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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
On the land, if Washington finally got enough men and guns, he might wear down British troops far from their home base. But his eventual victory depended on two essentials which only Europe could provide: military supplies of all sorts and a powerful navy.
The thirteen colonies were in the nightmare situation of trying to fight the strongest power in the Western world almost barehanded. On Christmas Day Washington wrote Congress: “Our want of powder is inconceivable.” Three weeks later there was not a pound in his magazines. If General Howe had guessed that, he could have ended the war then and there.
By then Congress had set up two secret committees on both of which Franklin was extremely busy. The Secret Committee, dominated by the capable merchant Robert Morris, methodized the smuggling of war supplies from Europe, which had been going on for years. The Committee of Secret Correspondence, under Franklin, engaged agents abroad to explore the possibilities of foreign alliances. The colonies could not conclude treaties until they declared themselves a nation, and the necessity of getting military supplies and the support of a powerful fleet did a great deal to hasten independence.
Getting a fleet for Washington was high on Franklin’s agenda. The Continental Navy would never be able to take on the larger British units. America could fight only her own sort of war on the seas, and this had started before Lexington and would continue long after Yorktown. Hundreds of privateers were at their work of economic attrition, wearing down Britain’s strength by blows against her merchant shipping. But the early ratio of seven British merchantmen captured to one American lost was rapidly declining, and Britain’s patrol of the seaboard was making it difficult to maintain a supply line of military and civilian goods.
Privateers could accomplish wonders, but they could not fight the great British ships of the line. Franklin’s most pressing assignment was to buy or borrow eight battleships from France and to urge both Bourbon powers, France and Spain, to send fleets at their own expense to act in concert with these ships. This was the same thing as asking France and Spain to declare immediate war against Great Britain. However, Franklin had boarded the Reprisal for that very purpose. The man who believed there was never a good war or a bad peace was about to use all his powers to sweep the Bourbon nations into the War of Independence.
During Franklin’s years in London he had watched the old power pattern repeat itself. Britain won the Seven Years’ War and imposed the Peace of Paris which bred the next cycle of conflict with the Continental powers. They all hated and feared Britain as the newly dominant nation of Europe. She had stolen Holland’s priority on the seas and had swept France from the American continent and the best part of her fisheries. Spain had suffered less, but she was tied to France by the Bourbon Family Compact.
France, planning a war of revenge, saw in the growing revolt of the thirteen colonies a chance to weaken her chronic enemy, and by 1766 she was ready to rush to their support if they broke with England. She threaded the colonies and Britain with her spies; Versailles knew much better than Whitehall how the Revolution was shaping.
During this period of watchful waiting, Franklin applied political pressure. One after the other his Whig friends rose in Parliament and warned that France might soon come out in support of the Americans. Since George III was violently against a war with the Bourbons these warnings disturbed him, but they did not change his fixed purpose to bully the colonies into obedience.
The historian Henri Doniol, who edited the secret French archives of the period, claimed that Franklin did more than coach the Whigs; that he in fact started an international gunrunning ring by quiet negotiations with certain arms manufacturers and exporters in England, Holland, and France. It is true that these countries, and to some extent Spain, had for some time been shipping out contraband for America, mostly through their Caribbean islands. It is also true that Franklin could have helped along such conspiratorial work without leaving a trace of his part of it.
The Doctor was adept at working through trusted friends, and his friends were legion. Some of them were British merchants; others were American sea captains who could be trusted to deliver letters or verbal messages to people on the Continent. Without changing his normal contacts Franklin could easily have guided a conspiracy to make the Revolution a reality instead of a lost cause.
According to Doniol, Franklin dealt through Sieur Montaudoin of Nantes, a great shipping merchant, and the savant Dr. Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg. Dubourg, said the archivist, amassed arms with the help of the brilliant new foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, who was determined to make the American rebellion a success; and Montaudoin shipped this contraband to America.
Both men were in Franklin’s confidence, and they worked closely with Vergennes. Sieur Montaudoin shared many interests with Franklin; both were members of the Royal Academy of Sciences, enthusiasts of the new physiocratic school, and Masons. But Montaudoin and all Nantes had begun to increase clandestine trade with the thirteen colonies about 1770, long before Franklin decided on his personal break with England.