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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
However, he had proved to himself more than once that prodigies could result from careful planning and unstinted effort. Whatever disaster happened in 1777, he wanted to build a friendship between the French and American peoples which would last for many generations, and he calmly laid the foundations of that friendship in his own daily associations. His widening circle of intimates included people of great influence: Masons, scientists and scholars, men and women of the aristocracy. No man of his century could approach Franklin as a subtle and effective propagandist.
This long-range program was necessary, but it did not change the fact that the lumbering and inefficient British war machine had at last got itself oiled and repaired for a heavy assault upon the United States. Franklin had already done his utmost with the ministry, and there was nothing left but a new experiment—what would much later be called psychological warfare. In order to bring the reluctant enemies to blows he had to influence chiefly two men: George III, who was just as set against a French war as he was adamant in the American conflict, and Vergennes, the mentor of a young and inexperienced king.
Vergennes had patiently dissembled France’s violations of neutrality in one encounter after the other with Stormont. How long could he continue? There must be a breaking point somewhere in his patience. Only a frayed rope anchored the nations to peace, and Franklin believed that an implement lay ready to hand which would saw through the hawser.
Before he left Philadelphia Franklin had written with Morris certain instructions for Captain Wickes: he was to cruise against the British in their home waters, and bring his prizes into a French port. This was the germ of the deliberate policy Franklin and Deane pursued during 1777: to create such an open scandal about French connivance in American raids that it could not be effervesced in private conversations between Stormont and Vergennes. After the scheme had been put into effect they explained the mechanism to their committee: “For though the fitting out [of an American vessel in a French port] may be covered and concealed by various pretenses, so at least to be winked at by the Government here … yet the bringing in of prizes by a vessel so fitted out is so notorious an act, and so contrary to treaties, that if suffered must cause an immediate war.”
Knowing George III as he did, Franklin realized the importance of insulting him while all Europe looked on. The King was progressing from the swaddling clothes of a dominant mother to the strait jacket of his manic seizures, and even in his long periods of sanity his balance was precarious. He had corrupted his government from Lord North down in the hope of buying security for himself. He welcomed routine, even a pernicious routine, but any crisis produced a violent reaction. He had put up for a long time with colonial violations of the trading laws, but when the Boston Tea Party made him look ridiculous, George III precipitated the war. He was lulled by the specious truce with France—but how would he feel if Captain Wickes captured a royal packet carrying the royal mails?
On January 24 Wickes sailed out of Nantes with a French pilot and several French seamen aboard, strengthening the desired impression of collusion with Versailles. He made for the English Channel, where he took four small merchantmen, which he sent to Lorient under prize masters. Then he captured the King’s packet Swallow , running between Falmouth and Lisbon. Though the mail vessel was lightly armed she gave Wickes some trouble, and one of his seamen was killed and a lieutenant wounded.
England registered the expected sense of outrage; the whole country seethed with the news. When Stormont appeared at Versailles Vergennes assured him that the Reprisal and her prizes had been ordered to leave French waters within 24 hours. Nobody could find the prizes, which had been sold. As for the Reprisal , anchored at Lorient, she suddenly sprang a leak, and international usage allowed a ship in distress harbor privileges until she was fit to sail. Much later Wentworth revealed the trick: the night before the official inspection Wickes had pumped water into the hold. He now careened his ship and cleaned the hull at his leisure while the excitement died down.
Shortly after this, Parliament authorized British privateering. The move was long overdue, for the Americans had been making a brilliant success of their sea raids all over the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Many of them were now flocking to Europe, for the word had been passed of the hospitality of French and Spanish ports if the proper techniques of evasion were followed. Franklin wrote his Committee of Foreign Affairs of “the prodigious success of our armed ships and privateers.” London merchants had lost nearly £2,000,000 in their West Indies trade, and insurance had soared to 28 per cent, he boasted.
Soon Franklin and Deane had a group of young men busy in the various ports, helping merchantmen and privateers speed on their way, informing them of shifts in French regulations and dangerous areas patrolled by British warships, recruiting French seamen to fill out depleted ships’ companies, finding masters for ships and ships for masters. Arthur Lee, who would have ruined the secret project if he had been in Paris to interfere with it, was busy elsewhere. Deane, Carmichael, and Jonathan Williams were on the watch for daring and trustworthy captains for Admiral Franklin’s strategic naval force. They found the star of them all in Dunkirk.