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Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin by Jared Sparks


Hutchinson's Letters. — How they first became known to Franklin. — His Motives for transmitting them to Massachusetts. — Proceedings of the Assembly concerning them. — Dr. Cooper's Remarks on that Occasion. — Petition for the Removal of Hutchinson and Oliver presented by Franklin. — Duet between Temple and Whately. — Franklin's Declaration that the Letters had been transmitted by him. — Whately commences against him a Chancery Suit. — Proceedings of the Privy Council on the Petition. — Further Account of those Proceedings. — Wedderburn's abusive Speech. — The Petition rejected. — Franklin dismissed from his Place at the Head of the American Postoffice.

We are now come to the date of a transaction, which contributed to reveal the origin of some of the most offensive proceedings of the British government against the colonies, and which subjected Dr. Franklin to much obloquy and abuse from the supporters of the administration.

In December, 1772, he procured and sent to Mr. Cushing, chairman of the Committee of Correspondence in Massachusetts, certain original letters, which had been written by Governor Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor Oliver, and others, to Mr. Thomas Whately, a member of Parliament, and for a time secretary under one of the ministers. These letters, though not official, related wholly to public affairs, and were intended to affect public measures. They were filled with representations, in regard to the state of things in the colonies, as contrary to the truth, as they were insidious in their design. The discontents and commotions were ascribed to a factious spirit among the people, stirred up by a few intriguing leaders; and it was intimated, that this spirit would be subdued, and submission to the acts of Parliament would be attained, by the presence of a military force, and by persevering in the coercive measures already begun. When Dr. Franklin sent over these, letters, he stated to Mr. Cushing his motives for doing it, and his opinion of their objects and tendency.

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"On this occasion," be says, "I think it fit to acquaint you, that there has lately fallen into my hands part of a correspondence, that I have reason to believe laid the foundation of most, if not all, our present grievances. I am not at liberty to tell through what channel I received it; and I have engaged that it shall not be printed, nor copies taken of the whole, or any part of it ; but I am allowed to let it be seen by some men of worth in the province, for their satisfaction only. In confidence of our preserving inviolably my engagement, I send you enclosed the original letters, to obviate every pretence of unfairness in copying, interpolation, or omission. The hands of the gentlemen will be well known. Possibly they may not like such an exposal of their conduct, however tenderly and privately it may be managed. But, if they are good men, or pretend to be such, and agree that all good men wish a good understanding and harmony to subsist between the colonies and their, mother country, they ought the less to regret, that, ,at the small expense of their reputation for sincerity and public spirit among their compatriots, so desirable an event may in some degree be forwarded. For my own part, I cannot but acknowledge, that my resentment against this country, for its arbitrary measures in governing us, conducted by the late minister, has, since my conviction by these papers that those measures were projected, advised, and called for by men of character among ourselves, and whose advice must therefore be attended with all the weight that was proper to mislead, and which could therefore scarce fail of misleading; my own resentment, I say, has, by this means been exceedingly abated. I think they must have the same effect with you; but I am not, as I have said, at liberty to make the letters public. I can only allow them to be seen by yourself, by the other gentlemen of the Committee of Correspondence, by Messrs. Bowdoin and Pitts of the Council, and Drs. Chauncy, Cooper, and Winthrop, with a few such other gentlemen as you may think fit to show them to. After being some months in your possession, you are requested to return them to me.

"As to the writers, I can easily as well as charitably conceive it possible, that men educated in prepossessions of the unbounded authority of Parliament, &c. may think unjustifiable every opposition even to its unconstitutional exactions, and imagine it their duty to suppress, as much as in them lies, such opposition. But, when I find them bartering away the liberties of their native country for posts, and negotiating for salaries and pensions extorted from the people; and, conscious of the odium these might be attended with, calling for troops to protect and secure the enjoyment of them; when I see them exciting jealousies in the crown, and provoking it to work against so great a part of its most faithful subjects; creating enmities between the different countries of which the empire consists; occasioning a great expense to the old country for suppressing or preventing imaginary rebellions in the new, and to the new country for the payment of needless gratifications to useless officers and enemies; I cannot but doubt their, sincerity even in the political principles they profess, and deem them mere time-servers, seeking their own private emolument, through any quantity, of public mischief; betrayers of the interest, not of their native country only, but of the government they pretend to serve, and of the whole English empire."

The manner in which the letters fell into his bands was never explained. In the account of the affair, which he wrote previously to his leaving England, but which was not published till many years after his death, he says, the first hint he had of their existence was from a gentleman of character and distinction, in conversation with whom he strongly condemned the sending of troops to Boston, as a measure fraught with mischief, and from which the worst consequences were to be apprehended. The gentleman assured him, "that not only the measure he particularly censured so warmly, but all the other grievances complained of, took their rise, not from the government, but were projected, proposed to administration, solicited, and obtained, by some of the most respectable among the Americans themselves, as necessary measures for the welfare of that country.' As he seemed incredulous, the gentleman said be could bring such testimony as would convince him; and a few days after he produced the letters in question. He was astonished, but could no longer doubt, because the handwriting, particularly of Hutchinson and Oliver, was recognised by him, and their signatures were affixed.

The name of the person, to whom they were addressed, was nowhere written upon them. It either had been erased, or perhaps the letters themselves were originally forwarded under envelopes, which had not been preserved. There is no evidence from which it can be inferred, that Dr. Franklin at that time knew the name of this person, or that he was ever informed of the manner in which the letters were obtained. If this secret was ever revealed to him, he does not appear to have disclosed it, and it is still a mystery. Three individuals, besides himself, were acquainted with the circumstance of their being sent. One of these was Mr. John Temple; the names of the other two are not known. It has been said, that one of them was a member of Parliament.

Acting in this business from an imperative sense of duty, Dr. Franklin took no pains to screen himself from consequences. He mentioned the subject several times in his correspondence with Mr. Cushing and Dr. Cooper, but he did not in any instance intimate a wish, that his name as connected with it, or his agency, should be concealed. Mr. Cushing proceeded with caution, however, and informed two gentlemen only of the source from which the letters bad come; and these gentlemen kept the secret till it was published by Dr. Franklin himself in London. Nor was it known, except to these individuals, by whom the letters were received in Boston. Mr. Cushing said, in writing to Dr. Franklin, I desire, so far as I am concerned, my name may not be mentioned; for it may be a damage to me." This injunction was obeyed to the last.

Although the names of the persons chiefly concerned were thus kept out of sight, yet the letters themselves were seen by many persons; the instructions in this respect not confining them within narrow limits. Mr. John Adams carried them about with him on a judicial circuit. The rumor of their existence, and of the general character of their contents, soon got abroad; and, when the legislature met, the members became exceedingly inquisitive and solicitous concerning them. It was finally concluded to lay them before the Assembly, which usually sat with closed doors. They were read, but nothing could be done with them, while the prohibition against taking copies remained. Soon after, copies were produced in the House, "said to have come from England by the last ships." The originals being already before the House, the accuracy of the copies could easily be proved. While they were under consideration, Dr. Cooper wrote a letter to Dr. Franklin, dated Boston, June 14th, 1773, from which the following is an extract.

"Many members scrupled to act upon, these copies, while they were under such public engagements to the unknown proprietor of the originals. As the matter was now so public, and the restrictions could answer no good end, no view of the sender, but, on the contrary, might prevent in a great measure a proper use of the letters for the public benefit, and for weakening the influence and power of the writers and their friends, and disarming their revenge, it was judged most expedient, by the gentlemen to whom they were first shown, to allow the House such use of the originals, as they might think necessary to found their proceedings upon for the common safety. By whom and to whom they were sent is still a secret, known only to three persons here, and may still remain so, if you desire it.

"I forgot to mention, that upon the first appearance of the letters in the House, they voted, by a majority of one hundred and one to five, that the design and tendency of them were to subvert the constitution, and introduce arbitrary power. Their committee upon this matter reported this day a number of resolutions, which are to be printed by to-morrow morning, and every member furnished with a copy, that they may compare them with the letters; and to-morrow at three o'clock in the afternoon is the time appointed to decide upon the report. The acceptance of it by a great majority is not doubted.

"Nothing could have been more seasonable than the arrival of these letters. They have had great effect; they make deep impressions wherever they are known; they strip the mask from the writers, who, under the professions of friendship to their country, now plainly appear to have been endeavouring to build up themselves and their families upon its ruins. They and their adherents are shocked and dismayed; the confidence reposed in them by many is annihilated; and administration must soon see the necessity of putting the provincial power of the crown into other hands, if they mean it should operate to any good effect. This, at present, is almost the universal sentimental."

"The resolutions here mentioned, as having been reported by a committee of the house, were passed the next day by a very large majority, warmly censuring the letters, as having the tendency and design not only to sow the seeds of discord and, encourage the oppressive acts of the British government, but to introduce arbitrary power into the province, and subvert its constitution. A petition to the King was then voted with the same unanimity, praying his Majesty to remove from office Governor Hutchinson and Lieutenant-Governor Oliver, who, by their conduct, had rendered themselves obnoxious to the people, and entirely lost their confidence.×

When the petition arrived, Lord Dartmouth was at his seat in the country. Dr. Franklin transmitted it to him, and his Lordship, after his return to town, informed him, that it had been presented to his Majesty; but, from the tenor of the ministers conversation, he was led to suspect, that it would not be complied with.

In the mean time an event took place, which caused much excitement. Hutchinson's letters had been printed in Boston, and copies of them came over to London. Public curiosity was raised, and great inquiry was made, as to the person by whom they had been transmitted. Mr. Thomas Whately was dead, and his papers had gone into the possession of his brother, Mr. William Whately, who was censured for allowing the letters to be taken away. Mr. Temple bad asked permission of him to examine his brother's papers, with the view of perusing a certain document on colonial affairs, which he believed to be among them. The permission was granted; and now Mr. Whately's suspicion rested upon Mr. Temple, whom be imagined to have taken advantage of this opportunity to gain possession of the letters in question. A duel was the consequence in which Mr. Whately was wounded.

At this crisis Dr. Franklin felt himself bound to interfere. He immediately published a declaration, in which he assumed the entire responsibility of having transmitted the letters, and said, that, as they were not among Mr. Thomas Whately's papers when these passed into the hands of his brother, neither he nor Mr. Temple could have been concerned in withdrawing them. The whole tide of obloquy was now turned against Dr Franklin. He was assailed by the friends of Mr. Whately for not having prevented the duel by an earlier declaration; and he was vehemently attacked by the retainers of the ministry for the part he had acted in procuring and sending the letters. To the first charge it is enough to say, that he had no intimation of the duel till it was over. He thought himself entitled to the thanks of the parties, rather than their censure, for thus relieving them from suspicion in the eyes of the public, and removing the cause of their personal difference. As to the other charge, it was no in ore than he expected; and he was prepared to meet it with a clear conscience, having no private ends to serve in the transaction, and no other motive than justice to his country.

Mr. Whately did not stop here. Without any previous warning or complaint, he commenced a chancery suit against Dr. Franklin. The bill contained a strange list of false specifications, all of which were denied on oath by Dr. Franklin, who affirmed at the same time, in reference to the letters, that, when they were given to him, no address appeared on them, and that he had not previously any knowledge of their existence. At this, stage of the business the chancery suit seems to have been suspended, and it was finally dropped. He considered this an ungrateful, as well as a precipitate, step of Mr. Whately, to whom he had lately rendered an important service, by enabling him to secure a valuable property in Pennsylvania.

Notice was at length given to Dr. Franklin, that his Majesty had referred the petition to the Privy Council, and that a meeting would be held in three days to take it into consideration at the Cockpit, where his attendance was required. He accordingly appeared there at the time appointed, January 11th, 1774, with Mr. Bollan, the agent for the Massachusetts Council. The petition was read, and Dr. Franklin was asked what he had to offer in support of it. He replied, that Mr. Bollan would speak in behalf of the petitioners, this having been agreed upon between them. Mr. Bollan began to speak, but he was silenced by the Lords of the Council, because be was not the agent for the Assembly. It then appeared, that Hutchinson and Oliver had employed Mr.Wedderburn, the King's solicitor, as their counsel, who was then present, and ready to go on with their defence. Authenticated copies of the letters were produced, and some conversation ensued, in which Mr. Wedderburn, advanced divers cavils against them, and said it would be necessary to know how the Assembly came by them, through whose bands they had passed, and to whom they were addressed. To this the Lord Chief Justice assented.

When Mr. Wedderburn proceeded to speak further, Dr. Franklin interrupted him, and said he had not understood that counsel was to be employed against the petition. He did not conceive, that any point of law or right was involved, which required the arguments of lawyers, but he supposed it to be rather "a question of civil and political prudence" in which their Lordships would decide, from the state of facts presented in the papers themselves, whether the complaints of the petitioners were well founded, and whether the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor had so far rendered themselves obnoxious to the people, as to make it for the interest of his Majesty's service to remove them. He then requested, that counsel might likewise be heard in behalf of the Assembly. The request was granted, and three weeks were allowed for preparation.

"A report now prevailed through the town," Dr. Franklin afterwards wrote, that, I had been grossly abused by the solicitor-general, at the Council Board But this was premature. He had only intended it, and mentioned that intention. I heard, too, from all quarters, that the ministry and all the courtiers were highly enraged against me for transmitting those letters. I was called an incendiary, and the papers were filled with invectives against me. Hints were given me, that there were some thoughts of apprehending me, seizing my papers, and sending me to Newgate. I was well informed, that a resolution was taken to, deprive me of my place; it was only thought best to defer it till after the hearing; I suppose, because I was there to be so blackened, that nobody should think it injustice. Many knew, too, how the petition was to be treated; and I was told, even before the first hearing, that it was to be rejected with some epithets, the Assembly to be censured, and some honor done the governors. How this could be known, one cannot say. It might be only conjecture."

Mr. Dunning and Mr. John Lee, two eminent barristers, were the counsel employed for the Assembly. They concluded to rest the argument on the facts stated in the petition and the Assembly's other papers, showing the discontents of the people, and the expediency of removing officers, whose conduct had made them so odious, that their usefulness was at an end; and not to touch upon the objectionable parts of the letters, these being of a political nature, the falsehood of which it would be difficult to prove. Nor, indeed, would any proof be satisfactory to judges, who deemed these very offences, so much detested by the people, as meritorious acts in support of the arbitrary designs of the government. If this was not manifest from what had already passed, it was made so by the manner in which the petition was treated, when it came again to be considered by the Council. This extraordinary scene was described by Dr. Franklin, a few days after its occurrence.

"Notwithstanding the intimations I had received, I could not believe that the solicitor-general would be permitted to wander from the question before their Lordships, into a new case, the accusation of another person for another matter, not cognizable before them, who could not expect to be there so accused, and therefore could not be prepared for his defence. And yet all this happened, and in all probability was pre-concerted; for all the courtiers were invited, as to an entertainment, and there never was such an appearance, of privy counsellors on any occasion, not less than thirty-five, besides an immense crowd of other auditors.

"The hearing began by reading my letter to Lord Dartmouth, enclosing the petition, then the petition itself, the resolves, and lastly the letters, the solicitor-general making no objections, nor asking any of the questions he had talked of at the preceding board. Our counsel then opened the matter, upon their general Plan, and acquitted themselves very handsomely; only Mr. Dunning, having a disorder on his lungs, that weakened his voice exceedingly, was not so perfectly heard as one could have wished. The solicitor-general then went into what he called a history of the providence for the last ten years, and bestowed plenty of abuse upon it, mingled with encomium on the governors. But the favorite part of his discourse was levelled at your agent, who stood there the butt of his invective ribaldry for near an hour, not a single Lord adverting to the impropriety and indecency of treating a public messenger in so ignominious a manner, who was present only as the person delivering your petition, with the consideration of which no part of his conduct had any concern. If he had done a wrong in obtaining and transmitting the letters, that was not the tribunal where he was to be accused and tried. The cause was already before the Chancellor. Not one of their Lordships checked and recalled the orator to the business before them, but, on the contrary, a very few excepted, they seemed to enjoy highly the entertainment, and frequently burst out in loud applauses. This part of his speech was thought so good, that they have since printed it, in order to defame me everywhere, and particularly to destroy my reputation on your side of the water; but the grosser parts of the abuse are omitted, appearing, I suppose, in their own eyes, too foul to be seen on paper; so that the speech, compared to what it was, is now perfectly decent. I send you one of the copies. My friends advise me to write an answer, which I purpose immediately.

"The reply of Mr. Dunning concluded. Being very dull, and much incommoded by standing so long, his voice was so feeble, as to be scarce audible. What little I heard was very well said, but appeared to have little effect.

"Their Lordships' Report, which I send you, is dated the same day. It contains a severe censure, as you will see, on the petition and the petitioners, and, as I think, a very unfair conclusion from my silence, that the charge of surreptitiously obtaining the letters was a true one; though the solicitor, as appears in the printed speech, had acquainted them that that matter was before the Chancellor; and my counsel had stated the impropriety of my answering there to charges then trying in another court. In truth, I came by them honorably, and my intention in sending them was virtuous, if an endeavour to lessen the breach between two states of the same empire be such, by showing that the injuries complained of by one of them did not proceed from the other, but from traitors among themselves.''

After this judicial farce, no one could be surprised at the result. Their Lordships reported, "that the petition was founded upon resolutions formed upon false and erroneous allegations, and that the same was groundless, vexatious, and scandalous, and calculated only for the seditious purpose of keeping up a spirit of clamor and discontent in the provinces." The King approved the Report, and the petition was dismissed. And such was the language, which the British rulers thought proper to use in replying to the respectful complaints of an ancient and populous province. If the people would bear this, they might well say, that their long cherished freedom had become an empty sound and a mockery. Let history tell how they bore it, and how long.

The next day Dr. Franklin was officially informed of his being dismissed from the place of deputy postmaster-general. For this manifestation of the royal displeasure he was prepared, as well by previous intimations as by the proceedings of the Council. It cannot be supposed, that he was callous to these indignities, especially as they were intended to overwhelm him with disgrace, and ruin his credit and influence. But he suppressed his resentment, and took no steps either to vindicate himself, or to counteract the malicious arts of his enemies, conscious of having done only what his duty required. When the facts came to be known and understood, his conduct was applauded by every friend of liberty and justice in both countries. He gained new credit instead of losing what he possessed, thus baffling the iniquitous schemes of his adversaries, whom he lived to see entangled in their own toils, and whose disgraceful overthrow it was his fortune to be a principal instrument in effecting.

From this time he kept aloof from the ministers, going no more to their levees, nor seeking any further intercourse with them. He contemplated bringing his affairs to a close in England and returning home; and with this view he put the papers relating to the Massachusetts agency into the hands, of Mr. Arthur Lee, who had been appointed to succeed him whenever be should retire. Mr. Lee went over to the continent, to be absent several months; and then Dr. Franklin took upon himself again the business of the agency, thinking it improper to leave the post vacant, till the Assembly should be apprized of the absence of Mr. Lee, and of his own wish to withdraw.×

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