Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance


Young Gustavus Conyngham of the landed Irish gentry had emigrated as a boy to Philadelphia where his relatives were prominent shipping merchants. Schooled in the Caribbean trade, he was ready for the ticklish work of running arms from Europe before the war began, and displayed such gifts for evading British snoopers in a highly spectacular way that their reports on Conyngham had the quality of a picaresque saga. Thus he was the perfect performer in maritime histrionics that Franklin needed for his plan of implicating France in a conspicuous insult to England.

Captain Conyngham had lost his ship on the last voyage, and was given command of the Surprise , a lugger newly bought for Congress. He came down to Passy to receive one of the captain’s commissions Franklin was empowered to issue, and then Carmichael took charge of him. Every step in preparing the lugger for a cruise was watched by the British in Dunkirk. During the last eighteen months Conyngham had been in and out of the port, always hull down before the British realized he had vanished, and this time they were determined to get him.

It was a fine moment for his debut. By April American privateers had taken so many British seamen prisoner that the British fleet was not half manned, and Stormont hinted to Vergennes that peace could not last much longer if France continued to arm the United States. Vergennes had answered, “Nous ne dé sirons pas la guerre, mais nous ne la craignons pas.” In sending on this encouraging word to Congress, Franklin added his own hopes about the Franco-British war: “When all are ready for it, a small matter may suddenly bring it on.”

The small matter was to be Conyngham’s capture of another British packet, this time the one plying to Holland. Somehow the wild Irishman, repeating the maneuver of the sound and sober Wickes, created an infinitely greater reaction. On the third day of May he seized the Prince of Orange and brought her into Dunkirk, along with a British brig picked up on the way. The sacred British mails were rushed down to Passy, and then the storm broke at Versailles.

Vergennes, facing a furious Stormont, knew he had been caught red-handed in a raid on the English mails by a ship fitted out in a French port. There was nothing to do but restore the packet and the brig to England and order the arrest of Conyngham and his crew. He made this gesture impressive by sending two sloops of war to Dunkirk to take the captain and his men and deliver them to the local jail.

The arrest did much to soothe British wrath. George III was delighted and directed Lord North to stress in Parliament this proof of France’s intention “to keep appearances.” The next step would be to force France to deliver Conyngham to Britain for hanging as a pirate. Vergennes kept him safe in jail, for the minister was co-operating with Franklin’s policy up to a dangerous point.

One result of the raid by the “Dunkirk Pirate” was the fact that British merchants no longer trusted the Admiralty’s ability to protect British ships. “For the first time since Britain was a maritime power,” Deane wrote Morris, “the River Thames and others of its ports were crowded with French and other ships taking in freight, in order to avoid the risk of having property captured.”

Franklin and Deane now wrote the committee urging action in every sea where British carried on commerce. They asked that frigates be sent over by August to cruise against England’s Baltic trade and attack the British Isles.

Still hopeful that Congress had ships to command, they spoke of raids on Greenland whalers and Hudson Bay fishing fleets, and urged that Navy ships convoy shipping in the Caribbean, since England would now send privateers and heavy units of her fleet there.

Carmichael wrote a strong-action letter to William Bingham on Martinique, mincing no words as to the policy being carried out in France: “I think your situation of singular consequence to bring on a war so necessary to assure our independence, and which the weak system of this court seems studiously to avoid. … As such is their miserable policy, it is our business to force on a war … for which purpose I see nothing so likely as fitting our privateers from the ports and islands of France. Here we are too near the sun, and the business is dangerous; with you it may be done more easily.”

He went on with suggestions for arming vessels in Martinique and manning them with French seamen, which must have amused Bingham, who was already busy at this very work. He and his friend the Marquis de Bouille, the new governor of Martinique, had a privateer fleet with American masters and French and Spanish crews which was making itself felt in the Caribbean. Bingham was in other privateering ventures with Robert Morris and had made St. Pierre a virtual American war base.

A Final Twist to the Lion’s Tail

Late in May Captain Wickes made a cruise quite around Ireland in company with two other captains and captured eighteen small vessels. They sent eight of them to France and got back safely. George III now realized that the purpose behind the Wickes and Conyngham raids was to stir him up against France, which only increased his fury. Stormont was instructed to tell Vergennes that the “Rebels’” game was up.