Benjamin Franklin, A Picture of the Struggles of Our Infant Nation One Hundred Years Ago - American Pioneers and Patriots Series
by John S. C. Abbott
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On the 13th of January, Count de Vergennes, and the British minister Mr. Fitzherbert, signed their preliminaries in the presence of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams. Not till then did the English order hostilities to be suspended, and declare the senseless war to be at an end.

There was universal satisfaction in America. With the exception of the king and a few of his ministers, there was general satisfaction in England. It is true that the national pride was sorely humiliated. But after all these woes which England had inflicted upon America, her own statesmen, with almost undivided voice, declared that the interests of both nations were alike promoted, by having a few feeble colonies elevated into the rich and flourishing republic of the United States. Thus the war of the American revolution must be pronounced to have been, on the part of England, which forced it, one of the most disastrous and senseless of those blunders which have ever accompanied the progress of our race.[38]

[Footnote 38: Contemplate the still greater blunder of our civil war. It was forced upon the nation by the slave traders, that they might perpetuate slavery. And now after the infliction of woes which no finite imagination can gauge, these very slave-holders declare with one voice, that nothing would induce them to reinstate the execrable institution. How much misery would have been averted, and what a comparative paradise would our southern country now have been, if before, instead of after the war, the oppressed had been allowed to go free!]


Life's Closing Scenes.

Advice to Thomas Paine—Scenes at Passy—Journey to the Coast—Return to America—Elected Governor of Pennsylvania—Attends the Constitutional Convention—Proposes prayers—Remarkable speech—Letter to Dr. Stiles—Christ on the Cross—Last sickness and death.

About this time some one, knowing Dr. Franklin's deistical views, presented, for his opinion, a treatise denouncing the idea, that there was any God, who manifested any interest in the affairs of men, that there was any Particular Providence. Though Franklin did not accept the idea, that Jesus Christ was a divine messenger, and that the Bible was a supernatural revelation of God's will, he certainly did not, in his latter years, deny that there was a God, who superintended the affairs of this world, and whom it was proper to worship. It is generally supposed that Thomas Paine was the author of this treatise, and that it was a portion of his Age of Reason. Franklin, in his memorable reply, wrote,

"I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a providence that takes cognizance of, guards and guides and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a deity, to fear his displeasure or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that, though your reasonings are subtile, and may prevail with some readers, you will not succeed so as to change the general sentiments of mankind on that subject; and the consequence of printing this piece will be, a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself; mischief to you and no benefit to others. He that spits against the wind, spits in his own face.

"I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person; whereby you will save yourself a great deal of mortification, by the enemies it may raise against you, and perhaps a good deal of regret and repentance. If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it."

Franklin testifies to the remarkable courtesy which characterized all the movements of the French minister, during these protracted and delicate negotiations. The definitive treaty was signed on the 3d of September, 1783. It was unanimously ratified by Congress on the 14th of January, 1784. The king of England gave it his signature on the 9th of April. Thus two years and three months passed between the beginning of negotiations and the conclusion of the treaty of peace.

At the termination of the war crowds of Englishmen flocked to Paris. Franklin was then recognized as incomparably the most illustrious man on the continent of Europe. His apartments were ever thronged with men of highest note from all the nations. He was then seventy-eight years of age, suffering severely from the gout and the gravel. He often received his guests in his bed chamber, sitting in his night gown, wrapped in flannels, and reclining on a pillow. Yet his mind retained all its brilliance. All who saw him were charmed. Mr. Baynes wrote,

"Of all the celebrated persons whom, in my life, I have chanced to see, Dr. Franklin, both from his appearance and his conversation, seemed to me the most remarkable. His venerable, patriarchal appearance, the simplicity of his manner and language, and the novelty of his observations impressed me as one of the most extraordinary men that ever existed."

At this time he wrote several essays, which are esteemed among the best of his writings. He was awaiting permission from Congress to return to America. His son, the governor, who was receiving a pension of eight hundred pounds from the British Government, came over from England to his illustrious father, soliciting reconciliation. This was after the separation of many years. Franklin responded kindly, though he said that nothing had ever wounded him so keenly as to find himself deserted in his old age, by his only son; and to see him taking up arms against a cause, upon which he had staked life, fortune and honor.

A year passed before Franklin was recalled. He was then so feeble that he could not walk, and could only ride in a litter. Mr. Jefferson succeeded him. Upon his arrival in Paris, the Count de Vergennes said,

"You replace Dr. Franklin, I understand."

"No!" Mr. Jefferson replied, "I succeed him. No man can replace him."

Franklin's infirmities were such that he could not call upon the king or the minister for an audience of leave. He, however, wrote to Count de Vergennes a very grateful and affectionate letter, in which he said,

"May I beg the favor of you, sir, to express respectfully for me, to his majesty, the deep sense I have of all the inestimable benefits his goodness has conferred on my country; a sentiment that it will be the business of the little remainder of the life now left me, to impress equally on the minds of all my countrymen. My sincere prayers are that God may shower down his blessings on the king, the queen, their children and all the royal family, to the latest generations."

The reply was equally cordial and affectionate. As a parting gift the king sent Franklin his portrait, decorated with four hundred and eight diamonds. Its estimated value was ten thousand dollars.

On the 12th of July, 1785, Franklin, accompanied by many admiring friends in carriages, commenced his slow journey in a litter, from Passy to Havre. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. The litter was borne by two mules. The first night they stopped at St. Germain. Thence the journey was continued at the rate of about eighteen miles a day. The motion of the litter did not seriously incommode him. The cardinal of Rochefoucald, archbishop of Rouen, insisted upon his accepting the hospitality of his mansion at Gaillon. It was a superb chateau, commanding a magnificent prospect, with galleries crowded with paintings and the most valuable works of art.

"The cardinal," writes Franklin, "is much respected, and beloved by the people of this country; bearing in all respects, a most excellent character."

Though entreated to prolong his visit, Franklin resumed his journey at an early hour the next morning. At Rouen he was again received with the most flattering attentions. The elite of the city gave a very brilliant supper in his honor. Thus journeying in a truly triumphant march, Franklin reached Havre on the 18th of July. After a delay of three days he crossed the channel to Southampton. His old friends came in crowds, and from great distances, to see him. Even the British government had the courtesy to send an order exempting his effects from custom-house duties.

It will be remembered that Franklin was a remarkable swimmer. There are some human bodies much more buoyant than others. He records the singular fact that, taking a warm, salt water bath here, he fell asleep floating on his back, and did not awake for an hour. "This," he writes, "is a thing which I never did before, and would hardly have thought possible."

On the 28th of July, 1785, the ship spread her sails. The voyage lasted seven weeks. This extraordinary man, then seventy-nine years of age, wrote, on the passage, three essays, which are estimated among the most useful and able of any which emanated from his pen.

On the 13th of September the ship entered Delaware Bay, and the next morning cast anchor opposite Philadelphia. He wrote,

"My son-in-law came with a boat for us. We landed at Market street wharf, where we were received by a crowd of people with huzzahs, and accompanied with acclamations, quite to my door. Found my family well. God be praised and thanked for all his mercies."

The Assembly was in session, and immediately voted him a congratulatory address. Washington also wrote to him a letter of cordial welcome. The long sea voyage proved very beneficial to his health. He was immediately elected to the Supreme Executive, and was chosen chairman of that body. It is evident that he was gratified by this token of popular regard. He wrote to a friend,

"I had not firmness enough to resist the unanimous desire of my country folk; and I find myself harnessed again in their service for another year. They engrossed the prime of my life. They have eaten my flesh and seem resolved now to pick my bones."

Soon after he was elected President, or as we should now say, Governor of Pennsylvania. The vote rested with the Executive Council and the Assembly, seventy-seven in all. He received seventy-six votes. Notwithstanding the ravages of war, peace came with her usual blessings in her hand. The Tory journals of England, were presenting deplorable views of the ruin of the country since deprived of the beneficial government of the British cabinet. Franklin wrote to his old friend, David Hartley,

"Your newspapers are filled with accounts of distresses and miseries, that these states are plunged into, since their separation from Britain. You may believe me when I tell you that there is no truth in those accounts. I find all property in land and houses, augmented vastly in value; that of houses in town at least four-fold. The crops have been plentiful; and yet the produce sells high, to the great profit of the farmer. Working people have plenty of employ, and high pay for their labor."

There were many imperfections attending the old Confederacy. In the year 1787, a convention met in Philadelphia, to frame a new constitution. There was strong opposition to this movement. Washington and Franklin were both delegates. Washington took the chair. The good nature and wisdom of Franklin ruled the house. The convention met in the State House. Franklin, eighty-one years of age, was regularly in his seat, five hours a day, for four months. He was thoroughly democratic in his views, and opposed every measure which had any tendency to extend aristocratic privilege. He had seen that the British government was in the hands of the nobles. And silent, as prudence rendered it necessary for him to be, in reference to the arbitrary government of France, he could not but see that the peasantry were subject to the most intolerable abuses. This led him to detest a monarchy, and to do every thing in his power to place the government of this country in the hands of the people.

Much time was occupied in deciding upon the terms of union between the smaller and the larger States. It will be remembered that this was the subject of very excited debates in the convention of 1776. The discussion was earnest, often acrimonious. Such bitterness of feeling was engendered that, for some time it was feared that no union could be effected.

It is evident that Franklin, as he approached the grave, became more devout, and that he lost all confidence in the powers of philosophical speculations to reform or regenerate fallen man. He saw that the interposition of a divine power was needed to allay the intense excitement in the convention, and to lead the impassioned members to act under the conviction that they were responsible to God. On the 28th of June, this venerable, patriarchal man offered the following memorable resolve:

"Resolved, That henceforth prayers, imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in the Assembly every morning before we proceed to business; and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service."

The speech which accompanied this motion will forever be conspicuous in our annals. He said:

"Mr. President! The small progress we have made, after four or five weeks close attendence and continual reasonings with each other; our different sentiments on almost every question, is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the human understanding.

"In this situation of this Assembly groping, as it were, in the dark, to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have not yet hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understandings?

"In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers, in this room, for divine protection! Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engaged in the struggle, must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting, in peace, on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?

"I have lived, sir, a long time. And the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth; That God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the Sacred Writings, that 'except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.' I firmly believe this. And I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building, no better than the building of Babel."

It is almost incomprehensible that, under the influence of such an appeal, the great majority of the Assembly should have voted against seeking divine aid. In a note appended to this speech, Franklin writes,

"The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary."[39]

[Footnote 39: Mr. Parton undoubtedly suggested the true reason for this strange refusal to seek divine guidance. He writes,

"I think it not improbable that the cause of this opposition to a proposal so seldom negatived in the United States, was the prevalence in the Convention of the French tone of feeling with regard to religious observances. If so, it was the more remarkable to see the aged Franklin, who was a deist at fifteen, and had just returned from France, coming back to the sentiments of his ancestors."—Parton's Franklin Vol. 2, p. 575.]

The convention came to a triumphant close, early in September, 1787. Behind the speaker's chair there was a picture of the Rising Sun. While the members were signing, Franklin turned to Mr. Madison, and said,

"I have often, in the course of the session, and the vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at the picture behind the President, without being able to tell whether the sun were rising or setting. But now at length, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not a setting sun."

Washington was universally revered. Franklin was both revered and loved. It was almost the universal feeling that, next to Washington, our nation was indebted to Franklin for its Independence. Franklin occupied, in the arduous field of diplomacy, the position which Washington occupied at the head of our armies. It was certain that Franklin had, at one period of his life, entirely renounced his belief in Christianity, as a divine revelation. His Christian friends, numbering hundreds, encouraged by some of the utterances of his old age, were anxious to know if he had returned to the faith of his fathers. Dr. Ezra Stiles, President of Yale College, was a friend of Franklin's of many years standing. When the revered patriot had reached his eighty-fifth year, Dr. Stiles wrote, soliciting his portrait for the college library. In this letter, he says,

"I wish to know the opinion of my venerable friend, concerning Jesus of Nazareth. He will not impute this to impertinence; or improper curiosity in one, who, for so many years, has continued to love, esteem and reverence his abilities and literary character, with an ardor and affection bordering on adoration."

What Dr. Stiles, and the community in general, wished to know was, whether Dr. Franklin recognized the Divine, supernatural origin of Christianity. Franklin evaded the question. This evasion of course indicates that he did not recognize, in the religion of Jesus, the authority of, "Thus saith the Lord." But he wished to avoid wounding the feelings of his Christian friends by this avowal. He wrote,

"This is my creed. I believe in God, the Creator of the Universe; that he governs it by his Providence; that he ought to be worshiped; that the most acceptable service we render to him, is doing good to his other children; that the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life, respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever sect I meet with them.

"As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is like to see. But I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it. And I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.

"I see however no harm in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and observed; especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of this world, with any peculiar marks of his displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that, having experienced the goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously through a long life, I have no doubt of its continuance in the next, though without the smallest conceit of meriting such goodness."

He then adds the following suggestive postscript. "I confide that you will not expose me to criticism and censures, by publishing any part of this communication to you. I have ever let others enjoy their religious sentiments, without reflecting on them, for those that appeared to me unsupportable, or even absurd. All sects here, and we have a great variety, have experienced my good will, in assisting them with subscriptions for the building their new places of worship. And, as I have never opposed any of their doctrines, I hope to go out of the world in peace with them all."

Much of his time, in these hours of sickness, he employed in writing his Autobiography. The sufferings he endured were at times very severe. But when he spoke of his approaching departure, it was with composure. At one time, when his daughter expressed the wish that he might yet live many years, he replied "I hope not."

A clerical friend visited him, just as one of his paroxysms of pain came on. As his friend in consequence was about to retire, he said,

"Oh no; don't go away. These pains will soon be over. They are for my good. And besides, what are the pains of a moment in comparison with the pleasures of eternity."

There was, in one of the chambers of his house, a very beautiful painting of Christ on the Cross. He requested his nurse, a very worthy woman, of the Friends' persuasion, to bring it down, and place it directly before him. The Rev. David Ritter, a great admirer of Franklin, called to see him. He had, however, but a few moments before, breathed his last. Sarah Humphries, the nurse, invited David into the chamber, to view the remains. Mr. Ritter expressed surprise in seeing the picture of the Saviour on the cross occupying so conspicuous a position, saying, "You know, Sarah, that many people think that Dr. Franklin was not after this sort."

"Yes," she replied, "but thee knows, David, that many make a great fuss about religion, who have very little. And many, who say but little, have a good deal. He was never satisfied, if a day passed away unless he had done some one a service.[40] Benjamin Franklin was one of that sort. I will tell thee how the picture came here. Many weeks ago, as he lay, he beckoned me to him, and told me of this picture, up stairs, and begged I would bring it to him. I brought it. His face brightened up, as he looked at it, and he said,

"'Ay Sarah; there is a picture worth looking at. That is the picture of him who came into the world to teach men to love one another.'"

"After looking at it wistfully for some time, he said, 'Sarah, set this picture up over the mantel-piece, right before me as I lie. I like to look at it.'

"When I fixed it up he looked at it very much; and indeed died with his eyes fixed upon it."

[Footnote 40: This reminds us of the exclamation of the Emperor Titus, who, at the close of a day in which he could not perceive that he had done any good, exclaimed, sadly, "Perdidi Diem." I have lost a day. Beautifully has the sentiment been expressed in the words, which it would be well for all to treasure up,

"Count that day lost, whose low descending sun, Views at thy hand no worthy action done."]

However deeply Franklin, in these dying hours may have pondered the sublimities of Immortality—the Resurrection—the Judgment Throne—the Final Verdict—Heaven—Hell,—he was very reticent respecting those themes. We certainly see none of the triumph of Paul, and of thousands of others, who have in varied language, expressed the sentiment that,

"Jesus can make a dying bed Feel soft as downy pillows are."

A few hours before his death, as some one urged him to change his position, that he might breathe easier he replied, "a dying man can do nothing easy." These were his last words. He then sank into a lethargy, from which he passed into that sleep which has no earthly waking. It was eleven o'clock at night, April 17, 1790. He had lived eighty-four years, three months and eleven days.

But no candid and charitable reader can peruse this narrative, without the admission that Benjamin Franklin, notwithstanding his imperfections, was one of the wisest and best of all the fallen children of Adam. From his dying hour to the present day his memory has been justly cherished with reverence and affection, throughout the civilized world. And there is no fear that this verdict will ever be reversed.


Minor changes have been made to correct obvious typesetters' errors; otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the author's words and intent.


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