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Was Hillsborough really birthplace of United States?


Benjamin FranklinHillsborough was again in the news last week with the visit of Prince William and Kate Middleton. For some time it has been promoted as the venue for an unhappy meeting which led to the American War of Independence- But here, well known historian ALISTER McREYNOLDS argues we may have got it wrong.

SOME years ago, prior to the award of City status in 2000, Lisburn Borough Council as it was then known, erected a plaque on its former offices and Mayor's Parlour in Hillsborough. The plaque claimed that the village was really, 'the home of America', in the sense of its being the separate United States of America, as distinct from its former British Colonial status.

The basis for the claim was that Benjamin Franklin, prior to a sojourn in the village, had been an American who was something of an Anglophile and might even have been described as something of a Royalist in his disposition. Purportedly that had all changed as a result of his having spent four very disagreeable days in 1771 in the Co. Down village as a guest in Hillsborough Castle, then the family home of Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough, who was H.M. Secretary for The American Colonies and President of the Board of Trade, and with whom Franklin disagreed so violently during his stay.

So unpleasant had the relationship been that it had constituted the 'tipping point' for Franklin in making him wholeheartedly support the cause of American Independence. At least thus ran the story as summarised on the plaque.

In recent years Benjamin Franklin has become something of a personal hero of mine and so I determined to examine the proposition in more detail, as it had always seemed too simplistic an explanation to say that such ran the turn of events on which was founded the American nation.

The first time Dr Franklin met the Secretary was in 1770 as agent for four of the Colonial States. Hillsborough refused to recognise Franklin's position as agent for Massachusetts and refused to as much as glance at Franklin's reasoned arguments for improved trading arrangements for the Colonies. So initially it looked like Lisburn Council's argument might have had some validity.

However one year later in 1771, Franklin was in Dublin and met Hillsborough at a function organised by The Lord Lieutenant. Hillsborough insisted that Franklin must come and stay with him and so the stage was set for the two to spend time together in Hillsborough Castle. Contrary to the Council story, however, on this occasion the two men got along together well. Franklin's own words tell the story:

'He seemed attentive to everything that might make my stay in his house agreeable to me, and put his eldest son, Lord Kilwarling (sic), 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.'

When they returned to London Franklin tried to call on Hillsborough several times but the latter affected not to be at home even though it was fairly obvious to Franklin that His Lordship was indeed in Residence. The two men had obviously contrived a way of cloaking their enmity when they happened to meet in Oxford in the following summer. Hillsborough made a point of bowing and complimenting Franklin. In return Franklin, 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.'

So whatever were the seismic forces that caused the American colonies' to eventually split away from the mother country it was a rift that did not result from a 'spat' between two men in the village of Hillsborough for no such tiff took place.

If Lisburn City Council would like to erect a plaque in Hillsborough to commemorate the visit by Dr Benjamin Franklin to the village I respectfully suggest that they opt for something along the lines of, 'Benjamin Franklin slept here.

Ulster Star