CHAPTER VIII. Index to the Biography CHAPTER X.
Electric ...
Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin


Chosen a Member of Congress. — Proceedings of Congress. — Preparations for Military Defence. — Petition to the King. — Franklin assists in preparing for the Defence of Pennsylvania, as a Member of the Committee of Safety. — Drafts a Plan of Confederation. — His Services in Congress. — Goes to the Camp at Cambridge on a Committee from Congress. — Chosen a Member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. — Writes Letters to Europe for the Committee of Secret Correspondence. — His Journey to Canada as a Commissioner from Congress. — Declaration of Independence. — Anecdotes. — President of the Convention of Pennsylvania for forming a Constitution. — His Opinion of a Single Legislative Assembly. — Opposes the Practice of voting by States in Congress. — His Correspondence with Lord Howe, and Interview with him on Staten Island. — Appointed a Commissioner to the Court of Versailles. — Lends Money to Congress.

THE next day after his arrival, Dr. Franklin was unanimously chosen by the Assembly of Pennsylvania a delegate to the second Continental Congress, which was to meet at Philadelphia on the 10th of May. At this time the whole country was thrown into a state of extreme agitation by the news of the conflict at Lexington and Concord, in which the British troops were the aggressors. The yeomanry of New England, as if moved by a simultaneous impulse, seized their arms, and hastened to the scene of action. The indignation of the people was everywhere roused to the highest pitch, and the cry of war resounded from one end of the continent to the other. A few days after he landed, Dr. Franklin wrote as follows to Dr. Priestley.

"You will have heard, before this reaches you, of a march stolen by the regulars into the country by night, and of their expedition back again. They retreated twenty miles in six hours. The governor had called the Assembly to propose Lord North's pacific plan, but, before the time of their meeting, began cutting of throats. You know it was said he carried the sword in one hand, and the olive branch in the other; and it seems he chose to give them a taste of the, sword first. He is doubling his fortifications at Boston, and hopes to secure his troops till succour arrives. The place indeed is naturally so defensible, that I think them in no danger. All America is exasperated by his conduct, and more firmly united than ever. The breach between the two countries is grown wider, and in danger of becoming irreparable."

When the second Congress assembled, the relations between the colonies and Great Britain had assumed a new character. The blood of American freemen had been shed on their own soil by a wanton exercise of military, power, and they were regarded as having fallen martyrs in the cause of liberty. This rash act dissolved the charm, which bad hitherto bound the affections of in any a conscientious American to the British crown, under the long, revered name of loyalty. It was evident to every reflecting man, that the hour of trial had come, that a degrading submission, or a triumph of strength, in a hard and unequal struggle, was the only alternative. A large majority of the nation and of Congress were ready to meet the contest by prompt and decided measures of resistance, convinced that any further attempts for a reconciliation would be utterly unavailing. Among the foremost of this number was Franklin. Yet there were some, whose fears ran before their hopes; and others, whose interests outweighed their patriotism. Many of the timid were good patriots, but they dreaded the gigantic power of England, which they believed to be irresistible.

After an animated debate, which continued several days, it was declared that hostilities had commenced, on the part of Great Britain, with the design of enforcing "the unconstitutional and oppressive acts of Parliament and it was then resolved with great unanimity, that the colonies should be immediately put in a state of defence. This was all, that the most ardent friends of liberty desired, since it enabled them to organize an army and make preparations for war. Having gained this point, they were the more ready to yield another, for the sake of harmony, to the moderate party, at the head of which was John Dickinson. It was urged by this party, that they never had anticipated resistance by force, but had always confided so much in the justice of the British government, as to believe, that, when they fairly understood the temper and equitable claims of the colonists, they would come to a reasonable compromise. All other opportunity, it was said, ought to be offered, and to this end they were strenuous for sending a petition to the King.

The party in favor of energetic action represented the inconsistency and futility of this step. To take up arms and then petition was an absurdity. It could do little harm, however, since it would not retard the military operations; and, as to the petition itself, there was not the least likelihood that his Majesty would pay any more attention to it, than he bad paid to the one sent to him the year before, which he treated with contempt. The dignity of Congress would suffer a little, to be sure, by again resorting to a petition, after being thus slighted ; yet, this was a small sacrifice to make, if it would produce union and concert in affairs of greater moment. Besides, it was supposed that there were tender consciences in the country, which would be better reconciled to the strong measures of Congress, if accompanied by this appeal, as from loyal subjects.

Franklin was on the committee for reporting a draft which would seem to imply that he did not resist the proposal; but how far he actually, approved it, is uncertain. In writing to a friend he said ; "It has been with difficulty, that we have carried another humble petition to the crown, to give Great Britain one more chance, one opportunity more, of recovering the friendship of the colonies ; which, however, I think she has not sense enough to embrace, and so I conclude she has lost them for ever." Mr. Jay was likewise a member of the committee, and was in favor of the petition. . But its most zealous advocate was John Dickinson, by whom it was drafted. It has been said, indeed, that this token of humility was yielded mainly to gratify his wishes. The uprightness of his character, his singleness of heart, and the great services he bad rendered to his country by his talents and his pen, claimed for him especial consideration. The tone and language of the petition were sufficiently submissive, and it stands in remarkable contrast, in the Journals, with other papers, and the resolves for warlike preparations. Mr. Jefferson tells us, that Mr. Dickinson was so much pleased when it was adopted by a vote of the House, that he, could not forbear to express his satisfaction by saying ; "There is but one word, Mr. President, in the paper, which I disapprove, and that word is Congress." Whereupon Mr. Harrison of Virginia rose and said ; "There is but one word in the paper, Mr. President, which I approve, and that word is Congress."

In addition to his duties in Congress, Dr. Franklin had a very laborious service to perform as chairman of the Committee of Safety, appointed by the Assembly of Pennsylvania. This committee consisted of twenty-five members. They were authorized to call the militia into actual service, whenever they should judge it necessary, to pay and furnish them with supplies, and to provide for the defence of the province. Bills of credit, to the amount of thirty-five thousand pounds, were issued and put into their hands, to pay the expenses incurred for these objects. This was a highly responsible and important trust. Franklin labored in it incessantly during eight months, till he was called away upon another service. "My time," says he, "was never more fully employed; in the morning at six, I am at the Committee of Safety, which committee holds till near nine, when I am at Congress and that sits till after four in the afternoon. Both these bodies proceed with the greatest unanimity." The attention of the committee was especially directed to the protection of the city, by sinking chevauxde-frise in the Delaware, constructing and manning armed boats, erecting fortifications. These works were executed with surprising despatch, and so effectually, that, when the enemy's fleet entered the river, after the battle of the Brandywine, it was retarded by them nearly two months.

While thus actively engaged, Dr. Franklin drew up and presented to Congress, on the 21st of July, a plan of confederation. It was not acted upon at that time, but it served as a basis for a more extended plan, when Congress were better prepared to consider the subject. In some of its articles it differed essentially from the one that was finally adopted, and approached more nearly to the present constitution. Taxes for national purposes were to be levied, and members of Congress were to be chosen, in proportion to the number of male inhabitants between the ages of sixteen and sixty; and each member was to have one vote in Congress. Taken in all its parts, this plan was little else than a virtual declaration of independence. It was to be perpetual, unless the British government should agree to such terms of reconciliation, as had been claimed by the colonies.×

The post-office establishment, which had existed under the British government, was broken up by the disorders of the times. Congress made provision for a new one, and appointed Dr. Franklin postmaster-general, with a salary of one thousand dollars a year. The entire management of the business was put under his control, with power to establish such post routes, and appoint as many deputies, as be should think proper.

For several months the proceedings of Congress turned mostly on military affairs. An army was to be raised, organized, and provided for. The wisdom, experience, and mental resources of every member were in as much demand, as diligence, resolution, zeal, and public spirit. We find Franklin, notwithstanding his advanced age, taking a part in almost every important measure with all the ardor and activity of youth. He was placed at the head of the Commissioners for Indian affairs in than middle department; and few of the younger members served on so many committees requiring energy, industry, and close application. Among these were the committees for devising ways and means to protect the commerce of the colonies, for reporting on the state of trade in America and on Lord North's motion in Parliament, for employing packet ships and disposing of captured vessels, for establishing a war-office, for drawing up a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers, for preparing the device of a national seal, and many others.

A Secret Committee was appointed, of which he was a member. At first, it was the province of this committee to import ammunition, cannon, and muskets; but its powers and duties were enlarged, so as to include the procuring of all kinds of military supplies, and the distributing of them to the troops, the Continental armed vessels, and privateers, and also the manufacturing of saltpetre and gunpowder. The country was alarmingly deficient in all these articles; and it was necessary to procure them from abroad by contracts with foreign merchants, and to have them shipped as secretly as possible, that they might not be intercepted and captured by the enemy. Remittances were made in tobacco and other produce, either directly or through such channels as would render them available for the payments.

As soon as Congress had determined to raise an army, and had appointed a commander-in-chief and the other principal officers, they applied themselves to the business of finance, and emitted two millions of dollars in bills of credit. This was the beginning of the Continental paper-money system. Dr. Franklin entered deeply into the subject, but he did not altogether approve the principle upon which the basis were emitted. He proposed that they should bear interest, but this was rejected. After the first emission, be recommended that the bills already in circulation should be borrowed on interest, instead of issuing a larger quantity. This plan was not followed at the time, but, when the bills began to sink in value, it was resorted to, and he then proposed to pay the interest in hard dollars, which would be likely to fix the value of the principal. This was deemed impracticable, although Congress came into the proposal afterwards; but not till it was too late to check the rapid progress of depreciation.

The army at Cambridge, employed in besieging the British forces in Boston, was adopted by Congress as a Continental army before General Washington took the command. This army would cease to exist at the end of the year, by the expiration of the periods for which the soldiers were enlisted. Thus the arduous task of organizing and recruiting a new army devolved on the Commander-in-chief To assist him in this work, Congress deputed three of their body, Dr. Franklin, Thomas Lynch, and Benjamin Harrison, to proceed to the camp, and confer with him on the most efficient mode of continuing and supporting a Continental army. They met at headquarters, on the 18th of October, where they were joined by delegates from each of the New England governments. The conference lasted several days, and such a system was matured, as was satisfactory to General Washington, and as proved effectual in attaining the object.×

Some time before, Dr. Franklin had received the sum of one hundred pounds sterling, sent to him by benevolent persons in England, as a donation for the relief of those, who had been wounded in the encounters with the British troops on the day of their march to Lexington and Concord, and of the widows and children of such as had been slain. While he was in the camp at Cambridge, he paid this money over to a committee of the Massachusetts Assembly.

During his absence, the Assembly of Pennsylvania met, and by the returns of the election it appeared that he had been chosen a representative for the city of Philadelphia. He was now a member of three public bodies, which convened daily for business, that is, Congress, the Assembly, and the Committee of Safety; but be usually attended in Congress when ever the times of meeting interfered with each other.

As soon as Congress had put their military affairs in train, they began to think of foreign alliances. On the 29th of November, they appointed a Committee Of Secret Correspondence, for the purpose of establishing and keeping up an intercourse with the friends of the American cause in England, Ireland, and other parts of Europe. Dr. Franklin's long residence abroad, his extensive acquaintance with men of character there, and his knowledge of their political sentiments, naturally qualified him for acting a principal part in this committee. He wrote letters to some of his friends in Europe, on whose discretion and fidelity he could rely, requesting them to watch the current of events, and the tendency of public opinion, in regard to the American controversy; to ascertain, as far as it could be done, the designs of men in power, and to communicate intelligence on these points for the use of Congress. To Mr. Dumas, at the Hague, whom he bad known in Holland, he sent particular instructions, investing him, in the name of the committee, with certain powers as a political agent, by which he was authorized and desired to seek opportunities for discovering, through the ambassadors at that place, the disposition of the European courts and the probability of their rendering assistance to the Americans. Mr. Dumas accepted this commission and executed it faithfully. He continued in the service of the United States throughout the Revolution, and for some years afterwards.

From the beginning of the contest, many efforts had been made to induce the Canadians to join the other colonies; and it was proposed to them, that they should send delegates to Congress. A hope of this union was entertained for a time, but it was finally disappointed. The hostile attitude, in which the Canadians and English colonists had been placed towards each other on various occasions, in addition to the inherited national antipathy on both sides, had produced an alienation, which could not easily be softened into a fraternal fellowship; and the obstacles were multiplied by religious animosities. In the first year of the war, while the Americans had an army in Canada, there was some show of a party in their favor; but I this party was by no means an index of the popular will or feeling, and it soon dwindled away and disappeared.

The military successes, which had put nearly the whole of Canada into the possession of the Americans, terminated with the fall of Montgomery under the walls of Quebec. More troops were sent forward in the heart of winter; but, when the spring opened, reinforcements arrived from England, threatening disaster and defeat to the American army. At this juncture Congress appointed commissioners to go to Canada, with full powers to regulate the operations of the army, and especially to assist the Canadians in forming a civil government, and to pledge all the support and protection that could be rendered by the united colonies. Dr. Franklin, Samuel Chase, and Charles Carroll, were selected for this mission. Mr. John Carroll, a Catholic clergyman, afterwards Archbishop of Baltimore, was invited to accompany them. He had been educated in France, and it was supposed that this circumstance, added to his religious profession and character, would enable him to exercise a salutary influence with the priests in Canada, why were known to control the people. Among other things a printing-press was to be established, and Mesplet, a French printer, was engaged to undertake this business, with a promise that his expenses should be paid.

The commissioners left Philadelphia about the 20th of March, 1776, but they did not reach Montreal till near the end of April. The badness of the roads at that season of the year, and the obstruction to navigation in Lake Champlain, occasioned by the broken ice, retarded their progress, and made their journey tedious and toilsome. And, after all, the commission produced very little effect. The American army had already begun its retreat from Quebec, pursued by on enemy superior in numbers, well disciplined, and amply supplied. In this state of affairs it was not to be, expected, that the Canadians would venture upon the hazardous experiment of setting up a new government, and joining the colonies, even if they bad been previously inclined to take such a step. But, in reality, a few individuals excepted, they never had been thus inclined. Intelligence, a knowledge of their rights, love of freedom, liberal sentiments, and a spirit of enterprise, were elements requisite for a political change, which they did not possess.

Dr. Franklin's health was much impaired by the hardships of the journey. He had been exposed to the inclemency of the weather, and in some parts of the route he was obliged to lodge in the woods. He stayed a fortnight at Montreal, and then, in company with Mr. John Carroll, he set out on his way homeward, leaving the other commissioners behind, who remained in Canada till near the time it was evacuated by the American troops. With some difficulty be proceeded to Albany. From that place to New York he was conveyed, in a private carriage, with which be had been accommodated by the kindness of General Schuyler. He arrived at Philadelphia early in June. The most agreeable incident during this tour was a visit to his old friend, Dr. John Bard, with whom he had been long and intimately acquainted in Philadelphia, but who had removed some years before to New York, and had lately given up his business, and sought retirement at his beautiful seat on the banks of the Hudson at Hyde Park; a man distinguished for skill in his profession, his respectable character, and all the estimable qualities, which adorn private life.

Before he left home, Dr. Franklin bad withdrawn from the Assembly and Committee of Safety, not knowing how long he should be absent, and deeming it improper to hold public stations the duties of' which he could not discharge. In his letter of resignation he said; "I am extremely sensible of the honor done me by my fellow citizens, in choosing me their representative in Assembly, and of that lately conferred on me by the House, in appointing me one of the Committee of Safety for this province, and a delegate in Congress.× It would be a happiness to me, if I could serve the public duly in all those stations ; but, aged, as I now am, I feel myself unequal to so much business, and on that account think it my duty to decline a part of it. I hope, therefore, that the House will be so good as to accept my excuse for not attending as a member of the present Assembly, and, if they think fit, give orders for the election of another in my place, that the city may be more completely represented. I request, also, that the House would be pleased to dispense with my further attendance as one of the Committee of Safety." On his return, therefore, he was at liberty to give his undivided attention to the national counsels in Congress. He was chosen a member of one of the committees, which assembled in June from the several counties of Pennsylvania, for the purpose of deliberating, on the mode of summoning a convention to form a new constitution; but the conference was short, and, if be attended at all, he took little part in the proceedings.

A subject of the greatest importance was now brought before Congress. For some months past, there had been much discussion in the newspapers, in pamphlets, and at public meetings, as well as in private circles, about independence. It was evident, that a large majority of the nation was prepared for that measure. At length the legislature of Virginia instructed their delegates to propose it in Congress. This was done by Richard Henry Lee; and a debate ensued, which elicited the opinions of the prominent members. All agreed, that, sooner or later, this ground must be taken; but a few believed that the time had not yet come. Among the doubters was the virtuous, the patriotic, the able, but irresolute John Dickinson. His objections, and those of his party, were met by the fervid zeal and powerful arguments of John Adams, the persuasive eloquence of Lee, and the concurring voice of many others. On this side was Franklin, whose sentiments have been sufficiently indicated in the preceding pages. A committee of five was chosen to prepare a Declaration, consisting of Jefferson, John Adams, Franklin, Sherman, and Livingston. The history of this transaction is too well known to need a repetition of it in this place. The Declaration, drafted by Jefferson, was reported as it came from his pen, except a few verbal alterations suggested by Adams and Franklin. It was debated three days, and passed on the 4th of July, when the United States were declared to be, and became in fact, an independent nation.

Mr. Jefferson relates a characteristic anecdote of Franklin, connected with this subject. Being annoyed at the alterations made in his draft, while it was under discussion, and at the censures freely bestowed upon parts of it, he began to fear it would be dissected and mangled till a skeleton only would remain. "I was sitting," he observes, "by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations. 'I have made it a rule,' said he, 'whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident, watch I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome sign-board, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells Hats for ready Money, with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to, thought the word hatter tautologous, because followed by the words makes hats, which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed, that the word makes might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats; if good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words for ready money were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one, who purchased, expected to pay. They were parted with; and the inscription now stood, "John Thompson sells hats" "Sells hats?" says his next friend; "why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?" It was stricken out, and hats followed, the rather, as there was one painted on the board. So his inscription was reduced ultimately to John Thompson, with the figure of a hat subjoined."×

There is also another anecdote related of Franklin, respecting an incident which took place when the members were about to sign the Declaration. "We must be unanimous," said Hancock; "there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together." "Yes," replied Franklin, "we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Nearly two months before the declaration of independence, Congress had recommended that new systems of government should be framed and adopted by the. representatives of the people, in the colonies where a change was required by the exigencies of their affairs. In conformity with this recommendation, delegates from the counties of Pennsylvania met in convention at Philadelphia, about the middle of July, to form a constitution. Dr. Franklin was chosen president. The convention sat more than two months, but the President was occasionally absent in Congress. The part he actually took in framing the constitution is not known, but it has generally been supposed, that its principles were approved by him. This opinion is in some degree confirmed by his having defended it late in life, when a change was contemplated. Rotation of office was one of its provisions; and the right of suffrage, the freedom of the press, and religious toleration were secured on the most liberal scale.

He is reported to have been the author of the most remarkable feature in this constitution, that is, a single legislative Assembly, instead of two branches, which other statesmen have considered preferable, and which have since been adopted in all the States of the Union, as, well as in other countries where the experiment of popular forms has been tried. There is no doubt that this was a favorite theory with him, because he explained and gave his reasons for it on another occasion. The perpetual conflict between the two branches under the proprietary government of Pennsylvania, in which the best laws, after having been passed by the Representatives of the people, were constantly, defeated by the veto of the Governor and Council, seems to have produced a strong impression on his mind. He also referred to the British Parliament as a proof, that the voice of the people, expressed by their representatives, is often silenced by an order of men in the legislature, who have interests to serve distinct from those of the body of the nation. In his opinion, the collected wisdom of the law-makers could be turned to a better account by their meeting in, one assembly, where they could profit by each others intelligence and counsels. He disapproved, also of the distinctions of rank incident to two assemblies, one being called the Upper and the other the Lower House, as having an aristocratical tendency, unfavorable to the liberty and equality, which are the essence; of republican institutions.

The point is said to have been carried in the convention by a brief speech from the President, who compared a legislature with two branches to a loaded wagon with a team at each end, pulling in opposite directions. At another time, in referring to the same subject, he illustrated it by what he called the fable of the snake with two heads and one body. "She was going to a brook to drink, and in her way was to pass through a hedge, a twig of which opposed her direct course; one head chose to go on the right side of the twig, the other on the left; so that time was spent in the contest, and, before the decision was completed, the poor snake died with thirst."

This theory of a single assembly has been combated by able writers. Mr. Adams has encountered it with great force in his "Defence of the American Constitutions," and appears to have exhausted the subject, as far as it could be done by argument and historical proofs. It found advocates in France, and was extolled by such men as Turgot, Condorcet, and La Rochefoucauld. These philosophers saw in it the perfection of simplicity, by which the machine of government was divested of the numerous clogs and counterpoises, which had hitherto obstructed its free and natural movements. "Franklin," says La Rochefoucauld, "was the first who dared to put this idea in practice. The respect, which the Pennsylvanians entertained for him, induced them to adopt it; but the other States were terrified at it, and even the constitution of Pennsylvania has since been altered. In Europe this opinion has been more successful." This was said, after the National Assembly of France had adopted the constitution, in which the idea was again put in practice, as much by his influence as by that of any other individual. It speedily crumbled and fell, involving in its ruins; among others, the amiable La Rochefoucauld himself, the friend of liberty and the friend of man. The experiment of a single assembly in France was not such as to encourage imitation, and in America even the theory has been exploded.

By a rule of the first Congress, which was continued afterwards till the constitution of the United States went into operation, each Colony or State had a single vote. When the delegates assembled for the first time, it was found that the colonies were very unequally represented, and, if a vote had been allowed to each member, an undue preponderance would have been given to the colonies which sent the largest numbers; for it had not been attempted at the elections to regulate the number of delegates by the relative importance of a colony, either in regard to the amount of its population, its extent, or wealth. Nor was it possible at that time for Congress to fix any such proportion. From the necessity of the case, therefore, it was agreed, that each colony should have one vote. When the delegates from any colony were not unanimous, the vote. was decided by a majority of those delegates; if they were equally divided, the vote was lost.

A few days after the declaration of independence, a plan of confederation was reported to Congress, and this, provision of a single vote for each State constituted one of its articles. Franklin opposed it strenuously in the debates, as unjust and preposterous, since it gave to the smallest State the same power as to the largest. He said, that, if the, practice had heretofore been necessary, it was no longer so, because it was easy to ascertain the comparative importance of the States, and to adjust the representation according to the number of inhabitants, and the degree of strength afforded by them respectively to the united body; and that each delegate ought to have a vote in Congress. Moreover, this method of voting by States had a mischievous effect in another point of view. The delegates acted as representatives of States, and not of the people, and were naturally biased by local partialities and a tenacious adherence to State rights, which it was extremely desirable to keep out of sight at this time of common peril and calamity, and even for ever, if it was intended to strengthen and perpetuate the union.

So lively an interest did he take in this subject, and so strongly was be convinced that the system of representation must be equitably balanced, before any hope of a lasting union could be entertained, that, while the convention of Pennsylvania was sitting, he drew up a Protest, containing the principal arguments against the plan of voting by States, which was designed to be presented by the convention to Congress, as affording the reasons why Pennsylvania could not enter into the confederation, if this article were retained. He was dissuaded from endeavouring to carry it through, however, on account of the critical situation of the country, at a time when harmony between the parts was essential to the safety of the whole. The evil was left to encumber and obstruct the operations of government, and impede the prosperity of the nation, till it was remedied by the Federal Constitution.

From the King's speech at the opening of Parliament it appeared, that he contemplated sending out commissioners to America, with power to grant pardon to such persons as they should think fit, and to receive the: submission of such as should be disposed to return to their allegiance. In the early part of the session, Lord North brought forward his Prohibitory Bill, interdicting all trade and intercourse with the colonies. By an awkward association, be incorporated into this bill a provision for appointing commissioners to effect, the object mentioned in the King's speech.

In the spring of 1776, the main body of the American army under General Washington was stationed at New York. General Howe arrived there with his army from Halifax in June, and he was soon after joined by his brother, Lord Howe, at the head of a fleet with troops from Europe. The two brothers had, been appointed commissioners. Lord Howe immediately sent on shore a despatch, containing a circular letter to the colonial governors, and a "Declaration," stating the nature of his mission and his powers, and requesting that the declaration should be published. The commissioners were not instructed to negotiate with any particular public body. Pardon was offered to all, who should be penitent and submissive; to provinces, towns, assemblies, and individuals. This despatch was conveyed to General Washington, by whom it was forwarded to Congress. It occasioned but little debate. The letter and declaration were directed to be published, "that the few," as expressed in the resolve, "who still remain suspended by a hope, founded either in the justice or moderation of their late King, may now at length be convinced, that the valor alone of their country is to save its liberties."

Lord Howe likewise wrote a private and friendly letter to Dr. Franklin, evincing respect for his character, and an earnest desire that all the differences between the two countries might be accommodated in the way now proposed. It was answered by Dr. Franklin in a spirit not less friendly and respectful; but, in regard to the public communications, he said, he was sorry to find them of such a nature, since "it must give his Lordship pain to be sent so far on so hopeless a business." After some other remarks, touching the conduct and designs of the ministry, he added;

"Long did I endeavour, with unfeigned and unwearied zeal, to preserve from breaking that fine and noble China vase, the British empire; for I knew, that, being once broken, the separate parts could not retain even their share of the strength or value that existed in the whole, and that a perfect reunion of those parts could scarce ever be hoped for. Your Lordship may possibly remember the tears of joy that wet my cheek, when, at your good sister's in London, you once gave me expectations that a reconciliation might soon take place. I had the misfortune to find those expectations disappointed, and to be treated as the cause of the mischief I was laboring to prevent. My consolation under that groundless and malevolent treatment was, that I retained the friendship of many wise and good men in that country, and, among the rest, some share in the regard of Lord Howe."

The door to a negotiation being closed, the battle of Long Island was fought, in which General Sullivan was taken prisoner. He was conveyed on board Lord Howe's ship, and discharged on parole. Lord Howe intrusted to him a verbal message for Congress, the purport of which was, that he should be glad to confer with some of the members in their private capacity, and would himself meet them in that capacity at such time and. place as they might appoint. Congress accordingly deputed three of their number, Dr. Franklin, John Adams, and Edward Rutledge, to go and learn what propositions he had to offer. The interview took place, September 11th, at a house within the British lines on Staten Island, opposite to Amboy where they were politely received and entertained.

His Lordship began the conversation by informing them, that he could not treat with them as a committee of Congress, but that his powers authorized him to, confer and consult with any private gentlemen in the colonies on the means of reconciling the differences and restoring peace. The committee replied, that it was their business to hear what be had to propose; that he might look upon them in what light he chose; that they were, nevertheless, members of Congress, and, being appointed by that body, they must consider themselves in that character. After the conference was ended, the committee passed over to Amboy in Lord Howe's boat went back to Congress, and reported, that his Lordship had made no explicit proposition for peace, and that, as far as they could discover, his powers did not enable him to do any thing more, than to grant pardon upon submission. This was the last attempt of the commissioners to effect what Mr. Burke called in Parliament an "armed negotiation "; and it would be allowing too little credit to the understanding of the ministers themselves, to suppose that they did not anticipate its failure when they set it on foot.

At this time Congress had under consideration the subject of foreign alliances. The American States being now an independent power, declared to be such by the solemn act of a united people, they might properly assume and maintain this character in relation to other governments. Aids in money and all kinds of military supplies were wanted. Congress had the benefits of a lucrative commerce to offer in exchange. It was decided to make the first application to the court of France, and to proffer a commercial treaty, which should be mutually advantageous to the two countries. The hard terms, which England had extorted from the misfortunes of France in, the treaty at the close of the last war, as impolitic on the part of the former as they were humiliating to the latter, afforded but a feeble guaranty of a lasting peace. Time and reflection had increased the discontent, which was manifested by loud complaints when the treaty was made. It was believed that France, in this temper, would not view with indifference the contest between England and her colonies, nor forego so good an opportunity of contributing to weaken the power of a rival, against whom she bad laid up heavy charges for a future adjustment.

Congress deemed it advisable, at all events, to act upon this presumption. They appointed three commissioners, Dr. Franklin, Silas Deane; and Arthur Lee, "to transact the business of the United States at the court of France." They were furnished with the draft of a treaty, credentials, and instructions. The members enjoined secrecy on themselves in regard to these proceedings. Silas Deane was already in France, having been sent thither as a commercial and political agent, instructed to procure munitions of war and forward them to the United States, and to ascertain, as far as he could, the views and disposition of the French court. Arthur Lee was in England. Franklin made immediate preparations for his voyage. He left Philadelphia on the 26th of October, accompanied by two of his grandsons, William Temple Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Bache. They passed the night at Chester, and the next day embarked on board the Continental sloop of war Reprisal, carrying sixteen guns, and commanded by Captain Wickes.

As a proof of Franklin's zeal in the cause of his country, and of his confidence in the result, it may be stated, that, before he left Philadelphia, he raised all the money he could command, being between three and four thousand pounds, and placed it as a loan at the disposal of Congress.

< BACK | START | NEXT > homepage

Interested in using a picture? Some text? click here.
To contact the webmaster, click here

Copyright ©1999-2014 by the Independence Hall Association, electronically publishing as
The IHA is a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
On the Internet since July 4, 1995.

Click for Ben Franklin Posters