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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
As for Dr. Dubourg, this bookish man was an incongruous visitor at Versailles by June of 1776, by which time he had received Franklin’s appointment as the French agent of his Committee of Secret Correspondence. It was plain that Vergennes rather disliked him and gave every evidence that he was dealing with him only because he represented someone important. The arms of which Doniol speaks had long since been amassed, and it seems probable that Dubourg and Vergennes discussed other matters.
However, Franklin was a wizard at intrigue, and many secrets lie with him in the Christ Church burying ground. The fact that he was a genius, and a genius of such multiple gifts that he might easily inspire alarm or jealousy in others, had early taught him the art of using screens and disguises. He masked his powerful and subtle mind behind the benevolent simplicity which was also part of his nature. He radiated reassurance like one of his own stoves; the warmth and charm of his personality masked his Merlin powers.
Gunrunning to America was certainly going on in 1774, and no doubt Franklin knew about it. Whether this was one of the patriotic conspiracies for which he risked his life that year scarcely matters, for the contraband traffic would have gone merrily on if Benjamin Franklin had never existed.
A smuggling mechanism had long since been perfected, to the general salvation. All the colonizing powers tried to keep New World produce flowing home to the motherland. Americans, for instance, were forbidden to trade directly with foreign countries or with the foreign islands of the Caribbean, except in a few commodities which could be sold under cumbersome and expensive restrictions. This rule was so thoroughly disobeyed that great shipping houses like Willing & Morris of Philadelphia kept factors, or at least correspondents, all over Europe and the Caribbean to take care of their trade.
The Stamp Act riots were noisy on the land, but the seas were quiet and busy. Tobacco and rice, strictly reserved to England, were now rushed across the Atlantic to Amsterdam or Lorient and exchanged for cannon, powder, teas, and other goods which Americans could not do without.
In August, 1774, Sir Joseph Yorke, for years the British ambassador at The Hague, wrote his superior, the Earl of Suffolk: “As the contraband trade carried on between Holland and North America is so well known in England … I have not thought it necessary of late to trouble your Lordship with trifling details of ships sailing from Amsterdam for the British Colonies, laden with teas, linnens, etc.”
But now he had something serious to report: “My informations says that the Polly , Captain Benjamin Broadhurst, bound to Nantucket … has shipped on board a considerable quantity of gunpowder. It is the House of Crommelin at Amsterdam which is chiefly concerned in this trade with the Colonies, tho’ some others have their share.”
In later reports Sir Joseph drew such an alarming picture of Dutch gunrunning, especially to the Caribbean, that the British sent a Navy sloop and cutter to spend the winter at Texel Island near Amsterdam. Captain Pearson of the Speedwell had orders to follow any suspected American ship out to the open sea and there arrest her. (We must remember that all this was happening before Lexington.)
British firms had also been running munitions to the colonies, and continued to do so, despite orders-in-council. Finally the almost moribund Board of Trade and Plantations was given the assignment—which doubtless proved profitable—of issuing permits to merchants wishing to export warlike stores. The destinations given were usually French ports on the Channel, and the ostensible purpose was the sudden enormous need for arms in the French slave trade.
By early 1775 the British embassy in France estimated that war supplies worth 32,000,000 livres (about $6,000,000) had been shipped from that kingdom to the colonies. The estimate means little, for the British were slow in discovering the tremendous scope of the activities abetted by Vergennes. He was such a master at dissimulation that he kept the British ambassador, Lord Stormont, convinced all through 1774 that nothing illicit was going on. There was merely enthusiasm for the American cause, Stormont reported to Whitehall, on the part of the “Wits, Philosophers and Coffee House Politicians who are all to a man warm Americans.”
The traffic which had started about 1770 was very large. American merchantmen picked up contraband all over Europe; the British, Dutch, and French sent some cargoes direct to the thirteen colonies, but far greater amounts to their islands in the Caribbean, to be picked up by American traders. The chief French ammunition dumps were Martinique and Cap François (now Cap Haitien) on Santo Domingo, known to seagoing Americans simply as “the Cape.” The Spanish shipped to New Orleans and Havana, and the British chose islands convenient to Washington’s chief arsenal, the Dutch island of St. Eustatia.