BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IN THE COCKPIT
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN IN THE COCKPIT
by William H. Benson
January 31, 2002
On January 29, 1774 an Englishman from the British colony of Pennsylvania stood in the Cockpit in London, England and received a two hour tongue-lashing from the solicitor-general at that time, Alexander Wedderburn. In the audience that day sat members of Parliament, both the Lords and the Commons, as well as the London press anxious for scandalous news.
The reason for the diatribe was that two days before, on the 27th, a packet ship had arrived from Boston with news that men dressed as Indians had dumped hundreds of casks of tea into Boston harbor. And the recipient of this public dressing down was the well-known and highly intelligent Benjamin Franklin who had just celebrated his sixty-eighth birthday on January 17th.
The Cockpit was so named because during the reign of King Henry VIII two centuries before the King had permitted rooster fights on this site where prized birds had torn each other to shreds. The atmosphere remained the same in 1774; only it was human beings that tore at others.
Alexander Wedderburn considered this Boston Tea Party a treasonous act against the British Parliament, and Franklin stood as a symbol and a spokesman in London for colonial resistance to Parliament’s rule. So bitter and malicious was Wedderburn’s denunciation of Franklin that no London newspaper would print his speech.
One biographer wrote this, “For an hour he hurled invective at Franklin, branding him a liar, a thief, the instigator of the insurrection in Massachusetts, an outcast from the company of all honest men, an ingrate whose attack on Hutchinson [the governor of Massachusetts] betrayed nothing less than a desire to seize the governor’s office for himself.” Those in the audience howled and cheered as Wedderburn tore into Franklin.
Throughout the ordeal Franklin stood silent, and when instructed to submit to questions, he silently refused. A lesser man would have been humiliated, but Franklin was only angered.
What does a person do when he or she has been sorely and badly mistreated?
As a teen-ager Franklin had discovered that he could think and write and speak better than almost everyone around him, including his older brother and employer James, who beat relentlessly on Ben for his supercilious attitude and for talking back. Ben did the smart thing; he ran away to Philadelphia.
Then, as a young adult he had learned to disarm those who were prone to envy his success and his genius. He avoided arguments, but if he did argue, he did so anonymously, mixing it up with a measure of self-deprecating humor. Others laughed and were persuaded. Now Dale Carnegie may have written How to Win Friends and Influence People in the twentieth century, but Ben Franklin instinctively knew the message of that book two centuries before Carnegie wrote it.
But what could he do now after his experience in the Cockpit? Run away? He could not, for there was no place to hide. Reconcile? No. His disarming and reconciling nature had only brought him abuse and condemnation. The only course left for him now was revenge.
An enlightened Benjamin Franklin sailed back to America, back to his home, convinced that the British in England were wrong. Once a loyal Briton, from that moment on he was the most radical of Americans who demanded independence from the British. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence, and he guided the rebellion into a genuine and successful revolution. He then helped create the Constitution. Britain did itself more damage in those two hours in the Cockpit by alienating Benjamin Franklin than anyone there could ever have imagined.
The best advice I have ever gleaned from all of the dozens of self-help books on the market is that the best revenge is to not necessarily even the score when mistreated but instead to go on and to live a great life without them–those that wish you poorly. Benjamin Franklin on board a sailing vessel heading west to cross the Atlantic Ocean and still smarting from that slanderous tongue-lashing in the Cockpit perfectly understood that he and his fellow Americans could live a great life without them, and millions of Americans ever since have done xactly that.