On this day in 1773, a duel is fought. It was one of the dominoes that fell, pushing Benjamin Franklin into joining the Revolutionary cause.
You don’t normally think of Benjamin Franklin and a duel in the same sentence, of course. How did that come to pass?
Relations between Britain and her colonies were pretty strained by the end of 1773. At about that time, Franklin came into possession of some letters written by Thomas Hutchinson, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts. Hutchinson made some pretty controversial statements! There “must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties,” he wrote. “I doubt whether it is possible,” he concluded, “to project a system of government, in which a colony, three thousand miles distant, shall enjoy all the liberty of the parent state.”
Could the letters help mend the situation between America and Great Britain? Franklin thought so: They showed that the problem wasn’t Parliament! The problem was Hutchinson and those like him. Franklin believed it was “my duty to give my constituents intelligence of such importance to their affairs.” Franklin’s informant gave him permission to send the letters to Massachusetts, on the condition that the letters were never published or copied.
Hmm. Perhaps a bit naïve to think that the contents of the letters would not get out? They did, of course. They were even published. It was a bit of a scandal! No one knew who had leaked the letters. Colonists petitioned to have Hutchinson removed. Accusations, rumors, and suspicion flew on BOTH sides of the Atlantic. On December 11, a duel took place between two men, each accusing the other of leaking the letters.
Franklin finally revealed himself as the source of the letters, but he refused to say how he got them in the first place.
In January, Franklin was summoned to appear before the Privy Council (pictured). Unfortunately, London received news of the Boston Tea Party shortly before the scheduled meeting. The news really pushed British officials over the edge! Historian Gordon Wood reports that “the meeting of the Privy Council turned into a full-scale indictment of Franklin, who now seemed responsible for everything that had gone wrong in the empire, including the recent Tea Party.”
For a solid hour, the King’s solicitor general, Alexander Wedderburn, slandered and verbally abused Franklin in front of a crowded room. Franklin’s reputation was ripped to shreds within minutes. Within a matter of days, he was stripped of his job as deputy postmaster general of North America.
Before these events, Franklin was working to hold England and America together. His scolding at the hands of Wedderburn was the beginning of the end of his loyalty to Great Britain. He soon became a staunch supporter of the Patriot cause and returned home to America. Indeed, he felt so strongly about the issue that his relationship with his son (a Loyalist) would become irrevocably broken.
The interesting postscript to the story? Franklin was present several years later when Americans signed a treaty of alliance with France. He was wearing an old velvet suit. It was an unusual choice, and he was asked about it. His answer?
“To give it a little revenge.” He later explained that it was the same coat that he’d worn “the day Wedderburn abused me at Whitehall.”
Andrew Stephen Walmsley, Thomas Hutchinson and the Origins of the American Revolution (1998)
Benjamin Franklin, An account of the transactions relating to Governor Hutchinson’s letters (The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 4)
Benjamin Franklin, The Compleated Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin (Mark Skousen ed., 2005)
Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (2004)
James Srodes, Franklin: The Essential Founding Father (2002)
John Gideon Millingen, The history of dueling (1841) (Vol. II)
John L. Smith, Jr., Benjamin Franklin: America’s First Whistleblower (Journal of the American Revolution (Dec. 19, 2013)
Justin McCarthy & Justin Huntly McCarthy, A History of the Four Georges and of William IV (1901) (Vol. III)
The Hutchinson Letters (Smithsonian National Postal Museum website)
Thomas Hutchinson, The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from the year 1750 until June, 1774 (1828) (Vol. III)