Benjamin Franklin Papers

Pennsylvania Assembly: Petition to the King, [23–26 May 1764]

Pennsylvania Assembly: Petition to the King

I. Draft: Library of Congress. II. DS: Public Record Office3

When on the morning of May 23 the Assembly received and read the second group of the inhabitants’ petitions to the King asking him to assume the government of Pennsylvania, that body voted “by a great Majority”4 that a committee be appointed “to prepare and bring in the Draft of a Petition to the King from this House, to accompany the aforementioned Petitions to His Majesty.” Eight men were named: Joseph Galloway (Philadelphia County), Benjamin Franklin (City of Philadelphia), Abraham Chapman (Bucks), Isaac Pearson (Chester), John Douglass (Lancaster), John Montgomery (Cumberland), John Ross (Berks), and John Tool (Northampton). The only constituency unrepresented was York County. Immediately after this action the Assembly adjourned for the mid-day recess.5

As soon as the House reconvened in the afternoon the committee reported that it “had made an Essay” of a petition. This paper was then read and ordered “to lie on the Table for the Perusal of the Members.”6 The speed with which the committee acted suggests strongly that at least one member had prepared himself in advance of the committee’s appointment. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover among Franklin’s papers a document in his handwriting that is clearly an early draft of what ultimately became the Assembly’s petition to the King. It is printed below as Number I.

This draft contains numerous cancellations and revisions. Although some of them could have been inserted later, others were clearly made during the course of composition. It is probable, therefore, that this paper represents Franklin’s first draft of the petition. Whether he made any further revisions not appearing on this paper before he showed it to the committee, and whether that group made any additional changes before presenting it to the whole House, cannot now be determined, for no other complete manuscript draft seems to have survived, and the text of the paper which the committee presented to the Assembly has not been found.7

On the afternoon of May 24, after receiving further petitions for a change in government from the inhabitants and after transacting other business, the Assembly resumed consideration of the petition and engaged in “a considerable Debate thereon” before adjourning to the next day.8 One of the highlights of this debate was a speech by John Dickinson opposing the petition. He freely admitted the “inconveniences” of the system of proprietary instructions which controlled the governor and the “distinct and partial mode of taxation” John Penn had demanded for the proprietary lands, but he argued forcefully that this was “neither the proper season, nor the proper method, for obtaining a change in our government.” In exchanging proprietary for royal government the colony would “run the risque of suffering great losses” of privileges, religious and political, which it currently enjoyed.9 To this speech Galloway replied, apparently attacking with vigor Dickinson’s statements of alleged fact as well as his arguments.1 The debate was undoubtedly spirited.

When the motion was made the next morning to resume consideration of the petition, the speaker, Isaac Norris, found himself in trouble. He had long been an opponent of the proprietary party and had for several years been involved in the discussions of a possible change to royal government. Yet, now that the proposal was clearly about to shift from the discussion stage to one of formal action, he had serious qualms. Almost certainly he was afraid, as were other influential Quakers, that a change to royal government would jeopardize the special religious privileges that the colony as a whole, and the Friends in particular, enjoyed and the political and constitutional advantages the Assembly exercised by grant of William Penn. If the petition to the King, now under debate, should be adopted by the Assembly, Norris would have to sign the document as speaker even though he could not approve its substance.

Consequently, he now addressed the Assembly, pointing out that his position “had hitherto prevented him from giving his Opinion on the Subject of the said Petition, and requesting, if his Duty as Speaker should require his Signing the same, that he might, previous thereto, be indulged with the Privilege of speaking his Sentiments thereon, and entering them upon the Minutes.” Such a request was probably quite unprecedented in the Assembly, but out of respect for the man who had been their speaker for most of the past fourteen years the members agreed. Thereupon the petition was read the second time “by Paragraphs, which being fully considered and debated, was, after some Alterations, agreed to by a great Majority, and ordered to be transcribed.” The Assembly then adjourned for the day.2

Overnight, Norris concluded that he could not face the ordeal before him. When the Assembly convened on the morning of Saturday, May 26, the clerk produced a letter just received from the speaker in which Norris wrote that his attendance during this and the previous week had “proved too much for my Constitution, and particularly the long Sitting of Yesterday and the bad Night I have had in Consequence of it.” It was impossible, he said, for him to attend this day and he could not predict when his condition would mend sufficiently. Hence he asked the House to choose a new Speaker.3 The assemblymen concluded that the “important Business” before them could not be indefinitely delayed for Norris’ recovery, so those present “proceeded to the Choice of another Speaker, when Benjamin Franklin, Esq; was unanimously chosen Speaker, and accordingly placed in the Chair.” A committee at once notified the governor of these events, and in the afternoon John Penn formally confirmed Franklin’s election.4

When the assemblymen had returned to their chamber from the ceremony of confirmation they adopted a unanimous vote of thanks to Norris for his services and then dealt with the governor’s most recent message on the pending supply bill.5 Then the transcribed petition to the King was read once more and the question was put whether the speaker should sign it “in order that the same be transmitted to the Crown.” The House formally “Resolved in the Affirmative, by a great Majority,” and Speaker Franklin signed the document accordingly.6 This final version is printed below as Number II.

Comparison of these two versions of the petition shows that the final text as voted and signed is about two-thirds again as long as Franklin’s rough draft. Every idea and nearly every word and phrase in his draft reappear in the signed petition. Most of the individual changes consist of added words and phrases expanding and sometimes clarifying his statements in minor respects. A majority of the assemblymen doubtless considered them to be desirable additions; with his fondness for concise expression Franklin may have privately considered some of them superfluous, but he was not one to insist on his own shorter phraseology when near unanimity of approval was important.

The most notable addition, as well as the longest, however, was one of substance, appearing in the last paragraph. Franklin had proposed very briefly to ask the King to preserve merely “the Privileges that have been granted” to his subjects in Pennsylvania by his royal predecessors. The final text specified more definitely “those Civil and Religious Privileges” that had been instrumental in encouraging the first settlement “of this Wilderness Country, to the Extension of the British Dominions and Commerce,” and had been and still continued to be important in drawing “many Thousands of Foreigners” to settle in Pennsylvania and become his Majesty’s subjects. The earlier form of this passage is not found in anything Franklin had written but rather in the petition the Quakers had prepared and circulated for signature among members of their Society.7 Its purpose was twofold: to emphasize, as Franklin had not done, the petitioners’ desire to keep the special privileges that the colony enjoyed, and to point out that the existence of these privileges had been and still was an important factor in the “Extension of the British Dominions and Commerce” and hence was advantageous to the mother country as well as to the colony. The threat to the preservation of these privileges that a change to royal government posed was by far the strongest deterrent to general local support of the petition. Franklin would doubtless agree that these additions constituted a tactical improvement on his draft.

On May 28 some members of the Assembly asked to have their reasons for voting against the petition entered on the minutes “by way of Protestation.” By a vote of 24 to 3 the House denied permission. The names of those voting in the majority were not listed in the Votes and Proceedings, but the three in the minority had at least the consolation of having their names recorded for posterity. They were John Dickinson of Philadelphia County, Isaac Saunders of Lancaster, and John Montgomery of Cumberland. These were apparently the only assemblymen who had opposed the petition on the final vote of May 26.8 They formed the small band that William Smith later called “a Noble Few, a Patriot Minority.”9

The added emphasis given in the final text of the petition to the preservation of the colony’s privileges had not set the minds of the members entirely at rest. Before the Assembly adjourned on May 28 it directed that, in sending the Assembly’s petition and those of the inhabitants to Richard Jackson, the agent in London, the Committee of Correspondence should instruct him “particularly” to proceed “with the utmost Caution” in dealing with them to secure for the people “all those Privileges, civil and religious, which, by their Charters and Laws, they have a Right to enjoy under the present Constitution.” If upon “the most careful Enquiry, and mature Deliberation and Advice” he had reason to believe there was danger that these privileges might be lost, he was to suspend action until he had reported to the Assembly and received further directions.1 Thus the Assembly made clear to Jackson—and to Franklin who was later associated with him in responsibility—that the change in government, however greatly desired, was less important than the preservation of the privileges that William Penn had conferred on the colony many years before.


[May 23, 1764]

To the King’s most excellent Majesty, in Council

The Petition of the Representatives of the Freemen of the Province of Pennsylvania, in General Assembly met.

Most humbly sheweth

That the Government of this Province by Proprietaries, has by long Experience been found inconvenient, attended with many Difficulties, and Obstructions to your Majesty’s Service, arising from the Intervention of Proprietary private Interests in publick Affairs, and Disputes concerning those Interests.

That the said Proprietary Government is weak, unable to support its own Authority, and maintain the common internal Peace, of the Province, great Riots having lately arisen therein, armed Mobs marching from Place to Place, and committing violent Outrages, and Insults on the Government with Impunity, to the great Terror of your Majesty’s Subjects. And these Evils [are] not likely to receive any Rem[edy] here, the continual Disputes be[tween] the Proprietaries and People, and the mutual Jealousies and Dislikes [pre]venting.

We do therefore most humbly pray, that Your Majesty would be graciously pleased to resume the Government of this Province, making such Compensation to the Proprietaries for the same as to your Majesty’s Wisdom and Goodness shall appear just and equitable, and permitting your dutiful Subjects therein to enjoy under your Majesty’s more immediate Care and Protection, the Privileges that have been granted to them, by and under your Royal Predecessors.

Signed by Order of the House


[May 26, 1764]

To the Kings most excellent Majesty in Council,

The Petition of the Representatives of the Freemen of the Province of Pennsylvania in General Assembly met.

Most humbly Sheweth.

That the Government of a Province by Proprietaries has here as well as elsewhere, been by long Experience found inconvenient and attended with many Difficulties and Obstructions to the Service of the Crown and the Welfare of the People, arising from the Intervention of Proprietary private Interests in Public Affairs, and Disputes concerning those Interests, and Proprietary Instructions for enforcing them.

That hence, the Proprietary Government here, not being attended with that Respect in the Minds of the common People, which usually accompanies a Royal Government, is weak, unable to support its own Authority in a Degree sufficient to maintain the common internal Peace of the Province. Great Riots having lately arisen therein, armed Mobs marching from Place to Place, and committing voilent [sic] Outrages and Insults on the Government with Impunity to the great Terror of your Majesty’s Subjects. And these Evils are not like to receive any Remedy here, during the Continuance of the Proprietary Government, the continual Disputes between the Proprietaries and People, and their mutual Jealouses and Distrusts preventing.

We do therefore (in Concurrence with great Numbers of the Freeholders and other reputable Inhabitants of the Province, whose Petitions to the same Purpose will be herewith presented) most humbly pray, that your Majesty would be graciously pleased to resume the Government of this Province; making such Compensation to the Proprietaries for the same, as to your Majesty’s Wisdom and Goodness shall appear just and equitable, and permitting your dutiful Subjects therein to enjoy, under your Majesty’s more immediate Government and Protection, those Civil and Religious Priviledges, which to encourage the Settlement of the Province, have been granted and confirmed to them by your Royal Predecessors; by the Influence whereof, our Fathers were induced to undertake the Cultivation of this then Wilderness Country, to the Extention of the British Dominions and Commerce, and many Thousands of Foreigners have been, and still are drawn here to become your Majesty’s Subjects.

Signed by order of the House

B Franklin

In Assembly May 1764.

Endorsed: Petition of the Assembly of Pensilvania Rx. 4th Novr. 1765 22d. Do. Ordered to be postponed.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3The draft, including all its emendations, is in BF’s hand. The DS is on a large sheet; all but the “B Franklin Speaker” and the endorsements is in the hand of a professional scrivener.

4The vote was 27 to 3 according to the (unpaged) “Advertisement” in The Speech Of Joseph Galloway, Esq; … Delivered in the House of Assembly … May 24, 1764 (Phila., 1764). See below, p. 308.

5Votes, 1763–64, p. 82. The order in which these names appear in the record has no significance as to any intended chairman and, as usual, none was specifically named. It was standard practice in listing members of committees in the Pa. Assembly to name first the member or members from Philadelphia Co., followed in sequence by those from the city, the other original counties of Bucks and Chester, and then those from the newer counties in the order of their erection: Lancaster, York, Cumberland, Berks, and Northampton. Since BF represented the city of Philadelphia throughout his legislative career, his name in the listing of a committee membership was almost always preceded at least by that of one member from the county, whatever their relative importance on the committee may have been. Of the group named here, Galloway, BF, Pearson, and Ross are known to have supported the petition, while Montgomery opposed it. The positions of Chapman, Douglass, and Tool are not certainly known, though it would appear that all three favored the petition.

6Votes, 1763–64, p. 82.

7Among the Franklin Papers in Lib. Cong. there is a one-page MS in a hand other than BF’s containing the headings and the first paragraph of his draft and incorporating his revisions of that paragraph. Since this passage underwent considerable further amendment before the final approval of the whole, the paper appears to be part of a copy of the entire petition at some intermediate stage between BF’s first draft and the final transcribed and signed petition.

8Votes, 1763–64, p. 83.

9A Speech, Delivered in the House of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania, May 24th, 1764. By John Dickinson, Esq; One of the Members for the County of Philadelphia. On Occasion of a Petition, drawn up by Order, and then under consideration, of the House; praying his Majesty for a Change of the Government of this Province. With a Preface (Phila., 1764). The quotations are from pp. 2 and 29. The speech, with a preface by the Rev. William Smith, was published as a pamphlet on June 29, 1764.

1Galloway’s speech was delivered extemporaneously, since he had time to prepare no more than “short Notes” while Dickinson held the floor. On August 11 a carefully written version of what this speech was said to have been, “taken from his short Notes, and put in Order,” with a long preface by BF (below, pp. 267–311), was published as The Speech of Joseph Galloway, Esq; One of the Members for Philadelphia County: In Answer To the Speech of John Dickinson, Esq; Delivered in the House of Assembly, of the Province of Pennsylvania, May 24, 1764. On Occasion of a Petition drawn up by Order, and then under the Consideration of the House; praying his Majesty for a Royal, in lieu of a Proprietary Government (Philadelphia, 1764). On September 17 Dickinson published a reply in which he called the Galloway pamphlet “a pretended speech, of which he never spoke one sentence in the House,” while Dickinson’s own printed speech, he said, was exactly as delivered except for a few corrections and “some slight alterations in a few places.” John Dickinson, A Reply To a Piece called the Speech of Joseph Galloway, Esquire (Phila., 1764), esp. pp. 2, 44.

2Votes, 1763–64, p. 84.

3Ibid., p. 84. It is uncertain how much Norris’ incapacity was due to genuine illness and how much to the uncomfortable position he was in regarding the pending petition to the King. Probably both circumstances were involved. In January 1758 a convenient illness had enabled him to escape from the speaker’s chair in the same way when the Assembly’s controversial “trial” of William Smith was about to take place. Above, VII, 385; VIII, 60 n, 96. On the other hand, he had certainly experienced other bouts of ill health in recent years, including one in February 1764, when he was unable to go to the State House and the Assembly had met for some weeks at his brother’s house where he was lodging (above, p. 70), and another on May 14, when the Assembly reconvened after the spring recess. On the latter occasion a committee of assemblymen had prevailed upon him to make the effort to attend and occupy the speaker’s chair. Votes, 1763–64, pp. 75–6. Now, twelve days later, he was able to plead his bad health rather convincingly.

4Votes, 1763–64, pp. 84–5; Pa. Col. Recs., IX, 181–2. The immediate presentation of a newly elected speaker to the governor for approval was a necessary procedure in all royal and proprietary colonies in imitation of that in the House of Commons. The governor gave his approval almost automatically; for Penn to have denied approval of BF’s election, however much he disliked the choice, would have been construed as a serious breach of the Assembly’s privileges and would certainly have brought all legislative activity to a complete halt.

5See below, pp. 205–6.

6Votes, 1763–64, p. 86. The text of the petition was not printed in the minutes, perhaps, as its opponents seemed to think, to prevent their getting a copy to use in countering its effect in England. William Smith’s preface to Dickinson’s Speech, p. xii.

7See above, pp. 145–6.

8Votes, 1763–64, p. 86. BF told Jackson, June 1, that the petition had “pass’d thro’ the House with great Unanimity, only 3 Negatives.” below, p. 218.

9William Smith’s preface to Dickinson’s Speech, p. v. Smith stated (p. vi) that Joseph Richardson of Philadelphia Co. had joined these three in voting, May 25, against having the petition transcribed. If BF’s statement to Jackson is to be believed, however, Richardson either voted for the petition on the 26th or stayed away when that final and critical vote was taken. In either case, he did not support the request of the other three on the 28th to have their objections to the petition entered on the minutes.

1Votes, 1763–64, p. 87. The one remaining problem before the Assembly had finished its action on the petition was how to finance its prosecution in England. On May 29 the Committee of Correspondence was authorized to draw on the provincial treasurer for the remaining balance in his hands from the proceeds of the old excise and the rent of Province Island (where the friendly Indians had first been lodged) and to apply these funds to the prosecution of the petition before the Privy Council. Ibid., p. 88.

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