Benjamin Franklin looks at us from the one-hundred-dollar bill with that perpetual odd smirk. Whether the bill, a portrait, a medal, a coin, or even inside a chamber pot in the court of Louis XVI, Franklin wore that perpetual smirk or grimace or toothache with stoic restraint. So, the idea of an animated, furious, passionate Franklin is almost unthinkable in American history. Who could have evoked that level of anger and frustration in Franklin? Only one man, throughout Franklin’s long life, did he ever fervently loathe. And that man was the proprietor of Pennsylvania, and the son of the founder William Penn; his name was Thomas Penn. Could Thomas Penn have really moved the seemingly calm Benjamin Franklin to the point of revolution? What happened between them to drive Franklin crazy? How did this come about and when?
The “how and when” are straightforward: King George’s War in 1745 involved the town of Saratoga, New York, where a combined force of French Canadians and Indigenous people burned the town, killing or enslaving over 100 British colonial settlers. The following year, they did the same at Fort Massachusetts (now North Adams) in northwestern Massachusetts, and Franklin was acutely aware of both raids. Fearful for the safety of his family, his neighbors, his adopted city of Philadelphia, and the entire colony of Pennsylvania, he begged for financial or military help from Thomas Penn (as proprietor of Pennsylvania, Penn was perceived as bearing that responsibility). Penn’s brief answer was the 18th century version of “Get lost.” Infuriated now over that response, Franklin proceeded to recruit and arm a home guard militia against Penn’s specific order. Now Penn, equally furious, ordered Franklin to desist and disperse his militia. Franklin refused, but then the war died down, and with it, the emotions as well. But Penn had already referred to Franklin as “a dangerous man”, one he would prefer “inhabited any other Country, as I believe him of a very uneasy Spirit.” Penn would never retract that characterization.
In 1754, the Crown encouraged a conference by the colonials to be held in Albany, New York, to address their mutual defense. While technically not at war, the British government knew that the French had designs on the colonies, and had twice previously attempted invasions into those lands, employing Indigenous people from the Iroquois nation. Seven colonies sent delegations including Pennsylvania, sending Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had already written a draft document of an inter-colonial system of government defense. Also in attendance were ministers from the British government, including Thomas Pownall, a young British bureaucrat at that time Lieutenant Governor of New Jersey. He and Franklin hit it off nicely during the conference, thus beginning a life-long friendship. And in the end, Pownall would make some edits to Franklin’s plan, “The Albany Plan of Union.” While the plan ultimately failed ratification by the colonies or the British government, Pownall and Franklin continued correspondence over the next thirty years.
The following year saw the onset of the French and Indian War, with the failed expedition of General James Braddock and Colonel George Washington against the French and Indigenous people in Ft. Duquesne, Pennsylvania (now Pittsburgh). Once again Thomas Penn refused to pay a defense tax for his colony, but this time, following the rout of Braddock, not only Franklin was incensed; the British government was furious. This defeat was one of the worst in British military history, and the Penn family had stood idly by as it transpired. In 1757, bearing an appeal from the Pennsylvania assembly to the British Crown to cancel the Pennsylvania charter, Franklin arrived in London. He was carrying the fury of the Philadelphia colonists along with his own, and felt that the British government would likewise side with him against Penn. He was naïve.
Franklin’s host in London, the botanist Peter Collinson, arranged lodging for Franklin as well as meetings with key members of the Royal Society (the most esteemed scientific organization in the British Empire) who were eager to meet the “American Prometheus” who had harnessed the natural electricity from the skies. These men arranged a meeting for Franklin with John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, who patiently but firmly explained to Franklin that appeals to Parliament on behalf of Pennsylvania were futile; Franklin’s mission had to be with Penn first, and if not satisfied, then with representatives of the Crown. Confused but resolute, Franklin arranged to finally confront the Penn family first-hand.
By Franklin’s own account, and corroborated by Penn, this meeting ultimately went poorly. Initially, Penn postponed negotiations due to the absence of his brother and urged Franklin to put his concerns in writing. Franklin responded with the written “Heads of Complaints” which Penn found utterly inappropriate in presentation, and impossible to carry out. But he left Franklin waiting nearly one year for his final response, and then bluntly ridiculed him, the colonists of Pennsylvania, and surprisingly Penn’s own father, as all being hopelessly naïve about colonial affairs and British rule. Laughing in Franklin’s face, Penn withdrew; his attorney and agent subsequently told Franklin in so many words, to go back to Philadelphia and stop bothering people. Now Franklin was beyond exasperation and told his circle of London friends that he was ready to take whatever measures necessary to wrest Pennsylvania from its gutless proprietors. He would linger in London until 1762, including journeys to the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) and Edinburgh, Scotland where he would meet Lord Kames and the great philosophers of the British Enlightenment including David Hume and Adam Smith.
Upon his return to Philadelphia, he found his home city a different place: the Quakers had withdrawn to a large degree from political life, and Thomas Penn’s nephew John would be named Governor of Pennsylvania in 1763. The following year, Franklin pushed a petition to the Crown to take Pennsylvania from Thomas Penn and name it a “Crown colony.” Approved by the Pennsylvania assembly, they nominated Franklin to serve as agent for the petition, and to carry it to London. In 1765, Franklin was back in London with his petition, but found no interest on the part of the Crown to strip a Loyalist family in good standing with the government, of its legal property. Turned away at every corner, Franklin now became a man obsessed. Assembling a group of friends into an “inner circle” over the ensuing 8 years, Franklin would fine-tune a plan of rebellion against the Crown. Initially he simply wanted to arrange for Pennsylvania to pull out of the British Empire. Thomas Pownall assured him that this approach was impossible and would only result in Franklin’s arrest and subsequent execution on Tower Hill in London. Ultimately, they would agree that all thirteen colonies had to act as a unit to solve Franklin’s twenty-year-old dilemma.
Motivating the thirteen colonies to revolution was an enormous hurdle. In the north, the colonies were already rabid over the ongoing efforts by Parliament to tax their daily trade in order to raise funds for an ongoing military presence. But would they go to war, and risk their lives and reputations for this? At the same time, the southern colonies were viewed much more favorably by the British government, as a rich source of raw materials such as indigo, cotton, tobacco, and rice, along with Caribbean sugar. However, all this material was supplied through the labor of Black African slaves, and there was a growing sentiment in Great Britain against what was perceived as an immoral institution. Franklin’s group, which included two, and ultimately three, abolitionist Quakers, concocted a scheme to use the manumission of slaves in Great Britain as a motivator for revolution by the American south. If southern slave-owners could be convinced that the British had an aim of eliminating slavery in the Empire, they might then realize that the only way they could continue with their present plantation system was to pull out of the Empire. And the group was of the belief that it would take the legally enforced emancipation of only a single slave to produce this conclusion. To this end, they encouraged the Quaker, and later the Anglican, efforts to accomplish this. Franklin would go so far as to sponsor one of the attorneys speaking in favor of the slave Somersett, one John Alleyne newly admitted to the British bar just in time for the final hearings on the case of Somersett v. Steuart.
Once accomplished, the group needed the final impetus to bring the northern colonies into revolution as well, and to this end, Thomas Pownall would steal the letters of then-Governor Thomas Hutchinson to George Grenville, who was at the time of the letters the Prime Minister, encouraging him to maintain the British military presence in Boston long after the end of the French and Indian War, to suppress colonial militancy against the government. Hutchinson felt that the only way to maintain order in radical Boston was to “abridge” the colonials of their civil rights to protest and assemble. Once these letters were deliberately leaked to the press by Franklin, the Bostonians would realize that the Boston Massacre was the result of the quartering of British soldiers in their midst. The response in Boston was the Boston Tea Party, which in turn was answered by the British government with Intolerable Acts, authored for the British Privy Council by their First Secretary, John Pownall, the brother of Thomas Pownall. And with that response, the American northern and southern colonies were moved to call the First Continental Congress to prepare for war. All the parts of the puzzle to free Pennsylvania had fallen into place.
For Franklin, this was only the birth of his plan; he would spend the next eight years in the colonies and then in Paris, quietly and surreptitiously bringing the plan to completion in 1783. By 1787, he would affix his signature to the Constitution of the United States of America. That same signature can be found on the Declaration of Independence, the Preliminary Peace with Great Britain of 1782, and the Peace of Paris of 1783. And his is the only signature on all four documents; most assuredly not a coincidence, but the culmination of a plan to free his Philadelphia, his Pennsylvania, and his America from the corruption of the 18th century British government.
For a more extensive review and documentation of this story, please read Somersett, or Why and How Benjamin Franklin Orchestrated the American Revolution by Phillip Goodrich.
 Isaacson, Walter, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003, p. 327.
 Middlekauf, Robert, Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, p. 23 ff.
 Morgan, Edmund S., Benjamin Franklin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 70.
 Schutz, John A., Thomas Pownall: British Defender of American Liberty, Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1951, p. 41.
 Isaacson, op.cit., pp. 168-169.
 Morgan, op.cit., pp. 108-109.
 Isaacson, op.cit., pp. 184-185.
 Morgan, op.cit., p. 107.
 Isaacson, op.cit., p. 215.
 Schutz, op.cit., p. 204-205.
 Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Packard Humanities Institute, February 11, 1772.
 Bailyn, Bernard, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, Cambridge, MA: The Harvard University Press, 1974, p. 227.
 Schutz, op.cit., p. 233.
 Isaacson, op.cit., p. 459.