“What marks of resentment the parliament will show, whether they
will be upon the province in general or particular persons, is extremely
uncertain, but that they will be placed somewhere is most certain.”
Thomas Hutchinson’s letter of 20 January 1769 to Thomas Whately.59
If the term had existed in 1774, the press would surely have called this a show trial. Like its modern-day counterparts, the outcome could not have been in doubt. The “guilty” would indeed be punished, of course. But more importantly, the majesty and authority of the state would be re-enforced for all to see. And, to ensure greater notoriety, there could be some memorable moments of drama and entertainment, even levity. Declarations about the sanctity of traditional virtues, like loyalty and honesty, would serve to remind all of the wisdom of the collective inheritance and the endurance of institutional custom.
Caricature of Alexander Wedderburn by Robert Dighton.
Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London. ©National Portrait
In all these ways, the proceeding that cool January Saturday in Whitehall, London, was certainly such a trial. Technically it was not a trial at all. It was neither criminal nor civil in legal character. Not one of the royal courts of justice, King’s Bench or Common
59 Papers, vol. 20, pages 549–50.