In their own words: John Adams and Ben Franklin, Part I

Portrait of Ben Franklin (ARC 532834)
Portrait of John Adams (ARC 532843)

This is part of a series, written by Jim Zeender, devoted to letters written by the Founding Fathers in their own words and often in their own hand. Jim is a senior registrar in National Archives Exhibits.

John Adams of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania crossed paths during “critical moments” in the earliest days of the republic. They met for the first time at the First Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1774, the first joint meeting of 12 American colonies (Georgia did not attend). Both were supporters of independence, Adams most publicly and Franklin more behind the scenes, though both were equally masterful wordsmiths.

During the Revolutionary War, Adams and Franklin worked together in Paris to obtain French support for the American cause, sometimes clashing on how best to do so. ­And they successfully negotiated peace with Great Britain. They saw each other for the last time in 1785, when Adams left Franklin in Paris for his assignment as the first Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain from the United States. During the years in between, their relationship had its ups and downs.

Their most intimate experience probably happened during an unsuccessful peace mission in September 1776. The British forces had recently raced across Long Island (New York) and almost destroyed the American Army. The British commander, Adm. Lord Richard Howe, then offered peace. Congress sent Adams, Franklin, and Edward Rutledge (South Carolina) to meet Howe on Staten Island.

Howe hoped to resolve the differences between what Great Britain still considered its colonies and the mother country. The Americans insisted on British recognition of independence, but Howe had no such authority, and Adams and Franklin had little of their own. Although cordial, the meeting broke up without success after just three hours.

During the mission, Adams and Franklin lodged together at crowded inn in a small room with only one window. Adams records an unforgettable and amusing story in his diary about that evening and hearing Franklin’s theory of colds.

The Window was open, and I, who was an invalid and afraid of the Air in the night . . . , shut it close. Oh! says Franklin dont shut the Window. We shall be suffocated. I answered I was afraid of the Evening Air. Dr. Franklin replied, the Air within this Chamber will soon be, and indeed is now worse than that without Doors: come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds. Opening the Window and leaping into Bed, I said I had read his Letters to Dr. Cooper in which he had advanced, that Nobody ever got cold by going into a cold Church, or any other cold Air: but the Theory was so little consistent with my experience, that I thought it a Paradox: However I had so much curiosity to hear his reasons, that I would run the risque of a cold. The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together. (Diary of John Adams, September 9, 1776. Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Read the full text here)

Congress moved slowly toward independence at first. Adams fretted and voiced his frustrations to Franklin and other delegates. Franklin, a sly and crafty politician, counseled patience. In early 1776, events began to pick up speed.

In January, Thomas Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense to make the case for independence. In March, Congress passed a resolution allowing American vessels to attack ships owned by its enemies and claim them as prizes. In April, North Carolina became the first to publicly support independence and instruct its delegates accordingly. On May 15, Virginia instructed its delegates to vote for independence.

Lee Resolution for Independence, 6/7/1776 (ARC 301684)

On June 7, delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a pro-independence resolution to the Congress: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” (Resolution of Richard Henry Lee for Independence, June 7, 1776. National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congress and the Constitutional Convention, ARC 301684)

On June 22, 1776, Adams astutely describes political conditions in Congress 10 days before independence is approved:

That We [U.S. and England] are divorced, a Vinculo [complete divorce] as well as from Bed and Board, is to me, very clear. The only Question is, concerning the proper Time for making an explicit Declaration in Words. Some People must have Time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see, at one intuitive Glance into the past and the future, and judge with Precision at once. But remember you cant make thirteen Clocks, Strike precisely alike, at the Same Second. (Letter from John Adams to Benjamin Kent, June 22, 1776. Original is in the Adams Papers at the Library of Congress. Read the full text online)

With the early backing of the Massachusetts colony, Adams publicly supported independence. The Pennsylvania Assembly supported a more conservative approach and limited Franklin’s ability to maneuver in Congress. Quietly, Franklin encouraged Philadelphia radicals who agitated for the overthrow of the elected Assembly and the formation of a convention that would vote to support independence and a new state constitution. Eventually, the radicals forced a change in the Assembly’s position and Pennsylvania switched from a “no” vote to “aye.”

Debate began on June 8 but was soon postponed for three weeks. Pro-independence delegates knew they would need the extra time to firm up their support. On July 1 the debate resumed, led by John Adams in support and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania against. Although supporters had a majority, it was slim.

Most delegates felt that a unanimous vote was needed to send a strong message to their enemies and potential European allies, so the vote was put off until the next day. With a new day, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina changed their votes from opposition to support. Most important, independence opponents Robert Morris and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania abstained, allowing their colleagues to bring the “Keystone State” of  Pennsylvania into the yes column. Writing almost 30 years later, Adams remembers Dickinson’s speech and his own:

[Mr. Dickinson] had prepared himself apparently with great Labour and ardent Zeal, and in a Speech of great Length, and all his Eloquence, he combined together all that had before been written in Pamphlets and News papers and all that had from time to time been said in Congress by himself and others. He conducted the debate, not only with great Ingenuity and Eloquence, but with equal Politeness and Candour: and was answered in the same Spirit.

It has been said by some of our Historians, that I began by an Invocation to the God of Eloquence. This is a Misrepresentation. Nothing so puerile as this fell from me. I began by saying that this was the first time of my Life that I had ever wished for the Talents and Eloquence of the ancient Orators of Greece and Rome, for I was very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more Importance to his Country and to the World. They would probably upon less Occasions than this have begun by solemn Invocations to their Divinities for Assistance but the Question before me appeared so simple, that I had confidence enough in the plain Understanding and common Sense that had been given me, to believe that I could answer to the Satisfaction of the House all the Arguments which had been produced, notwithstanding the Abilities which had been displayed and the Eloquence with which they had been enforced. (Diary of John Adams, July 1, 1776. Original is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Read the full text online)

Congress voted for independence the following day. On July 4, Congress debated and adopted an amended version of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. After the Declaration was prepared on a large sheet of parchment, members began signing on August 2. (The handwritten and signed original of the Declaration of Independence is on permanent exhibition at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.)

After learning of the Declaration, the British commander Lord Howe made a series of attempts to bring the colonies back to the fold. He first tried to communicate with Gen. George Washington but failed on account of Howe’s refusal to recognize Washington’s title.  He wrote next to Franklin proposing a truce and offering pardons.  Franklin responded respectfully to Howe, but he also makes the state of the American position very clear—the idea of pardons for Americans is insulting and there would be no going back to British domination:

The Official Dispatches to which you refer me, contain nothing more than what we had seen in the Act of Parliament, viz. Offers of Pardon upon Submission; which I was sorry to find, as it must give your Lordship Pain to be sent so far on so hopeless a Business.

Directing Pardons to be offered the Colonies, who are the very Parties injured, expresses indeed that Opinion of our Ignorance, Baseness, and Insensibility which your uninform’d and proud Nation has long been pleased to entertain of us; but it can have no other Effect than that of increasing our Resentment. It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government, that has with the most wanton Barbarity and Cruelty, burnt our defenceless Towns in the midst of Winter, excited the Savages to massacre our Farmers, and our Slaves to murder their Masters, and is even now bringing foreign Mercenaries to deluge our Settlements with Blood. These atrocious Injuries have extinguished every remaining Spark of Affection for that Parent Country we once held so dear: But were it possible for us to forget and forgive them, it is not possible for you (I mean the British Nation) to forgive the People you have so heavily injured; you can never confide again in those as Fellow Subjects, and permit them to enjoy equal Freedom, to whom you know you have given such just Cause of lasting Enmity. And this must impel you, were we again under your Government, to endeavour the breaking our Sprit by the severest Tyranny, and obstructing by every means in your Power our growing Strength and Prosperity (Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Lord Admiral William Howe, July 21, 1776. Copies at Huntington Library, the British Museum and the Library of Congress. Read the full text online)

The next part in this series will feature the relationship of Franklin and Adams during their service in France.

Many of the documents featured in this series are duplicated online at DocsTeach, a tool designed for using primary materials in the classroom. There are now almost 6,000 items in DocsTeach.

2 thoughts on “In their own words: John Adams and Ben Franklin, Part I

  1. Excellent post. The Founders words and ideas are often distorted in contemporary discourse. This article puts these historical figures in the context of their own time and place, exactly as we should study them.

  2. The opening paragraph mistakenly says that Franklin and Adams first met in 1774 at the First Continental Congress. That was impossible because Franklin did not return from a 10-year mission to England until May of 1775, just in time to be introduced to Adams at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

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