A dramatic, unrecorded broadside relating the burning in effigy of Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson and British Solicitor General Alexander Wedderburn in Philadelphia in 1774. This came in “retaliation” for the humiliation of Benjamin Franklin in London after the revelation of his role in the publication of Hutchinson’s papers.
In 1767-69, against the backdrop of ongoing tensions in Massachusetts, Hutchinson and Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver had corresponded extensively with Thomas Whately, a member of Grenville’s cabinet. Hutchinson’s letters were highly critical of the patriots and recommended harsh countermeasures, including among others that more troops be sent to Boston. After Whately’s death in 1772, the letters appeared in the Boston press, outraging the patriots and rendering Hutchinson’s position all-but untenable. In London, the release of private correspondence between gentlemen was viewed as a major scandal. Benjamin Franklin, then serving in London as colonial agent for Massachusetts, eventually acknowledged that he had obtained the correspondence and forwarded it to Sam Adams in Boston, though with the admonishment that they were not to be copied or published.
On January 29, 1774 Franklin appeared before the Privy Council to present a petition for the removal of Governor Hutchinson, his position made yet more difficult as news of the Boston Tea Party had arrived days earlier. In this most public of settings he found himself ambushed, excoriated and humiliated by Solicitor General Alexander Weddeburn. Franklin described the attack as follows:
“But the favorite part of his [i.e., Wedderburn’s] discourse was leveled at your agent [i.e., Franklin himself], who stood there the butt of his invective ribaldry for near an hour, not a single Lord adverting to the impropriety and indecency of treating a public messenger in so ignominious a manner, who was present only as the person delivering your petition, with the consideration of which no part of his conduct had any concern. If he had done a wrong, in obtaining and transmitting the letters, that was not the tribunal where he was to be accused and tried. The cause was already before the Chancellor. Not one of their Lordships checked and recalled the orator to the business before them, but, on the contrary, a very few excepted, they seemed to enjoy highly the entertainment, and frequently burst out in loud applauses. This part of his speech was thought so good, that they have since printed it, in order to defame me everywhere, and particularly to destroy my reputation on your side of the water…” (John Bigelow, ed., The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself… Fifth Edition. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott, 1905, pp. 196-7.)
Two days Franklin lost his position as Deputy Postmaster General for America. It is said that the experience convinced him that reconciliation between Great Britain and her American colonies was impossible and transformed him into a revolutionary.
When news of Franklin’s humiliation reached Philadelphia in April, patriots there paraded effigies of Hutchinson and Wedderburn in a cart through the city, exactly as convicts to an execution. The effigies were then set afire, reportedly by means of an electrical spark! Accounts of the ceremonies appeared in the city’s papers, including the Pennsylvania Journal of May 4, whose version is reprinted on the extraordinary broadside offered here.
The considerable size and unusual oblong layout of the broadside give it a most impressive appearance. The left side features a dramatic headline—“Upon the Execution of Alexander Wedderburne, Esq. and Thomas Hutchinson, Esq.”—surmounting two columns of letterpress, illustrated by two funereal cuts and a mourning border. The text, identical to that in the Pennsylvania Journal, describes the procession and “execution” and praises Franklin, “entitled… to the esteem of the Learned of every Nation, the love of all good Men, and the Sincere affection of every Honest Briton and American.” At right are two more columns of letterpress reprinting “Epitaphs” of Wedderburne and Hutchinson. The former “was led on from one Degree of Venality to another until he was at last prevailed upon to commit MURDER upon the Character of an illustrious AMERICAN PATRIOT & PHILOSOPHER, and HIGH TREASON against BRITAIN AND HER COLONIES.” The latter was an “Enemy to Virtue, Liberty and his Country,” “detected in an attempt to “abridge the English Liberties” and to destroy the Charter of his Native Province.”
Though only the right half of the broadside bears an imprint, each stands on its own. Indeed it is possible that the composer intended that they be issued either as is or separately.
The broadside is unrecorded, though two others commemorating the event are known. One, known only from an impression at the Massachusetts Historical Society, is attributed to a Philadelphia printer and reprints only the epitaphs (ESTC W39361). The other, a unique example of which is at the New York Historical Society, bears a New York imprint and duplicates both narrative and epitaphs (Bristol B3807, ESTC W2817). Neither has the decorative elements and visual impact of our broadside. The epitaphs alone also appeared in a 4-page pamphlet (Evans 13268), held at the Boston Public and the Library Company of Philadelphia and thought to have been printed in Philadelphia.
In all, an engaging, impressive and unrecorded contemporary broadside commemorating an important event in the run-up to the American Revolution and the career of Benjamin Franklin.
Not in Evans, Bristol or OCLC. The attribution to the Pennsylvania Journal as the source for the broadside text is based on Albert Matthews, “Satirical Epitaph on Wedderburn,” Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vol. XII, pp. 83-87.
Old fold lines, with minor foxing and staining, small loss in right margin, and minor reinforcements on verso. Housed in a blue cloth portfolio.