Description

    Franklin's famed "Disputes with America" letter of 1767 predicting the Revolutionary War: "Sure I am, that, if Force is us'd, great Mischief will ensue. . . . America . . . must become a great Country"

    Benjamin Franklin Autograph Letter Signed. Six and one-quarter pages, 8" x 12.5", London, February 25, 1767, to "My dear Friend. . . . Lord Kaims [Henry Home, Lord Kames]." Franklin wrote this later copy (he has written "Copy" in the upper margin) regarding the "delicate and critical Situation of Affairs between Britain and her Colonies." The printer-turned-diplomat demonstrates here why he was one of the keenest practical political thinkers of his time, methodically making the case that Britain is well on its way to losing its American empire. In doing that, Franklin pens one of the earliest predictions of an American rebellion - "their final Revolt" - a full eight years before the first shots were fired at Lexington. Equally resonant is his employment of poetical phrases and ideas which anticipate those in the Declaration of Independence. This letter is one of his most quoted and is used in almost every biography written about him.

    In this important letter, Franklin argues that the reason Britain and the American colonies are growing apart hinges on the misunderstanding of the relationship between the two, particularly the relationship between the king and parliament on one side and the American colonists on the other. He contends that the earliest American colonists - skillfully termed "private Adventurers" - settled "a Country which had not been conquer'd by either King or Parliament, but was possess'd by a free People." Those "Adventurers" had "voluntarily engag'd to remain the King's Subjects" and chose to "acknowledge the King as their Sovereign." Franklin admits his love for his mother country ("I love it and wish its Prosperity") and wish to see the union between Britain and the colonies continue; however, he expresses that "As to America, the Advantages of such an Union to her are not so apparent." The problem was with Parliament, which "had no hand in their Settlement, was never so much as consulted about their Constitution, and took no kind of Notice of them till many Years after they were established." Furthermore, Parliament had "in some Instances been executed with great Partiality to Britain and Prejudice to the Colonies."

    The argument crescendos over six pages toward the crowning paragraph near the end of the letter where Franklin prophecies the destiny of America. In that paragraph, he also summarizes why a revolt is likely and leaves no doubt which side he has chosen: "But America, an immense Territory, favour'd by Nature with all Advantages of Climate, Soil, great navigable Rivers and Lakes, &c. must become a great Country, populous and mighty; and will in a less time than is generally conceiv'd be able to shake off any Shackles that may be impos'd on her, and perhaps place them on the Imposers. . . . For the Seeds of Liberty are universally sown there, and nothing can eradicate them. And yet there remains among that People so much Respect, Veneration and Affection for Britain, that, if cultivated prudently, with kind Usage and Tenderness for their Privileges, they might be easily govern'd still . . . But I do not see here [in London] a sufficient Quantity of the Wisdom that is necessary to produce such a Conduct, and I lament the Want of it."

    Franklin wrote this letter from London where he was serving as a representative of the Pennsylvania assembly to Lord Kames. Franklin had met Lord Kames (1696-1782), a Scottish philosopher and historian who lived in Edinburgh, during his summer travels to Scotland in 1759. The two shared many interests, which they discussed on their horseback rides together that summer. When the summer was over, they continued their conversations through letters. Much of their correspondence has been lost, but according to the extant letters of both men, they wrote mostly about their common philosophical and scientific pursuits, often sending each other books and book reviews. Their correspondence turned more to politics in the late 1760s as tensions heightened between Great Britain and the American colonies. In his Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Honourable Henry Home of Kames (Second Edition, Edinburgh: Neill & Co., 1814, 99-100), Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler writes that Lord Kames wrote Franklin letters in December 1765 and January 1767 in which he favored American representation in Parliament. Those letters are lost, but Franklin mentions that he had received them in the opening sentences of this "Copy." Certainly, those letters from Kames provoked Franklin's February 25th letter (of Kames' December 1765 missive, Franklin writes on February 25, "I never receiv'd a Letter that contain'd Sentiments more suitable to my own. It found me under much Agitation of Mind on the very important Subject it treated. It fortified me greatly in the Judgment I was inclined to form"). Franklin subsequently referred to his original letter of February 25, 1767, as his "Disputes with America" letter, or his letter concerning "the American Dispute." He did not learn until January 1769, two years later, that Lord Kames never received it.

    On February 18, 1768, Franklin received a letter from Kames which contained no mention of Franklin's 1767 letter. So ten days letter, Franklin responded with the suspicion that the letter "did miscarry": "It gave me great Pleasure to see my dear good Friend's Name at the Foot of a Letter I received the other day, having been often uneasy at his long Silence, blaming myself as the Cause by my own previous Backwardness and Want of Punctuality as a Correspondent. I now suppose (as in this he mentions nothing of it) that a long Letter I wrote him about this time twelvemonth, on the Subject of the Disputes with America, did miscarry, or that his Answer to that Letter miscarried, as I have never heard from him since I wrote that Letter."

    Kames wrote Franklin again later in 1768, this time concerning political matters, though again there was no mention of Franklin's February 25 letter (Kames' missive is lost). On January 1, 1769, Franklin answered that letter, happy to find that Kames was "turning your Thoughts to political Subjects." Franklin then references his 1767 "Disputes" letter: "I only wish I could first have engag'd you in Discussing the weighty Points in dispute between Britain and the Colonies: But the long Letter I wrote you for that purpose in February or March 1767 perhaps never reach'd your Hand, for I have not yet had a Word from you in Answer to it."

    Twenty days later on January 21, Kames finally verified that he had not received the 1767 "Disputes with America" letter: "The letter you mention, about American affairs, never came to hand." Historians have supposed that the original letter was intercepted by British authorities who were already watching Franklin's activities closely. Still, Franklin wanted Kames to read that letter, so he wrote this copy from his "Book" and sent it with another dated February 21, 1769. In the postscript of that letter, Franklin explains, "I am sorry my Letter of 1767, concerning the American Dispute, miscarried. I now send you a Copy of it from my Book. The Examination mention'd in it, you have probably seen. Things daily wear a worse Aspect, and tend more and more to a Breach and final Separation."

    Franklin's significant "Disputes with America" letter also exists as a contemporary copy in an unknown hand dated April 11, 1767. The letter, displaying the wit, charm, and keen insight of a master diplomat ranks alongside seminal letters by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington's November 9, 1787 letter discussing the Constitution sold for $3.2 million in 2009. And just earlier this year, a map of the battle of Yorktown executed by Jean Baptiste Gouvion and possibly belonging to Washington, sold for $1.1 million.

    Franklin's letter is reproduced below in full as written:

    "My dear Friend,

    I Received your Favour of Jan. 19. You have kindly reliev'd me from the Pain I had long been under. You are Goodness itself.

    I ought long since to have answered yours of Decr. 25. 1765. I never receiv'd a Letter that contain'd Sentiments more suitable to my own. It found me under much Agitation of Mind on the very important Subject it treated. It fortified me greatly in the Judgment I was inclined to form (tho' contrary to the general Vogue) on the then delicate and critical Situation of Affairs between Britain and her Colonies; and on that weighty Point their Union: Your guess'd aright in supposing I could not be a Mute in that Play. I was extreamly busy, attending Members of both Houses, informing, explaining, consulting, disputing, in a continual Hurry from Morning to Night till the Affair was happily ended. During the Course of it, being called before the House of Commons, I spoke my Mind pretty plainly. Inclos'd I send you the imperfect Account that was taken of that Examination; you will there see how intirely we agree, except in a Point of Fact of which you could not but be mis-inform'd, the Papers at that time being full of mistaken Assertions, that the Colonies had been the Cause of the War, and had ungratefully refus'd to bear any part of the Expence of it. I send it you now, because I apprehend some late Incidents are likely to revive the Contest between the two Countries. I fear it will be a mischievous one. It becomes a Matter of great Importance that clear Ideas should be formed on solid Principles, both in Britain and America, of the true political Relation between them, and the mutual Duties belonging to that Relation. Till this is done, they will be often jarring. I know none whose Knowledge, Sagacity and Impartiality, qualify them so thoroughly for such a Service, as yours do you. I wish therefore you would consider it. You may thereby be the happy Instrument of great Good to the Nation, and of preventing much Mischief and Bloodshed. I am fully persuaded with you, that a consolidating Union, by a fair and equal Representation of all the Parts of this Empire in Parliament, is the only firm Basis on which its political Grandeur and Stability can be founded. Ireland once wish'd it, but now rejects it. The Time has been when the Colonies might have been pleas'd with it; they are now indifferent about it; and, if 'tis much longer delay'd, they too will refuse it. But the Pride of this People cannot bear the Thoughts of it. Every Man in England seems to consider himself as a Piece of a Sovereign over America; seems to jostle himself into the Throne with the King, and talks of our Subjects in the Colonies. The Parliament cannot well and wisely make Laws suited to the Colonies, without being properly and truly informed of their Circumstances, Abilities, Temper, &c. This it cannot be without Representatives from thence. And yet it is fond of this Power, and averse to the only Means of duly acquiring the necessary Knowledge for exercising it, which is desiring to be omnipotent without being omniscient.

    I have mentioned that the Contest is like to be revived. It is on this Occasion. In the same Session with the Stamp Act, and Act was pass'd to regulate the Quartering of Soldiers in America. When the Bill was first brought in, it contain'd a Clause impowering the Officers to quarter their Soldiers in private Houses; this we warmly oppos'd, and got it omitted. The Bill pass'd however, with a Clause that empty Houses, Barns, &c. should be hired for them; and that the respective Provinces where they were, should pay the Expence, and furnish Firing, Bedding, Drink, and some other Articles, to the Soldiers, gratis. There is no way for any Province to do this, but by the Assembly's making a Law to raise the Money. Pensilvania Assembly has made such a Law. New York Assembly has refus'd to do it. And now all the Talk here is to send a Force to compel them.

    The Reasons given by the Assembly to the Governor for their Refusal, are, That they understand the Act to mean the furnishing such things to Soldiers only while on their March thro' the Country, and not to great Bodies of Soldiers, to be fixt as at present in the Province, the Burthen in the latter Case being greater than the Inhabitants can bear: That it would put it in the Power of the Captain General to oppress the Province at pleasure, &c. But there is suppos'd to be another Reason at bottom, which they intimate, tho' they do not plainly express it; to wit, that it is of the nature of an internal Tax laid on them by Parliament, which has no Right so to do. Their Refusal is here called Rebellion, and Punishment is thought of.

    Now waiving that Point of Right, and supposing the Legislatures in America subordinate to the Legislature of Great Britain, one might conceive, I think, a Power in the superior Legislature to forbid the inferior Legislature's making particular Laws; but to enjoin it to make a particular Law, contrary to its own Judgment, seems improper, an Assembly or Parliament not being an executive Officer of Government, whose Duty it is, in Law-making, to obey Orders; but a deliberative Body, who are to consider what comes before them, its Propriety, Practicability, or Possibility, and to determine accordingly. The very Nature of a Parliament seems to be destroy'd, by supposing it may be bound and compell'd by a Law of a superior Parliament to make a Law contrary to its own Judgment.

    Indeed the Act of Parliament in question has not, as in other Acts, when a Duty is injoined, directed a Penalty on Neglect or Refusal, and a Mode of Recovering that Penalty. It seems therefore to the People in America as a mere Requisition, which they are at Liberty to comply with or not as it may suit or not suit the different Circumstances of different Colonies. Pensilvania has therefore voluntarily comply'd. New York, as I said before, has refus'd. The Ministry that made the Act, and all their Adherents, call out for Vengeance. The present Ministry are perplext, and the Measures they will finally take on the Occasion are unknown. But sure I am, that, if Force is us'd, great Mischief will ensue, the Affections of the People of America to this Country will be alienated, your Commerce will be diminished, and a total Separation of Interests be the final Consequence.

    It is a common but mistaken Notion here, that the Colonies were planted at the Expence of Parliament, and that therefore the Parliament has a Right to tax them, &c. The Truth is, they were planted at the Expence of private Adventurers, who went over there to settle with Leave of the King given by Charter. On receiving this Leave and these Charters, the Adventurers voluntarily engag'd to remain the King's Subjects, though in a foreign Country, a Country which had not been conquer'd by either King or Parliament, but was possess'd by a free People. When our Planters arriv'd, they purchas'd the Lands of the Natives without putting King or Parliament to any Expence. Parliament had no hand in their Settlement, was never so much as consulted about their Constitution, and took no kind of Notice of them till many Years after they were established; never attempted to meddle with the Government of them, till that Period when it destroy'd the Constitution of all Parts of the Empire, and usurp'd a Power over Scotland, Ireland, Lords and King. I except only the two modern Colonies, or rather Attempts to make Colonies, (for they succeed but poorly, and as yet hardly deserve the Name of Colonies) I mean Georgia and Nova Scotia, which have been hitherto little better than Parliamentary Jobbs. Thus all the Colonies acknowledge the King as their Sovereign: His Governors there represent his Person. Laws are made by their Assemblies or little Parliaments, with the Governor's Assent, subject still to the King's Pleasure to confirm or annul them. Suits arising in the Colonies, and Differences between Colony and Colony, are not brought before your Lords of Parliament, as those within the Realm, but determined by the King in Council. In this View they seem so many separate little States, subject to the same Prince. The Sovereignty of the King is therefore easily understood. But nothing is more common here than to talk of the Sovereignty of Parliament, and the Sovereignty of this Nation over the Colonies; a kind of Sovereignty the Idea of which is not so clear, nor does it clearly appear on what Foundations it is established. On the other hand it seems necessary for the common Good of the Empire, that a Power be lodg'd somewhere to regulate its general Commerce; this, as Things are at present circumstanc'd, can be plac'd no where so properly as in the Parliament of Great Britain; and therefore tho' that Power has in some Instances been executed with great Partiality to Britain and Prejudice to the Colonies, they have nevertheless always submitted to it. Customhouses are established in all of them by Virtue of Laws made here, and the Duties constantly paid, except by a few Smugglers, such as are here and in all Countries; but internal Taxes laid on them by Parliament are and ever will be objected to, for the Reasons that you will see in the mentioned Examination.

    Upon the whole, I have lived so great a Part of my Life in Britain, and have formed so many Friendships in it, that I love it and wish its Prosperity, and therefore wish to see that Union on which alone I think it can be secur'd and establish'd. As to America, the Advantages of such an Union to her are not so apparent. She may suffer at present under the arbitrary Power of this Country; she may suffer for a while in a Separation from it; but these are temporary Evils that she will outgrow. Scotland and Ireland are differently circumstanc'd. Confin'd by the Sea, they can scarcely increase in Numbers, Wealth and Strength so as to overbalance England. But America, an immense Territory, favour'd by Nature with all Advantages of Climate, Soil, great navigable Rivers and Lakes, &c. must become a great Country, populous and mighty; and will in a less time than is generally conceiv'd be able to shake off any Shackles that may be impos'd on her, and perhaps place them on the Imposers. In the mean time, every Act of Oppression will sour their Tempers, lessen greatly if not annihilate the Profits of your Commerce with them, and hasten their final Revolt: For the Seeds of Liberty are universally sown there, and nothing can eradicate them. And yet there remains among that People so much Respect, Veneration and Affection for Britain, that, if cultivated prudently, with kind Usage and Tenderness for their Privileges, they might be easily govern'd still for Ages, without Force or any considerable Expence. But I do not see here a sufficient Quantity of the Wisdom that is necessary to produce such a Conduct, and I lament the Want of it.

    I borrow'd at Millar's the new Edition of your Principles of Equity, and have read with great Pleasure the preliminary Discourse. I have never before met with any thing so satisfactory on the Subject. While Reading it, I made a few Remarks as I went along: They are not of much Importance, but I send you the Paper.

    I know the Lady you mention, having, when in England before, met with her once or twice at Lord Bath's. I remember I then entertain'd the same Opinion of her that you express. On the Strength of your kind Recommendation, I purpose soon to wait on her.

    This is unexpectedly grown a long Letter. The Visit to Scotland, and the Art of Virtue, we will talk of hereafter. It is now time to say, that I am, with increasing Esteem and Affection, My dear Friend, Yours ever

    B Franklin."

    The "Lady" mentioned near the end of the letter is likely Elizabeth Montagu, a London author, literary hostess, and friend of Lord Kames. This letter is written on laid paper which is moderately toned. Franklin has docketed the verso of the fourth sheet, "Copy of former Letter." Below that is docketing in another hand, presumably by Kames, "Letters from Doctor Franklin." Written below the docketing in pencil is "25 Feb. 1767"; nearby is stamped "Abercairny File T/134." Two horizontal folds near the docketing have been reinforced. Each of the four sheets bears a thin strip of paper guards down the left edges.


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