|This Week in History
January 31 February 6, 1774
The British Ministry Tries To Humiliate Benjamin Franklin, To No Avail
On Jan. 31, 1774, the British government informed Benjamin Franklin by letter to his home in London that he had been fired from his position as Deputy Postmaster of America. This, even though Franklin had built the postal service into an efficient and profitable system which greatly benefitted both Britain and America. The motivation for the firing was both fear and revenge: fear of Franklin's influence in both countries, and revenge for the recent Boston Tea Party.
The move against Franklin occurred two days after the attempt to pillory him in the meeting hall called the "Cockpit," ostensibly for revealing the contents of policy documents sent by royal officials in America to a member of the British Privy Council. These were called the "Hutchinson Letters," after Massachusetts Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who had written many, but not all, of them. During the Stamp Act crisis of the 1760s, Lord Grenville, the promoter of that looting scheme, had asked his secretary to request reports from various American royal authorities as to what should be done. Hutchinson, in particular, was vocal in support of suppressing the Americans, writing that, "There must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties."
Benjamin Franklin had appeared before the House of Commons in 1766 to present America's case against the Stamp Act, and his efforts had resulted in the act's repeal and the fall of the ministry of Lord Grenville. However, the East India Company continued its looting policies, leading it inexorably toward bankruptcy. By 1772, its vast influence was woven into the very fabric of the British government, and the company succeeded in putting through legislation which compelled the American royal governors to be paid from the revenues of the Townshend Act, specifically from the tax on tea. Thus, any possible influence over these officials from their constituents was to be nullified. Massachusetts sent a petition opposing this method of paying royal officials, but the King rejected it.
When the judges of the Superior Court in America were added to the list of officials to be paid from East India Company revenues, the Boston Town Meeting reacted quickly. It published a pamphlet in November of 1772 which described the violations of American rights and denied that Parliament had any authority over America. Royal Governor Hutchinson made an address to the Massachusetts Assembly on Jan. 6, 1773 in which he stated that there could be no allegiance to the King without subordination to Parliament as well. Hutchinson portrayed the perils that Massachusetts would face if it rejected Parliament, but the Assembly responded that "there is more reason to dread the consequences of absolute uncontrolled power, whether of a nation or a monarch, than those of a total independence."
In December of 1772, Benjamin Franklin had come into possession of the reports sent to Lord Grenville from the royal agents in America. Grenville had circulated the letters among his friends and political allies, and at the time of his death in 1770, the letters had not been returned. There were also copies of the reports which were making the rounds in London, and either Franklin was able to obtain them, or, as another rumor had it, they were given to him by a member of Parliament. Whatever the source, Franklin sent them to Speaker Cushing, telling him to show them to members of the Assembly, but not to copy or publish them.
Cushing at first did as he was asked, but feelings against Hutchinson were running so high that on June 2, 1773, he read the letters in public to the Massachusetts Assembly, and by June 17 the letters' contents had been printed and were being reprinted throughout the colonies. As this was going on in America, Franklin, on June 4, was sending Cushing the news of Parliament's spectacular reduction of British duties on exported East India Company tea, enabling it to be sold in America for a much cheaper price than smuggled Dutch tea. Franklin commented that the British thought the Americans would operate only on the basis of obtaining a bargain, whereas actually they understood the future enslavement which lurked behind the lower prices.
On June 23, the Massachusetts Assembly petitioned the King to remove both Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver from office, and Franklin, as London representative of Massachusetts, presented the petition to Lord Dartmouth. By August, the Hutchinson Letters were reprinted in London, and gossip ran rife as to who had obtained them. During that fall, Franklin was engaged in writing a series of polemics, trying to show the Britons the folly of their policies toward America. On Sept. 11, he published the satiric "Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One," and on Sept. 22 appeared "An Edict by the King of Prussia," in which the Prussian King supposedly claimed sovereignty over England by right of supposed prior settlement in some misty past era.
After these pieces appeared, Franklin received a letter from his sister, Jane Mecom, in which she said she hoped that he would be the instrument of restoring harmony between America and Britain. He replied that he would be very happy to restore harmony, but that his strategy for accomplishing it had changed. "I had used all the smooth words I could muster, and I grew tired of meekness when I saw it without effect. Of late therefore I have been saucy."
Franklin talked about his two polemical pieces, saying that, "I have held up a looking-glass in which some ministers may see their ugly faces, and the nation its injustice. Those papers have been much taken notice of. Many are pleased with them, and a few very angry, who I am told will make me feel their resentment, which I must bear as well as I can, and shall bear the better if any public good is done, whatever the consequences to myself.
"In my own private concerns with mankind, I have observed that to kick a little when under imposition has a good effect. A little sturdiness when superiors are much in the wrong sometimes occasions consideration. And there is truth in the old saying, that 'if you make yourself a sheep, the wolves will eat you.'"
Although no one had guessed who had sent the Hutchinson letters to America, matters soon came to a head. The brother of Lord Grenville's secretary became convinced that John Temple, a government official sympathetic to America, had obtained the letters, and he challenged Temple to a duel. Temple injured his foe, but a second duel was pending. To prevent further bloodshed, Franklin inserted a notice on Dec. 25 in the London Chronicle, saying that, "I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question." Franklin wrote, "They were not in the nature of 'private letters between friends.' They were written by public officers to persons in public station on public affairs, and intended to procure public measures; they were therefore handed to other public persons who might be influenced by them to produce those measures. Their tendency was to incense the Mother Country against her colonies, and by the steps recommended, to widen the breach, which they effected." Furthermore, the letters themselves expressed the fear that if their contents became know, agents of the colonies might try to return them to America. "That apprehension, was, it seems, well founded; said Franklin, "for, the first agent who laid his hands on them thought it his duty to transmit them to his constituents."
On Jan. 11, 1774, the Privy Council summoned Franklin to a hearing on the petition of the Massachusetts Assembly to remove Governor Hutchinson. When he arrived, Franklin found himself facing Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn, who had voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act and was famous for his crude invectives and overarching ambition. Wedderburn had been characterized by his superior, Lord North, as having "an accommodating conscience." The Solicitor General made it clear to Franklin that he was facing a kangaroo court, not a hearing on the Massachusetts petition. Franklin asked for three weeks to hire counsel and prepare his case.
When the Privy Council reconvened in the Cockpit on Jan. 29, word of the Boston Tea Party had reached London, and the King and his ministry were out to destroy Franklin's reputation. "All the courtiers were invited as to an entertainment," wrote Franklin, comparing it to a "bull-baiting." For an hour, Wedderburn insulted Franklin, who stood impassively in his best suit while most of the Privy Council laughed and jeered and the audience hooted. There is no transcript of the proceedings, because even the Grub Street newspapers were afraid to print Wedderburn's foul and libelous language.
One of the spectators said that Wedderburn used the "coarsest language," unleashed "all the licenced scurrility of the Bar," and enlivened his speech with "the choicest flowers of Billingsgate." Another auditor wrote that, "I had the grievous mortification to hear Mr. Wedderburn wandering from the proper question before their Lordships, pour forth such a torrent of virulent abuse on Dr. Franklin as never before took place within the compass of my knowledge of judicial proceedings, his reproaches appearing to me incompatible with the principles of law, truth, justice, propriety, and humanity."
Franklin refused to speak in his defense, choosing silence in the face of such a scurrilous attack. And he did have supporters, even in London. Dr. Joseph Priestley, the eminent scientist who collaborated with Franklin, was in the audience, and recorded that "Dr. Franklin, in going out, took me by the hand, in a manner that indicated some feeling. I soon followed him, and going through the anteroom, saw Mr. Wedderburn there, surrounded with a circle of his friends and admirers. Being known to him, he stepped forwards as if to speak to me; but I turned aside, and made what haste I could out of the place."
Priestley had breakfast with Franklin the next morning, and recorded that, "He said he had never been so sensible of the power of a good conscience; for that if he had not considered the thing for which he had been so much insulted, as one of the best actions of his life, and what he should certainly do again in the same circumstances, he could not have supported it."
When Franklin wrote to Thomas Cushing about the events at the Cockpit, he said: "When I see that all petitions and complaints of grievances are so odious to government, that even the mere pipe which conveys them becomes obnoxious, I am at a loss to know how peace and union is to be maintained or restored between the different parts of the empire. Grievances cannot be redressed unless they are known; and they cannot be known but through complaints and petitions: If these are deemed affronts, and the messengers punished as offenders, who will henceforth send petitions? And who will deliver them? It has been thought a dangerous thing in any state to stop up the vent of griefs. Wise governments have therefore generally received petitions with some indulgence, even when but slightly founded. Those who think themselves injured by their rulers, are sometimes, by a mild and prudent answer, convinced of their error. But where complaining is a crime, hope becomes despair."
Despite threats of imprisonment, Franklin stayed in England for over a year more, trying to forge an accommodation between America and Britain. When Edmund Burke's bill to withdraw British troops from Boston was defeated in Parliament, Franklin embarked for Philadelphia. When that city had received the news of his treatment in the Cockpit, its citizens paraded through the streets with straw effigies of Wedderburn and Hutchinson, which they then set on fire with an electric spark.