Benjamin Franklin: America’s First Whistleblower

Edward Snowden and the NSA documents.
Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables.
Daniel Elsberg and the Pentagon papers.
Benjamin Franklin and the Hutchinson letters?

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin in 1767 by David Martin.
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin in 1767 by David Martin.

Snowden, Assange, and Elsberg all considered themselves to be self-appointed whistleblowers. Individuals who wanted to open governments by disclosing sensitive government documents. Without a doubt, all three started huge controversies when their confidential documents were leaked. But, should Benjamin Franklin be included in that list? The kindly Philadelphian who printed witty sayings in “Poor Richard’s Almanack”? The scientist who flew the kite in the storm, and invented the lightning rod thereby saving untold lives and structures? That Benjamin Franklin? Well… yes. Franklin, as America’s first whistleblower,  leaked secret documents to help  ease growing international tensions. But his good intentions backfired on him, and his gamble edged America and its Mother Country one step closer to war.

How? Here’s the story of how the tensions between the Britain and America were made even worse by Franklin’s good intentions. It’s how Benjamin Franklin, within the course of a single hour, turned from being a well-meaning arbitrator into a rebel with a Cause.

There had hardly been any American abroad who loved all things British as Benjamin Franklin. By 1772 as an agent for four American colonial assemblies,[1] Franklin had already lived at his Craven Street address in London for 15 years. Arguably one of the most famous men in the world, Doctor Franklin had made his mark in the world as a printer, scientist, author, inventor, and diplomat. As deputy post-master general of the Royal Post in the American colonies, Franklin had improved the speed and reliability of the mail service remarkably.[2] The Royal Society of London made Ben Franklin the first non-Brit to be awarded their highest gold achievement award, the Copley Medal. The British liked Ben and Ben liked the British.

But like most concerned British Americans, Franklin had also watched from afar the slow disintegration of cordial relations between Great Britain and America since the time of the Stamp Act of 1765, the landing of British redcoats in Boston in 1768, and the “Boston Massacre” in 1770. He fretted about incitements in the growing tinderbox epicenter of the conflict – the colony of Massachusetts, and its ongoing struggle between the Massachusetts Assembly and Great Britain over Parliamentary authority. On the Whig side, Boston housed numerous and colorful Sons of Liberty rabble rousers like Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Dr. Joseph Warren. But there seemed to be only one Tory culprit in Massachusetts who single-handedly symbolized the restrictive measures of the British government – Governor Thomas Hutchinson.

Gov. Thomas Hutchinson or “Tommy, skin and bones,”[3] as he was fondly called, was seen as being aided by his brother-in-law Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver in depriving the rights of all British citizens who lived in Massachusetts. Burning the images of Hutchinson and Oliver in effigy was nearly getting to be commonplace by the enraged Bostonians. Franklin read of each of these accounts in London newspapers and worried. Franklin had known Tom Hutchinson and in one of history’s many ironies, Franklin and Hutchinson once worked together as a team. It was Hutchinson “who had once been Franklin’s friend when they had put together the Albany Plan for colonial union in 1754.”[4] But by 1772, those togetherness days were long gone and the specter of an armed conflict between two brotherly bands of people seemed to be growing.

Then Benjamin Franklin saw the opportunity to discretely pass along some secret British government documents to a small group of influential leaders in Boston. The aim was to show those prominent people that the instigation of the bad feelings against Americans didn’t stem from Parliamentary ministers. The main troublemaker had been right in their Bostonian midst. It turned out, Franklin discovered, that Gov. Hutchinson had been feeding bad advice to key British officials all along. He was the main trouble maker.

Portrait of Thomas Hutchinson in 1741 by Edward Truman.
Portrait of Thomas Hutchinson in 1741 by Edward Truman.

So on December 2, 1772, Franklin secretly sent a packet of letters to Thomas Cushing, speaker of the Massachusetts Assembly.  Six of the incriminating letters had been written by Hutchinson to British ministers some years earlier. Ben’s letter to Cushing said, “there has lately fallen into my Hands Part of a Correspondence, that i have reason to believe laid the Foundation of most if not all our present Grievances.”[5] He askedthat the contents not be made public.[6] There was a particular phrase in one of those letters that created the sound bite heard ‘round the world. Hutchinson was speaking of his fellow colonials when he wrote, “There must be an abridgement of what are called English liberties.”[7] Of course once Cushing showed Samuel and John Adams the confidential letters, every word of the inflammatory letters were fully printed in the Boston papers. The identity of Benjamin Franklin as the source of the letters, however, was a closely guarded secret on both sides of the Atlantic. The  Americans were predictably outraged by Hutchinson’s words and by mid-1773 King George III received a petition from the Massachusetts Assembly to have Hutchinson and Oliver removed from their governmental positions. Because the petition was not one of criminal accusation but rather of a strongly worded request to the British Board of Trade, His Britannic Majesty referred the petition over to his advisory board, the Privy Council.

But all through the last half of 1773, the London newspapers were having a field day speculating the identity of the British government mole – the guilty person who leaked the letters. The accusations became so heated that in December 1773, William Whately (brother of the deceased owner of the letters) and John Temple (a Boston friend of Franklin) fought a duel over each one’s claim that the other was the mole. Whately was slightly wounded and it was decided by the two men that as soon as Whately healed, they would duel again! Finally Franklin decided to end this nonsense and ‘fess up in a December 25, 1773 editorial in the London Chronicle. In it, he took full responsibility as the person who had received the letters. Ben made the case that the letters “were written by public officers to persons in public stations, on public affairs” and stated outright that “Their tendency was to incense the Mother Country against her Colonies and, by the steps recommended, to widen the breach”.[8]

The official backlash against Benjamin Franklin was just starting to be heard in the first days of the New Year, 1774. Which is why Franklin was surprised that on Saturday, January 8, he received a summons to appear before the Privy Council’s “Lords for the Committee of Counsel for Plantation Affairs”[9] on the following Tuesday. The reason, one assumed, was for Franklin as a colonial agent to defend the Massachusetts petition to remove Hutchinson and Oliver.

It was Tuesday, January 11, 1774 and Franklin arrived at the Whitehall chamber of the Privy Council to debate the merits of the petition. Once arrived, however, Franklin was met with the reason the room was called the Cockpit. During the reign of King Henry VIII bloody cockfighting matches were staged in the room. Instead of hearing Franklin’s petition defense, the Solicitor General of the Lord North ministry, Alexander Wedderburn, “a nasty and ambitious prosecutor,” [10] laid into Franklin with an attack that accused Franklin of illegally receiving and disclosing private correspondence. Franklin was totally shocked. It was almost like he was being accused of being a spy! Taken aback at the quick change in purpose for the gathering, Franklin said in polite sarcasm that he had misinterpreted the reason he had been summoned to the Privy Council and asked for a lawyer. The Privy Council agreed he should have representation and set the next meeting date for three weeks – January 29, 1774.

If ever there was a case of really bad timing, it would be the event that happened between Franklin’s first Privy Council hearing and the rescheduled hearing. With Parliamentary feelings already in an uproar about Dr. Franklin being “an incendiary”[11] agent, on January 19, 1774 the British ship Hayley sailed in from Boston carrying some very important news. The news headline broke across the front page of The St. James’s Chronicle just three days later announcing what would later be known as the Boston Tea Party! Not good. The ministers decided to make an example of Benjamin Franklin – and of all rebellious provincials – in the Privy Council.

It was Saturday, January 29, 1774. The Privy Council was packed to the rafters “and in all probability was preconcerted,”[12] Franklin would later write.  One of Franklin’s friends in London wrote an account for the Pennsylvania Gazette saying they seemed “ready to crucify him,” likening Franklin’s call to the Privy Council as “Bull-baiting.”[13] Prime Minister Lord North arrived late and found the room so crowded even he had to stand for the spectacle.  The petition for the removal of Hutchinson and Oliver was read out loud. Franklin had lawyered up for this appointment; in fact hiring two lawyers, with his lead attorney being John Dunning. Unfortunately that day Dunning was sick as a dog as Franklin later wrote, “Mr. Dunning, having disorder on his lungs that weakened his voice exceedingly … Being very ill … his voice was so feeble, as to be scarcely audible. What little I heard was very well said, but appeared to have little effect.”[14] What Dunning had to say in response to the petition mattered little because Wedderburn had his marching orders – to destroy the character of Benjamin Franklin.

So it began. For “near an hour”[15] Alexander Wedderburn unleashed a torrent of verbal hell upon “a public messenger”[16] as Franklin indignantly described himself standing in the Cockpit. He seemed shocked that no one, not a single one of the 36 lords present called for the solicitor general to return back to the original reason the hearing was scheduled. Instead, “they seemed to enjoy highly the entertainment, and frequently burst out in loud applauses.”[17] In Wedderburn’s stinging tirade, he employed the witty use of double entendre, a device of the time establishing the witty orator as learned and oh so clever.

Wedderburn snidely assaulted “a certain doctor” as a “man of letters”[18] and then (using Dr. Franklin’s fame for electrical experiments) switched on phrases such as, “Letters might certainly be conveyed, without any Electrical Shock,” “They have, it is true, given a shock to their friends; but our Correspondent knows of no conductor that will convey a shock to themselves,” “against the Transmitter of certain letters to America … the whole Fire seemed to have been extracted from his Frame…”[19] and on and on it went. Wedderburn’s voice bellowed while he was “Pounding the council table until (according to Jeremy Bentham) it ‘groaned under the assault.’”[20]  Furthermore, Wedderburn continued, “Hutchinson had been the victim of Franklin’s unscrupulous schemes to incite rebellion. And Franklin, Wedderburn suggested, schemed in this manner primarily in order to have himself made governor.”[21]

Benjamin Franklin at the Court of St. James; Image depicts the session of the Privy Council in which Franklin is harangued for his role in the Hutchinson Letters Affair in 1774. Franklin leaves England not long after, committed to American independence. Source: Library of Congress
Benjamin Franklin at the Court of St. James; Image depicts the session of the Privy Council in which Franklin is harangued for his role in the Hutchinson Letters Affair in 1774. Franklin leaves England not long after, committed to American independence. Source: Library of Congress

Benjamin Franklin stood right there, motionless for the full hour, taking Wedderburn’s abuse along with the howls and laughter of the spectators. Edward Bancroft noted, “The Doctor was dressed in a full suit of spotted Manchester velvet, and stood conspicuously erect, without the smallest movement of any part of his body.”[22] Finally, Wedderburn went quiet and called Franklin as a witness. The Privy Council official proceedings recorded, “N. B. Dr. Franklin being present, remained silent. But declared by his counsel, that he did not chuse to be examined.”[23]

At the same hearing and not surprisingly, the Privy Council also found the petition to remove Hutchinson and Oliver invalid. But they wouldn’t just state a simple rejection. Since Wedderburn had fired up the Lords, the official reason of why the petition was rejected read: “… that the said petition is founded upon Resolutions, formed upon False and Erroneous allegations, and that the same is groundless, Vexatious and Scandalous and calculated only for the Seditious Purpose of keeping up a Spirit of Clamour and Discontent in the said Province.”[24] So there.

Oh, and it wasn’t over quite yet. The following day, Franklin received his pink slip as American postmaster-general. The letter of Franklin’s London friend, printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette on April 20, 1774, also added “It was with great Reluctance, I am told, that the Postmasters-General dismissed him from his Office. They knew his long and faithful Services in that Department, but the Orders they received from the Ministry were so positive, that they could not refuse obeying them .…”[25] The letter ended with the foreboding sentence, “Fleets and Troops are talked of, to be sent to America .…”[26]

Dr. Franklin left England, a fully-converted rebel to The Cause. He never looked back nor second guessed his feelings which seemed to have changed completely during that one hour verbal beating he took in the Privy Council. When Ben’s (illegitimate) son, William, was arrested during the War of Independence for being the Crown-loving Royal Governor of New Jersey, Benjamin refused to try to get him released and they basically stayed estranged for the rest of their lives. During the peace treaty talks in Paris in 1782-83, Franklin played hard ball regarding his firm “no amnesty or compensation” stand against Loyalists who had fled the colonies.

The peace treaty ending the American Revolutionary War was signed on September 3, 1783. Benjamin Franklin was there of course and was one of the signers for the newly-recognized United States of America. “Friends noticed he wore the same Manchester velvet suit that he had worn the day he had been abused by Wedderburn before the Privy Council. They asked him why. Franklin smiled and said, ‘To give it a little revenge’”[27]

 


[1] Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia.

[2] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 157. “Franklin drew up typically detailed procedures for running the service more efficiently, established the first home-delivery system and dead letter office, and took frequent inspection tours.”

[3] H.W. Brands “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin” (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 236.

[4] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 271.

5 Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Cushing, London, Dec. 2, 1772, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 19:399. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp  Accessed Dec. 1, 2013. The mystery person who gave Franklin the letters in London is still a question to this day. Leading historians, including Bernard Bailyn think it may have been Thomas Pownall, a former Massachusetts governor. It’s assumed no one will ever truly know the identity of the British “deep throat” character unless new undiscovered documents come forth. Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1974; paperback reprint 1976), 225, 231-235.

[6] Some historians suppose that the sly Franklin knew the incriminating letters would get published when he sent them to Cushing. But later in 1774 Franklin reiterated his true purpose, “… towards a Reconciliation, which for the common Good I earnestly wished;” Tract Relative to the Affair of the Hutchinson Letters, 1774, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,   www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 21:414. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp accessed Dec. 1, 2013.

[7] The Letters of Governor Hutchinson, and Lieut. Governor Oliver, &c: Printed at Boston. And Remarks Thereon. With the Assembly’s Address, and the Proceedings of the Lords Commettee of Council (Boston: J. Wilkie, at number 71, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1774); 16; Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 272.

[8] Franklin’s Public Statement about the Hutchinson Letters, London, Dec. 25, 1773; Thomas Fleming, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words (New York: Newsweek, 1972), 249; also  The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 20:513. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp accessed Dec. 1, 2013.

[9] This was the king’s senior advising board for colonial affairs in America and elsewhere.

[10] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 276.

[11] Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Cushing, London, Feb. 15, 1774, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 21:086. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp  Accessed Dec. 1, 2013.

[12] Benjamin Franklin to Thomas Cushing, London, Feb. 15, 1774, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin.

[13] Extract of a Letter from London, Feb. 19, 1774, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 21:112. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp  Accessed Dec. 1, 2013. (Printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 20, 1774).

[14] Thomas Fleming, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words, 251-252.

[15] Thomas Fleming, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words, 251.

[16] Thomas Fleming, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words, 251.

[17] Thomas Fleming, ed. Benjamin Franklin, A Biography in His Own Words, 251.

[18] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 277.

[19] Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, LXI, (June 1928), 280. Italics retained as printed in original MHS document.

[20] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 277.

[21] Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1990), 92.

[22] Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 277-278.

[23] The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 21:37. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp   Accessed November 27, 2013.

[24] The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 21:68. Accessed November 27, 2013.

[25] Extract of a Letter from London, Feb. 19, 1774, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, www.yale.edu/franklinpapers, Specifically Vol. 21:112. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp  Accessed Dec. 1, 2013. (Printed in The Pennsylvania Gazette April 20, 1774).

[26] Extract of a Letter from London, Feb. 19, 1774.

[27] Thomas Fleming, Ben Franklin: Inventing America (New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 1973), 144.

More from John L. Smith, Jr.

Murder of a Declaration Signer (Part 1)

George Wythe was about the last person anybody would ever want to...
Read More

8 Comments

  • Though Sir John Temple denied it, a lot of authors still seem to believe he slipped the Whately letters to Franklin. He was certainly known before and afterwards for his close (and familial) ties to the Americans. But Franklin evidently made sure that we’ll never know.

  • While in some personal situations he could keep a secret, he clearly failed in doing so in an institutional sense as head of America’s first diplomatic office abroad in Paris. It was totally penetrated by the British and well covered by the French. At that post, he had an attitude well liked by Intelligence officers – he felt he was much smarter than his adversaries.

  • I know references to Assange and Snowden were used for attention grabbers, and the article’s author expertly notes that they are self-appointed whistleblowers. But I want to make sure it doesn’t get left unsaid: Assange is a non-American and thus more a spy than a whistleblower, whereas Snowden, an American born that was well placed in the military apparatus (NSA), revealed military capabilities and functions, making him more like Dr. Benjamin Church the traitor. (And hence, a future article on Church and Snowden might want to make such a comparison! Time will tell if Snowden’s ultimate fate parallels that of Church…) I think Elsberg is the closest comparison of the three names above that matches Franklin’s actions. It is interesting to wonder: had America failed to break from Great Britain, would there have been some greater fate for Franklin’s quasi-treasonous release of the Hutchinson Letters?

    • Derek – well put. If America failed to make the break with Great Britain, the treasonous letter-leaking case the Crown had against Ben Franklin might have just been the added asterisk in the perhaps larger indictment that Franklin was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

      The question then is – with Dr. Franklin’s fame, would he have spent time in the Tower and/or be hung in London? Its a tantalizing question that luckily history never had to answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *