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Benjamin Franklin and Travel

30 Jun 2015, Posted by Founding Franklin in The Franklin You Thought You Knew

It seems that nearly everyone knows, or thinks he knows, something about Benjamin Franklin. Of course, much of the “knowledge” that is circulated in our time is based on innuendo, gossip or poor scholarship. The wonderful thing about Dr. Franklin’s life and accomplishments is that there is so much to know and understand. One thing that I have been thinking about lately is how much Franklin traveled. In an age when the vast majority of people  traveled no more than fifteen or twenty miles from home in their lives, he was quite unusual. At the age of seventeen, Franklin made the first of his expeditions. He left home, sailed from Boston to New York, then went from New York to Philadelphia by sea, land and river. The next year, he made the first of his trips to Europe, sailing to England and remaining for a year and a half. He returned before his twentieth birthday, already far exceeding the distance traveled by all but those who sailed the seas for livelihood.

More than thirty years after this youthful adventure, franklin sailed again for England, this time in the service of the colony of Pennsylvania. He eventually became the agent for New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia as well. After a few years, he returned home for a brief stay, and then sailed again to London, where he remained until 1775. He had spent sixteen of the previous eighteen years in England by that time.

In March of 1776, the Continental Congress sent Franklin with a delegation of Catholics from Maryland to Montreal, with the goal of persuading the French Canadians to join the colonies of British North America in the fight against Great Britain. The journey was arduous, particularly for the seventy year-old Franklin, as bitter winter weather persisted in upper New York, Vermont and Quebec. Franklin actually wrote friends and family, sure that he would not survive.   It was on this journey that he acquired the iconic fur hat that he later wore all around Paris. Alas, the trip failed to achieve its stated goal, as the Canadians in Quebec decided that they would fare no better under the Americans than under Britain.

Finally, Benjamin Franklin embarked on his final voyage in December of 1776, sailing to France on behalf of the Continental Congress. Congress knew that the Colonies stood little chance fighting the British alone, having no navy and only a skeleton force of an army. Franklin was the obvious choice to be the American representative, being the most famous American in Europe, thanks to his widely published papers on electricity. The French finally agreed to support the American cause, with armaments, money and eventually troops and ships. Their support led to the decisive American victory at Yorktown. Two years later, the British signed the Treaty of Paris, and the war was ended. Franklin returned home in 1775.

In addition to this trans-oceanic travel, Franklin visited twelve of the thirteen original colonies as the British Postmaster for the North American Colonies. All of this travel made Benjamin Franklin the most sophisticated of our founding generations. When there was no American intellectual community, he found it in Europe. He established printing offices in many of the colonies, even in the Caribbean, spreading his unique brand of wit and wisdom all over America. The well-traveled Franklin was truly a citizen of the world, and the indispensable American.

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