Treason, Benjamin Franklin, William Franklin, Reconciliation, Hutchinson Letters, Boston Tea Party, The Cockpit, Patriot and Loyalist

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 10th, 2012

Politics 101

The Hutchinson Letters and the Tea Act put the Americans firmly on the Path to Independence

There’s a fine line between treason and loyalty.  Some people cross that line.  Some people don’t.  Some people wait to see which side of the line their best interests lay.  Some like to straddle the line.  Either unable to commit.  Unwilling to commit.  Or unwilling to give up profiting from both sides of that line.  Such it was during the American Revolutionary War.  A very unique conflict.  That pitted colony against mother country.  New World against Old World.  American against Brit.  Brit against Brit.  And American against American.

The American Revolutionary War was a smorgasbord of antagonism.  What started out as a dispute over taxation escalated into world war.  And into civil war.  To settle old scores.  And to settle new ones.  Upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence the American colonies were in open rebellion against their sovereign.  The ultimate act of treason.  Yet they committed this act of treason to live a more British life.  For Britain’s constitutional monarchy gave unprecedented rights to British subjects.  And the highest standard of living then known to a middle class.  Most knew what the rest of the world was like.  And they wouldn’t trade their British way of life for any other.  So rebellion undoubtedly made a great many nervous.  For many were happy and comfortable living under the British sovereign.  Benjamin Franklin, for one.

Franklin was a Loyalist.  At first.  He knew how to work the system.  And did.  Even achieving the post of American postmaster.  And he made it profitable.  Very profitable.  Even his son, William Franklin, was governor general in New Jersey.  So he was very connected to the British Empire.  And saw it as the best system of government ever developed.  Which is why he sought reconciliation.  He was in England when tensions were increasing between the colonies and the mother country.  He then came into the possession of some private correspondence that he passed along to his contacts in Massachusetts.  The Hutchinson letters.  As in governor general of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson.  Which basically said that the way to subdue the unrest over recent Parliament actions (i.e., taxation without representation) was to deprive the colonists of some of their English liberties.  Franklin asked that they not publish these letters.  His intent was to calm the more radical in America.  Proving that these misguided policies were the result of some bad advice from a few people.  There was no general animosity towards the American colonies in Great Britain.  And that reconciliation was possible.  Which is what Franklin wanted.  But they published the Hutchinson letters.  And the Americans were not pleased.  Then one thing led to another.  After Parliament passed the Tea Act Franklin was anxious of the American response.  Hoping for calm.  But the response was anything but calm.  And did nothing to aid reconciliation. 

The Humiliation in the Cockpit helped Push Franklin from Reconciliation to Independence

When the first tea arrived following the Tea Act the Patriots threw it in Boston Harbor.  Forever known thereafter as the Boston Tea Party (1763).  This destruction of private property shocked Franklin.  For this was not an act against Parliament.  But an act against a private company.  The East India Company.  This did not go over well in England.  Which was pretty agitated over the publication of those private Hutchinson letters.  People accused each other of being the source of the leak.  It got so bad that two men dueled in Hyde Park.  Each blaming the other for the dishonorable act of leaking those private letters.  Not being a very good duel both men survived.  When they were going to have at it again Franklin publically stated that he was the leak.  Explaining his intentions. 

Though Franklin sought reconciliation he had his enemies in England.  Who thought he was more of rabble rouser on the other side of the pond.  And pounced on this opportunity to disgrace him.   They summoned him to appear before the Privy Council.  On the pretense to hear testimony on the petition from the Massachusetts Assembly to remove Hutchinson as governor general.  But when Franklin arrived in the ‘Cockpit’ he found that he was on trial.  For leaking the Hutchinson letters.  News of the Boston Tea Party had by then reached England.  And the newspapers attacked Franklin without mercy.  All of England was turning against the man who wanted reconciliation more than any American.  It even looked like Franklin could end up in an English jail. 

It was an all out assault on Franklin in the Cockpit.  Where his enemies packed the room.  While few of his friends sat in.  Such as Edmund Burke.  Lord Le Despencer.  And Joseph Priestly.  One after another his enemies took their turn lambasting Franklin.  Blaming him for the agitation in the American colonies against British rule.  They attacked him personally.  And besmirched his honor.  Humiliated him.  During it all Franklin stood silent.  Refusing to partake in this farce.  When Wedderburn called Franklin as a witness his counsel stated that his client declined to subject himself to examination.  In the end they rejected the Massachusetts petition.  And his friend Lord Le Despencer had no choice but to relieve Franklin from his post as American postmaster.  He wrote his son William and urged him to quit his post as governor general of New Jersey in order to pursue more honorable work.  He would not, though.  And thus began the breach between father and son.

Franklin and William were no longer Father and Son but Patriot and Loyalist

William would stay loyal to the crown.  While Franklin was moving closer to the side of the Patriots.  In response to the Boston Tea Party Britain planned a blockade of Boston Harbor.  In response the colonies united behind Boston and formed the First Continental Congress.  Which William said was a mistake.  And that Boston should make good on the tea they destroyed.  Which would be the best way to calm the situation.  And reopen Boston Harbor.  Exactly what Franklin had earlier suggested.  But after the Cockpit and the loss of his post as postmaster Franklin was losing his love for the British Empire.  But he still tried while he remained in England with no official duties.  He even played chess with Caroline Howe.  Sister of Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe.  Who would later command the British naval and military forces in the opening of the Revolutionary War.  But at the time they were both sympathetic to the American cause.  Despite of his shameful treatment in the Cockpit she and other friends urged him to put pen to paper.  And try to mediate a peaceful solution to the breach between the American colonies and Great Britain.  He tried. 

But all efforts came to naught.  He worked on a bill with Lord Chatham.  Which Lord Sandwich attacked with a fury when introduced into the House of Lords.  And they publicly attacked Franklin again.  They rejected the bill.  And Franklin booked passage home.  He met with Edmund Burke before leaving.  Discussed with him one last plea for reconciliation.  He spent his last day in London with his friend Joseph Priestly.  And discussed the future.  The coming war.  Reading the papers.  Priestly later wrote that the thought of that dismal future brought Franklin to tears.  After Franklin was on a ship sailing west Burke rose in Parliament and gave his famous speech On Conciliation with America. Where he said, “A great empire and little minds go ill together.”

The move to independence accelerated after arriving home.  Thomas Paine, who Franklin helped to bring to America, wrote Common Sense.  Which Franklin read before it was published.  Even offered a few revisions.  As he would offer later to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  Then the Continental Congress scheduled a vote for independence.  General Washington was preparing to fight General William Howe on Long Island.  Supported by his brother Admiral Lord Richard Howe.  Who made one last attempt at conciliation with Franklin.  But things had already progressed too far.  Franklin had crossed that fine line.  The time for peace had passed.  On June 15, 1776, the new American provincial government in New Jersey ordered the arrest of William Franklin.  On the day of his trial Benjamin Franklin wrote General Washington.  He did not mention William.  Nor did he say anything when the Continental Congress voted to imprison him in Connecticut.  The breach between father and son was complete.  No longer father and son.  But Patriot and Loyalist.  As families throughout the colonies similarly tore asunder.  Setting the stage for the civil war within the world war that was the American Revolution.

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