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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by James Parton

Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.

 

Part 6

CHAPTER IV.

            THE DARK HOUR BEFORE THE DAWN.

 

            September, October, and November, 1777, were anxious months with the servants of Congress in Europe. Not a decisive word of General Burgoyne or General Howe had reached them. Dr. Franklin, I think, must have derived some comfort from reading the exceedingly absurd and pompous Proclamation with which General Burgoyne had begun his southward march into the State of New York. If he had had the privilege of reading as many productions of that kind as the people of the United States have been favored with in recent years, he would, probably, have dismissed all apprehensions of danger from a General capable of opening a difficult campaign with a burst of swelling and boastful words. It was only Napoleon who could both brag and conquer; and Napoleon was then a boy of nine, at school in Corsica. Nevertheless, General Burgoyne's comic opening paragraph was founded on grim fact. "The forces intrusted to my command," said he, "are designed to act in concert, and upon a common principle, with the numerous armies and fleets which already display in every quarter of America the power, the justice, and, when properly sought, the mercy of the king." (1) So, if General Burgoyne should fight no better than he wrote, there were still General Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and the fleet.

 

            Nor was the prospect cheering in Europe. No more little naval triumphs; no more prizes; no more privateering; no hope of burning Liverpool and Glasgow; for a strong squadron of British men-of-war cruised off the mouth of the Loire, and shut up the American vessels in Nantes, as though the port were blockaded. Besides, worthy Captain Wickes was drowned; brave Johnson and Nicholson were languishing in British prisons; the bold Conyngham had been obliged at last to fly from British waters; and the alert Hammond had been taken on his way home. In September, too, the envoys had spent all their money; Beaumarchais, all his; Thomas Morris, all the public money under his control; no cargoes came to their relief; and there were contractors, commissioners, captains, crews, agents, clerks, servants, prisoners escaped from England, a hungry and clamorous host, all looking to the envoys for payment or daily bread. In such dire extremity were they at one time, that Dr. Franklin proposed that they should sell part of the clothing and arms that were waiting for shipment at Nantes. (2) They concluded, at length, after many long conferences, to lay the state of their affairs before the King of France; to press him to acknowledge the independence of the United States; and grant them a loan that would really relieve them, say fourteen millions of francs. They also offered to sell the king the frigate they were building in Holland, which, they feared, they would never be able to finish and equip in that cautious, Britain-fearing country. A mémoire to this effect was drawn up, which their banker, Mr. Grand, conveyed to the Count de Vergennes on the twenty-fifth of September. The minister engaged to have it immediately translated, and to present it to the king.

 

            September 29th, arrived at Passy a Captain from America with dispatches; but, alas! they proved to be merely duplicates of those last received. Arthur Lee, however, received a private letter, one paragraph of which he read to his colleagues. He made this entry in his diary the next day: "I read a paragraph to the commissioners, in my brother Richard Henry Lee's letter, stating that without an alliance with France and Spain, with a considerable loan to support their funds, it would be difficult to maintain their independence. Resolved to send Mr. Grand next day to Count Vergennes, for an answer to the mémoire." Mr. Grand went, accordingly. He reported that the count had not yet laid the mémoire before the king, but would do so ere long; that he "seemed to think fourteen millions of francs a great demand;" and that, as to the proposed recognition, it would involve all Europe without materially helping America. The ministers also reproved the envoys for "the unguarded manner in which they did business," saying that "Lord Stormont had apprised Mons. Maurepas that a mémoire was intended before it was presented." "Mr. Grand," continues Arthur Lee, "communicated these things to me in private, and I desired him to do it to all the commissioners together, that it might suggest to them some caution in the conduc t of our affairs, which were open to all the world. He did so; and it was considered as a pretext for refusing to assist us by one, and as an unjust accusation by the other. It was said that if Lord Stormont had such information from some one about us, he would not have told it, because that would prevent any further communication, and therefore it seemed improbable that Lord Stormont had told them so. Mr. Lee said, that in these cases Lord Stormont's object was to excite distrust and destroy all confidence between them, which it appeared he, aided by other things, had but too well effected."

 

            It was on the first of October that Mr. Grand conveyed to the envoys this discouraging report of his interview with the minister. Day after day, week after week passed, and yet no answer to their mémoire came.

 

            We have a specimen of Dr. Franklin's conversation at this dark time, the preservation of which we owe to Arthur Lee; for even Arthur Lee could not, at all times, resist the charms of Dr. Franklin's conversation; and he records in his diary some interesting particulars of several interviews. October 25th, the application to the French court for pecuniary aid being still unanswered, Mr. Lee and Dr. Franklin fell into conversation at Passy upon the state of affairs. Upon reaching home, Mr. Lee made an unusually long entry in his journal, recording chiefly what Franklin had said.

 

            "He seemed to agree with me," wrote Mr. Lee, "in thinking that France and Spain mistook their interest and opportunity in not making an alliance with us now, when they might have better terms than they could expect hereafter. That it was well for us they left us to work out our own salvation; which the efforts we had hitherto made, and the resources we had opened, gave us the fairest reason to hope we should be able to do. He told me the manner in which the whole of this business had been conducted, was such a miracle in human affairs, that if he had not been in the midst of it, and seen all the movements, he could not have comprehended how it was effected. To comprehend it we must view a whole people for some months without any laws or government at all. In this state their civil governments were to be formed, an army and navy were to be provided by those who had neither a ship of war, a company of soldiers, nor magazines, arms, artillery or ammunition. Alliances were to be formed, for they had none. All this was to be done, not at leisure nor in a time of tranquillity and communication with other nations, but in the face of a most formidable invasion, by the most powerful nation, fully provided with armies, fleets, and all the instruments of destruction, powerfully allied and aided, the commerce with other nations in a great measure stopped up, and every power from whom they could expect to procure arms, artillery, and ammunition, having by the influence of their enemies forbade their subjects to supply them on any pretense whatever. Nor was this all; they had internal opposition to encounter, which alone would seem sufficient to have frustrated all their efforts. The Scotch, who in many places were numerous, were secret or open foes, as opportunity offered. The Quakers, a powerful body in Pennsylvania, gave every opposition their art, abilities, and influence could suggest. To these were added all those whom contrariety of opinion, tory principles, personal animosities, fear of so dreadful and dubious an undertaking, join with the artful promises and threats of the enemy, rendered open or concealed opposers, or timid neutrals, or lukewarm friends to the proposed revolution. It was, however, formed and established in despite of all these obstacles, with an expedition, energy, wisdom, and success, of which most certainly the whole history of human affairs has not, hitherto, given an example. To account for it we must remember that the revolution was not directed by the leaders of faction, but by the opinion and voice of the majority of the people; that the grounds and principles upon which it was formed were known, weighed, and approved by every individual of that majority. It was not a tumultuous resolution, but a deliberate system. Consequently, the feebleness, irresolution, and inaction which generally, nay, almost invariably attends and frustrates hasty popular proceedings, did not influence this. On the contrary, every man gave his assistance to execute what he had soberly determined, and the sense of the magnitude and danger of the undertaking served only to quicken their activity, rouse their resources, and animate their exertions. Those who acted in council bestowed their whole thoughts upon the public; those who took the field did so with what weapons, ammunition, and accommodation they could procure. In commerce, such profits were offered as tempted the individuals of almost all nations to break through the prohibition of their governments, and furnish arms and ammunition, for which they received from a people ready to sacrifice every thing to the common cause, a thousand fold. The effects of anarchy were prevented by the influence of public shame, pursuing the man who offered to take a dishonest advantage of the want of law. So little was the effects of this situation felt, that a gentleman, who thought their deliberations on the establishment of a form of government too slow, gave it as his opinion that the people were likely to find out that laws were not necessary, and might therefore be disposed to reject what they proposed, if it were delayed. Dr. Franklin assured me that upon an average he gave twelve hours in the twenty-four to public business. One may conceive what progress must be made from such exertions of such an understanding, aided by the co-operation of a multitude of others upon such business, not of inferior abilities. The consequence was, that in a few months the governments were established; codes of law were formed, which, for wisdom and justice, are the admiration of all the wise and thinking men in Europe. Ships of war were built, a multitude of cruisers were fitted out, which have done more injury to the British commerce than it ever suffered before. Armies of offense and defense were formed, and kept the field, through all the rigors of winter, in the most rigorous climate. Repeated losses, inevitable in a defensive war, as it soon became, served only to renew exertions that quickly repaired them. The enemy was everywhere resisted, repulsed, or besieged. On the ocean, in the channel, in their very ports, their ships were taken, and their commerce obstructed. The greatest revolution the world ever saw is likely to be effected in a few years; and the power that has for centuries made all Europe tremble, assisted by 20,000 German mercenaries, and favored by the universal concurrence of Europe to prohibit the sale of warlike stores, the sale of prizes, or the admission of the armed vessels of America, will be effectually humbled by those whom she insulted and injured, because she conceived they had neither spirit nor power to resist or revenge it."

 

            A valuable passage; which it was a virtuous action in Mr. Arthur Lee to preserve. He had formed the intention of writing a history of the Revolution, and this, I presume, was to be used as "material."

 

            A few days after this conversation, Mr. Grand announced to the envoys that the king would buy their frigate; and, in addition, would make them a further loan of three millions of francs; and endeavor to induce the King of Spain to do the same. He would, moreover, engage never to leave them unprovided with sufficient means to pay the interest of their debt.

 

            This timely, but inadequate, relief, raised the hopes of the Americans only for a short time; for, soon came tidings from England, that the city of Philadelphia had fallen (September 20th) into the hands of General Howe. Franklin turned it off with a joke, but it is evident that the news (though not implicitly believed) dashed the spirits of the whole circle. "Well, doctor," said an Englishman to Franklin, "Howe has taken Philadelphia." "I beg your pardon, sir," was the reply, "Philadelphia has taken Howe." (3) Which proved true, for he was effectually shut up in Philadelphia for many months. Dr. Franklin was not yet aware that his daughter, with an infant four days old, had again been removed from the city, and that British Captain André was quartered in his house, playing with his electrical apparatus, his musical glasses, his harps, harpsichords, viols, and books.

 

            November 27th, the three envoys met at Passy to consult upon what they should say to Congress in their next dispatches. Mr. Deane, who had both to share and console the distress of Beaumarchais (he alone being concerned with that lively, but now disconsolate, personage), was much disheartened. Mr. Lee has recorded the substance of the conversation:

 

            "Mr. Deane began the discourse; he remarked upon the proceedings of this court with a good deal of ill-humor and discontent; said he thought it was our duty to state the whole to Congress; that things seem to be going very badly in America; they would be less provided for next campaign, and more pressed than ever. He, therefore, was of opinion we should lay before this court such a statement as would produce a categorical answer to the proposition of an alliance, or satisfy them that without an immediate interposition, we must accommodate with Great Britain.

 

            "Dr. Franklin was of a different opinion; he could not consent to state that we must give up the contest without their interposition, because the effect of such a declaration upon them was uncertain; it might be taken as a menace, it might make them abandon us in despair or in anger. Besides, he did not think it true; he was clearly of opinion that we could maintain the contest, and successfully too, without any European assistance; he was satisfied, as he had said formerly, that the less commerce or dependence we had upon Europe, the better, for that we should do better without any connection with it.

 

            "Mr. Lee was against any such declaration, lest it might deprive them of the assistance they now received, instead of increasing it. He thought this court had acted uniformly and consistently with their declarations; that the violent things done were of necessity, and compelled by the bad conduct of our people; (4) that we ought to instruct those who were going to America to avoid speaking with bitterness against this country, but rather to soften the resentment of others, arising from considering the injuries and not the benefits we had received from France; he was of opinion that if the credit of their funds was maintained, all would go well; he therefore proposed informing them that the commissioners had funded two millions of livres, to pay the interest of what they borrowed, or bills drawn upon emergent occasions. This, with attention to sending the cannon and clothes, which were ordered, would, it seemed to him, put them on much more firm and respectable ground than ever, and he saw not the least reason to despair of success. Mr. Deane objected to reserving any of the money received, and to giving Congress any power for money here. He said the court had promised to enable them to pay the interest of what they borrowed, and that was enough; for he knew that if Congress were allowed to draw, they would never rest till they had drawn for every farthing, and that as we were to furnish them with what was necessary there would be no occasion for it. Mr. Lee replied that there was uncertainty in our supplies reaching them, and it might well happen that prevalent as the spirit was of sending adventures to America, they might make offers of these very necessaries upon the spot, which it might not be in their power to pay for in produce, while their ports were blocked up, and which they might purchase by bills on Europe. Dr. Franklin appeared to agree with Mr. Deane, and it seemed settled that they were to trust to the promise of the minister for paying the interest of their debt; though Mr. Lee observed that promise was vague and verbal," etc., etc.; Mr. Lee continuing, for some time, to multiply objections, and imagine difficulties.

 

            This dismal conversation, it is interesting to know, occurred as late as November 27th, only seven days before the arrival at Passy of Mr. Austin, the messenger sent to convey to the envoys the news of General Burgoyne's surrender, and of General Washing ton's spirited and all but successful attack upon the British forces at Germantown!

 


 

 

Notes

 

1. For a copy of General Burgoyne's Proclamation, see "Frank Moore's Diary of the Revolution," i., 464.

2. Deane Papers, p. 50.

3. Related by Lafayette to Fanny Wright; by her to Jeremy Bentham. — "Bowring's Bentham" x., 527.

4. Mr. Lee alludes here to the exploits of Captain Wickes and Captain Conyngham; which exploits he frequently denounces in his letters home, attributing them to the interested machinations of Deane, Beaumarchais, and Williams. He was not aware, perhaps, that there was a party in the French Cabinet and Court which desired such irregularities.

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