We are pleased to share this review of a scholarly work on Benjamin Franklin, submitted by a professional bookman and longtime admirer of BookPage, George Hopkins.
Reading a scholarly book with all the expected arms and legs of such a work—footnotes, afterwords, appendices and their brethren—one finds a rare, unexpected pleasure waiting in the pages of Kenneth Penegar’s The Political Trial of Benjamin Franklin. The book has all the elements of a seductive mystery story, albeit a story shaped by facts, not fiction. Although Franklin lived in England for 18 years (1724-26, 1757-62, 1764-75), the author focuses on the last four years of his residency, 1771-1775, during which time he acted as an agent for New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Georgia in presenting various petitions and grievances that his clients wanted heard by Parliament and King. In this capacity, Franklin’s world (and ours, as fate would have it) turned upside down.
Beginning with a farcical, but potentially deadly, duel between John Temple and William Whately that took place in Hyde Park on the morning of December 11, 1873, the story of Franklin’s last years takes shape. The argument between the combatants centered on a cache of letters written years earlier by the future governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. The letters were to Thomas Whately, the older brother of William, and had become known to all in England and America after their publication in a Boston newspaper in 1773. Whately, now executor of his brother’s estate, believed Temple was the scoundrel who stole the letters, the personal property of his late brother, and sent them to the Boston publisher.
Thus the duel! And here, perhaps, we find most significant reason for the unyielding enmity of England’s peers toward America. Indeed, the publication of the Hutchinson Letters, as they are known to historians, was much more offensive to them than even the Boston Tea Party, of which they learned only after Franklin confessed that it was he who sent the letters to the speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly. After the acknowledgment of his part in this drama, made to prevent any future duels between innocent men, dark events moved quickly into Franklin’s life.
On January 29, 1774, we find this much-honored American, a man now in his 60s who walked with a cane, standing alone for over an hour before the Privy Council, silently hearing Alexander Wedderburn, Solicitor General, demean and disgrace him before an overflowing crowd of English peers. For the most famous and most respected American in European society, this humiliating experience had to be the nadir point of his life. He stood accused of the theft of personal letters and, more ominously, of sedition as a British subject who incited and led the colonial rebels to overthrow the lawful government. The prospect of arrest culminating in imprisonment not only found its way into his dreams, but became very real, as attested by the arrest warrant that was issued in London, which Franklin became aware of after he arrived in Philadelphia on May 7, 1775.
Feeling embarrassed about my ignorance of these matters, I consulted the splendid history written by Morison & Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, 1000-1865 in its fourth edition (1951), the textbook that I had used as an undergraduate. Not one mention of the Hutchinson Letters or the Privy Council trial of Franklin appears. It makes one wonder about history and its pictures locked in time, why emphasis is given to this event but not to the other, why or whether the decisions made by historians that build a society’s sense of itself are proper or indeed right. After finishing Penegar’s fine book, I consider Benjamin Franklin as belonging to that small group of people whose actions were demanded and made magnificent in building the edifice of liberty we now call the United States of America.