Benjamin Franklin was the best-known and probably most-admired American in Europe during the second half of the 18th century, chiefly due to his diplomatic visits. His extended forays to London and Paris were mainly for the purposes of negotiations as an official representative of the colonies, but both British and French societies celebrated Franklin's many achievements as a scientist and inventor.
Benjamin Franklin in London
For much of his life, Franklin considered himself a British citizen. His first trip overseas took place when he was just 17 years old. A recent resident of Philadelphia, having fled an apprenticeship at his brother's Boston print shop, Franklin made an acquaintance with Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, who convinced him to trek to London on the governor's behalf.
Once Franklin arrived in the city, Keith's support evaporated, and the young man found work at a London printing firm. He remained there for two years, until a patron, Thomas Denham, helped him return to Philadelphia.
More than three decades later in the 1750s, the Pennsylvania Assembly, sent Franklin to England to protest the domination of Englishman William Penn over the colony. He stayed in London five years pursuing this endeavor, only to ultimately fail due to his lack of allies in Parliament.
The statesman returned to Philadelphia undeterred, organizing a group called the anti-propriety party to further fight against the Penn family's tyranny. He served for a term as Speaker of the House for the state of Pennsylvania before returning to England to continue rallying British support.
He became acquainted with prominent British scientists of the day. During a trip to Scotland, he met David Hume, a philosopher and leader of the Enlightenment movement that swept Europe in the 18th century. He travelled to Germany in 1756 and then to France, where he was already renowned for his inquiries into electricity. While in Paris, Franklin met King Louis XV.
Back in London, Franklin came out against the British 1765 Stamp Act, which required colonial printers to use only stamped British paper for publications. Although he was unable to prevent the act from passing, he later exhorted the House of Commons to repeal the act, and this time he was victorious.
This win helped Franklin make a name for himself as the representative of American interests in Great Britain. More colonies, including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Georgia, named him their official spokesperson to the monarchy.
In 1772, Franklin obtained letters from the governor of Massachusetts, a loyalist, who encouraged Great Britain to hold Boston to account. Franklin leaked the letters to his friends in Boston, who had them published in the Boston Gazette. A violent reaction in the city ensued and earned Franklin a reputation in England as a rabble rouser.
A meeting with British lawmakers solidified Franklin's burgeoning transformation from loyal British subject to American revolutionary in 1774. London's attorney general, Alexander Wedderburn, called Franklin before the Privy Council to discuss the Massachusetts situation, and subjected the founding father to so severe a dressing-down that Franklin became resolved to put all his energy into the fight for independence at home.
He declared upon returning to his lodgings that evening that he would never again wear the suit he had on until he signed an agreement giving the United States complete independence from Great Britain. True to his word, he took the suit out of mothballs ten years thereafter when, as a commissioner for the States, he signed a treaty confirming his country's independence from English rule.
Upon his return to Pennsylvania in 1775 amid the Revolutionary War, Franklin received the nod as the state's delegate to the Second Continental Congress. Just a year later, in June 1776, he became one of the Party of Five that would draft the Declaration of Independence.
Benjamin Franklin in Paris
As 1776 drew to an end, government duties brought Franklin to Paris in the official capacity as American commissioner. During the first two years of his stay in Paris, he negotiated a military agreement between the two countries and later, in 1783, he signed the Treaty of Paris. He was able to secure French funding for the Revolutionary war, which helped lead to colonial victory.
During the nine years he would spend in France, Franklin associated not only with government officials but also prominent artists, philosophers and intellectuals. He was Master of a French freemason lodge, he argued for religious freedom and, at the King's request, investigated Franz Mesmer's theory of animal magnetism.
How Benjamin Franklin Changed the World
Through his work as American ambassador, emissary and commissioner, Benjamin Franklin became a bridge between Europe and the United States, even as the fight for independence raged on American soil. He smoothed the way for friendly relations between nations, which continue in the present day. As a representative of his country, he modeled the best qualities, including intellect, determination, affability, humility and sophistication.