17 March 2011

Hillsborough, County Down

Benjamin Franklin made his first and only visit to Hillsborough in October 1771 - a trip that perhaps set in motion the American Revolution. No, not OUR Hillsborough. I'm talking about Hillsborough's de facto sister city - Hillsborough, County Down, Northern Ireland - the ancestral home of Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough, British Secretary to the American Colonies in the 1770s.


Benjamin FranklinLord Hillsborough

During Franklin's 1771 diplomatic mission to the British Isles, he made his first visits to Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. It was in Dublin that he surprisingly encountered Lord Hillsborough, noted enemy of American interests, personally responsible for many of the most odious economic policies affecting the Colonies.

Circa 1790 Coat of Arms

What astonished Franklin was Lord Hillsborough's apparent change of demeanor. In London, he was antagonistic and confrontational - in Dublin, he was cordial, amiable even, inviting Franklin and his entourage to stay with him at his estate as they continued on their journey to Belfast.

There was no way Franklin could turn down such a generous offer, particularly because they would have to necessarily pass right by Hillsborough's door.

Hillsborough Castle - the 18th century Georgian manor,
built by Wills Hill in Northern Ireland.
 It was sold to the British government in 1922

Once at the Hillsborough estate, the American Party was treated quite hospitably, with particular attention being paid to Franklin. Remarkable since Lord Hillsborough had treated the American diplomat so contemptuously in London.

During the four-day visit, an extraordinary effort was made by Hillsborough to ingratiate himself with the Americans and to foster a good opinion of himself - including assigning his eldest son to drive Franklin forty miles on a sightseeing tour of the Irish countryside.

All of which made Franklin highly suspicious. He knew that Lord Hillsborough cared not for him, and even less for America. His only conclusion was that, "all the plausible behaviour I have described is meant only, by patting and stroking the horse, to make him more patient, while the reins are drawn tighter, and the spurs set deeper into his sides."

Franklin returned to America with an even deeper distrust of Lord Hillsborough and England's policy makers.

And we know what happened next!

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