- Historic Sites
Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance
Adapted from her new book, The Secret War of Independence , Behind the benevolent smile lurked the master of intrigue, skillfully maneuvering the vacillating courts of Europe
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Nothing came of these appeals, and meanwhile Franklin and Deane had been working at a highly secret project which might prove more effective in precipitating a Franco-British war. This required certain arrangements in the ports of France.
With the appointment of the mission to France the affairs of the two secret committees were theoretically unscrambled; the commissioners were to take charge of foreign relations, and young Tom Morris of commercial matters. Soon the old names were changed to the Committee of Foreign Affairs and the Commercial Committee to make this distinction clear. In France, however, this separation of function was impossible. Deane was up to his neck in business affairs and was essential to their success, for Tom Morris was clearly unfit to carry out any operation but commandeering cargoes from Congress to finance his endless debauch. The commissioners had written privately to Robert Morris that his brother must be removed, but their letters were not received for months.
By a natural process the activities of the mission were divided. Franklin took charge of diplomatic duties, Arthur Lee undertook missions to Spain and Prussia which happily kept him out of Paris at a crucial period, and Deane continued his commercial activities. Since the previous summer he had had the invaluable help of an unpaid deputy, William Carmichael. This wealthy and devoted young Marylander had been educated in England and was qualified for diplomatic assignments. But he was quite happy to spend the year of 1777 in the humbler role of itinerant trouble shooter in the French ports. For one thing, he worshiped Franklin and wanted to be useful to him; for another, he enjoyed hobnobbing with the rough sea captains he was assigned to help. It was Carmichael who got the last of the Hortalez fleet on its way.
Since Nantes was the key port for American purposes, Franklin made a personal sacrifice and sent his grandnephew Jonathan Williams there as the special agent for the commissioners. Williams, now 27, had been trained in the Caribbean trade; he spoke French and was capable of dealing with accounts, which always baffled his granduncle. He was a young man of complete integrity and far from ordinary gifts, whom Franklin could well have used in Paris. But he was needed more in Nantes.
Franklin’s household, the unofficial American embassy, was never lonely, even when Benny was sent off to school. In March the Doctor was given a charming house at Passy on the grounds of the Hôtel Valentinois, which belonged to the merchant prince Donatien le Rey de Chaumont. The merchant was the intendant for supplying clothing for the French Army—and of late the American Army, for he had given Beaumarchais a million livres’ worth of clothing on credit.
Deane was in and out of the Passy house, keeping his hotel quarters for business and the entertaining of transient sea captains and a horde of friends. Temple Franklin was only seventeen, but he was working out well as his grandfather’s personal secretary, patiently making several copies of important papers to be sent on different ships bound for home in the hope that at least one copy would arrive safely. The Passy household was complete when the wise and enchanting Edward Bancroft arrived to act as general secretary of the mission.
Dr. Bancroft was an old friend of Franklin’s from his London days. Born in Massachusetts in 1744, Bancroft was just of age when he settled in London, but he was already a notable scientist and writer. He had spent years in Surinam and was an expert on tropical plants; he had written a natural history of Guiana and perfected new vegetable dyes for cloth. A member of the Royal College of Physicians, in 1773 he was elected to the Royal Society under the sponsorship of Franklin, the astronomer royal, and the king’s physician. Bancroft belonged to the American patriot group in London and wrote able papers defending the cause of the thirteen colonies.
When Deane left Philadelphia on his mission to France, Franklin suggested that Edward Bancroft would be a useful consultant on European affairs, and so it proved. He spent much of the latter half of 1776 in Paris as mentor to the inexperienced American, and the close friendship thus begun lasted as long as Deane lived. At Passy Bancroft was a loved and trusted figure, and Vergennes so admired him that after the war he sent Bancroft on a highly confidential mission to Ireland.
Sixty years after his death the incredible truth came out. Edward Bancroft had been in British pay since 1772. He was the “Edward Edwards” of the secret service, the master spy of the century. He was never suspected by anybody but Arthur Lee, who suspected everybody but his own secretaries, who were almost invariably British agents.
As a weapon of war the British secret service was remarkably effective. It was run, personally and in great detail, by George III himself, who spent hours reading the reports of agents scattered over America, the West Indies, and Europe. The King was tireless, and only the quirks and massive stubbornness which were part of his psychosis would now and then hamper the working of his great information machine. He would not believe reports which meant bad news for England, or fully credit those which came from spies whose personal lives this virtuous burgher disapproved.