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Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin by Jared Sparks


Voyage to France. — Arrives at Nantes. — Proceeds to Paris, and takes up his Residence at Passy. — His Reception in France. — Influence of his Name and Character. — Pictures, Busts, and Prints of him. — Interview with Count de Vergennes. — Money obtained from the French Court and Military Supplies sent to the United States. — Contract with the Farmers-General. — Franklin disapproves the Policy of seeking Alliances with the European Powers. — Lord Stormont. — Application of Foreign Officers for Employment in the American Army. — Lafayette. — Reasons why the French delay to enter into a Treaty with the United States. — Interview with Count de Vergennes on that Subject. — Treaty of Amity and Commerce. — Treaty of Alliance. — Franklin and the other Commissioners introduced at Court.

AFTER a boisterous passage of thirty days from the Capes of Delaware, the Reprisal came to anchor in Quiberon Bay, near the mouth of the Loire. While crossing the Gulf Stream, Dr. Franklin repeated the experiments which he had made on his last voyage from England, for ascertaining the temperature of the sea. The result was the same as he had then found it. The water was warmer in the Gulf Stream, than in other parts of the ocean. The sloop was sometimes chased by British cruisers, and Captain Wickes prepared for action; but he had been instructed to avoid an engagement if possible, and to proceed directly to the coast of France. By good management he maped his pursuers, and no action occurred during the voyage. Two days before he came in sight of land he took two prizes, brigantines, one belonging to Cork, the other to Hull, laden with cargoes obtained in French ports.

The wind being contrary, Captain Wickes could not sail up the river to Nantes, the port to which he was bound. After a detention of four days in Quiberon Bay, Dr. Franklin was set on shore with his grandsons at the little town of Auray. Thence he travelled by land to Nantes, a distance of seventy miles, where he arrived on the 7th of December.

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His arrival in France was entirely unexpected. The news of his appointment had not preceded him, this having been kept secret in Congress. It was easily conjectured, however, that he would not come so far without being invested with some important public mission, and the friends of America greeted him with cordiality and lively expressions of joy. The event was celebrated by a dinner, at which he was invited to be present, and which was attended by a large number of persons. Fatigued with the voyage and his journey from Auray, he sought repose for a short time at the country-seat of M. Gruel, near the town; but in this retreat many visiters called to see him, as well to testify their personal respect, as to make inquiries concerning the state of affairs in America. From Nantes he wrote as follows to the President of Congress.

"Our voyage, though not long, was rough, and I feel myself weakened by it; but I now recover strength daily, and in a few days shall be able to undertake the journey to Paris. I have not yet taken any public character, thinking it prudent first to know whether the court is ready and willing to receive ministers publicly from the Congress; that we may neither embarrass it on the one band, nor subject ourselves to the hazard of a disgraceful refusal on the other. I have despatched an express to Mr. Deane, with the letters that I had for him from the Committee, and a copy of our commission, that he may immediately make the proper inquiries, and give me information. In the mean time I find it generally supposed here, that I am sent to negotiate; and that opinion appears to give great pleasure, if I can judge by the extreme civilities I meet with from numbers of the principal people, who have done me the honor to visit me."

He stayed eight days, at Nantes, and then set off for Paris, and reached that city on the 21st of December.× He found Mr. Deane there, and Mr. Lee joined them the next day, so that the commissioners were prepared to enter immediately upon their official duties. Shortly afterwards Dr. Franklin removed to Passy, a pleasant village near Paris, and took lodgings in a commodious house belonging to M. Leray de Chaumont, a zealous friend to the American cause. He remained at that place during the whole of his residence in France.

The intelligence of Franklin's arrival at Paris was immediately published and circulated throughout Europe. His brilliant discoveries in electricity, thirty years before, had made him known as a philosopher wherever science was studied or genius respected. His writings on this subject had already been translated into many languages; and also his Poor Richard, and some. other miscellaneous pieces, clothed in a style of surpassing simplicity and precision, and abounding in sagacious maxims relating to human affairs and the springs of human action, which are almost without a parallel in any other writer.× The history of his recent transactions in England, his bold and uncompromising defence of his country's rights, his examination before Parliament, and the abuse he bad received from the ministers, were known everywhere, and bad added to the fame of a philosopher and philanthropist that of a statesman and patriot. A French historian, of the first celebrity, speaks of him as follows;

"By the effect which Franklin produced in France, one might say that he, fulfilled his mission, not with a court, but with a free people. Diplomatic etiquette did not permit him often to hold interviews with the ministers, but he associated with all the distinguished personages, who directed public opinion. Men imagined they saw in him a sage of antiquity, come back to give austere lessons and generous examples to the moderns. They personified in him the republic, of which he was the representative and the legislator. They regarded his virtues as those of his countrymen, and even judged of their physiognomy by the imposing and serene traits of his own. Happy was be, who, could gain admittance to see him in the house which he occupied at Passy. This venerable old man, it was said, joined to the demeanor of Phocion the spirit of Socrates. Courtiers were struck with his native dignity, and discovered in him the profound statesman. Young officers, impatient to signalize themselves in another hemisphere, came to interrogate him respecting the military condition of the Americans; and, when be spoke to them with deep concern and a manly frankness of the recent defeats, which had put his country in jeopardy, this only excited in them a more ardent desire to join and assist the republican soldiers.

"After this picture, it would be useless to trace the history of Franklin's negotiations with the court of France. His virtues and his renown negotiated for him and, before the second year of his mission had expired, no one conceived it possible to refuse fleets and an army to the compatriots of Franklin."×

The commissioners were furnished by Congress, in the first place, with the plan of a treaty of commerce, which they were to propose to the French government. They were likewise instructed to procure from that court, at the expense of' the United States, eight line-of-battle ships, well manned and fitted for service; to borrow money; to procure and forward military supplies; and to fit out armed vessels under the flag of the United States, provided the French court should not disapprove this measure. They were, moreover, authorized to ascertain the views of other European powers, through their ambassadors in France, and to endeavour to obtain from them a recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the United States and to enter into treaties of amity and commerce with such powers, if opportunities should present themselves. It was expected, that remittances would be made to them from time to time, in American produce, to meet their expenses and pecuniary engagements.

The Count de Vergennes was the minister of foreign affairs in the French cabinet, and from first to last the principal mover in what related to the American war. On the 28th of December, he admitted the commissioners to air audience at Versailles. He received them with marked civility, and conversed with them freely. They laid before him their commission and the plan of a treaty. He assured them, that they might depend on the protection of the court while they were in France; that due attention would be given to what they bad offered; and that all the facilities would be granted to American commerce and navigation in French ports, which were compatible with the treaties existing between France and Great Britain. He requested them to draw up a memoir, containing an account of the situation of affairs in the United States. This was presented a few days afterwards, with the part of their instructions relating to ships of war No direct answer was returned, the French government not being yet prepared openly to espouse the cause of the Americans, which would necessarily bring on a war with England. By the advice of Count de Vergennes, they had an interview with Count d'Aranda, the Spanish ambassador, who promised to forward copies of their memorials to his court, which he said would act in concert with that of France.

Notwithstanding this reserve, the court of France had resolved to assist the Americans. A million of livres had already been secretly advanced to Beaumarchais for this purpose. Munitions of war to a large amount were purchased by him, in part with this Money, and in part with such other means as he could command. By an arrangement with Mr. Deane, he shipped these articles to the United States, and Congress was to pay for them by remitting tobacco and other American produce. Before the commissioners arrived, Mr. Deane had procured, on these conditions, thirty thousand fusils, two hundred pieces of brass cannon, thirty mortars, four thousand tents, clothing for thirty thousand men, and two hundred tons of gunpowder. They were shipped in different vessels, the most of which arrived safety in the United States.

The French government did not grant the ships of war requested by Congress, but the commissioners were informed, through a private channel, that they would receive two millions of livres in quarterly payments, to be expended for the use of the United. States. At first it was intimated to them, that this money was a loan from generous individuals, who wished well to the Americans in their struggle for freedom, and that it was not expected to be repaid till after the peace. In fact, however, it was drawn from the King's treasury, and the payments of half a million quarterly were promptly made. The commissioners likewise entered into a contract with the Farmers-General, by which it was agreed to furnish them with five thousand hogsheads of tobacco at a stipulated price. One million of livres was advanced on this contract. Within a few months they were thus put in possession of three millions of livres.

With this money they continued to purchase arms, clothing for soldiers, all kinds of military equipments, and naval stores, which they sent to America. They built a frigate at Amsterdam, and another at Nantes. They also contributed the means for supplying American cruisers, that came into French ports. In these operations they were often embarrassed. Every thing was done with as much secrecy as possible; but Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, had spies in all the principal ports, and gained a knowledge of their proceedings. His remonstrances to the court were listened to, and were followed by orders for detaining the vessels which the commissioners had provided. Sometimes the goods would be taken out and put on shore, and at other times they would be stopped in their transportation from place to place. The American cruisers brought in prizes and effected sales. This drew fresh remonstrances from the British ambassador; and, on one occasion, Count de Vergennes wrote a letter to the commissioners censuring this conduct, and declaring that no transactions could be allowed, which infringed upon treaties. Knowing the actual disposition of the court, however, they were not deterred by these obstacles. They continued, by pursuing a prudent course, to ship to the United States all the articles they procured, which were of the utmost importance to the American army.

The business was chiefly managed by Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane. The commissioners being authorized by their instructions to make application to any of the European powers and to solicit aids for prosecuting the war, Mr. Lee was accordingly deputed by them to undertake this service, first in Spain and afterwards in Prussia. On these missions he was absent nearly all the spring and summer. Dr. Franklin disapproved the policy of seeking foreign affiances, and he had opposed this measure when it was under discussion in Congress. He thought the dignity of the United States would be better sustained by waiting for the advances of other governments. The majority, however, were of a different opinion, and commissioners or ministers to different courts in Europe were from time to time appointed. Very little success attended these applications.×

Dr. Franklin bad been but a few weeks in France, when he received from Congress a commission to treat with, the court of Spain, with the proper credentials and instructions; but, this affair being already in the hands of Mr. Lee, and there being no sufficient evidence that his Catholic Majesty was ready, either to enter into a treaty with the United States, or to contribute essential aid for carrying on the war, he declined acting under the commission, and gave such reasons as were satisfactory to Congress. He consulted Count d'Aranda, the Spanish ambassador, who discouraged any immediate attempt to negotiate with his court.

It was reported to the commissioners, that American prisoners, who had been captured at sea, were treated with unjustifiable, severity in England that some of them were compelled to enter the navy and fight against their friends, and that others were sent to the British settlements in Africa and Asia. They wrote to Lord Stormont, suggesting an exchange of seamen thus captured for an equal number of British prisoners, who had been brought into France by an American cruiser. His Lordship did not condescend to return an answer. They wrote again, and drew from him the following laconic reply. "The King's ambassador receives no applications from rebels, unless the come to implore his Majesty's mercy. The paper, containing this piece of insolence, was sent back. "In answer to a letter," say they, "which concerns some of the most material interests of humanity, and of the two nations, Great Britain and the United States, we received the enclosed indecent paper, which we return for your Lordship's more mature consideration." The British ministry, however, did not long uphold the arrogance of their ambassador. The number of captures made at sea by the American cruisers soon convinced them of the policy, if not of the humanity, of exchanging prisoners, according to the common usage of nations at war.×

The multitude of foreign officers applying for letters of recommendation to Congress, or to General Washington, was so great, as to be a source of unceasing trouble and embarrassment. Scarcely had Dr. Franklin landed in France when applications began to throng upon him for employment in the American army. They continued to the end of the war, coming from every country, and written in almost every language, of Europe. Some of the writers told only the story of their own exploits; others enclosed the certificates of friends, or of generals under whom they had served; while others were backed by the interest of persons of high rank and influence, whom it was impossible to gratify, and disagreeable to refuse. It was in vain that he assured them, that be bad no power to engaoe officers, that the army was already full, that his recommendation could not create vacancies, and that they would inevitably be disappointed when they arrived in America. Writing to a friend on this subject, he says; "Not a day passes in which I have not a number of soliciting visits, besides letters. You can have no idea how I am harassed. All my friends are sought out and teased to tease me. Great officers of rank in all departments, ladies, great and small, besides professed solicitors, worry me from morning to night." To a person, who importuned him in this way, be wrote as follows.

"You demand whether I will support you by my authority in giving you letters of recommendation. I doubt not your being a man of merit; and, knowing it yourself, you may forget that it is not known to everybody; but reflect a moment, Sir, and you will be convinced, that, if I were to practise giving letters of recommendation to persons of whose character I knew no more than I do of yours, my recommendations would soon be of no authority at all. I thank you, however, for your kind desire of being serviceable to my countrymen; and I wish in return, that I could he of service to you in the scheme you have formed of going to America. But numbers of experienced officers here have offered to go over and join our army, and I could give them no encouragement because I have no orders for that purpose, and I know it extremely difficult to place them when they arrive there. I cannot but think, therefore, that it is best for you not to make so long, so expensive, and so hazardous a voyage, but to take the advice of your friends, and ' stay in Franconia.'"

One officer, however, he recommended without reluctance or reserve, and he afterwards had the satisfaction of finding, in common with the whole American people, that his judgment was not deceived, nor his hopes disappointed. In a letter to Congress, signed by him and Mr. Deane, they say; "The Marquis de Lafayette, a young nobleman of great family connexions here, and great wealth, is gone to America in a ship of his own, accompanied by some officers of distinction, in order to serve in our armies. He is exceedingly beloved, and everybody's good wishes attend him. We cannot but hope he may meet with such a reception as will, make the country and his expedition agreeable to him. Those, who censure it as imprudent in him, do nevertheless applaud his spirit; and we are satisfied, that the civilities and respect, that may be shown him, will be serviceable to our affairs here, as pleasing not only to his powerful relations and to the court, but to the whole French nation. He has left a beautiful young wife, and, for her sake particularly, we hope that his bravery and ardent desire to distinguish himself will be a little restrained by the General's prudence, so as not to permit his being hazarded much, except on some important occasion."

Dr. Franklin had been ten months in France before the court of Versailles manifested any disposition to engage openly in the American contest. The opinion ,of the ministers was divided on this subject. Count de Vergennes and Count Maurepas, the two principal ministers, were decidedly in favor of a war with England, and of bringing it on by uniting with the Americans. Some of the others, among whom was Turgot while he was in the cabinet, disapproved this policy, and the King himself came into it with reluctance. Moreover, the events of the campaign of 1776 afforded little encouragement to such a step. The evacuation of Canada by the American troops, the defeat on Long Island, the loss of Fort Washington, the retreat of Washington's army through New Jersey, and the, flight of Congress from Philadelphia to Baltimore, were looked upon in Europe as a prelude to a speedy termination of the struggle. This was not a time to expect alliances. The ability of the Americans to maintain the war for any length of time, as well as their union, spirit, and determination, was regarded as extremely problematical. The French ministry feared, that, embarrassed if not discouraged by their difficulties, they would, sooner or later, yield to the force of old habits, and seek, or at least accept, a reconciliation with the mother country. This was the main reason, added to the obstacles thrown in the way by those who opposed a war on grounds of policy, why they did not at an earlier day enter into an alliance with the United States. Had this measure been premature, and, after an alliance was formed, had the Americans returned to their allegiance to the British King, the French would have found themselves in an awkward position, with a war on their hands against England, and the censure of the world upon them for having recognised the independence and taken up the cause of insurgent colonists, who had neither the will, the resolution, nor the internal force to support the character they had assumed.

But the tide of affairs soon began to turn in another direction. In the campaign of 1777, the losses of the preceding year were more than retrieved. The capture of Burgoyne's army, and the good conduct of the forces under General Washington in Pennsylvania, gave sufficient evidence that the Americans were in earnest, and that they wanted neither physical strength nor firmness of purpose. On the 4th of December, an express arrived in Paris from the United States, bringing the news of the capture of Burgoyne and the battle of Germantown. The commissioners immediately communicated this intelligence to the French court. Two days afterwards, M. Gerard, the secretary of the King's Council, called on Dr. Franklin at Passy, and said he had come, by order of Count de Vergennes and Count Maurepas, to congratulate the commissioners on the success of their countrymen, and to assure them that it gave great Pleasure, at Versailles. After some conversation, he advised them to renew their proposition for a treaty.×

A memorial was accordingly prepared by Dr. Franklin, signed by the commissioners, and presented to Count de Vergennes; and, on the 12th, by the appointment of that minister, a meeting took place at Versailles between Count de Vergennes and M. Gerard on one part, and the American commissioners on the other, for the purpose of discussing the preliminaries of a treaty. Count de Vergennes complimented them on the prosperous state of their affairs, and spoke with particular commendation of the movements of Washington's army in the face of a superior force. He then asked them what they had to propose. Franklin referred him to the draft of a treaty, which they bad brought from Congress, and said, if there were objections to any part of it, they were ready to consider them. Count de Vergennes mentioned some objections, which were examined, but these related to points of secondary importance, without touching the fundamental articles. The minister remarked, that the relations between France and Spain were of such a nature, as to render it necessary to consult his Catholic Majesty before a treaty could be concluded, and to give him an opportunity to join in it if he should think proper; and that a courier would be immediately despatched to Spain, who would be absent three weeks.

Before this time expired, M. Gerard called again on the commissioners, and told them that the King, by the advice of his Council, had determined to acknowledge the independence of the United States, and to enter into a treaty of amity and commerce with them; that it was the desire and intention of his Majesty to form I such a treaty as would be durable, and this could be done only by establishing it on principles of exact reciprocity, so that its continuance should be for the interest of both parties; that no advantage would be taken of the present situation of the United States to obtain terms, which they would not willingly agree to under any other circumstances; and that it was his fixed determination to support their independence by all the means in his power. This would probably lead to a war with England, yet the King would not ask, or expect, any compensation for the expense or damage he might sustain on that account. The only condition required by him would be, that the United States should not give up their independence in any treaty of peace they might make with England, nor return to their subjection to the British government.

It was at length ascertained, that the King of Spain was not disposed to take any part in the business. The negotiators then proceeded without more delay, and their work was soon completed. In its essential articles the treaty was the same as the one that had been proposed by Congress.

When this was done, the French minister produced the draft of another treaty, called a Treaty of Alliance. The objects of this treaty were in some respects of much greater importance than those of the former. It was to be eventual in its operation, and to take effect only in case of a rupture between France and England; and it was designed to explain the duties of the two contracting parties in prosecuting the war, and to bind them to certain conditions.

The first stipulation was, that, while the American war continued, both parties should make it a common cause, and aid each other as good friends and allies. To maintain effectually the liberty, sovereignty, and independence of the United States, was declared, to be the essential and direct end of' the alliance. It was agreed, that, if the Americans should gain possession of any of the British territories in the northern parts of the continent, not included within the limits of the Thirteen States, such territories should belong to the United States. If the French King should conquer any of the British Islands in or near the Gulf of Mexico, they were to be retained by him. The contracting parties also agreed, that neither of them should conclude a truce or peace with Great Britain, without the consent of the other first obtained; and they mutually engaged not to lay down their arms, until the independence of the United States should be assured by the treaty or treaties, which should terminate the war. The United States guarantied to the King of France all the possessions he then held in America, as well as those he should acquire by the treaty of peace; and the King guarantied to the United States their liberty, sovereignty, and independence, and all their possessions, and such acquisitions as they should gain by conquest from the dominions of Great Britain in America.

In both these treaties it was the aim of the parties to adjust every point, as nearly as it could be done, upon principles of exact equality and reciprocity. The commercial treaty granted reciprocal privileges of trade; and each party was at liberty to grant the same privileges to any other, nation. By the treaty of alliance the United States secured the very great advantage of the whole power of France on their side, till their independence should be confirmed by a treaty of peace. The equivalent expected by France for this use of her means, and for the losses: and expenses she might incur in the war, was the separating of the colonies from the mother country, thereby striking a heavy blow upon Great Britain; and also a due share of the profits of the American trade, the whole of which had hitherto been poured into the lap of England, increasing her wealth and enlarging her power. She made no provision for obtaining acquisitions on the American continent, either by conquest or cession, not even Canada and the Islands in the SL Lawrence, which had been taken from her by the English in the last war. On the contrary, she disavowed, in the most positive terms, all intention of seeking such conquest or accepting such cession; and it may be added, that her conduct during the war and at the peace was in perfect accordance with this declaration.

The two treaties were signed at Paris on the 6th of February, 1778. They were sent to America by a special messenger, and were immediately ratified by Congress. The event diffused joy throughout the country. Washington set apart a day for the rejoicings of the army on the occasion at Valley Forge. All saw, or believed they saw, that, whatever might be the hazards of the war, independence in the end was certain. France was too powerful a nation to be conquered, and she bad promised her support to the last. Her interest and safety were deeply involved in the contest, and her honor was pledged. In the enthusiasm of the moment, every heart was filled with gratitude to the French King and every tongue spoke his praise. His generosity in agreeing to treaties, so favorable in their conditions and so equitable in their principles, was lauded to the skies; and we behold the spectacle of two millions of republicans, becoming all at once the cordial friends and warm admirers of a monarch, who sat on a throne erected by acts, sustained by a policy, and surrounded by institutions, which all true republicans regarded as so many encroachments upon the natural and inalienable rights of mankind. In this instance, however, they had no just occasion afterwards to regret, that their confidence had been misplaced, or their gratitude improperly bestowed. Every promise was fulfilled, and every pledge was redeemed.

On the 20th of March, the American commissioners were introduced to the King at Versailles, and they, took their place at court as the representatives of an independent power. A French historian, describing this ceremony, says of Franklin; "He was accompanied and followed by a great number of Americans and individuals from various countries, whom curiosity had drawn together. His age, his venerable aspect, the simplicity of his dress, every thing fortunate and remarkable in the life of this American, contributed to excite public attention. The clapping of hands and other expressions of joy indicated that warmth of enthusiasm, which the French are more susceptible of than any other people, and the charm of which is enhanced to the object of it by their politeness and agreeable manners. After this audience, he crossed the court on his way to the office of the minister of foreign affairs. The multitude waited for him in the passage, and greeted him with their declamations. He met with a similar reception wherever he appeared in Paris."×

From that time both Franklin and the other American commissioners attended the court at Versailles, on the same footing as the ambassadors of the European powers. Madame Campan says, that, on these occasions, Franklin appeared in the dress of an American farmer. "His straight, unpowdered hair, his round hat, his brown cloth coat, formed a singular contrast with the laced and embroidered coats, and powdered and perfumed heads, of the courtiers of Versailles."× The rules of diplomatic etiquette did not permit the ambassadors of those sovereigns, who had not recognised the independence of the United States, to extend any official civilities to the ministers of the new republic. In private, however, they sought the acquaintance and society of Franklin, and among them were some of his most esteemed and intimate friends. An amusing incident, illustrative of the reserve of the ambassadors in their official character, occurred to Dr. Franklin some time after he became minister plenipotentiary. The son of the Empress of Russia, under the title of Count du Nord arrived in Paris. He sent round his cards to the several foreign ambassadors, with his name and that of the Prince Bariatinski, the Russian ambassador, written upon them. By some accident the messenger left one of these cards at Dr. Franklin's house. As this was the first instance of the kind, he knew not precisely in what manner the civility was to be returned. He inquired of an old minister at court, well versed in the rules of etiquette, who told him that all he had to do, was to stop his carriage at the ambassadors door, and order his name to be written in the porter's book. This ceremony he performed accordingly. "I thought no more of the matter," said be, "till the servant, who brought the card, came in great affliction, saying he was like to be ruined, and wishing to obtain from me a paper, of I know not what kind, for I did not see him. In the afternoon came my friend, Mr. Le Roy, who is also a friend of the Prince's, telling me how much he, the Prince, was concerned at the accident, that both himself and the Count had great personal regard for me and my character, but that, our independence not yet being acknowledged by the court of Russia, it was impossible for him to permit himself to make me a visit as minister. I told M. Le Roy it was not my custom to seek such honors, though I was very sensible of them when conferred upon me; that I should not have voluntarily intruded a visit, and that, in this case, I had only done what I was informed the etiquette required of me; but, if it would be attended with any inconvenience to Prince Bariatinski, whom I much esteemed and respected, I thought the remedy was easy; he had only to erase my name out of his book of visits received, and I would burn their card."

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