When Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the USA, came to Hillsborough Castle

Historian GORDON LUCY on his visit five years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence

Monday, 4th October 2021, 8:00 am
By Benjamin Franklin’s own account he had an ‘agreeable’ five-day stay at Hillsborough Castle in 1771 as guest of the Earl of Hillsborough

At 70, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest signatory of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Five years earlier Franklin had visited Ireland in September and October 1771 and had allegedly spent five disagreeable days at Hillsborough Castle as the guest of Wills Hill, then the Earl of Hillsborough (subsequently the 1st Marquess of Downshire) and the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Locally, many people suppose that a straight line connects these two events and that Royal Hillsborough ought to be viewed as ‘the birthplace of the United States’.

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As a man of many parts, Franklin may be regarded as a polymath, inventor, scientist, printer, politician, freemason and diplomat.

The ‘Pennsylvania Gazette’ (which he acquired in 1729) and ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack’ (which he launched in 1732) were part of a printing business that made Franklin one of the wealthiest men in the American colonies, enabling him to retire in 1749 at the age of 43.

Between 1726 and 1748 he was the most public-spirited citizen of Philadelphia. In 1727 he founded a self-improvement society and joined the Masons. Culturally, he established America’s first subscription library (1731) and drafted the foundation document of America’s first learned society. More practically, he founded Philadelphia’s first fire brigade and America’s first mutual insurance company. Two other ventures merit mention: he helped establish an academy which evolved into the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Hospital, the first permanent hospital in America.

As a scientist, he was a major figure in the history of natural philosophy (or physics) for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. As an inventor, he is remembered for the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, among other inventions.

Between 1757 and 1762 and again between 1764 and 1775 Franklin undertook two extended political missions to England primarily to represent the interests of Pennsylvania in its struggles with the Penn family, the proprietors of the colony.

During his second mission he visited and stayed with some of the pre-eminent scientists of the era: Joseph Priestly, the chemist, Thomas Percival, the physician, and Erasmus Darwin, the physician. Darwin was the grandfather of both Charles Darwin and Francis Galton.

It was also at this time that Franklin met the Earl of Hillsborough at an event in Dublin. The Earl invited him to stay at Hillsborough Castle.

There is no justification for supposing that Franklin’s stay at Hillsborough was unpleasant if we accept Franklin’s own account.

‘He [the Earl of Hillsborough] seemed attentive to everything that might make my stay in his house agreeable to me, and put his eldest son, Lord Kilwarling [Kilwarlin], into the phaeton with me, to drive me a round of forty miles, that I might see the country, the seats, and manufactures, covering me with his own greatcoat, lest I should take cold. In short, he seemed extremely solicitous to impress me, and the colonies through me, with a good opinion of him.’

Admittedly, when they returned to London Franklin tried to call on the earl but the latter affected not to be at home even though Franklin was convinced that the earl was in residence.

In the summer of 1772, they renewed their acquaintance in a polite encounter at Oxford. Hillsborough made a point of bowing and complimenting Franklin. Franklin reciprocated, as he later confided to his son William, ‘I complimented him on his son’s performance in the theatre, though indeed it was but indifferent; so that account was settled’.

Although he opposed the introduction of George Grenville’s Stamp Act in 1764, he urged its acceptance when it became law in 1765, thereby seriously underestimating American resentment. He may have redeemed his reputation somewhat by securing its repeal in 1766.

Franklin was an extremely reluctant advocate of total separation from Britain (and in this he was not alone). He favoured peaceful compromise and the preservation of the empire, once observing that, ‘every encroachment on rights is not worth a rebellion’.

Indeed, he was genuinely shocked by ‘the Boston Tea Party’ of 1773 which he described as an ‘act of violent injustice on our part’, not least because the East India Company was not an enemy of the colonists and because it was wrong ‘to destroy private property’. These views were shared by George Washington.

Remarkably, as late as November 1775 even Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, claimed that ‘there was not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do’.

However, by May 1775, when he had returned to America, Franklin had virtually given up all hope of reconciliation and was becoming emotionally prepared for independence.

In June 1776 Franklin was one of the ‘committee of five’ appointed to draw up a declaration of independence. When John Hancock, as President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence he said: ‘There must be no pulling in different ways. We must all hang together.’

Since they were all engaged in treason, Franklin replied: ‘Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.’

Later in the year Franklin was despatched to Paris to secure French assistance in the war. His personal charm and formidable negotiating skills, combined with French antipathy to the British, secured an alliance with France, military material and financial support which made an American victory possible.

In 1783 Franklin helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris which brought the war to a formal conclusion.

He only returned to America in 1785.

In 1787 it was an elderly and very frail Franklin who was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention which framed the US Constitution. The following year he withdrew from public life.

Franklin richly deserves having his portrait on the $100 bill because he is the only ‘Founding Father’ who put his signature to all four key documents which collectively made the independence of the United States a reality: the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Alliance with France, the Treaty of Paris and the US Constitution.