J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 28, 2022

Mrs. Macaulay, Dr. Franklin, and Habeas Corpus

In late 1776 the Scottish artisan James Aitken, after receiving some encouragement of American diplomat Silas Deane, left incendiary bombs in the Royal Navy dockyards at Portsmouth and Bristol.

The British authorities tracked down Aitken, who had become known as “John the Painter.” He was tried, convicted, sentenced, and hanged by 10 Mar 1777. (Read the whole story in Jessica Warner’s study The Incendiary.)

Lord George Germain led the national government in another response to Aitken’s attacks: a Treason Act. Like laws that Parliament enacted during previous wars, this allowed the government to hold anyone suspected of treason or piracy without bail or trial—i.e., to suspend the right of habeas corpus—for the rest of the calendar year.

Parliament renewed this law each year until the end of the American war. The Massachusetts General Court passed a similar law to deal with traitors, though it promised more protections for the accused. Eventually the U.S. Constitution would carve out a wartime exception to habeas corpus as well.

Britain’s Treason Act was on Catharine Macaulay’s mind when she visited Paris at the end of 1777. Though her country wasn’t yet at war with France, there were American rebels in the capital—Deane, Arthur Lee, and most famously Benjamin Franklin.

I assume Mrs. Macaulay and Dr. Franklin had met in London during the 1760s when they were both Whig celebrities, but I don’t know if they became more than acquaintances. In late 1777, the two figures were definitely at the same dinner parties. According to Elizabeth Arnold, “Mrs. Macaulay met him several times, among the literati of Paris, at dinners given on her account, but she never received him at her hotel.”

Macaulay made a point of not visiting Franklin or inviting him to visit her. She explained herself to him in a letter dated 8 December:

I have some affaires which demand my immediat return to England. You are very sensible that the suspenssion of the Habeas Corpus Act subjects me to an immediat imprisonment on any suspicion of my having held a correspondence with your Countrymen on this side the Water. This Sir is the only reason why I did not fix a day to have the honor of seeing you at my own Hotel and why I have not been more forward in availing myself of my present situation to hold converse with my American friends who reside in this Capital.

I am sure Sir that you and every generous American would be exceedingly concerned to hear that my feeble constitution was totaly destroyed by a long imprisonment and to see me fall a sacrifice to the resentment of administration unpitied and unlamented as an impertinent individual who would needs make a bustle where she could not be of the smallest service and especially Sir as I hope the whole tenor of my conduct must have convinced you that I would with pleasure sacrifice my life to be of any real use to the public cause of freedom and that I am now nursing my constitution to enable me to treat largely on our fatal civil wars in the History I am now about.

I am Sir with a profound respect for your great Qualities as a Statesman Patriot and Phylosopher Your Very Obedient Humble Servant.
By “our fatal civil wars,” Macaulay meant the war then taking place in America—the very war that made it dangerous for her to be seen as too close to Franklin. And once again, Macaulay made a point of her delicate health.

COMING UP: Back home in Bath.

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