July 17, 2007

Benjamin Franklin's house

Recently Commonplace, a very good populist history journal from the US, profiled Benjamin Franklin's house where Franklin lived in Britain from 1757 to 1775 as agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. The house, pictured above is the only abode of Franklin's still extant, it has survived largely by accident- because the building of Charing Cross station in the 19th Century and the German bombers in the 1940s barely missed the house- but what it does as well is attest to the long historical links between different parts of the world.

Franklin came from far away- eventually he was appointed ambassador to France for the Revolutionary authorities as well- but originally he was from Philadelphia. We might presume that such long journeys were unusual in the past- and they were- but we should not underestimate the degree to which the roots of much of what we know in the world is the result of immigration. The Dulwich Picture Gallery for instance lodged in the leafy suburbs of south London originally derived from collectors commissioned by the King of Poland to find pieces of art in 1790, when Poland was partitioned, the collection ended up in South London becoming the basis for the gallery.

Franklin's role in London for 19 years and his links to radical Whigs like Richard Price who campaigned for Parliamentary reform, as well as the links between the revolutionaries and British radicals like Tom Paine, reminds us that the American Revolution was an atlantic event as much as a continental one. The Revolutionaries' intellectual links abroad, to Locke, Harrington and Cato have often been chronicled- and are worth acknowledging but the experience of Franklin in London reminds us of something else that many Americans had emotional ties back to the UK when they revolted- Franklin had to flee Britain in the end but maintained contact with families in England who had aided and supported his scientific and political activities.

Ultimately the house of Benjamin Franklin should remind us that revolution implies a human wrench as well as a political one- furthermore it should also remind us that political change obscures the often messy realities of human life, where political boundaries are not reflected in the way that human beings relate to each other.