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Ben Franklin

Life of Benjamin Franklin by Jared Sparks


A French Army sent to the United States. — Lafayette. — Northern Powers of Europe combine in Defence of Neutrals. — Franklin's Opinion of Privateering. — Correspondence between Count de Vergennes and Mr. Adams. — Franklin Remarks upon it. — Charges against Franklin by his Enemies, examined and refuted. — New Attempt in Congress to procure his Recall. — Count de Vergennes's Opinion of him as Minister at the French Court. — The numerous Duties of his Office. — Colonel John Laurens. — Franklin proposes to retire from the Public Service. — New Propositions for Peace, through the Agency of Mr. Hartley. — Franklin's Answer to them. — His Friends at Passy and Auteuil. — Madame Brillon. — Madame Helvetius.

IT had been a question much agitated both in France and America, since the treaty of alliance, whether it wag advisable to send French troops to cooperate with the armies of the United States. The prudence of such an experiment was thought extremely doubtful. While fighting the battles of the mother country in former wars, the Americans had often been brought into conflict with the French on the frontiers. It was feared, that prejudices had been contracted, and habits formed, which would prevent the troops of the two nations from acting together in harmony, even if the people themselves could be reconciled to the presence of a French army. All aids from France, it was said, would be the most effectually rendered in money and by a naval force. Such was likewise the view taken by the French cabinet and they acted upon this plan for two years. But many persons in the United States thought differently. They saw no reason, in the common principles of human nature, why a people should sacrifice their interests, and put their freedom in jeopardy, by giving themselves up to an inherited prejudice.

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A conviction of the justness of this sentiment was deeply wrought into the mind of Lafayette. He had been a year and a half in the country, and, from the manner in which he and other French officers were treated by all classes of people, he was satisfied, that there would be no hazard in bringing an army of Frenchmen to cooperate with American soldiers. He conversed frequently with General Washington on the subject, and, although the opinion of the latter is nowhere explicitly recorded, it is certain that Lafayette returned to France fully convinced, that such a measure would meet his approbation. He applied to the Ministers accordingly; who hesitated for some time, influenced by the same motives of prudence, which ,had hitherto guided their counsels. But Lafayette persevered, and his zeal and the force of his arguments at last prevailed. In the early part of the year 1780, preparations were made for sending an army under Count de Rochambeau to America, with a fleet commanded by the Chevalier de Ternay.

In all these transactions he was assisted by the ad, vice and cordial support of Dr. Franklin. They also pro cured large supplies of arms, equipments, and clothing for the American army. As the bearer of the good news, Lafayette sailed for the United States, authorized to concert measures with Washington and Congress for the reception and future employment of the French troops.

The northern powers of Europe, at the instance of Russia, had recently come into an arrangement respecting neutrals, which Dr. Franklin so highly approved, that he issued orders to the American cruisers in conformity with it, even before he ascertained the views of Congress. By the practice of nations in time of war, it bad been a rule to seize the property of an enemy wherever found at sea; and neutral vessels having such property on board were captured under this rule, the cargo being confiscated as a prize to the captors, and the vessel being restored to the owners. This rule was reversed by the combined powers, and the law was established, that goods belonging to an enemy on board a neutral vessel, except such as were contraband, should not be subject to capture, or, in other words, that free ships should make free goods. A law so clearly founded in justice and humanity could not but receive his hearty concurrence. In his opinion, the application of the law ought to be extended still further, so as to mitigate the evils of war as much as possible, by leaving individuals to pursue their occupations Unmolested.

"I approve much of the principles of the confederacy of the neutral powers," said be, "and am not only for respecting the ships as the house of a friend, though containing the goods of an enemy, but I even wish, for the sake of humanity, that the law of nations may be further improved, by determining, that, even in time of war, all those kinds of people, who are employed in procuring subsistence for the species, or in exchanging the necessaries or conveniences of life, which are for the common benefit of man-kind, such as husbandman on their lands, fishermen in their barques, and traders in unarmed vessels, shall be permitted to prosecute their several innocent and useful employments without interruption or molestation, and nothing taken from them, even when wanted by an enemy, but on paying a fair price for the same."

Privateering he called "robbing," and "a remnant of the ancient piracy." In an able paper on this practice, he shows its inhumanity, and condemns it as violating the code of morality, which ought to be sacredly observed by every civilized nation. "It behoves merchants to consider well of the justice of a war," he remarks, "before they. voluntarily engage a gang of ruffians to attack their fellow merchants of a neighbouring nation, to plunder them of their property, and perhaps ruin them and their families, if they yield it; or to wound, maim, or murder them, if they on, deavour to defend it. Yet these things are done by Christian merchants, whether a war be just or unjust; and it can hardly be just on both sides. They are done by English and American merchants, who, nevertheless, complain of private theft, and hang by dozens the thieves they have taught by their own example." He proposed, that; in treaties between nations, an article should be introduced, by which the contracting parties should bind themselves not to grant commissions to private armed vessels; and be was instrumental in forming such a treaty between Prussia and the United States. In fact, he was an enemy to war in all its forms and disguises. It was a maxim with him, that there never was a good war, or a bad peace.

Mr. Adams had been but a short time in Paris, as minister for negotiating peace, when intelligence arrived of a resolve of Congress, by which the Continental paper money, was to be redeemed at the rate of forty paper dollars for one of silver. The resolve being of a general nature, it was not obvious whether it was intended to apply to Americans only, or whether foreigners were to be included. The French court were concerned to ascertain this point, and Count de Vergennes wrote for information to Mr. Adams, who, having recently come from America, he supposed might be able to explain the intentions of Congress. Mr. Adams replied, that he could not, tell how far the resolve was meant to extend, but expressed his decided conviction, that it ought to include foreigners, as much as Americans, and supported his opinion by ingenious and cogent arguments. Count de Vergennes expressed surprise, that this view of the subject should be taken. The French merchants had shipped various commodities to the United States, relying on the good faith of Congress in regard to their currency; and he said it would be an act of injustice to compel these merchants to suffer by an arbitrary depreciation, which they had no reason to expect at the time of shipping their goods. A few weeks later, the correspondence was renewed on other subjects connected with the alliance and the relations between the two countries; and Mr. Adams, in his zeal for a cause which no man had more at heart, advanced sentiments and spoke with a freedom, which were displeasing to Count de Vergennes, who sent a copy of the correspondence to Dr. Franklin, and requested him to transmit it to Congress. He did so, and at the same time wrote as follows to the President.

"Mr. Adams thinks, as he tells me himself, that America has been too free in expressions of gratitude to France; for that she is more obliged to us than we to her; and that we should show spirit in our applications. I apprehend, that he mistakes his ground, and that this court is to be treated with decency and delicacy. The King, a young and virtuous prince, has, I am persuaded, a pleasure in reflecting on the generous benevolence of the action in assisting an oppressed people, and proposes it as a part of the glory of his reign. I think it right to increase this pleasure by our thankful acknowledgments, and that such an expression of gratitude is not only our duty, but our interest. A different conduct seems to me what is not only improper and unbecoming, but what may be hurtful to us. Mr. Adams, on the other hand, who, at the same time, means our welfare and interest as much as I, or any man, can do, seems to think a little apparent stoutness, and a greater air of independence and boldness in our demands, will procure us more ample assistance. It is for Congress to judge, and regulate their affairs accordingly."

It was one of the charges of Dr. Franklin's enemies against him, that he was compliant to the French court. The nature of this compliance, such as it was in reality, is seen in the above extract. It consisted in showing a proper sense of gratitude for benefits received, and in endeavouring to please those, from whom, in his public character, he was constantly asking favors for his country. He thought this right in itself, and it was certainly politic. The consequence was, that he acquired and retained the confidence of the French King and ministry; they listened to his applications and were often influenced by his counsels; and he rarely made a request, which was not granted, although the wants of Congress, particularly in the article of money, rendered frequent applications necessary. Just before the peace he had occasion to say, that Count de Vergennes never made him a promise, which he did not fulfil; and it is a fact worthy of being remembered, as bearing on this subject, that not one of the vast number of drafts, which were drawn on him by Congress throughout the war, was allowed to be protested, or to pass the time of payment, although he relied almost exclusively on the French government for funds to meet them. Shortly after Mr. Jay was appointed minister to Spain and Mr. Adams to Holland, drafts to a large amount were drawn on them, with the expectation that they would be able to procure loans in those countries; but no money was obtained, and the drafts all came upon Dr. Franklin. He found the means of paying them by applying, as usual, to the French court; but he was told, at the same time, that this unexpected demand subjected the King to much inconvenience.

By this course of conduct, asking only what was reasonable, with a becoming deference to the judgment, and reliance on the good intentions, of the ministers, he won a reciprocal confidence, and was enabled to execute the arduous and complicated duties of his station with entire success. His adversaries called it subserviency, and represented him as carried away by the adulation of the French people, so as not only to forget what was due to his own character, but to lose his attachment to his country. It was said, that the French ministers cajoled him, with the sinister design of moulding him to their purposes, and of effecting some deep scheme of policy to deceive and overreach their allies. These absurdities, unsustained as they are by a word of credible testimony, would not deserve to be. repeated, if they had not been used at the time to injure his reputation, and give currency to an unmerited distrust of the French court.

They led to a new attempt in Congress to procure his recall. M. de la Luzerne, the French minister in the United States, writes thus to Count de Vergennes, in a letter dated at Philadelphia, December 15th, 1780. "Congress is filled with intrigues and cabals respecting the recall of Dr. Franklin, which the delegates from Massachusetts insist on by all sorts of means. That minister has very little direct support in Congress but the fear entertained by both parties, that his place would be supplied by one of the opposite party, has served to sustain him. The States of Massachusetts and South Carolina, and a few individual voices, influenced by Mr. Lee and Mr. Izard, have declared, in a positive manner, that there is no person who is not preferable to the present minister; and they urge, that, by his supineness and the influence of those around him, the American cause has been ruined in France."

Two months after the date of this letter, Count de Vergennes replied. "If you are questioned respecting our opinion of Dr. Franklin, you may say, without hesitation, that we esteem him as much for his patriotism, as for the wisdom of his conduct; and it has been owing in a great part to this cause, and to the confidence which we put in the veracity of Dr. Franklin, that we have determined to relieve the pecuniary embarrassments, in which he has been placed by Congress. One may judge from this fact, which is of a personal nature, whether his conduct has been injurious to the interests of his country, and whether any other minister would have bad the same advantages. But, although we esteem Dr. Franklin, and hold him in high consideration, yet we are not the less obliged to confess, that, on account of his great age and love of tranquillity, he is less active than is compatible with the affairs with which he is charged, and that we see this with the more concern, since it is upon matters of importance that he preserves silence, whilst the good of the service requires, that he should transmit his sentiments to Congress. We are of opinion, however, that his recall would be very inconvenient in the present state of things, and it would be the more disagreeable to us, inasmuch as he would perhaps be succeeded by a character unquiet, exacting, difficult, and less ardently attached to the cause of his country. Congress might, relieve themselves from the embarrassment of a new choice, by giving Dr. Franklin a secretary of legation, wise, discreet, well informed, and capable of supplying his place."

We here see in what light the French government regarded Dr. Franklin, as minister to that court, and we have no indication of any wish to retain him in that post, on account of his being compliant to their wishes. In addition to the natural infirmities of age, be was afflicted by two severe maladies, the gout and the stone, which sometimes confined him to his house for weeks together, and disabled him from bodily or mental exertion. Yet Congress never sent him a secretary, and he was obliged to discharge all the duties of his office alone, or with such assistance as could be rendered by his grandson. This is the more singular, as both Mr. Adams and Mr. Jay were accompanied by secretaries of legation chosen by Congress, men of character and talents, accustomed to business, and acquainted with the details of public affairs.

He was, moreover, burdened with the concerns of the American public vessels, which came into French ports, and these gave him infinite trouble. "My time is more taken up with matters extraneous to the functions of a minister," said he, in a letter to Mr. Jay, "than you can possibly imagine. I have written often to Congress to establish consuls in the ports, and ease me of what relates to maritime and mercantile affairs; but no notice has yet been taken of my request." Nor was any consul appointed till near the end of the war. It must be inferred, at least, that Congress did not distrust his ability to perform the important services appertaining to his station, notwithstanding the machinations that were constantly at work to have him removed. And, indeed, the resources and vigor of his mind nowhere appear to greater advantage, than in his correspondence during this period. Count de Vergennes was not well satisfied, that he did not write oftener and more fully with respect to the state of things in France, and thus discourage Congress from making such repeated and importunate demands for aids; but Franklin knew that the French minister in Philadelphia was perfectly informed of all these particulars, and represented them to Congress whenever occasion required.

The loans from the French government had amounted to about three millions of livres annually. For the year 1781, Dr. Franklin obtained a loan of four millions, besides a subsidy of six millions, which the minister told him was intended as a free gift to the United States. After these sums were granted, Colonel John Laurens arrived in France, commissioned by Congress to represent the extreme wants of the army, and to solicit further aids both in money and military supplies. Dr. Franklin joined heartily with Colonel Laurens in urging this application, and it met with some success. Move direct aids could not be furnished; but, to facilitate a loan on American account in Holland, the King of France agreed to guaranty the payment of the interest of such a loan not exceeding ten millions of livres.

At this time Dr. Franklin proposed to retire from the public service, and requested that some other person might be appointed to supply his place. His reasons are given in the following extract from a letter to the President of Congress.

"I must now beg leave to say something relating to myself; a subject with which I have not often troubled the Congress. I have passed my seventy fifth year, and I find, that the long and severe fit of the gout, which I had the last winter, has shaken me exceedingly, and I am yet far from having recovered the bodily strength I before enjoyed. I do not know that my mental faculties are impaired; perhaps I shall be the last to discover that; but I am sensible of great diminution in my activity, a quality I think particularly necessary in your minister for this court. I am afraid, therefore, that your affairs may some time or other suffer by my deficiency. I find, also, that the business is too heavy for me, and too confining. The constant attendance at home, which is necessary for receiving and accepting your bills of exchange (a matter foreign to my ministerial functions), to answer letters, and perform other parts of my employment, prevents my taking the air and exercise, which my, annual journeys formerly used to afford me, and which contributed much to the. preservation of my health. There are many other little personal attentions, which the infirmities of age reader necessary to an old man's comfort, even in some degree to the continuance of his existence, and with which business often interferes.

"I have been engaged in public affairs, and enjoyed public confidence, in some shape or other, during the long term of fifty years, and honor sufficient to satisfy any reasonable ambition; and I have no other left but that of repose, which I hope the Congress will grant me, by sending some person to supply my place. At the same time, I beg they may be assured, that it is not any the least doubt of their success in the glorious cause, nor any disgust received in their service, that induces me to decline it, but purely and simply the reasons above mentioned. And, as I cannot at present undergo the fatigues of a sea voyage (the last having been almost too much for me), and would not again expose myself to the hazard of capture and imprisonment in this time of war, I purpose to remain here at least till the peace; perhaps it may be for the remainder of my life; and, if any knowledge or experience I have acquired here may be thought of use to my successor, I shall freely communicate it, and assist him with any influence I may be supposed to have, or counsel that may be desired of me."

Congress declined accepting his resignation, and, nearly at the same time, enlarging their commission for negotiating a treaty of peace, by joining with Mr. Adams four other commissioners, they appointed Dr. Franklin to be one of the number. This new mark of confidence, especially after he had asked, as a favor, to be relieved from his public charge, was a sufficient rebuke to his enemies, and left them little cause to be satisfied with the success of their schemes. He acquiesced in the decision of Congress. "It was my desire," said he, "to quit public business, fearing it might suffer in my hands through the infirmities incident to my time of life; but, as they are pleased to think I may; till be useful, I submit to their judgment, and shall do my best."

His friend, Mr. Hartley, continued to write to him on the terms of peace, taking advantage of the correspondence, which, with the knowledge of the British ministry, was kept up between them concerning the American prisoners in England. It is evident, also, from the tenor of Mr. Hartley's letters, that his propositions were seen and approved by Lord North. His first aim, and the point which be labored with the greatest diligence, was to divide the United States from France, and to bring about a separate treaty with the former. This design was so inconsistent with the nature and express stipulations of the alliance, which were well known, that Dr. Franklin could not forbear to retort upon his friend with warmth and some degree of asperity. Mr. Hartley spoke of the alliance as a stumbling block, which must be removed before a treaty could be entered upon, and he suggested that it might be dissolved, at least by the consent of the parties. Dr. Franklin replied;

"The long, steady, and kind regard you have shown for the welfare of America, by the whole tenor of your conduct in Parliament, satisfies me, that this proposition never took its rise with you, but has been suggested from some other quarter; and that your excess of humanity, your love of peace, and your fear for us, that the destruction we are threatened with will certainly be effected, have thrown a mist before your eyes, which hindered you from seeing the malignity and mischief of it." "Nor does there appear any more necessity for dissolving an alliance with France, before you can treat with us, than there would of dissolving your alliance with Holland, or your union with Scotland, before we could treat with you. Ours is, therefore, no material obstacle to a treaty, as you suppose it to be. Had Lord North been the author of such a proposition, all the world would have said it was insidious, and meant only to deceive and divide us from our friends, and then to ruin us; supposing our fears might be so strong as to procure an acceptance of it." Again, alluding to the article in the alliance, by which both parties agree to continue the war in conjunction, and not to make a separate peace, he said; "It is an obligation not in the power of America to dissolve, being an obligation of gratitude and justice towards a nation, which is engaged in a war on her account and for her projection; and would be for ever binding, whether such an article existed or not in the treaty; and, though it did not exist, an honest American would cut off his right band, rather than sign an agreement with England contrary to the spirit of it."

Mr. Hartley's next proposition, which bad likewise been shown to Lord North, was for a truce of ten years, during which America was not to assist France, yet England, if she saw fit was to carry on the war against her; "a truce," said Franklin, "wherein nothing is to be mentioned, that may weaken your pretensions to dominion over us, which you may therefore resume at the end of the term, or at pleasure; when we should have so covered ourselves with infamy, by our treachery to our first friend, as that no other nation could ever after be disposed to assist us, however cruelly you might think fit to treat us. Believe me, my dear friend, America has too much understanding, and is too sensible of the value of the world's good opinion, to forfeit it all by such perfidy."

This project of dividing the United States from their ally was industriously pursued by the British cabinet. Without doubt, it was an object worth striving for. The advances were not confined to one side. Tempting offers were held out to France, as an inducement to draw her into a separate treaty. But the King and his ministers were as true to their engagements as Franklin; and they steadily affirmed, that no propositions would be listened to, either for a peace or truce, which should not have for their basis the independence and sovereignty of the United States.

Besides his numerous acquaintances in the great world of Paris, Dr. Franklin found friends, whose society he valued, among his neighbours at Passy. They vied with each, other in bestowing upon him their civilities and kindness. He was almost domesticated in the family of M. Brillon, where he was entertained rather as one of the family than as a visiter, and where the charm of an affectionate welcome was heightened by the frankness, refinement, and intelligence of those from whom it was received. The house of Madame Helvetius, at Auteuil, was another of his favorite resorts. This lady, then advanced in years, had associated, in the lifetime of her husband, with the first wits and most eminent men of the day. In these families he constantly met the Abbe Morellet, the Abbe La Roche, Cabanis, Le Roy, Le Veillard, and La Rochefoucauld. Some of his most popular essays were composed for the amusement of this little circle at Passy and Auteuil. The Ephemera, and the Whistle, were addressed to Madame Brillon, whom, in his playful mood, he used to call "the amiable Brillante." The Dialogue with the Gout, and several other humorous pieces, were written at the same the and for the same object. He classed them all under the title of Bagatelles. They served as a relief from his weighty cares, and contributed to the enjoyment of those around him. The friendships, formed by this social intercourse, were not transient; they were kept fresh after his return to America, by a correspondence, which continued as long as he lived.

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