Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance


Spain had been fighting Portugal in South America and had favored just such an alliance with the hope of getting Portugal as her share of the plunder. Now the picture had entirely changed, and Spain hoped to make peace with the new king on the Portuguese throne. Floridablanca’s policies prevailed; he wanted to keep the United States too weak to threaten Spanish possessions in America. Charles III refused the triple alliance. Louis XVI was helpless; he dared not begin the war without Spain.

This was a bitter blow to Vergennes and a calamity to the Americans. Franklin’s experiment had been a complete success in the laboratory sense; the sea raids had brought England and France to the verge of war. But he had not reckoned on the reversal of Spanish policy. Nor had Vergennes, who was extremely cool in his calculations. He had connived in the Conyngham raid in the confidence that the next time Stormont came fuming into his Cabinet with threats of war, he could hand the pestiferous ambassador his portfolio and wish him a pleasant old age in England.

Now he must placate Stormont. He had come to the point where he must drop his perilous but always enjoyable collaboration with Franklin and play for France alone. He could not punish Conyngham, who was in parts unknown, so he had William Hodge arrested and sent to the Bastille.

Hodge was not released until the last of the fishing fleet was safely home in France. He soon went down to Spain, where Conyngham was taking fresh prizes.

The Stolen Portfolio

Athur Lee’s mission to Spain had done nothing to warm her heart to America. The letter announcing his imminent arrival in Madrid was received with consternation. It was February, and the ominous shift in the ministry from the friendly Grimaldi to the hostile Floridablanca was taking place. The King was always anxious to avoid friction with England, and Lee’s visit would arouse her suspicions.

It happened that America’s greatest Spanish friend, the merchant Don Diego Gardoqui of Bilbao, was in Madrid at the moment, and he was called into consultation. He had high connections at the court, which did not at all disapprove his heavy shipments of arms to American merchants, and later he was appointed ambassador to the United States. Gardoqui proposed a sensible solution: he and the retiring foreign minister, Grimaldi, would arrange a secret rendezvous just across the border, and Lee would not enter Spain at all.

In the kindest of letters, Gardoqui explained the situation to the approaching envoy and suggested a meeting on the French side of the border. Since this ruined Arthur Lee’s flattering picture of himself as America’s first envoy to Madrid, he was enraged. He insisted on holding the conferences on Spanish soil at Vitoria; he wrote an ungracious memoir to Grimaldi and crossed the border.

Despite his own best efforts, Lee’s mission turned out to be a success. Grimaldi told him that the King was presenting the Americans stores of arms, clothing, and blankets which their ships could pick up at New Orleans and Havana. He was also making them a gift of 375,000 livres. For his part, Gardoqui promised to ship other stores on liberal credit.

Since Charles III had already contributed a million livres to Hortalez & Company, and allowed New Orleans to become an American privateer base, he may well have thought that he had done his share. After Lee’s visit he proffered no more aid and listened to Floridablanca.

Lee next stormed Prussia. A clever negotiator could have done much there, for Frederick the Great despised the British and the little German states that sold them mercenaries; he took a lively interest in the progress of the American war and was ready to expand Prussia’s trade with the Americans, which so far had been clandestine.

With great fanfare Lee proposed to make Prussia a second France. He demanded every favor under heaven and even wrote Frederick (who refused to receive him) a preposterous letter, in effect telling him how he could run his kingdom better. The chief results of the mission were the snuffing out of Prussia as a potential ally, and the theft of Lee’s papers by a professional burglar hired by the British ambassador. Among the papers was Lee’s private journal with a log of his Spanish transactions and details of every move made by the Paris mission up to that June.

As a result of Lee’s carelessness in leaving his portfolio in his room when he went out to dine, the commissioners had to abandon the building of a great frigate in Amsterdam, and she was sold to Louis XVI at cost. Their difficulties in shipping out supplies to America were also greatly increased, for Lee had set down everything he could learn without coding it.

He returned to Paris with his usual air of pompous impeccability, for his conscience was light. Some inner mechanism in the Lee genes transmuted whatever was wrong with the Lees into something much worse that was wrong with their enemies. He was delighted to find his brother William waiting for him in Paris. Due to the fantastic time lag in communications with Congress, Alderman Lee was about to take up his assignment as joint commercial agent for France ten months after Congress had canceled that assignment and appointed him envoy to Prussia and Austria.