Friday, November 1, 2013

All about the Benjamins: Franklin's New Jersey money connection

Benjamin Franklin famously likened New Jersey to a barrel tapped at both ends, referring to its proximity to Philadelphia and New York. Some have decried the statement as an insult, but few realize that the Founding Father actually played an influential role in colonial New Jersey.

Is it just me, or does this painting
of Ben Franklin look like Bob Newhart?
The city of Burlington makes much of its connection to Franklin, beginning with his first visit to the city in 1726. According to a diary entry from his return home after a journey to London, Franklin was briefly delayed in Burlington when he missed a connecting boat across the Delaware. He stopped at the Revell house to buy gingerbread for his trip, and when he discovered his boat had already left, returned for advice on alternate travel options. While serving him a fine dinner of ox cheek in return for a pot of ale, the (unnamed) lady of the house encouraged him to stay in town and open a printing shop. Undeterred from reaching his ultimate destination, he was able to secure passage on another boat later that day. The Revell house still stands and is said to be the oldest house in the county, having been built in 1685.

While he opted not to set up shop in New Jersey, Franklin became a well-known printer and publisher in Philadelphia. Perhaps influenced by the potential benefits to his trade, he became a major proponent of paper money, writing persuasively on the benefit of printed notes versus gold and silver coin. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, paper notes were used largely in times of emergency and were printed with expiration dates. Colonies eventually began issuing permanent paper currency, and Franklin was instrumental in the design of the notes authorized by the New Jersey Legislature in 1728. He returned to Burlington to use Isaac Collins' copperplate press to print what the city's historians say was the colony's first colonial currency. Interestingly, he later chose New Jersey currency as the first to incorporate an ingenious counterfeiting prevention feature: the transfer of a sage leaf pattern to the reverse side.

Beyond his contributions to the financial system, Franklin later became New Jersey's agent in London. Yes, you read that right: Ben Franklin was a lobbyist. Having secured his son William's appointment as Royal Governor in 1763, Franklin returned to London the following year to represent Pennsylvania, New Jersey and a handful of other colonies to the Court. He built and maintained several useful relationships there until 1775, when conditions between the colonies and the Crown had deteriorated badly.

And, of course, we all know what happened after that...


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