My name is Chris Kasperski, and I am the Executive Director of the Liberty First PAC. While my family name is Polish, my ancestry reveals that I have a unique connection to one of our most beloved founding fathers. My First Cousin, 11 generations removed, is Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who, in my opinion, was a conservative leader long before anyone else in America. He preached that industry and frugality are the way to wealth and became the first embodiment of the American Dream. His legacy has earned him the nickname “The First American,” and I’m here to share with you my favorite story about him.
Franklin’s Liberty First Moment came on January 29, 1774, when he entered a crowded room in London’s Whitehall infamously known as the “Cockpit.” The room was built by King Henry VIII initially to stage cockfights and was later repurposed for official government business. In this former cockfighting ring, Benjamin Franklin was made to reprise the role of a ritualistic sacrifice at the hands of a government that he once loved. Franklin didn’t dress to impress, wearing a simple old wig and jacket, and found all the seats taken. The 68-year-old man was forced to stand as a man young enough to be his son harangued and berated him for nearly an hour. Everyone who was anyone came out to watch this spectacle, and Franklin knew them all and considered many friends and colleagues. To Franklin, this wasn’t just political; it was personal.
So why was he there?
Franklin was acting as an agent (kind of like a lobbyist) to defend a petition from the Massachusetts legislature asking to remove two men from office: Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver. He knew walking in that the Privy Council was going to reject it, but it was his job to defend it anyway. Two things made what should have been a mere formality into a London spectacle:
- The timing could not have been worse. Franklin asked for a postponement from January 11th to the 29th to seek legal counsel. Those 18 days meant a lot, as London received word of the Boston Tea Party on January 20th. Franklin became a convenient target, even though Franklin disapproved of the event.
- Hutchinson & Oliver Letters leaked by Franklin.
The Hutchinson & Oliver Letters were a series of correspondence from 1768-69 between the Governor and Lt. Governor of Massachusetts and Thomas Waitley. He was a member of Parliament and a supporter of the Stamp Act. Waitley received embellished letters from them in the wake of the Stamp Act riots, claiming the mob burned their houses, possessions were pulverized, and their lives nearly lost. Their writings about mob violence came with pleas for the British Government to do something about it, or Independence would be inevitable. Thomas Waitley died in 1772, but those letters survived. That winter, someone (history doesn’t know who) gave those letters to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin then promptly sent them to his friends and clients in the Massachusetts legislature, saying, “There has lately fallen into my hands part of a correspondence that I have reason to believe laid the foundation of all our present grievances.”
What was he thinking!?
Franklin was convinced that this was proof that Hutchinson and Oliver had intentionally misled London officials to put forth arbitrary measures they otherwise wouldn't have. Franklin, quite wrongly, thought this would calm things down and refocus their ire where it truly belonged and thus bring the Colonies and the UK closer together. Franklin also urged them not to publish the letters, ignoring his advice that three can keep a secret if two of them are dead. News of the letters quickly spread, and the public called for them to be published. When they were, it had the opposite effect than Franklin had intended. Immediately, the Massachusetts legislature petitioned to remove Governor Hutchinson and Lt. Governor Oliver. It was this petition that Frankin was defending that fateful day in the cockpit.
At first, only a handful of people knew that Frankin had sent the letters. Things escalated in December 1773, when the late Thomas Waitley’s brother, William, challenged a man called John Temple to a duel because he thought Temple sent the letters to Franklin. Neither was hurt in the first duel– must have been bad shots– and agreed to another duel in the future.
Christmas Eve, 1773, Benjamin Franklin published an ad in a London newspaper saying, “I hope to prevent further mischief, and therefore, I alone have obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question.” All of London was abuzz, and Franklin’s enemies and newspapers attacked him.
January 1774 comes around, and Franklin gets word that the King’s attorney, Alexander Wedderburn, was appointed to argue against the motion. On this news, Franklin had requested to postpone the January 11th hearing for 18 days to January 29th to seek legal advice. After the word of the Boston Tea Party reached London, Franklin said that Wedderburn's hearing would be “a bull-baiting.”
So what happened?
Wedderburn attacked Franklin instead of defending Hutchinson and Oliver, saying, among other things, that Franklin was the leader of a secret cabal where members were determined to destroy the Empire. Franklin was the first mover and prime conductor, the inventor and first planner, a true incendiary who had intentionally set the province in flame. He had used fraudulent and corrupt means to discredit Thomas Hutchinson and Andrew Oliver before the naive, innocent, and well-meaning farmers of Massachusetts, pulling the wool over the eyes of common ordinary colonists who had no idea they were being used by a man who had forfeited the respect of society and of men….
It went on and on. The audience loved it and hooted and hollered as Wedderburn “poured forth such a torrent of virulent abuse on Dr. Franklin as no man has ever endured before.”
Franklin stood there stoically through it all, saying nothing, nor allowing his facial expression to change. He thought that a common criminal would not have been subject to the same treatment he received at the Cockpit.
Finally, Wedderburn sat down and invited his victim to respond, to which Franklin replied, “I do not choose to be examined,” and walked out of the room. No one in that room understood what they just did– They turned a loyal English subject into a Patriot in less than an hour. The Privy Council promptly rejected the petition, and two days later, Franklin was forced from his position as the King’s Deputy Post Master General of the American Colonies. He then resigned his position as an Agent of Massachusetts, knowing it would be a futile position to hold, and returned the Philadelphia.
A proven and loyal Empire man now became a leading voice for the Patriot cause. It is worth noting that when Franklin signed the Franco-American treaty of Alliance, he wore that same jacket worn in the Cockpit.
Franklin was a reluctant turned eager Patriot, but it was earlier, more dramatic, more sudden, and more thoroughgoing as most, but it was because most didn’t love England as much as he did. He spent many years there and fell in love with London. He had plans to retire there. Franklin helped raise money for the King’s Army during the French and Indian War. The rallying cry, “Join, or Die,” stems from that campaign. He used his influence to secure the Royal Governor of New Jersey for his son, William. He worked long and hard (ultimately fruitlessly) to end the Penn Family’s proprietorship and make Pennsylvania a Royal Colony. He also made excuses repeatedly for the King and Parliament when the government enacted the Stamp Act and later the Townsend Act, earning him his share of enemies in Pennsylvania. He sought to be promoted in the government beyond his post office job and wanted nothing more than to preserve the Anglo-American Union up until the Cockpit. That humiliating experience on behalf of all Americans reluctantly and publicly turned him against the King. He said tersely, “I am at a loss to know how peace and union is to be maintained or restored between the different parties of the Empire… I gave the ministers a chance to change everything on a silver platter. If they had only used the letters to say ‘ah, we didn’t know! We were lied to! Everything could have changed. They might have thanked me! Instead, they chose to abuse me!”
After the Cockpit, Franklin’s views radically changed, saying, “the men who hold the reins of power in England look at Americans with total disdain!” If someone like Wedderburn could sneer at Dr. Franklin, what must he think of ordinary Americans? Franklin began attacking the manners and morals of England, claiming that if we don’t leave the Empire, English habits will inevitably corrupt and poison us. England certainly hadn’t changed its ways, though Franklin had. Franklin’s job was to explain America to England and England to America. He loved that job. His wife, Deborah, was long dead, as were most of his friends. He wouldn’t have left London if not for the Cockpit experience.
Independence was not a foregone conclusion, nor was Franklin’s support for it. Most historians and history buffs scoff at counterfactual history, but consider for a moment, what if? If Benjamin Franklin returned to America as a reluctant Patriot, instead of an eager one, he would have been distrusted. Instead, he returned angry and eager– his influence on the Declaration of Independence is, I’ll say, “self-evident.” His influence in France was second-to-none.
What if the timing was different?
What if he admitted to leaking the letter earlier, as he could, allowing for heads to cool long before the hearing?
What if he admitted to it after the 29th? Wedderburn would have attacked the petition, not Franklin.
What if Franklin hadn’t postponed the date on January 11th, before the Boston Tea Party, for a petition he knew wasn’t going anywhere? The anger in the room wouldn’t have been so great, the petition would get rejected, and Franklin would likely have gone on knowing that you win some and you lose some; that's the end of that.
Franklin had long argued that Independence was avoidable and that Parliament missed golden opportunities. No tea tax; no Boston Tea Party, then no Coercive Acts, no anger from America.
England could have granted token representation in Parliament or even made Hutchinson and Oliver the scapegoats Franklin thought they should be and cooled tensions.
America could have and probably would have won without Franklin as much as he wouldn’t want to hear that. Yet it was his contributions and connections that made such an indelible difference in this cause and left his mark on America and the world forever.
I hope that this story inspires all of us to take our moment in the Cockpit as stoically as Dr. Franklin, and it ignites the fire inside you to defend this Constitutional Republic, “if we can keep it.”
“Join, or Die!”