Ahead of his talk, ‘Benjamin Franklin: British Royalist to American Revolutionary’, we caught up with George to find out more and to learn about his passion for history…
Q: How and when did you first realise you had a passion for history?
A: Reading the Ladybird books. I particularly remember one on Warwick, ‘The Kingmaker’, but Henry V, Joan of Arc and Oliver Cromwell also come to mind.
Q: Why do you love your period of history?
A: It’s a bit difficult to pin “my period” down, with one book on the 15th century, another on the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and my latest taking a leap forward to the 18th century on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, now I am in the 18th century, I do hope to stay there for a bit. The long 18th century (1688–1832) was the period when Britain became Great Britain, the leading power in the world. It was an age of quickening thought, scientific discovery and ever-widening horizons. It has also left us a residue of magnificent parkland landscapes and very nice National Trust houses to visit.
In spite of its extraordinary importance, the study of the 18th century was long neglected in schools. This may be partly because of its darker side, including the iniquity of slavery – principally created to satisfy the craving for sugar and spice. Yet that makes it all the more important to study. And the 18th century does not lack characters – one only has to look at the cartoons of James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson to realise that. Benjamin Franklin was an extraordinarily interesting man, but many other people in the 18th century are also worth a long look.
Q: Which other historical areas fascinate you and why?
A: When I was at Cambridge I studied for a paper entitled ‘Revolutions’. I called it ‘History’s Greatest Hits’, which it was in both senses. The study of history for me is the study of the management of change – and the most turbulent change both causes revolutions and springs from them.
Q: Which history books are you reading at the moment?
A: I have just finished Jacqueline Riding’s episodic and exciting Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion. It is extraordinary that Bonnie Prince Charlie got so far with a rebellion he initiated himself, against the advice of his own father and with little support from overseas powers.
Q: Are there any developments in history that are really exciting you at the moment?
A: Well, I am very pleased that with the reshaping of the study of history in schools, there is more British history on the curriculum and less Hitler and Stalin!
But the greatest boon for historians at the moment is the ever-increasing availability of archive material through electronic sources. For instance, thanks to the ‘The Papers of Benjamin Franklin’ project I am able to access many thousands of letters to and from the great man while sitting at my desk at home.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about the York and Winchester History Weekends?
A: I know from talking about my previous book, Fatal Rivalry [about the 1513 battle of Flodden], at Malmesbury, that I will have an interested and highly motivated audience. Their enthusiasm was inspiring and I will have the challenge of generating it again!
Q: What can we expect from your talk?
A: You can expect to hear about the British life of Benjamin Franklin, based on his near two decades living in London. We shall see Dr Franklin as a world-famous scientist at large in the 18th century’s greatest and most vibrant city.
The audience will see him living as an English gentleman in what is now Benjamin Franklin House, just off the Strand (his only home still standing). They will also see him out and about in London and across Britain and Europe, dining with kings, prime ministers and friends as different as the shy but brilliant Joseph Priestley and the learned but notorious Francis Dashwood.
Finally, they will see him at the centre of events such as Britain and its American colonies drifting towards war. Franklin was not an enemy of Britain but rather a friend who wanted a British empire of North America. That is until early 1775, when members of Lord North’s government sought his arrest and he was forced to flee London. Then, and only then, did he go on to become one of America’s greatest patriots.
Q: Which other talks are you looking forward to at the History Weekends?
A: I know from past experience that Tracy Borman is a brilliant speaker, but really there are too many to mention!
George Goodwin is a historian and author whose latest book, Benjamin Franklin in London, was a 2016 BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week.
George will be speaking at both our Winchester and York History Weekends this autumn. You can find out more about the events, and George’s talk, ‘Benjamin Franklin: British Royalist to American Revolutionary’, here.