Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance


Apprehensive as he was about Britain, Vergennes risked war to release Captain Wickes and Captain Henry Johnson, who had sailed in company with him on the Irish cruise, from their long protective arrest in port. (The third captain of that cruise was staying behind to take out one of the new American frigates built at Nantes.) Vergennes decided that honor was preferable to peace, faced down an ultimatum from England, and got the two Navy ships safely to sea, where they would have to take their chances with the British warships waiting for them. Johnson was captured and sent to the Old Mill, from which he soon escaped. Wickes got clean away, only to founder in a storm off the Banks of Newfoundland. Every man aboard was lost except the cook.

The news of Howe’s occupation of Philadelphia arrived in November as the climax of an excruciating period in which Franklin’s own campaign had reached a stalemate. The great powers seemed less inclined than ever to begin their war. Spain had ceased her royal aids to America. The greater part of the American seaboard was tightly blockaded, and the whole Atlantic was so unsafe that Dutch shipments to Statia now went out under heavy convoy. The Channel Islands privateers were out in force, and the maritime war in Europe, which could no longer be closely directed from Passy, was in a state of anarchy.

In mid-November George III, who had no intention of starting a war with France, decided it would be useful to know the Spanish plans and sent Paul Wentworth to Paris to find out how Charles III stood. Bancroft was in a balky mood but finally gave the desired information: Spain was not ready for a war with England.

For once Wentworth brought the King good news, the only kind he could ever believe. He wrote Lord North that the agent “has shewn great zeal and dispatch in the business he had so handsomely undertaken and ably accomplished.”

“The Father of Mischief”

There was no good news at Passy. Franklin could make his quip about Philadelphia taking Howe while he privately worried about his family and friends there, about Washington’s reverses, and the dreadful paralysis that had seized the French ministry. He had reached an impasse: France would not help America unless America showed promise of winning her war, and America could not win without French help. The winter of Valley Forge was beginning, and its bleakness was in the comfortable house at Passy too. Only a great heart and a great faith could survive.

Deane’s griefs were personal. His beloved wife had died, and his best friend Robert Morris had thrown him over because he had told the truth about Tom. Morris was as stubborn as George III about refusing to believe bad news, but when he was finally convinced of his mistake he was full of contrition. The misunderstanding was cleared up, but meanwhile Deane was bitter about Morris and bitter about the energies he had poured into his public life, only to be systematically destroyed by the Lees.

Their poison letter campaign was reinforced by the arrival of Ralph Izard, a southern planter and rancid snob. He was a bosom friend of Alderman Lee and had accepted his appointment by the Adams-Lee bloc in Congress as envoy to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He had sent some of his baggage ahead to Florence, never dreaming that an Izard would not be received in the duchy.

However, the Grand Duke was not receiving Mr. Izard or any American, so he remained in Paris near William Lee, who had been similarly repulsed by two courts: Vienna and Berlin. They were the victims of their friends in Congress, who believed in promiscuous diplomacy as a device for distributing patronage.

Franklin insisted that Arthur Lee was mad, and perhaps only a madman could have created a cabal of such malignity and scope out of nothing but his own emotions. The dreadful thing is that Arthur Lee’s nightmare was accepted by perfectly sane men and that it not only outlived the Eighteenth Century but has persisted in a shadowy form into the Twentieth. Even respected modern historians will repeat some of Arthur Lee’s calumnies about Franklin and Deane, Jonathan Williams, and William Carmichael, though they have been disproved over and over since their creation in a sick mind.

By the summer of 1777 Arthur Lee openly accused Deane and Beaumarchais of appropriating £200,000 which he said the Bourbons had intended as a free gift to America. The copies of his early correspondence with Beaumarchais proved that he knew better. In November Congress resolved to recall Deane for questioning, and sent John Adams to take his place in the mission. No charge was made against Deane, but for two years Congress kept him in Philadelphia at its pleasure while the press vilified him. He left the rack ruined in fortune, health, and mind, and openly went over to the British.

The campaign against Franklin, “the father of mischief,” took longer because, as Izard confessed in a letter to the president of Congress, Henry Laurens, it was extremely difficult to find any proofs of his crimes. However, Izard and Arthur Lee let no day pass without earnest efforts, and on January 2, 1781, a move was made in Congress for Franklin’s recall. At the first hint of this the Doctor tendered his resignation, which to his relief was not accepted.