of the financial expertise Franklin brought to the whole issue:
Of course, in the modern meaning of the word, it was Franklin who was far more of an economist. He saw the benefits to trade and commerce of having greater liquidity through the use of paper currency and understood how tax receipts would increase over time by stimulating trade in the short term. In addition, both his commercial and his scientific background let him naturally to see the importance of encouraging industrial research and development.
And it wasn’t all spectating: in 1773, some private letters of Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson came into Franklin’s hands, and he saw at once how incendiary their contents were, with Hutchinson blandly talking about curtailing the freedoms his colonists enjoyed as subjects of the Crown. Franklin sent the letters to Boston, where they were published to such public outcry that London quickly became inhospitable to Franklin, who took ship back to Philadelphia in 1775 and threw in his lot with the revolutionaries.
It’s a fascinating story, and Goodwin tells it well. This is a thoroughly detailed but no less thoroughly partisan book; nowhere in these pages will readers find the Franklin condemned by so many of his contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic as an inconstant, querulous busybody, a smarter-than-average but deeply untrustworthy old roue who in his later years lied his way out of one self-serving blunder after another and whose hatred for King George III had a lot more to do with ruffled pride than a burning love of liberty. The alluring – and maddening – thing about Franklin is that he might very well have been both the scandalous old turncoat and the saintly old Founding Father. That kind of mercurial complexity Goodwin certainly succeeds in conveying.