Benjamin Franklin before the Privy Council in 1774

On Saturday, the 8th of January, 1774, Franklin received a notice from the Secretary of the Privy Council, that "the Lords of the Committee for Plantation Affairs," would meet at the Cockpit, on Tuesday following, to take into consideration the petition from Massachusetts, and requested his attendance. Franklin immediately consulted Mr. Bollan, a lawyer of some distinction, who, in America, had married a daughter of Governor Shirley, and had been agent in England for the province of Massachusetts. In 1769, Mr. Bollan procured from a member of Parliament a large number of letters written by Governor Bernard and others calumniating the people of Boston, and, as in duty bound, he sent them to the Massachusetts Assembly. This proper act had been denounced by Lord North, in Parliament, and Mr. Bollan felt a sympathy for Franklin, and agreed to accompany him to the meeting. Less than twenty-four hours before that meeting, Franklin received a notice that Mr. Mauduit, agent for the crown-officers in Boston, had obtained leave to be heard by counsel in their behalf at that meeting. Mr. Bollan was then induced to appear as Franklin's counsel; but when he arose to speak in favor of the petition, some of the Lords objected to him as legally disqualified to act, and he was set aside. Then Franklin presented the resolutions of the Massachusetts Assembly, which had been sent with the petition. These were read; but when the letters which had caused the petition and resolution were brought up, Wedderburne, the solicitor-general, appeared as counsel for the governor, and interposed many objections to their reception. Franklin, being without counsel, asked and obtained leave for a postponement of the case, that he might procure for the Assembly the services of a competent lawyer.

On the 29th of January, Franklin was again before the Privy Council. He was accompanied by Mr. Dunning, a former solicitor-general, as counsellor. Intimations had been given that Wedderburne would, on this occasion, chastise Franklin most severely for the part he took in exposing the letters which had induced the petition, and "an immense crowd," Franklin wrote, were present to enjoy the scene. No less than thirty-five peers were there. When Dunning had finished his plea in favor of the petition, Wedderburne arose. After giving an outline sketch of the political history of the colonies, which was marked by ignorance or misrepresentation, the solicitor-general fell upon Franklin with severe, unjust, and often coarse invective. He accused him of obtaining the letters clandestinely; and even after the solicitor admitted that they were genuine, he made insinuations that they might be forgeries, asserting that they were sent to widen the breach between the colonists and the government. "Amidst tranquil events," said the solicitor, "here is a man who, with the utmost insensibility of remorse, stands up and avows himself the author of all. I can compare him only to Zanga, in Dr. Young's 'Revenge'--

'--Know, then, 'twas I, I forged the letter--I disposed the picture-- I hated--I dispersed, and I destroy.'

I ask, my lords, whether the revengeful temper attributed to the bloody African is not surpassed by the coolness and apathy of the wily American?" "The favorite part of his discourse," Franklin wrote to Cushing, "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 into loud laughter. 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 eyes, too foul to be seen on paper; so that the speech, compared to what it was, is now perfectly decent." At the end of this tirade of abuse, the petition was dismissed as "groundless, scandalous, and vexatious."

Franklin endured the coarse abuse of Wedderburne, and ill-manners of the lords, with the calmness of a philosopher. Not an emotion was manifested in his face. He was sustained by a consciousness of his own integrity and the justice of the cause to which he was a martyr. He felt that in this abuse of himself, as public envoy presenting a respectful petition, the British government were offering a gross insult to a great and loyal colony; and not to that colony alone, but to British American colonies from the St. Lawrence to the St. Mary's. He felt a conviction in that hour of trial that not only his own honor, but the wisdom and patriotism of the people he represented would be fully vindicated by the calm judgment of mankind. "I have never been so sensible of the power of a good conscience," he said to Dr. Priestley, who breakfasted with him the next morning; "for if I had not considered the thing for which I have been so much insulted as one of the best actions of my life, and what I certainly would do again in the same circumstances, I could not have suspected it." The course of the patriot and his accuser were widely different in the future. Franklin went forward in assisting and achieving the freedom and independence of his country, and will be forever venerated, as Washington wrote, "for benevolence, to be admired for his talents, to be esteemed for patriotism, to beloved for philanthropy." Wedderburne went through life neither respected nor beloved, a grasping place-seeker and corrupt courtier, "unhonored and unsung" at last; and when, thirty years after the scene here described, this man, having held various high offices in the government and received honors, died Earl of Roslyn, the king upon whom he had fawned said, "He has not left a greater knave behind him in my dominions."

Franklin, though apparently unmoved before the Privy Council, felt deeply the indignity cast upon him; and, it is said, when he returned to his lodgings, No. 7 Craven street, that night, he took off the suit of clothes he had worn on the occasion, and declared that he would never wear it again until he should sign the degradation of England by a dismemberment of the empire, and the independence of America. He kept his word; and almost ten years afterward, when, as American commissioner, he signed a definitive treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain on the basis of absolute independence for his country, he wore the same suit of clothes for the first time after his vow was uttered.

The government, pre-determined to fill the post-offices in America with friends of the crown, so as to watch and obstruct the communications between the political leaders in the several colonies, hastened to make the hue-and-cry that Wedderburne had raised against Franklin, at the instigation of the king, an excuse for dismissing him from the office of deputy postmaster-general. He received a written notice of his dismissal on the day after his last appearance before the Privy Council. "How safe the correspondence of your Assembly committees along the continent will be through the hands of such officers," he wrote to Mr. Cushing, "may now be worth consideration, especially as the post-office act of parliament allows a postmaster to open letters, if warranted to do so by the order of a secretary of state, and every provincial secretary may be deemed a secretary of state in his own province."

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