Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance

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Though he knew that affairs at Nantes were in a frightful state, William Lee lingered in Paris until August to confer with his brother about rearranging American foreign affairs to enhance the family glory. The first move was to eliminate Franklin and Deane by creating a scandal in Congress about their peculation of public funds. Much paper would be required for their letter campaign, and a spate of words would cover their omission of proofs. All that was needed was to add up the amount of money the mission had received, and then tell the Adams-Lee bloc in Congress that Franklin and Deane had stolen it.

William Lee opened the campaign against Deane in a letter to Francis Lightfoot Lee. “You can’t at this time,” he wrote, “be unacquainted with the faithless principles, the low, dirty intrigue, the selfish views, & the wicked arts of a certain race of Men, &, believe me, a full crop of these qualities you sent in the first instance from Philadelphia to Paris.”

Arthur Lee then followed with a letter to Samuel Adams which revealed his definite plan to supplant Franklin. The court of France, he wrote, “is the great wheel that moves them all” and he added that of all posts he preferred Paris for himself. On the same day he wrote Richard Henry Lee: “My idea of adapting characters and places is this: Dr. Franklin to Vienna, as the first, most respectable, and quiet; Mr. Deane to Holland; and the alderman [William] to Berlin. … France remains the center of political activity, and here, therefore, I should choose to be employed.”

He went on to suggest how Franklin and Deane might be erased altogether. Once he was installed as sole envoy in Paris, “I should have it in my power to call those to account, through whose hands I know the public money has passed, and which will either never be accounted for, or misaccounted for, by connivance between those, who are to share in the public plunder. If this scheme can be executed, it will disconcert all the plans at one stroke, without an appearance of intention, and save both the public and me.”

The Bleak Autumn of ’77

Just a year after independence was declared the Americans lost Fort Ticonderoga to Burgoyne, and on September 26 Howe entered Philadelphia. Vergennes was so disheartened by the bad news which had arrived even before these disasters were known, and he so much dreaded a sudden declaration of war by Britain, that in August he formally closed the ports of France to American privateers and their prizes. Franklin and Deane co-operated with him by being very discreet about evading this prohibition, but the year which had begun so brilliantly in maritime operations was in the doldrums.

British spies were everywhere. Bancroft was still the mission confidant at Passy; certain Americans who sat at Deane’s dinner table reported on ship movements to the British secret service, and Captain Joseph Hynson, who happened to be Lambert Wickes’s stepbrother, stole an entire pouch of dispatches intended for Congress, which contained all the secret correspondence between the mission and the French ministry for the last eight months. This theft was not discovered until the pouch was opened in America and proved to contain nothing but the blank paper substituted by Hynson. The stench of treachery was in the air.

Franklin comforted himself by beginning his magnificent work for the prisoners at Forton and the Old Mill in England, masters and men of the Continental Navy and the privateer fleet who were classed as pirates by George III and who sickened and starved in his antiquated prisons. Through English friends Franklin raised funds to give the prisoners warm clothes and blankets, food, a chance to bathe and wash their clothes, and spending money for small comforts. With Deane and Carmichael, and all those shadowy young Americans who helped the great privateering drive of 1777, he organized an underground system for escapes.

A phenomenal number of men escaped Old Mill Prison at Plymouth; they scaled the walls, dug long tunnels under them, or bribed the guards to let them through the gates. Before they escaped they were furnished money and instructions about English allies who would get them across the Channel, and French merchants at the ports who would then take care of them. On his first escape from Old Mill in 1779, Conyngham tunneled out with 53 companions. Franklin labored incessantly to get prisoners exchanged in the time-honored way, with only partial success. He refused to sign the final peace treaty with England until all American prisoners were released.

Affairs at Nantes became more and more tangled, and William Lee did nothing to straighten them out. Tom Morris was dragging out the last months of his wretched life, and Lee saw no point in beating a dead horse. He decided that Jonathan Williams, the soul of probity, should be drawn into the Lee crusade against all rivals, and soon Congress was hearing about Williams’ “embezzlements of public funds.” Franklin prudently released his grandnephew from his post as special agent for the mission, and he remained in Nantes in private business. But the harm had been done.