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The British Respond and Benjamin Franklin Pays the Price

The most immediate victim of the British ministry’s outrage over the Boston Tea Party was a man who, in his capacity as colonial agent to Parliament for the colonies of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, had attempted to walk a fine line between defense of colonial rights and amicable relations with key British officials. On January 29, two days after official word of the Tea Party had reached England, Benjamin Franklin was summoned into an anteroom in the Privy Council chamber, nicknamed the “cockpit,” the place for cockfighting. As Franklin entered he saw it was packed with nearly every important member of British officialdom—Lord Dartmouth and Lord Hillsborough, who had already formed a bitter animus toward the much-heralded American scientist and diplomat; Lord North, the chief architect of an increasingly punitive policy toward the Americans; and even the Archbishop of Canterbury. There were a few friendly faces—the Irish politician and philosopher Edmund Burke and Franklin’s longtime friend and fellow scientist Joseph Priestley—but looking at the cast of assembled characters, Franklin could have had no doubt that he had not been summoned for polite conversation.

Franklin was led to a long table at the center of the room, where he faced the members of the Privy Council. Ostensibly there to hear a petition from Massachusetts residents asking for the removal of Governor Hutchinson from office, the Privy Councilors had in fact gathered to indict Franklin for having illegally received, transmitted and connived in the publication of letters from Governor Hutchinson and other royal officials in Massachusetts. Lord Alexander Wedderburn, the solicitor general, took the role of Franklin’s designated inquisitor. In a controlled tirade that lasted for well over an hour and which Franklin later likened to “bull-baiting,” Wedderburn delivered to the esteemed doctor a public and humiliating dressing-down. He accused Franklin of being the “mover and prime conductor” of a conspiracy against the royal government in Massachusetts; he labeled him a common thief, who had “forfeited all the respect of societies and of men.” Pounding on the table, Wedderburn claimed that Franklin, far from being a servant of the colonial governments of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, was instead behaving like “the minister of a foreign independent state,” all with the intent of moving forward “the idea of a Great American Republic.” As Wedderburn continued his verbal assault, the crowd of British courtiers packed into the cockpit cheered the solicitor general and mocked Franklin. The American, dressed in a simple velvet suit, kept his emotions firmly under control. As one of those present observed, “the Doctor . . . stood conspicuously erect, without the smallest movement of any part of his body. The muscles of his face had been previously composed as to afford a placid tranquil expression of countenance, and he did not suffer the slightest alteration of it to appear.”

Although Franklin had probably crossed an ethical line in disseminating some of Governor Hutchinson’s private letters, Wedderburn was wholly off the mark in accusing him of fomenting rebellion against the king. Franklin, at least at that moment, was emphatically not an advocate of American independence. Indeed, when he learned of the Boston Tea Party, he deplored the “violent injustice” of the event, arguing that the Bostonians should make voluntary restitution for the value of the tea. But Wedderburn’s attack, carried out in full view of the highest officials in England, would mark the beginning of Franklin’s transformation from conciliator to revolutionary.

After Wedderburn had finished his tirade, he called on Franklin to testify, but, according to the official record of the hearing, “Dr. Franklin being present remained silent, but declared by his counsel that he did not choose to be examined.” In what was a foregone conclusion, the Privy Council rejected the Massachusetts petition for the removal of Governor Hutchinson, but Wedderburn and his fellow Privy Councilors had won a pyrrhic victory. However much they may have enjoyed Franklin’s public humiliation, their behavior would strain the affections of the one man in America capable of bringing about a reconciliation between Great Britain and her colonies. Franklin was a man of carefully cultivated self-control and humility, but he was also a man of intense pride. He would never forget or forgive those British officials who had watched his public humiliation so smugly. From that moment forward, Benjamin Franklin would become an ardent defender of American, not British imperial, interests. n contemplation rather than raucous celebration. Few, if any, realized that they had stood witness to the beginning of a revolution.

The Main Players

The Turning Point

The British Respond and
Benjamin Franklin Pays the Price

George Washington: Commander-in-Chief

America’s Declaration of Independence
Goes Public

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