Serving his Country
|Setting foot on Pennsylvania soil on May 5, 1775, Benjamin
Franklin was nearly seventy years old. The Revolutionary War had
begun less than a month before with the "shot heard around the
world" at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. At the battlesites,
American farmers had fired on British troops who were ordered to
confiscate ammunition and supplies from American patriot leaders.
What could a man of Franklin's age contribute in the midst of a
desperate war of independence? As events in Europe and the colonies
would prove, Franklin could still accomplish a great deal in his
service to the American people.
The morning after his arrival, Franklin was chosen as a delegate to represent Pennsylvania in the Second Continental Congress. The Congress assembled influential political leaders from all thirteen colonies and discussed their future relationship to Great Britain. Meeting in Philadelphia on May 10, Franklin discovered that he was the eldest representative in attendance. In fact, most of the other delegates were an entire generation younger than old Benjamin. Nevertheless, his network in Europe was a valuable asset to the fledgling colonial independence movement. Across the Atlantic, the British denounced the Philadelphian for attempting to incite rebellion against Great Britain in retaliation for the trial before Parliament. Benjamin, however, was unfazed in the face of such rebuke. He tried to persuade his own son, William, the Governor of New Jersey, and his close friend, Joseph Galloway, Governor of Pennsylvania, to renounce their royal offices in order to support the efforts of the American patriots. To Benjamin's dismay, William and Gov. Galloway were staunch loyalists, refusing to defy King George III.
King George III
Under the direction of the Second Continental Congress, Franklin assumed the role of postmaster of the colonies. At the same time, he was designated chair of the Committee of Safety, whose function was to defend the colonies. In this capacity, Benjamin organized, armed, and trained a militia designed to provide resistance to the British "lobsterbacks." Before the Second Continental Congress, he presented his Articles of Condederation and Perpetual Union, a proposal to unify the thirteen colonies under a single national confederation. Although the colonial representatives were not yet willing to adopt this form of government, the statesman's document would later serve as a model when the United States drafted its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Nevertheless, Franklin's most important task during revolutionary times was the secret committee he established at the bequest of the Second Congress. The committee's function was to generate support and gain allies for the patriot cause among European nations. Benjamin Franklin, possessing many close contacts overseas, was ideal in this role. From this initial committee in charge of foreign relations, the present-day State Department eventually evolved.
With its powerful influence in Europe and the world, Great Britain had made numerous enemies. The French were especially eager to aid the American freedom fighters, but they remained cautious. The Americans had to convince the French nation that they were serious about independence and that they had the desire and the determination to succeed.
In 1776, Congress sent Franklin north to recruit another potential ally: French Canada. At the time, the Canadian territory was also governed by Great Britain. Through the course of the journey north, he grew extremely fatigued and weak. A seventy year old man, Benjamin lived under actual frontier conditions during the voyage up the Hudson River and into Canada. The settlers, however, were apathetic regarding the War of Independence, and were content with the status quo in Canada. As a result, Franklin returned to Philadelphia empty-handed. He arrived in June of the same year to discover that colonial leaders were planning to prepare an assertive document detailing American qualms with the British government and the reasons for seeking independence. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress formed a committee, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, to begin formulating the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, a skilled writer and a member of the influential colony of Virginia, was chosen to draft the document. For their part, Franklin and Adams suggested only minor alterations in the wording of Jefferson's final copy. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence indicated that war with England could not be averted.
Presenting the Declaration of Independence to Congress
As the British dispatched more and more regiments to the colonies, the conflict intensified. General Howe, the British commanding officer, attacked General George Washington on Long Island, NY and New York City. The colonies were in desperate need of an economic and political ally. As a result, Congress selected Benjamin to head a clandestine diplomatic mission. Along with Silas Deane and Richard Henry Lee, he was to voyage across the Atlantic to France and garner support for the American cause. In order to avoid being captured by the British and hanged for treason, the American delegation boarded a ship that posed as an indigo cargo carrier. Embarking on the vessel bound for France, Franklin was uncertain whether he would return to Philadelphia as an American citizen or as a defeated and dejected British colonial subject or whether he would return home at all. The outcome of the war would determine that.