- 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
When they arrived at Martinique, the Americans were so cordially received that Bingham settled down as resident agent for Congress. It turned out that the French warships had been sent with orders to protect not only the islands of Louis XVI, but also any American vessels in the area. They might refit in the island ports, stock up their magazines, cruise the Caribbean, and bring their prizes in to St. Pierre for judgment in Mr. Bingham’s court of admiralty.
This was amazing enough; France had broken through the limits of her ostensible neutrality and was allowing Martinique to become a base of war against Britain. Franklin and Morris could hardly have believed Captain Wickes’ news on his return to Philadelphia if a courier had not come back from Europe at the same time with even more wonderful tidings. A certain Monsieur Hortalez, said the courier, was sending munitions worth £200,000 to the Cape, Martinique, and Statia, which American captains could obtain for Congress simply by saying “Hortalez” to the port commandant. There was no mention of payment.
It happened that Franklin and Morris were the only members of the Committee of Secret Correspondence in town when the courier arrived, and they resolved to keep the news to themselves. Anything known in Congress was apt to percolate to Whitehall. Franklin had already planned his mission to France, where he would be joined by his fellow commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee. Now he hurried his preparations, and Captain Wickes was ordered to make all speed to Nantes, and to avoid action if possible.
Nearing France, Dr. Franklin changed the captain’s orders. The Nantucket half of Franklin was always strong, and he longed to see how the captain and ship behaved in an engagement. Moreover, a certain project which he may have discussed with Morris and Wickes was developing in his mind, and he needed to find out how France would react if prizes were brought into Nantes.
Wickes took two small merchantmen which ran down their colors with alacrity. Franklin enjoyed the brief engagements. He wrote home that in the fighting there had been “good order and readiness … equal to anything of the kind in the best ships of the king’s fleet.”
Contrary winds kept the Reprisal from entering the Loire to make the port of Nantes. She anchored in Quiberon Bay with her prizes, and Franklin made a bone-racking journey overland by post chaise. He was hardly prepared for the booming activity in America’s behalf that he found in Nantes. Sailcloth and shoes, embroidered waistcoats and fusils, cannon and wig powder were crated and piled on the docks for shipment to the country that needed everything. There were sixty-odd American merchants established in Nantes, and when Franklin considered that all this activity was being repeated on a somewhat smaller scale in Bordeaux, Lorient, Le Havre, and Dunkirk, he felt that the Franco-American alliance was already a reality.
To the citizens of Nantes the alliance was not merely a commercial bond, but a blend of credos and enthusiasms which they shared with their friends overseas. Masonry was powerful in France and all-powerful in Nantes, and for perhaps a generation its exporters had been sending American brothers, along with bills of lading and business papers, sheaves of French Masonic literature in exchange for similar pamphlets from the colonies. The new physiocratic school had its followers on both sides of the Atlantic. And Franklin, Voltaire, and Rousseau were linked together as the presiding geniuses of the century. At the moment, Nantes was all Frankliniste .
The American was adulated, wined and dined. His friend Sieur Montaudoin bought a great Dutch ship and named it Benjamin Franklin . The Doctor, instead of staying with the Montaudoins, allowed himself to be captured by people he disliked. His discretion was fathomless, and he may purposely have avoided emphasizing his old friendship with the man who carried out some of the ministry’s most secret work for America. Franklin’s hosts were the merchants Pliarne and Penet, who had little standing in Nantes, but who may have been subsidized by Vergennes. At any rate, they had bobbed up in Philadelphia and obtained the first publicized arms contract between Congress and foreign shippers. Franklin soon warned Congress not to enlarge its connections with this questionable pair.
A growing fleet of American privateers had already brought prizes into the various French ports, and a system had been perfected for their disposal. When Wickes brought his captured brigantines to Nantes they were speedily bought by a French purchaser for less than half their value. A swarm of workmen then changed the “marks” of the vessels by slapping on new coats of paint, changing the figurehead, and such devices. The port records were similarly camouflaged.