- The Making of a Patriot: Benjamin Franklin at the Cockpit by Sheila L. Skemp
Historians of America's revolution often stumble when they attempt to connect over-neat narratives of Quaker Pennsylvania with Puritan New England, the Cavalier South, and the reasons why America broke from Britain. Pennsylvanians didn't bristle at new taxes to the level that their neighbors in Boston and its environs did; Philadelphia's grandees didn't fear slave uprisings or writhe at the idea of being buried under debt to the extent that planters in Virginia and the Carolinas did. Why, indeed, should this large, populous colony have entered the rift at all?
Sheila L. Skemp, in a crisply written, well-researched volume finds an answer in a famous man, a forgotten room, bad timing, and worse manners. Her narrative is compelling, a great read for lovers of early American history or those who want to take the story of Pennsylvania's past into a more international direction. This book joins several other notable studies of this Anglo-American story, including Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy's The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire (Yale, 2013) and George Goodwin's Benjamin Franklin in London: [End Page 304] The British Life of America's Founding Father (Yale, 2016), in emphasizing the transatlantic nature of the revolution's beginnings, restoring an international perspective that for many years was lacking in the historiographical quest to comprehend these events.
The foundation of the story is relatively well known. On January 29, 1774, Benjamin Franklin was summoned to the Cockpit in Whitehall Palace in London, probably suspecting that he was to be allowed to present Massachusetts Bay's petition for the removal of its royal governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Because he was the colonial agent for Massachusetts and two other colonies as well as his adopted home of Pennsylvania, Franklin's appearance might have been one more dreary hearing. It turned out to be nothing of the kind. For over an hour, Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn harangued Franklin, attempting to destroy the reputation that the sixty-eight-year-old colonial agent had spent years carefully creating, ostensibly because Franklin had revealed "private" letters (privacy being rare indeed) written by the governor to leaders in London.
As Skemp shows in an impressive display of historical detective work, the whole appearance might have gone very differently. Hutchinson's unpopularity went back decades, and Franklin had become entangled in the fray when his native colony's legislative leaders asked him to take up their cause in London to the outrage of Hutchinson supporters on both sides of the Atlantic. In the middle of all this, Franklin had been given a packet of letters by Hutchinson that seemed show paranoid colonists' worse fears were not so paranoid. Their release fanned the fame on both sides of the Atlantic. Then, bad timing proved to be everything.
The petition to remove the embattled governor might still have gone far more smoothly but for a bureaucratic delay: both sides asked for additional time to prepare attorneys, and in the days in between, news had reached the Mother Country of the Boston Tea Party. The destruction of private property infuriated even moderates, and Franklin became an easy target. Skemp unpacks the events that follow. Wedderburn, himself a provincial and outsider who saw personal benefit in attacking Franklin as the embodiment of the unraveling colonial situation, unleashed his venom on Franklin as much for political theater as for dearly held beliefs. The men who gathered to cheer him on and mock Franklin, frustrated by years of protest and stalemate in reforming and re-forming the Empire, unleashed a series of events that had dire consequences.
Skemp takes her reader around the Cockpit, entering Christian Schussele's famous, oft-reproduced 1856 history painting of the incident, and into the [End Page 305] minds of the political leaders Franklin faced on that January day. These included lords Hillsborough and...