- Historic Sites
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
There is a distinct anomaly in the fact that even with captures from British transports Congress scraped together for Washington’s use in 1775 only about forty tons of gunpowder. Most of the supply was still down in the Caribbean, but the fact remains that there must have been more powder on the continent than the various colonies and the merchants were willing to release to Congress. No doubt the colonies hoarded local supplies for their own defense, and the merchants hoarded their stocks for higher prices. War profiteering was pandemic. Moreover, importers of cannon and powder had to arm their merchantmen, and if their merchantmen were transformed into privateers, as many were, they needed a large supply of ammunition.
The fact is that Congress had little authority over the colonies—it managed to adopt the Army, but the Continental Navy was a bitter joke. Long before it got into feeble action, eleven of the colonies had started their own navies, and several of them commissioned their own privateer fleets. Congress had little to do with America’s maritime war, which was a tremendous undertaking. It could not supply Washington gunpowder in 1775 nor cope with the enlarging task of war procurement.
The United States fought all the way through the war without a government. The country had no President and Cabinet, no executive departments, no constitution. It had only an overworked legislature trying to perform administrative functions. In this desperate situation a few individuals took over as heads of non-existent departments. Washington was the War Department, Robert Morris at various times was Treasury and Navy and always was Commerce, and Franklin was the Department of State. He had written his own instructions for Commissioner Franklin to carry out.
Franklin, bobbing a thermometer over the Reprisal ’s rail to take the temperatures of the Gulf Stream, could think about the life of the sea, this western Atlantic and warm Caribbean which nature had chosen as the home for the new race of Americans. His future United States included Canada and the Floridas and the British West Indies, especially Bermuda and the Bahamas. He might have included the foreign islands, since all colonial America had been united for a century and a half in its resistance to the mercantilism of Europe.
Islanders and continentals had worked out a prototype of the free trade which was one of Franklin’s major objectives. Much of this trade was illicit, but it was based on realities and it bred a friendship between the West Indies and the mainlanders which was all-important to the Revolution. It is hard to see how the patriots could have started their war, or kept it going, without the help of the islanders.
The islet of St. Eustatia, an international free port in the northern Leewards, was a fountainhead of what Samuel Adams called the Unum Necessarium . Lying close to British, Danish, French, and Spanish islands, Statia, as she was known to her friends, had for generations offered European goods at bargain rates, and arms to any enemy of Britain. During the Revolution this tiny island was the clearinghouse for American trade with the Caribbean and Europe, including Britain. The warehouses lining her one street, a mile long, were crammed with munitions, ship’s stores, bolts of cloth; sacks of sugar and tobacco covered the very sands, and the roadstead was packed with merchantmen.
The greatest suppressed scandal of the war was the British trade with the enemy on Statia. Bermuda, which barely escaped becoming the fourteenth state, had a large merchant colony on the Dutch island, and there sold her American friends the thousand fine cedar sloops she built or refitted for them.
Franklin had a share in preserving the friendship between the mainland and Bermuda at a moment when it was severely strained. In the summer of 1775 Colonel Henry Tucker, whose clan dominated island affairs, came to Philadelphia in a state of worry and resentment. By September Congress’ lamentable trade embargo would include the West Indies, and no more mainland produce would be sent Bermuda, which meant a galloping famine. It also meant that mainland meat and fish would spoil for lack of salt. The only source for salt during the war was the Turks Islands beds at the tail of the Bahama chain, long a Bermudian monopoly.
When Colonel Tucker told Franklin and Morris that there was a respectable supply of gunpowder in the royal arsenal at St. George’s which could be abstracted in a midnight raid, a bargain was struck. Offered the bait of gunpowder, Congress swallowed the hook which Franklin had prayerfully included and ruled that any vessel bringing war supplies to the seaboard would be allowed to load up with produce. After that opening wedge, which tacitly killed the embargo, Franklin’s resolution for world trade was bound to go through.
The powder was stolen; Bermuda was fed. For the rest of the war she ran salt to the mainland, refused to privateer against the Americans, and built for them her superb sloops. The Bahamas, too, acted as allies.
As for the French islands, the Cape developed into a prime source for munitions, and Martinique became an American privateer base before Franklin sailed. During the summer Congress became alarmed at the massing of French warships in the Caribbean and sent young William Bingham to find out whether this mobilization portended action against the United States. Captain Wickes, who had been one of the picked men of Morris’ trading fleet, was chosen for the voyage.