A Benjamin Franklin anecdote



At the Royal Society, one evening, a gentleman told Franklin that Mrs. Howe, sister-in-law of Earl Howe, a lady who possessed many admirable qualities, wished to play chess with him, as she fancied she could beat him. He accepted the challenge, and on the day after Parliament met he was introduced to her, was charmed by her mind and manners, played a few games, and accepted an invitation to repeat the visit and the amusement. At the second visit, after playing a long time, they fell into conversation, partly about a mathematical problem, and partly about the new Parliament, when she said: "And what is to be done with this dispute between Great Britain and the colonies? I hope we are not to have a civil war." "They should kiss and be friends," said Franklin; "what can they do better? Quarreling can be of service to neither, but is ruin to both." She replied--"I have often said that I wished government would employ you to settle the dispute for them; I am sure nobody could do it so well. Do not you think the thing is practicable?" Franklin answered--"Undoubtedly, madame, if the parties are disposed to reconciliation; for the two countries have really no clashing interests to differ about. It is rather a matter of punctilio, which two or three reasonable people might settle in half an hour. I thank you for the good opinion you are pleased to express of me; but the ministers will never think of employing me in that good work; they choose rather to abuse me." "Aye," said Mrs. Howe, "they have behaved shamefully to you. Indeed some of them are now ashamed of it themselves."

"I looked upon this as accidental conversation," Dr. Franklin wrote; "thought no more of it, and went in the evening to the appointed meeting at Dr. Fothergill's, where I found Mr. Barclay with him"--an eminent member of the Society of Friends. They at once entered into conversation on the topic which Mrs. Howe had introduced, and evidently by preconcert with her. They commented upon the mischief likely to ensue from the quarrel, and expatiated upon the great merit of being instrumental in bringing about a reconciliation. They complimented Franklin about his ability and influence--told him that nobody understood the whole subject so well, or had a "better head for business," and that it was his duty to do all in his power to heal the dissensions between Great Britain and the colonies. They urged him to commit to writing his thoughts on the subject. Out of these interviews grew the "Hints" already spoken of, the name of the author of which was to be kept a profound secret.

Mrs. Howe's invitations to chess-playing continued, and were accepted. On the evening of Christmas, Franklin was at that lady's house, when she said, almost immediately after he had entered, that her brother, Lord Howe, was very anxious to make the acquaintance of Franklin; that he lived very near, and that if the statesman would give her leave she would send for his lordship. "Send for him by all means," said Franklin, and Earl Howe very soon appeared. He was profuse in his personal compliments, blamed the ministry for abusing Franklin; said they were ashamed of it, and that ample satisfaction would undoubtedly be given; begged him to open his mind freely as to the best means for bringing about a reconciliation; observed that Franklin might not wish to have a direct communication with the ministry on the subject, or have it known that he had any indirect communication with them till he could be well assured of their good disposition; and that he (Lord Howe) being on good terms with the ministry, thought it not impossible that he might, as a bearer of communications between the two parties, be the means of effecting the desired end. At that moment Mrs. Howe offered to withdraw.

The sagacious Franklin now saw clearly, what he had already suspected; namely, that the chess-playing was only a pleasant mask for a little artful diplomacy. His usual caution had not allowed him to divulge to the charming "petticoated-politician," a single secret which he wished to keep. Her titled brother-in-law was no more successful than she. When Mrs. Howe proposed to withdraw and leave Franklin alone with his lordship, the former begged her to stay, saying: "I have no secret to divulge, in a business of this nature, that I could not freely confide to your prudence." He assured Lord Howe that his lordship's manners had gained his (Franklin's) confidence, and made him perfectly easy and free in communicating himself to him, in whatever he had to divulge. After a long conversation Franklin withdrew, with a promise to meet the earl at an appointed time. Mrs. Howe was present at the next interview. The subject of American affairs was fully discussed, when the earl drew from his pocket a copy of the "Hints," in Mr. Barclay's hand-writing, and asked Franklin if he knew anything about the paper. The sage saw that the secret of the authorship had been divulged, and he frankly avowed himself as the proposer. Earl Howe expressed his sorrow that Franklin claimed such large concessions from the ministry, as there was no likelihood that they would be admitted by the king and his advisers. Howe desired Franklin to draw up a plan for reconciliation less distasteful to the government; spoke of the infinite service he might be to the nation, and intimated that if he (Franklin) should be instrumental in accomplishing the wishes of the government in that regard, he might expect any reward in the power of that government to bestow.

The last proposition aroused Franklin's indignation. "It was to me," he said, "what the French vulgarly call spitting in the soup." But he showed no signs of a ruffled temper, and promised to draw up for Lord Howe a new series of propositions, which he did in terms similar to those of the "Hints."

All these private diplomatic operations ended in leaving Mrs. Howe and her brother no wiser than before the first game of chess was played with Dr. Franklin. He had checkmated his competitors in the art of diplomacy.





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