Benjamin Franklin Papers

Franklin’s Public Statement about the Hutchinson Letters, 25 December 1773

Franklin’s Public Statement about the Hutchinson Letters

Printed in The London Chronicle, Dec. 23–25, 17733

By the late summer of 1773 the furor aroused by the Hutchinson letters had spread from Boston to London. Franklin’s role in the affair was still unknown; attention focused on who had obtained the correspondence from Thomas Whately’s papers,4 and a long controversy on this point began in the pages of the Public Advertiser. On September 4 an anonymous correspondent publicized the story that William Whately was said to be circulating among his friends, that John Temple, and no one else, had had access to the papers, and had for a time been left alone with them; in the light of Temple’s character, the writer added, the conclusion was obvious. On November 25 a rebuttal appeared from a correspondent who called himself a member of Parliament: after Thomas Whately’s death the letters in question had never been in William’s possession; the man who had obtained them—here the writer paraphrased Franklin’s argument5—had served the colonies and the mother country well by providing the opportunity for reconciliation. Another correspondent, under the pseudonym “Antenor,” replied in the issue of December 8 by repeating the substance of the September communication and quoting a statement by Whately that Temple alone had handled the letters. The next day Temple himself entered the lists: on seeing “Antenor’s” charge he had called at once upon Whately, who had categorically denied it and insisted that he had merely allowed Temple to remove some of his own letters. Whately took prompt exception. In a letter published on the 11th he vouched for “Antenor’s” story as essentially correct; Temple had assured him three times, he added without comment, that he had taken no letters but his own.

Each man had now publicly given the other the lie, and a duel followed on December 11. It was a seriocomic affair; neither antagonist was a swordsman, or knew the punctilio that the code prescribed. Whately received wounds that were more embarrassing than dangerous, and was temporarily incapacitated. Stories circulated that Temple had played foul on the field of honor, and he tried to exonerate himself by giving an account, which appeared on the 18th, of what had happened; in closing he made clear that the issue behind the duel was still open.6 At that point Franklin, who had good reason to suppose that another meeting would take place as soon as Whately recovered, published the brief statement below.

Why did a fortnight elapse between the duel and the statement? Partly, no doubt, because such a momentous step did not need to be hurried; even when the prospect arose of another duel, Whately was out of harm’s way for a while under the care of his surgeon. Franklin may also have been slow to learn of developments: he is said to have been out of town when Temple and Whately fought, perhaps on the Christmas visit to the Shipleys that he had planned;7 and London gossip would have taken time to reach Hampshire. If he had learned at Twyford what was happening, he might well have cut short his stay and returned to town for the latest news. It persuaded him, whenever and wherever he heard it, to drop the secrecy that had shrouded his role for the past year, and to project himself into a controversy that was the talk of London. His decision touched off a virulent newspaper campaign against him,8 which prepared the way for the scene a month later before the Privy Council.

To the Printer of the London Chronicle.

Craven-street, Dec. 25, 1773.


Finding that two Gentlemen have been unfortunately engaged in a Duel, about a transaction and its circumstances of which both of them are totally ignorant and innocent, I think it incumbent on me to declare (for the prevention of farther mischief, as far as such a declaration may contribute to prevent it) that I alone am the person who obtained and transmitted to Boston the letters in question. Mr. W. could not communicate them, because they were never in his possession; and, for the same reason, they could not be taken from him by Mr. T.9 They were not of the nature of “private letters between friends:” They were written by public officers to persons in public station, on public affairs, and intended to procure public measures;10 they were therefore handed to other public persons who might be influenced by them to produce those measures: Their tendency was to incense the Mother Country against her Colonies, and, by the steps recommended, to widen the breach, which they effected. The chief Caution expressed with regard to Privacy, was, to keep their contents from the Colony Agents, who the writers apprehended might return them, or copies of them, to America. That apprehension was, it seems, well founded; for the first Agent who laid his hands on them, thought it his duty1 to transmit them to his Constituents.

B. Franklin,
Agent for the House of Representatives of the Massachusetts-Bay.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3The letter was also published in the Public Advertiser, Dec. 27, and the London General Evening Post, Dec. 28.

4For the circumstances in which the letters started on their way to BF see above, XIX, 403–4.

5Ibid., pp. 407–8.

6The letters to the Public Advertiser that we have summarized, and later ones that carried the controversy into 1774, are printed in [John Almon,] Biographical, Literary, and Political Anecdotes … (3 vols., London, 1797), III, 236–73. Almon omitted a large section of the Dec. 8 letter, in which “Antenor” clearly implied that the “member of Parliament” whom he was answering was Temple.

7Benjamin Vaughan, years later, remarked that BF was not in London when the duel occurred and did not hear of it for some time: Political, Miscellaneous, and Philosophical Pieces … Written by Benj. Franklin … (London, 1779), p. 339 n. For the intended visit to Twyford see Shipley to BF above, Dec. 9.

8BF’s statement also received wide publicity in America; see Crane, Letters to the Press, p. 239.

9We have pointed out above (XIX, 404 n) that this letter, strictly construed, did not deny Temple a part in the affair. BF merely corroborated the correspondent in the Public Advertiser of Nov. 25: because William Whately had never had these particular letters, neither he nor Temple could have taken them after Thomas Whately’s other papers came into his brother’s hands. About what happened before that BF said nothing.

10The Lieut. Gov. and the Secretary of Mass. were corresponding with an M.P., but of course not in their official capacity. The question of whether their and Whately’s positions robbed the correspondence of its private character was one hotly debated at the time; see Wedderburn’s speech below, Jan. 29, 1774.

1Here BF subsequently added a note: “Governor Hutchinson, as appears by his letters, since found and published in New England, had the same idea of duty, when he procured copies of Dr. Franklin’s letters to the assembly, and sent them to the ministry of England.” WTF, Memoirs, I, app., lxi. For Hutchinson’s action see the headnote on BF to the Mass. House above, July 7. BF’s note must have been written after the spring of 1775, when Hutchinson’s correspondence was “found and published”; see Bernard Bailyn, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson (Cambridge, Mass., 1974), pp. 334–40.

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