April 2016: Journey to the Past — Join us on a tour of Ben Franklin’s only existing home!
In the heart of London stands the Benjamin Franklin House, the home where he lived between 1757 and 1775.
Built circa 1730, the terraced Georgian edifice at 36 Craven Street is the only surviving former residence of one of America’s most famous Founding Fathers. Today it is a vibrant museum and educational facility that features his beloved scientific discoveries, from lightning rods to hydrodynamics.
The top floor is the Robert H. Smith Scholarship Centre, which focuses on historical documents including the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, which are sponsored by The American Philosophical Society and Yale University.
What savvy governing agreements was Franklin working out while in London to benefit the United States? Who helped to preserve the c. 1730 residence? Which famous dignitaries have visited the museum in recent years? And what happened to Franklin’s famous home and shop in Philadelphia?
Scroll down for our Q&A with Márcia Balisciano, founding director of the Benjamin Franklin House. She is also the director of corporate responsibility for the global media group Reed Elsevier; previously, she served as adviser to the American Chamber of Commerce in Britain, and to the documentary film project “50 Lessons.”
One of 28 international women featured in a book and exhibition for the Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas, she is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics. Balisciano was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen's 2007 Birthday Honours List.
Here’s to bringing history to life! — David Bruce Smith, founder, and Hope Katz Gibbs, executive producer, the Grateful American™ Foundation
What inspired the restoration of the Benjamin Franklin House in London?
“36 Craven Street is a historical gem,” insists Márcia Balisciano, the founding director of the Benjamin Franklin House. “By some quirk of fate, the only surviving home of Benjamin Franklin, one of America's most iconic figures, is not in Boston where he was born, not in his adopted city of Philadelphia, nor in Paris where he served, beginning in 1776, as first official representative of the fledgling American government, garnering financial support that led to American success during the Revolution. It is in the heart of London, just steps from Trafalgar Square.”
David Bruce Smith: Benjamin Franklin made his first visit to England in 1725. What inspired the trip, and what was it like for the then 19-year-old to be on his own in a foreign country?
Márcia Balisciano: After serving as an apprentice to his enterprising and demanding older brother James, who was the publisher of Boston's New England Courant — and who was surprised by and perhaps a bit jealous of his younger sibling's precocious talents — it was time for Franklin to forge his own way. He traveled to the burgeoning Colonial city of Philadelphia with the aim of making his mark as a printer and a publisher. In his autobiography, Franklin describes meeting smooth-talking Pennsylvania Gov. Sir William Keith, whom young Ben so impressed that Keith promised to finance a voyage to England to allow Franklin to purchase the equipment needed to start his press.
No funds were (ever) forthcoming, but Franklin sailed for London anyway. With the help of a wayward traveling companion, writer James Ralph, Franklin took advantage of some of the cosmopolitan delights available in London, such as theatre and books. He unsuccessfully wooed a discarded mistress of Ralph's and expanded his knowledge about his chosen trade by working in the printing operation housed in 12th century church St Bartholomew the Great, which still stands.
Hope Katz Gibbs: He returned to America in 1726, and eventually built his reputation as a printer, merchant, and civic leader. In Philadelphia, he established the first postal service, public library, and volunteer fire department. Do you have any documentation or stories to suggest that his time in England inspired him?
Márcia Balisciano: Franklin went on to work at Watts, an even larger printing house in London, where he plied an early interest in civic improvement: "From my example, a great part of them [his colleagues] left their muddling breakfast of beer, and bread, and cheese, finding they could with me be suppli’d from a neighboring house with a large porringer of hot water-gruel, sprinkled with pepper, crumbl’d with bread, and a bit of butter in it, for the price of a pint of beer, viz., three half-pence. This was a more comfortable as well as cheaper breakfast, and kept their heads clearer." On his return to Philadelphia, he continued this passion for betterment through the Junto, a club of like-minded individuals he established, dedicated to self-improvement and community advancement.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Franklin was vocal about his opposition to taxation without representation. And in 1767, tensions between Britain and the American Colonies worsened as duties were levied on glass, paper, and tea. Even so, he worked toward reconciliation. In fact, in a 1768 letter, he wrote: “I wish prosperity to both sides.” Tell us about that negotiation.
Márcia Balisciano: Colonial concern over arbitrary taxation brewed in the 1760s and first reached a head in 1765 with the Stamp Act, which required Americans to purchase a stamp for an array of goods, from newspapers and contracts to playing cards.
Rumor on the home front had it that Franklin — who returned to England in 1757 to represent Colonial interests, now as a successful printer, publisher, civic leader, and politician — was in favor of the Act, but in fact he gave compelling testimony toward its successful repeal a year later: "If you have no right to tax them internally, you have none to tax them externally, or make any other law to bind them. At present they do not reason so, but in time they may possibly be convinced by these arguments."
But one unpopular duty gave way to others and culminated in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. At stake was not only political but economic sovereignty. The Colonists were not content with simply supplying raw materials to Britain; they wanted the right to sell their manufactured goods as well. Franklin tried a range of measures to bridge the gap between each side, which included articles, cartoons, spoofs, treatises, and of course, negotiation.
In his “Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One,” he noted in frustration, "A great Cake is most easily diminished at the Edges."
David Bruce Smith: In his book, “Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father," George Goodwin — the Author in Residence at the Benjamin Franklin House — points out that for the great majority of his long life, Franklin was a loyal British royalist. Can you explain?
Márcia Balisciano: Franklin, born in Boston, was Anglo-American. His father came from Ecton, a small village in England's Northamptonshire, while his mother hailed from Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Yet he thought of himself, as did his contemporaries, as a subject of the king. With his son William he attended the coronation of the 22-year-old King George III in 1761 and had optimism for his leadership.
As he wrote to his friend Samuel Cooper in Boston just six years before the start of the Revolutionary War, "I hope nothing that … may happen will diminish in the least our Loyalty to our Sovereign, or Affection for this Nation in general. I can scarcely conceive a King of better Dispositions, of more exemplary Virtues, or more truly desirous of promoting the Welfare of all his Subjects." The breach when it came was personal and painful — he was a reluctant rebel.
Hope Katz Gibbs: Franklin is known to have spent many hours in his Craven Street laboratory. What types of scientific discoveries did he make there?
Márcia Balisciano: During his long years at Craven Street, Franklin pursued his passion for science and continued his investigations into the nature of electricity. He spliced imagination and practicality and devised a three-wheeled 24-hour perpetual clock and a flexible catheter, and he improved the design of bifocals, among other inventions and investigations.
During conservation, we found remnants of a Franklin stove and damper in the adjoining spaces of his “laboratory,” evidence of his interest in fuel efficiency. He also invented a musical instrument in his London house, the armonica, for which Mozart, (JC) Bach, and Beethoven composed in his own time: nested glass bowls of different octaves, fastened with a steel rod and spun with a treadle to produce the sound of angels. It is still used today, including in the “Harry Potter” theme song!
David Bruce Smith: Although he was known to have enjoyed the company of women during the years that he was in London, Franklin had been married to Deborah Read since 1730. She did not accompany him on his frequent trips to Europe because of a fear of sea travel. In spite of their separations, they remained loyal and supportive partners to each other for nearly half a century. What can you tell us about Franklin’s marriage?
Click here to read more!
Which US president spent time with Benjamin Franklin in Paris as the Minister to France?
April 8, 1778 — Today, future US President John Adams (1735-1826) arrived in Paris to replace Silas Deane as the American commissioner representing the interests of the United States.
A former Continental Congress member, Deane's assignment was to bribe Indians to cooperate with Americans and to persuade the French government to supply arms, ammunition, and uniforms for the Continental Army. However, Deane's conduct aroused the suspicions of fellow diplomat Arthur Lee, who accused Deane of financial mismanagement and corruption. As a result of Lee's charges, Deane was recalled by Congress.
Historians explain that Lee never got along with his two colleagues in part because the two came from different cultural backgrounds in the Colonies. Deane was born and raised in Connecticut and educated at Yale, while Arthur Lee was a Virginian who followed the educational and career path of the British elite before Revolutionary politics intervened.
Adams, who was also a New Englander (from Massachusetts and Harvard), defended Deane, but was unable to clear his name. Deane was forced to live his life in exile until his death in 1789. In 1842, Congress reopened the investigation into his accounts and, finding no evidence of misconduct, ordered that his heirs be paid $37,000 in reparations.
After Adams had spent 18 months in Paris, along with Benjamin Franklin, Congress decided to name Franklin the sole minister to France. Although reportedly humiliated by the decision, Adams was elected part of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention upon his return; he was put in charge of drafting the state's first constitution. It became the core of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, and shaped the future American Constitution.
“Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has the more one wants.”
— Benjamin Franklin, renowned polymath and leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat (January 17, 1706 – April 17, 1790)
“Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father,” by George Goodwin, Author in Residence, Benjamin Franklin House
For the great majority of his long life, Benjamin Franklin was a loyal British royalist. In 1757, having made his fortune in Philadelphia and established his fame as a renowned experimental scientist, he crossed the Atlantic to live as a gentleman in the heaving metropolis of London. With just a brief interlude, a house in Craven Street was to be his home until 1775.
From there he mixed with the brilliant and the powerful, whether in London coffee house clubs, at the Royal Society, or on his summer travels around the British Isles and continental Europe. He counted David Hume, Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestley, Edmund Burke, and Erasmus Darwin among his friends, and as an American Colonial representative, he had access to successive prime ministers and even the king.
The early 1760s saw Britain's elevation to global superpower status, with victory in the Seven Years War and the succession of the young, active King George III. These two events brought a sharp new edge to political competition in London and redefined the relationship between Britain and its Colonies. It would profoundly affect Franklin, too, eventually placing him in opposition with his ambitious son William.
Though Franklin long sought to prevent the break with Great Britain, his own actions would finally help cause that very event. On the eve of the American War of Independence, Franklin fled arrest and escaped by sea. He would never return to London.
With his unique focus on the fullness of Benjamin Franklin's life in London, George Goodwin has created an enthralling portrait of the man, the city, and the age.