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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
Vergennes too recognized the subtle strategy behind the cruises, and he was coming to the decision that war could not be postponed much longer. To gain time, he placated Stormont by arresting the three Wickes vessels (which kept them safe from the British warships on patrol) and by promising that the new cutter being fitted for Conyngham would be sold. Stormont subsided; England needed time too.
Conyngham was still in the Dunkirk jail, the only safe place for him. His new cutter, the Revenge , had been bought by William Hodge of Philadelphia, who had also obtained Conyngham’s first ship. This well-connected young man had been sent direct from Congress to buy two ships to serve as packets for the mission. Almost every transaction carried out for Congress was a mixture of public and private business, an accepted practice. The Revenge was owned half by Congress and half by Hodge and David Conyngham, a wealthy cousin of the captain’s who was on a business trip to Europe.
When Vergennes’s orders came through to sell the Revenge , nobody was alarmed. It meant only the familiar rite of “changing the property” on paper. Carmichael, who was still the liaison man between Passy and Dunkirk, found an obliging British subject as the ostensible purchaser of the Revenge , and while he was about it he sold the Surprise to a French “buyer” and sent her around to Nantes to join the privateer fleet.
Conyngham lusted for his fine new cutter, which mounted 14 six-pounders and 22 swivels, and would have a crew of more than a hundred American and French seamen. By late June the captain and his men were released from jail, and the Revenge was loaded with powder and arms. A week later she was halfway out of the harbor when a British sloop and cutter were sighted. Conyngham hastily sailed back to his berth and unloaded the powder. These British snoopers were the very ones who had quarantined the American powder runners in Amsterdam in 1774, and they came with orders to burn the Revenge if she sailed out. Besides, five British warships blockaded the harbor. It looked like a checkmate.
But in mid-July Conyngham took his unharmed cutter out to sea and anchored at a safe rendezvous. That night boats brought his cannon and powder and a number of French seamen, and the Dunkirk Pirate was on his way. A disguised British vessel at Dunkirk had alerted the warships, and as soon as the Revenge was in the open sea she was chased by several British frigates, sloops of war, and cutters. Conyngham shook them off and began the most spectacular cruise of the war.
He raided in the North Sea and the Baltic; he sailed around England and then around Ireland, everywhere taking prizes. He burned some and sent others to America, the West Indies, or whatever theater of war seemed to need their cargoes most. He terrorized the towns on the east coast of England and Scotland. He seemed to be everywhere at once, a nightmare figure. Finally, not daring to return to France, he made for Cap Ferrol in Spain.
One of Conyngham’s prizes was recaptured by the British, who took her into Yarmouth. The prize crew of five Americans and sixteen Frenchmen were put in prison, and the prize master was forced to confess that Conyngham had made other captures. The first British protests were made to the French ambassador, Noailles, who blandly replied that “in a great nation there are many turbulent spirits eager to run after adventures.” He did not attempt to have his turbulent compatriots released from prison.
Stormont then delivered to Vergennes threats only a step removed from war. If Conyngham was not punished, Stormont would resign, breaking off diplomatic relations with France. Moreover, orders would be given for British warships to seize the French fishing fleet daily expected from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Vergennes, who had confidently hoped to receive these protests under very different circumstances, was forced to buy a little more time at the expense of his American friends. He agreed to investigate the matter.
By the middle of July Vergennes had made up his mind to ask the King for armed intervention. He waited until the Revenge was safely out of Dunkirk, and then he and the commissioners exchanged letters, purely to clear the record, about the necessity of France abiding by her treaties, which meant no more violations by American privateers.
That formality over, Vergennes was ready for his great move. On July 23 he wrote a memoir to Louis XVI declaring that the moment had come when France must resolve “either to abandon America or to aid her courageously and effectively.” He urged a closer alliance to prevent a reunion of Britain and America. Secret aid was no longer sufficient, he argued, for the British claimed that the policy of the Bourbons was to destroy England by means of the Americans, and America by means of the British. Vergennes admitted that open assistance to the United States meant war, but war was in any case inevitable.
In the last months the King had relinquished his illusion that war could be avoided, and he approved his minister’s memoir the day it was presented. Because of the Family Compact, Spain would have to approve the alliance with America, and accordingly Vergennes’s memoir was sent to Madrid with its proposal for a triple offensive and defensive alliance.