Colonial American History Journal – Book 2
Chapter title – Franklin Humiliated Before British Privy Council
It only took one hour for British Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn to turn Benjamin Franklin from a conciliator that wanted to smooth over differences between Britain and her North American Colonies to a flaming rebel that worked incessantly for independence. Wedderburn’s one-hour tirade against Franklin before the British Privy Council very possibly cost him the Colonies.
Alexander Wedderburn (February 3, 1733 – January 2, 1805)
A native of Edinburgh, Alexander was the oldest son of Peter Wedderburn and Janet Ogilvy. He attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh, and graduated from the University of Edinburgh. He developed his famous rhetorical skills at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He joined the British bar in 1757. He worked to improve his oratorical skills more and lose his Scottish accent using the services of actors Thomas Sheridan and Charles Macklin.He served as a Member of Parliament several times, and gained election as representative of Richmond, Yorkshire in 1768. He had gained a reputation as a combative speaker who attacked opponents without mercy. Many members loathed and distrusted him. In January 1771, he became solicitor-general. His role was to advise the Crown and the Cabinet on legal matters. In this role, he proved both combative and argumentative, traits he used with loathsome skill in his nasty attack on Benjamin Franklin on January 29, 1774.
Buildup to the Attack
Franklin had confessed his role in the Hutchinson letters on December 25, 1773. In the letters he had leaked to American colonial leaders, he had revealed Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson as the source of much of the misunderstanding between the British and the Colonists. He had tried to diffuse the slow breakdown in relations between the colonies and the British. The strategy backfired badly. His colonial friends had kept his identity a secret; however, the resulting controversy had led to press speculation and accusations. Two men fought duels over the matter after one accused the other of the leak. Finally, to end the dissention, Franklin had confessed. He passed the matter off and figured the matter had passed. It hadn’t. On December 16, 1773, a group of Bostonians had boarded a British ship and tossed the shipment of tea overboard. The Boston Tea party enraged the British when they heard the news in early January, 1774. Combined with the growing Colonial resistance to British rule, many of the hard liners in the British government had had enough. Wedderburg was one of these hardliners. He decided to make an example of Benjamin Franklin.
He had Franklin summoned to a meeting before the Privy Council on January 8, 1774. Franklin, assuming the meeting was about some matter over his representative status with Pennsylvania, attended the meeting on January 11, 1774. The Privy Council, Wedderburn presiding, met him in a room called the Cockpit. It was so called because the room had formerly been used to stage cockfights. As soon as Wedderburn went to work on Franklin during that meeting, Franklin realized the reason for it was different than he anticipated. Instead of a meeting to advise the British government on Pennsylvania affairs, it was an inquisition into the Hutchinson affair and the colonial request to remove Hutchinson from office. He requested legal council. The meeting adjourned so he could obtain it.
Conversion to a Rebel
Franklin had been in England for almost fifteen years, serving as representative to Pennsylvania. He had learned to love British customs and traditions during his two stays in England. He had watched the gathering storm between England and her colonies with dismay. His plan to heal the discord had failed miserably. Franklin had achieved many honors during his stay in England and had acquired many friends. He engaged his friend John Dunning as solicitor.. Unfortunately, for Doctor Franklin, Dunning was ill and could barely speak. When Franklin stepped into the meeting on January 29, 1774, he could sense a storm gathering. Thirty-five men, including hardliner Lord North, were in attendance. Wedderburn, master of the attack, brushed aside Dunning’s well-phrased but barely audible defenses. He was there to destroy Doctor Franklin. He launched into an hour-long tirade, broken only at times by light applause from the spectators in the gallery. Franklin, clad in an immaculate spotted Manchester velvet suit, stood silent during the attack. When the meeting ended, Franklin left the chamber. He was now a committed rebel.
Loss of Office
Franklin had been the Postmasters-General. The Privy Council had recommended that he be removed to allow someone with a less rebellious nature take its place. They wanted someone that would watch the Colonial posts for seditious letters. In addition, the Privy Council had rejected the request to dismiss Hutchinson as Massachusetts Governor. The letter that had dismissed Franklin from his service ended with the ominous warning, “Fleets and Troops are talked of, to be sent to America…”
Franklin would not wear that suit again until he attended the signing of the Treaty of Paris on April 15, 1783 that ended the war. He wore it “to give it a little revenge.”
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