Return to The Tory Lover -- Contents .
from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
by James Parton
Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.
THE ALLIANCE WITH FRANCE.
Few men have won immortality more agreeably than Mr. Jonathan Loring Austin, the bearer of dispatches who brought to Paris this tremendous intelligence. Let us accompany the young gentleman in his mission; we shall catch thereby some precious glimpses of that stirring, memorable time.
Massachusetts sent him — spirited, generous, patriotic Massachusetts! No sooner had it become certain that Burgoyne's expedition was frustrated, than the Council of Massachusetts, perceiving the infinite importance of getting the news swiftly to France, completed a fast-sailing vessel, and appointed Mr. Austin (then Secretary to the Massachusetts Board of War) special messenger. The details of the great surrender having arrived, and the dispatches being ready, the vessel sailed on the last day of October, followed by the benedictions of a million patriotic hearts. The Sunday before she sailed, we are told, a note was handed to Dr. Chauncey, minister of the Brick Church in Boston, where Mr. Austin and his family attended, asking the prayers of the congregation for the safety of the messenger and the success of the voyage. The good doctor, it seems, was not a man of perfect tact, and the occasion was one that roused his patriotic feelings to the highest pitch. "He thanked the Lord," records a writer, "most fervently for the great and glorious event which required the departure of a special messenger. He prayed that it might pull down the haughty spirit of our enemies; that it might warm and inspirit our friends; that it might be the means of procuring peace, so anxiously desired by all good men; and that no delay might retard the arrival in Europe of the packet which contained this great news. He invoked a blessing, as desired, on the person who was about to expose himself to the dangers of the sea to carry this wonderful intelligence across the mighty waters; but," said he, "whatever in thy wise providence thou seest best to do with the young man, we beseech thee most fervently, at all events, to preserve the packet." (1)
It pleased Heaven to preserve both the packet and the young man. He reached Nantes in thirty-one days, and pushed on rapidly for Paris. Swiftly as he traveled, a rumor preceded him of the arrival of a special messenger, and all the circle of official Americans hurried out to Passy to be present at the opening of the packet. Deane, Lee, William Lee, Izard, Bancroft, Beaumarchais, all appear to have been there. When Mr. Austin's chaise was heard in the court, they went out to meet him, and before he had time to alight, Dr. Franklin cried out:
"Sir, is Philadelphia taken?"
"Yes, sir," replied Austin.
Upon hearing this Dr. Franklin clasped his hands, and turned as if to go back into the house.
"But, sir," said Austin, "I have greater news than that. General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!"
The effect was thrilling, electric, overwhelming, indescribable. But they did not shout, nor seize each other by the hand, nor rush, French-fashion, into each other's arms. The three envoys and Mr. Austin hastened into the hotel, and spent the rest of the day in reading, copying extracts, and writing dispatches, Austin himself being pressed into the service to assist. "The news," said Mr. Deane afterwards, "was like a sovereign cordial to the dying." Beaumarchais, who had been for several days in an agony of despair, feeling himself to be on the brink of irrecoverable ruin, was almost beside himself with joy. He straightway ordered his carriage, and drove towards Paris at such a furious pace, that the vehicle was overturned, and one of his arms dislocated. (2) Dr. Bancroft instantly set out for London, for what purpose did not immediately appear, but Mr. Arthur Lee was perfectly sure his errand could be no other than to make a corrupt use of the secret on the stock exchange. No doubt he went, at Dr. Franklin's request, to make known the full details of the intelligence to the heads of the British Opposition, Shelburne, Fox, Burke, and Rockingham; of whom more anon. The envoys busied themselves, first, in preparing a dispatch for Count de Vergennes, containing a summary of the news; which they sent, within a few hours after Mr. Austin's arrival, to Versailles by an express. In a few days all Europe had heard it; and, except the tory party of Great Britain, and the Continental holders of English stock, all Europe rejoiced at it. In Paris the intelligence was received, said Franklin, as if the victory had been won by their own troops over their own enemies; "such is the universal warm and sincere good will and attachment to us and our cause in their nation." Mr. Dumas wrote from the Hague, that the Cafés and the Exchange were all astir with the news, and the colonies were considered lost to the English. England had been haughty and overshadowing since the peace of 1763, and it seemed that all nations and most men exulted in her humiliation; while liberal minds in England (3) and out of England, rejoiced in the weakening of a power warring against the rights of man.
Dr. Franklin, ever after, felt for Mr. Austin a peculiar affection; "as if," remarks the writer quoted above, "he had not merely been the messenger, but the cause of this glorious information." He took the young gentleman into his own family, and I gave him abundant employment as secretary to the embassy. Often, in meeting him at breakfast, or when sitting with him in the office, "Dr. Franklin would break from one of those musings in which it was his habit to indulge, and, clasping his hands together, exclaim, 'Oh, Mr. Austin, you brought us glorious news!' He made it a point to have the young Bostonian accompany him to all the great houses; wherein, at that period, Bostonian was more distinguishing and honorable than a title of nobility. He taught him to play chess, and delighted to have him at his bedside during his fits of the gout. Ere long, he found for him an honorable and confidential mission, of which we shall have to speak in a moment.
Events now succeeded one another with great rapidity. It will be convenient, for a short time, to give our narrative in the form of a diary.
Dec. 4th. On this, the day of Mr. Austin's arrival, the envoys, as just related, sent off their dispatch to Versailles; which is ten miles from Paris, and eight from Passy. Mr. Lee, also, wrote to the Spanish ambassador (Lee still holding his commission as envoy to Spain) and to the Prussian prime minister, an outline of the news.
Dec. 5th. Letter-writing — congratulations — tumultuous joy!
Dec. 6th. M. Gerard, secretary of the king's council and under secretary for foreign affairs, called upon the envoys at Passy, charged with messages of the first importance. The Count de Vergennes, he said, had directed him to convey to the envoys their congratulations upon the victory, and to assure them that the tidings had given great pleasure at Versailles. The king, he added, would be glad to have further particulars of the recent events, and he assured them that they might depend upon the three millions of francs from Spain. But the grand object of his visit was to say, that as there could no longer be a reasonable doubt of the ability of the States to maintain their independence, it was desired at Versailles that the envoys should renew their proposals for an alliance with France; and the sooner the better, in order that there might be time to secure the concurrence of Spain, and to prepare for the next campaign. M. Gerard was informed that extracts from American newspapers and dispatches relative to the surrender of Burgoyne and the battle of Germantown were then preparing, and should be sent to the king as soon as they were ready.
December 7th. Dr. Franklin drew up a short memorial to the Count de Vergennes, thanking the king for the three millions of francs last granted by him, and proposing an immediate alliance between France and Spain, and the United States.
December 8th. The memorial was submitted to the other envoys, who approved and signed it; though Mr. Lee snarled a little because the preparation of so short and simple a document had taken two days (one of which was Sunday). "Young Mr. Franklin" conveyed the memorial to Versailles along with the packet of extracts for the king. The Count de Vergennes received him with unusual cordiality and politeness. "In two days," said the minister, "an answer shall be sent to you, and you will then see how much disposed I am to serve the cause of America." Sir George Grand (brother of the banker employed by the envoys), dining with Dr. Franklin to-day, said at the table that the Count de Vergennes, in a note received a few hours before, had spoken of the envoys as "our friends," instead of "your friends," as he had always called them before.
December 10th. Mr. Lee sent a memorial to Count d'Aranda, the Spanish embassador, urging the proposed alliance upon Spain. He asked Sir George Grand to mention to M. de Vergennes that American Commissioners for Prussia, Austria, Tuscany, and Spain, were then in Paris, and would go to their destinations as soon as the French court thought proper. He also requested the banker to say to the minister how extremely convenient it would be if the French government would grant convoy to the fleet of American supply ships that were shut up at Nantes, at a daily expense to Congress. Sir George Grand conveyed these hints to the Count de Vergennes; who replied, that as to the convoy, he would speak of that to the minister of marine; and, as to the commissioners, he saw no objection to their going at once to their courts, but advised him to consult the Spanish embassador on the subject. Grand called upon the Spanish embassador, who made this prudent reply: "I have two ways of thinking, one as the count d'Aranda, and the other as the embassador of my court. As the former, I wish Mr. Lee, in whom I have the greatest confidence, at Madrid; as the latter, I may give no opinion till I receive orders." The envoys received a note from M. Gerard, informing them that the Count de Vergennes desired to confer with them the day after to-morrow, at ten o'clock in the morning, at Versailles.
December 11th. Letter received from the minister of the King of Prussia, to the effect that Mr. William Lee could not yet be received at Berlin as an envoy of the United States; but that he might reside there, if he pleased, as a private gentleman. No, thank you, replied Mr. William Lee; will not give any embarrassment by going to Berlin; will remain at Paris till the king wants me.
December 12th. To-day occurred the appointed conference with Count de Vergennes. Particular precautions were taken to conceal the fact of the meeting from British spies. On reaching Versailles the envoys repaired to some friendly covert at a distance from the palace, and sent word to M. Gerard that they awaited his pleasure. A hackney coach, conducted by one of M. Gerard's servants, soon drove up, and receiving the Americans, conveyed them to a house half a mile out of town, where they found both the minister and the secretary. Our only knowledge of the important conversation which ensued is derived from the too brief notes of Arthur Lee:
"The minister made us some general compliments upon the present prosperous state of our affairs, and conversed some time upon the situation of the two armies. He said nothing struck him so much as General Washington's attacking and giving battle to General Howe's army. That to bring an army raised within a year to this, promised every thing. He asked Dr. Franklin what he thought of the war. He answered he thought we should succeed, and the English soon be tired of it. Mr. Lee said his excellency might judge what would be the event of the war, from observing that the most signal successes of the enemy were productive of their greatest misfortunes. Howe's advantages on Long Island, New York, and New Jersey, raised a spirit that repelled him with considerable loss. The taking of Ticonderoga, and rapid progress of Burgoyne, had brought upon him a total overthrow. What hopes, therefore, could there be of a war in which the most brilliant success allured them to their ruin? The fact was, that nothing but a sense of pressing danger and necessity would draw forth the militia, in which the real strength of America consisted, and which, when drawn out, appeared to be irresistible. The minister took our last memorial from his secretary, and read it. He then desired we would give him the information it promised, and any thing we had new to offer. Dr. Franklin said that the entering into the treaty proposed was the object, and if there were any objections to it we were ready to consider them. The count said, that it was the resolution of his court to take no advantage of our situation, to desire no terms of which we might afterwards repent, and endeavor to retract; but to found whatever they did so much upon the basis of mutual interest, as to make it last as long as human institutions would endure. He said that entering into a treaty with us would be declaring our independency, and necessarily draw on a war. In this, therefore, Spain must be consulted, without whose concurrence nothing could be done."
He showed, however, that he considered that concurrence certain by entering into a long conversation with the envoys upon the details of the proposed treaty. But, not to commit himself irrecoverably, the wary minister again said, that Independence was an unborn child, whose advent must not be hastened prematurely. He promised to dispatch a courier to Spain immediately, whose return might be expected in three weeks. Meanwhile, he would do all that he could to facilitate the departure of the supply ships, and would, also, confer with the naval minister upon the subject of the convoy.
December 13th. The envoys renewed their request for convoy — a matter of vital and pressing importance; since the four laden ships at Nantes contained the stores essential for the next campaign. The miseries of Valley Forge were chiefly owing to the detention of this little fleet in the harbor of Nantes.
December 14th. To-day the French government took the significant step of ordering a royal frigate to be prepared for sea, for the purpose of conveying to America the news of the alliance about to be concluded between France and the United States.
December 15th. M. de Sartines, the minister of marine, engaged to furnish one frigate as convoy. This not being deemed adequate, the envoys asked for more; which, in due time, was granted.
The conduct of Mr. Arthur Lee, during these stirring days, being indescribable, I cannot describe it. Dr. Franklin was of opinion, reports Mr. Deane, that Lee's "head was affected." He found fault with every thing, suspected everybody, and passed his days in terror of not being sufficiently consulted and deferred to. His own diary confirms all that his colleagues charged him with. One day, he complains that his brother had news of the dispatch frigate before he had; the next, he charges his colleagues with rejecting a splendid offer of cheap cannon solely because it was he who had originally called attention to it; again, he records his conviction, that the reason why his colleagues would not buy tent-cloth in Spain was, that it would give no business to Jonathan Williams; on another day, he writhes at the thought of Mr. Carmichael being selected as the bearer of dispatches to Congress; and, when nothing else occurs to him, he chronicles that Mr. Deane failed to keep an appointment, or that Dr. Franklin, instead of talking about business, only "entertained him with some philosophical discourse."
December 17th. A great and joyful day at Passy. M. Gerard came with a message to the envoys from the king and Council, to the effect, that it had been decided by the French government to conclude a treaty with the United States, and to maintain their independence, as soon as the courier returned from Spain; which they must wait for as a mark of respect for that court. If war with England should result, the king would ask no stipulation but this, that they should never make peace with Great Britain except as independent States; the object of the king being a just, mutually beneficial and lasting connection with America. For the present, however, the alliance must be kept a most profound secret, because Spain was not yet ready for war, having an immense treasure from her American mines at sea, her fleet in bad condition, and her quarrel with Portugal not adjusted. Mr. Lee not being at Passy during the interview with M. Gerard, he did not hear of this important message till the next day, when he entered in his diary the remark: "It would have been more decent if the other commissioners had sent for Mr. Lee to be present at this transaction; “keeping M. Gerard, who was one of the main-springs of the French government, waiting while Mr. Lee was hunted up in Paris and conveyed to Passy.
The haste of the French government in making this announcement was, probably, due to its knowledge that the English ministry were in a humor to offer every thing to the envoys except independence. Already, it was said, there were emissaries in Paris from Downing Street seeking opportunities to sound the Americans. The time was at hand when, as Gibbon remarked in a letter to Lord Sheffield (February 23d, 1778): "The two greatest nations in Europe were fairly running a race for the favor of America;" England offering 1763; France, 1776.
December 22d. Mr. Arthur Lee visited this evening his friend, Ralph Izard. Izard asked him whether he had heard any thing, within the last few days, of a proposal from England to the envoys respecting terms of peace. "No," said Lee. "Then," continued Izard, "you are ill-treated, and you ought to call Mr. Deane to a severe account for his conduct; for that Paul Wentworth had a meeting with Mr. Deane, to whom he made propositions, which Mr. Deane gave to the French ministry." Mr. Lee declared that he had not heard a syllable of this before, and that he would inquire into it; but as the wrong was of a public or official nature, he could not take Mr. Izard's advice, and resent it personally.
December 23d. So Mr. Lee, meeting Mr. Deane at Passy, asked him whether a Mr. Wentworth was in town, and whether he had seen him. Oh, yes; Mr. Wentworth had sought an interview, had expressed a desire for an accommodation, and had asked on what terms it could be obtained, for, in his (Wentworth's) opinion, the English ministry were disposed to make peace. That was all.
December 24th. At last, to the great relief of M. de Beaumarchais, one of his ships returned from America, laden with a hundred and fifty thousand francs' worth of rice and indigo; a mere drop, as Beaumarchais said, to the ocean of his debts, but still a drop welcome and refreshing. Conceive his amazement and disgust when he found that this ship, chartered by him, loaded by him, and dispatched by him, in spite of thundering Stormont, timid Maurepas, and wary Vergennes, his own Amphitrite, was not consigned to the house of Hortalez and Co., but to Messrs. Franklin, Deane, and Lee; who had taken possession and ordered the cargo to be sold. No mention of Hortalez and Co.; no answer to Beaumarchais' sublime letter to Congress; no recognition whatever of the existence of the man who had set on foot all this stir in politics and commerce. But Caron de Beaumarchais was not the man to submit to such preposterous injustice. Finding written remonstrance of no avail, he went to Passy; he confronted the "rogue Lee;" he stated his case to the assembled envoys; he showed them the contract between Deane and himself; he exhibited proofs of his having chartered and controlled the vessel; he proved that it was his capital that had loaded her with warlike stores, and that the return cargo of American produce was his stipulated payment. "With tears in his eyes," (4) he begged that the cargo might be turned over to him, and the ruin of his house averted. Dr. Franklin could not resist the torrent of evidence; the cargo was unquestionably the property of Hortalez and Co., and to that eminent House it was given with the consent of Messrs. Franklin and Deane; Lee doing his utmost to prevent it.
January 1, 1778. The new year opened with the auspicious sailing from Bordeaux of a vessel bearing dispatches to Congress, announcing that the King of France had determined to conclude a treaty of alliance with the United States.
Jan. 6th. Dr. Franklin was approached by an English baronet. Sir Philip Gibbes, who desired to know what propositions for peace the American envoys were disposed to offer. Dr. Franklin replied that they had no propositions of any kind to make to the English government, those which Congress had offered having been treated with nothing but contempt; and as to the "dependency of the colonies," it "was gone like the clouds of last year." Some intimation of these soundings of the envoys by Wentworth and Gibbes must have reached the French cabinet, as well as certain advices from England, that Lord North desired nothing so much as peace with America, and was disposed to make unprecedented offers. To-day, also, the courier returned from Spain.
Jan. 8th. Another important interview with M. Gerard. It occurred in Paris, in the evening, at the residence of Mr. Deane, to which the other envoys were expressly summoned. Mr. Arthur Lee alone has recorded the particulars of this curious and decisive conversation. While waiting for Dr. Franklin's arrival, M. Gerard told Messrs. Deane and Lee, that a French admiral, M. de la Motte Piquet, with three seventy-fours and two frigates, was then clearing the coast of English cruisers; which he could do without collision, since the etiquette of the sea forbade the cruising of a foreign armed vessel "between the French flag and the French coast." Mr. Lee continues his entry:
"Upon Dr. Franklin's arrival, M. Gerard informed us that he came from the king, and the Counts Maurepas and Vergennes. But before he delivered to us what he had in charge, he desired our parole of honor to observe the most profound secrecy. We each of us promised it; but Dr. Franklin added some insinuation that secrets were not kept on their part, of which M. Gerard took no notice, but went into a somewhat tedious harangue, which closed with asking us three questions:
"1st. What would be necessary on the part of this court to satisfy the commissioners of its attachment to the cause of America, and prevent them from listening to the propositions of Great Britain.
"2d. What would be necessary to satisfy the Congress and people of the United States, and prevent them from acceding to the propositions which Great Britain might send to them.
"3d. What assistance would it be necessary for France to give them.
"The commissioners appearing to think it required some consultation before they could give answers, M. Gerard proposed to leave them together, and return in an hour, which he did. Dr. Franklin began to write, and the other two to talk. Mr. Lee said their instructions seemed to furnish them with proper answers. They were sent to negotiate a treaty with France, and the immediate conclusion of that would answer the two first questions; as the granting them eight ships of the line, for which they were instructed to solicit, would the last. Mr. Deane objected to the latter as dictating to them; to which Mr. Lee replied, it could not possibly be deemed dictation to answer a question, which they to whom they were sent had asked, in the manner in which they who sent them had directed…. Dr. Franklin said our present business was to consider the answers, which he had written down, and would read to us. This he did as follows:
"Question 1. What is necessary to be done, to give such satisfaction to the American commissioners, as to engage them not to listen to any propositions from England for a new connection with your country?
"Answer. The commissioners have long since proposed a treaty of amity and commerce, which is not yet concluded. The immediate conclusion of that treaty will remove the uncertainty they are under with regard to it, and give them such a reliance on the friendship of France, as to reject firmly all propositions made to them of peace with England which have not for their basis the entire freedom and independence of America, both in matters of government and commerce.
"Question 2d. What is necessary to be done, immediately, so to satisfy the Congress and people of America with the utility and certainty of the friendship of France in securing their independence, that they will also reject all propositions from England for peace, inconsistent with their independence?
"Answer. The supplying them with money to pay the interest of the bills issued and support their credit, will give them effectual assurance of the friendship of this court; and the sending them the aid of eight ships of the line, which they have desired, would enable them to protect their coast and their commerce, and thereby prevent the inclination or necessity of listening to terms of accommodation with England.
"To the first answer the commissioners agreed; and two to the second, with the addition of the word 'necessity,' proposed by Mr. Lee. But Mr. Deane began to object to the second, without offering any thing material, when M. Gerard returned. The first answer was read to him, with which he professed himself satisfied. As to the second, Dr. Franklin told him we were talking upon it when he came in. He said it was agreeable to him, if we chose it, to defer our answer to another time. He then added, that he was now at liberty to inform us that it was resolved to conclude that treaty with us immediately, for which he was authorized to give us his majesty's parole. That farther, it was determined to enter into another treaty offensive and defensive, to guaranty our independency upon condition of not making a separate peace, or relinquishing our independency; that he had been ordered to draw up these two treaties, which he expected to lay before the council the next day, and of which he would send us copies in a few days. He said the king was not actuated by ambition, or a desire of acquiring new territory, but solely by the desire of establishing the independency of America. That therefore they could not agree to the proposition of assisting us in conquering Canada for us, and the English islands for them. Neither was it their idea of assisting us by land; and they supposed it would not be very agreeable to us to have foreign troops in our country. Their aid therefore would be by sea. Mr. Lee asked him if he thought it proper that Spain should be moved at all. He said that court had not come to a resolution yet, but this would go on alone, reserving to them a right of acceding to the treaties; and they believed they could for some time do without them. That if their object could be secured without a war, it was their wish; but their resolution was to secure it at all events. M. Gerard added, that he was happy now to congratulate us upon the affair being brought to the point he always wished, and he hoped the connection would be as durable, as the terms were mutually beneficial."
Ten days passed before another step was taken.
Jan. 18th. M. Gerard again met the envoys at Mr. Deane's house, in Paris, where he read to them draughts, in French, of two treaties — one of amity and commerce, the other offensive and defensive; the former merely regulating the friendly and commercial intercourse between the two powers; the latter, a compact to make common cause with each other, if England, in consequence of the alliance, should declare war against France. M. Gerard left the draughts with the envoys for their revision, assuring them that he would conclude and sign them as soon as they were ready.
During the next eighteen days the envoys were engaged at Passy in translating, copying, discussing, and altering the treaties; meeting nearly every day, and holding long and animated conferences. Mr. Lee complained, querulously, that Dr. Franklin would not make greater haste. One day, when "young Mr. Franklin" humored him so far as to say, that "his grandfather's dining out every day prevented any business from being done," Mr. Lee remarked, in his diary, that it "was a very unpromising state of things, when boys made such observations on the conduct of their grandfathers." But there was really no occasion for extreme haste, now that dispatches were on their way home, containing the promise and substance of the treaties. And, indeed, when we consider that one of the treaties contained thirty-one articles, and the other thirteen, and that, upon every one of these, and every phrase of every one, four men had to agree, and that one of those men was Mr. Arthur Lee, of Virginia; and that each treaty had to be exactly translated into English, and the translation itself debated, and that only one secretary, Temple Franklin, was admitted to the secret; and, when we consider, also, the vast, far-reaching importance of the transaction, we shall not regard eighteen days as a very extravagant expenditure of time.
We may presume, however, that Dr. Franklin, portly and seventy-two, was not the intense and plodding man of business he had been in the early years of Poor Richard. Mr. Lee's diary of these treaty-discussing days contains a parenthesis, which, like a crevice in a wall, lets us peep in upon the envoys during a pause over their work: ("Some philosophical discourse arising, Dr. Franklin said it was his opinion that the matter of light was what entered largely into the nourishment of vegetables. This opinion I mention here for its curiosity, not for its pertinency.") Imagine this in the middle of a large page, treating of the fisheries, the sugar islands, and Mr. Lee's complaints against Mr. Deane and M. de Chaumont. We have, also, a little anecdote of this period. A large cake was sent, one day, to the apartment in which the envoys were assembled, bearing this inscription: "Le digne Franklin:" the worthy Franklin. Upon reading the inscription, Mr. Deane said: "As usual, Doctor, we have to thank you for our accommodation, and to appropriate your present to our joint use." "Not at all," said Franklin; "this must be intended for all the commissioners; only, these French people cannot write English. They mean, no doubt, Lee, Deane, Franklin." (5) "That might answer," remarked the magnanimous Lee, "but we know that whenever they remember us at all, they always put you first." Many pleasant little interruptions like these doubtless occurred, to alleviate the monotony of business, and to give Mr. Lee occasion to complain of Dr. Franklin's waste of time. The biographer of Mr. Austin, to whom we are indebted for this anecdote, and who derived his information from Mr. Austin's own life and letters, excuses Mr. Lee by saying that the "other commissioners, though the equals of Dr. Franklin in political rank, seemed to be forgotten entirely by the French people," and adds, "that it required considerable address, on the part of the philosopher, to preserve harmony."
In the course of the discussions, there occurred but one serious difference among the envoys, and that arose partly from Mr. Lee's inability to take a joke, and partly from his morbid desire to make himself of consequence. We must explain this matter, for Lee and Izard contrived to make a great deal of what we now call "capital," of it.
It was the article relating to molasses that Mr. Lee could not stomach. Molasses, I should premise, was "the basis on which a great part of the commerce of America rested" — to use the language of Mr. Deane. The West India islands, for example, paid for the flour, fish, beef, pork, butter, staves, boards, cheese, and fruit of New England, in molasses; which the people of New England distilled into rum, and the rum served them in lieu of money; for, at that day, rum was an article which, it was universally supposed, human nature could not dispense with. "New England rum," in the olden time, was as universal an article, from Maine to Georgia, as Monongahela whisky is now, and far more generally used. Hence Congress ordered the envoys, in case they should succeed in concluding a treaty, to endeavor to get France to engage never to impose a duty upon the molasses exported from the French West Indies to the United States. Congress was desirous to guard against any future disturbance of a branch of commerce upon which the solvency of the merchants so materially depended. Accordingly, in the plan of a treaty, which Congress had matured in 1776, an article was inserted exempting French molasses from export duty, and the envoys, in their secret instructions, were ordered "to press it" upon the French government, but "not to let the fate of the treaty depend upon obtaining it." The article, as finally submitted to M. Gerard, was in these words:
"It is agreed and concluded that there shall never be any duty imposed on the exportation of the molasses that may be taken by the subjects of the United States from the islands of America, which belong, or may hereafter appertain, to his most Christian Majesty."
M. Gerard objected. He said the article was "unequal," inasmuch as the United States obtained a concession or privilege without granting any thing as an equivalent; and, consequently, the article must either be omitted or an equivalent inserted. The envoys concurred in the justice of his objection, but found it impossible to think of any commodity which the French islands took from America which was half as important to them as their molasses was to us. Dr. Franklin mused upon this difficulty for some time, but, at last, the idea came; and a pleasant thing it must have been to see his countenance break into smiles as the conception, in all its comic proportions, became clear to him. He proposed the following:
"In compensation of the exemption stipulated by the preceding article, it is agreed and concluded that there shall never be any duties imposed upon the exportation of any kind of merchandise, which the subjects of his most Christian Majesty may take from the countries and possessions, present or future, of any of the thirteen United States, for the use of the islands which shall furnish molasses."
The reader perceives that it was only an export duty which the United States agreed never to impose; a kind of duty which Dr. Franklin well knew, his countrymen never could be so ignorant and foolish as to think of imposing. But France might; France, under the ancient regime; France, that preferred the folly of Beaumarchais to the wisdom of Turgot. The article, therefore, gave a Nothing for a Something. It was a sane man solemnly promising not to cut off his own nose; and, thereby, binding a flighty neighbor never to close an important thoroughfare that ran across a corner of one of his outlying fields. I wonder the envoys could ever have talked it over without laughing in one another's faces. Besides: taking the thing seriously, the single article of molasses did actually pay for, and was, therefore, the equivalent of the bulk of the numberless articles which Yankee schooners took to the French West Indies. (6)
That profound and sweet-tempered magpie, Arthur Lee, could not or would not see it in this light. "What!" said he, "shall we tie both of our hands for the privilege of binding one of France's fingers? Shall we exempt every thing from export duty for the sake of a single article? Monstrous!" M. Gerard, who was content with Franklin's equivalent, said that the king attached slight importance to the two articles, and was equally willing to accept or omit both. Long was the affair debated between the envoys; but, at length, Lee yielded, and they were unanimous for retaining both articles. Mr. Lee even went so far as to draft the joint letter which informed M. Gerard of this unanimous resolve.
So the affair was settled, then, was it? By no means. At the last conference Mr. Lee had urged his colleagues, since they could not agree, to consult the other envoys, Mr. William Lee and Mr. Izard. Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane refused — of course. Mr. Lee, therefore, after having notified the French government of the unanimous acceptance of the two articles, privately consulted his brother and Mr. Izard upon the point in dispute; an act at variance with engagements expressed and implied.
The reader is aware that Ralph Izard and William Lee were brothers in enmity against Dr. Franklin, and I must now make known the particular cause of that enmity. It has been before mentioned that, early in 1777, Congress named William Lee joint commercial agent with Thomas Morris, and that many months elapsed before his commission reached him; so that Morris would have been left at Nantes unchecked in his riotous career, but for the appointment of Jonathan Williams to take charge of the prizes and ships of war. The appointment held by Mr. Williams was naval, not commercial; and it was one which envoys certainly had the right to confer who had been expressly authorized to bestow naval commissions, and had been intrusted with a supply of blank commissions for that purpose. Surely the authority that can make a post-captain, and confer the command of fleets, is competent to appoint a naval agent; especially when the necessity for such an officer is so pressing and so obvious as it was at Nantes in the summer of 1777. Mr. William Lee thought otherwise. The envoys, he knew, had received a notification of his appointment to the joint commercial agency, and he was of opinion that the profits of the business, so ably and economically done by Jonathan Williams, ought to fall into the pocket of a very different style of gentleman. His brother, also, deemed it an indignity that "the clerk of a sugar-baker" should take the place supposed to belong to one who had held the great office of Alderman of London.
Three months before the date of the molasses controversy, Mr. William Lee had made a serious effort to bring over Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane to this view of the case. Accompanied by the fiery Izard, he went to Passy, in October, 1777, and, after stating the misconduct of Thomas Morris, asked the assembled envoys to furnish him with a letter, addressed to all captains in the naval service of the United States, informing them that he was an agent, duly appointed by Congress, and that they were bound to follow his directions. (7) Provided with such a letter, he said, he would go to Nantes, and do his utmost to reform all abuses. In other words, "Turn out your nephew, Doctor, who is doing the naval business at Nantes well and cheaply, and put me in his place, who cannot do it better, and am not likely to do it at Mr. Williams's modest two per cent. commission." "This request," says Mr. Izard, in one of his letters to Dr. Franklin, "which appeared to me extremely reasonable, was, to my astonishment, rejected both by you and Mr. Deane." Dr. Franklin, with perfect good nature, and as though Mr. Izard had a right to meddle in the business, proceeded to narrate what he had done with regard to Thomas Morris, and added, that Mr. Robert Morris had "given him a rap over the knuckles,” for interfering. "Your reasons," continues Izard, "did not appear satisfactory to me, and I took the liberty of telling you so, which gave you very great offense." Mr. Izard, in fact, had the impertinence to say to Dr. Franklin, that it was "unreasonable to allow his resentment against the Secret Committee, for a supposed tacit reproof, and against Mr. Robert Morris for a rap over the knuckles, to operate to the prejudice, perhaps to the destruction, of the commercial concerns of his country." Dr. Franklin's reply, says Izard, was direct and positive: "If these consequences should happen, Mr. Robert Morris and the committee must be answerable for them. I am determined not to meddle in the matter." (8) Mr. Deane concurring in this resolution, the three southern gentlemen, the Messrs. Lee and Izard, took their leave, frustrated and irate; and, from that time, though an appearance of civility was maintained between them, Mr. Izard was not consulted by Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane upon public business; an omission which rankled in the breast of the fiery son of South Carolina.
No sooner had Arthur Lee communicated the affair of the molasses to his brother and Ralph Izard, than both those gentlemen declared a determination to protest against the insertion of the ob-noxious article in the treaty. William Lee was dissuaded by his brother from carrying out this resolve, but Izard would not be dissuaded, and wrote to Dr. Franklin, stating a variety of the most trivial and imaginary objections to the article. One of his points was, that the French were not likely ever to place export duty on molasses. Perhaps not. But was Congress likely to impose an export duty upon any thing?
Jan. 28th. On arriving at Passy, this morning, Arthur Lee found Dr. Franklin and his grandson busy in preparing an exact copy of the translation of the treaty, preparatory to the signing, now daily expected. Izard's letter had been received, and Dr. Franklin remarked that Mr. Izard had evidently heard but one side of the argument, and that the letter had made no change in his opinion. "He seemed much out of humor," reports Lee; said "it would appear an act of levity to renew the discussion of a thing we had agreed to." He reminded Mr. Lee that he had offered, at a former conference, to be of any opinion rather than disagree, for he did not attach to the articles so much importance as Mr. Deane. "Some years before he had left America," he said, "a discovery had been made that molasses could be procured from cornstalks; and who knew that we should not, one day, make our own molasses? But now that the articles were settled, translated, copied, and formally communicated to the French government, he was opposed to the reopening of the subject. Mr. Lee was not satisfied, however, and continued to argue.
Jan. 30th. Those cornstalks — Mr. Lee could not get them out of his head. He went home that evening meditating upon cornstalks, and, probably, called on his friend Izard, and talked cornstalks with him. No; he could not, would not, must not, sign a treaty containing the molasses article! The result of his cogitations and conferences was, that he sat down, and wrote a long letter to his colleagues, informing them that "fuller lights" upon the subject had brought him to the firm determination not to consent to the molasses article, unless his refusal would totally prevent the alliance. The "fuller lights," he enumerated: 1. M. Gerard had told them that the French government did not intend to impose any export duty upon molasses; 2. "Dr. Franklin informed me yesterday that a substitute for molasses had been found in America, procurable from a substance which is the growth of the country, and of infinite plenty"; 3. Suppose the treaty should bind the French not to put an export duty upon their molasses, could they not prohibit its exportation altogether? As though he had said: You propose to bind them not to cut off their noses, but leave them perfectly free to amputate their heads! No such diplomacy for me, gentlemen. What is the use of a nose when the head is off? Mr. Lee, therefore, proposed that "both articles should be left open to be rejected or admitted by Congress, without affecting their ratification of the rest of the treaty."
February 1st. Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane now resolved, for the sake of unanimity, to humor their troublesome colleague to the full. "Although," they replied, "we cannot see the mischievous consequences of the twelfth article which you apprehended, yet, conceiving that unanimity on this occasion is of importance, we have written to M. Gerard this morning that we concur in desiring that article and the preceding to be omitted, agreeable to his first proposal.'' Mr. Lee himself conveyed to M. Gerard at Versailles the letter of his colleagues asking the omission. M. Gerard informed him that the treaty had been passed upon by the king in council, and had been engrossed upon parchment; and ministers were of opinion that it would hazard their own credit with the king, and even endanger the treaty, if they should now propose alterations. In any case, an alteration would require to be submitted to the king in council, which would occasion delay. He consented, however, to accept Mr. Lee's proposal, and to leave it to Congress to ratify the treaty either with or without the articles. So Mr. Lee had his way. He had, also, a few weeks later, the triumph of learning that Congress had chosen to ratify the treaty without the disputed articles; a triumph dear to the pride of the Lees for many a year. The reader may imagine that M. Gerard, the Count de Vergennes, and M. de Sartines had their own opinion of Mr. Arthur Lee after this transaction.
February 6th. The treaties were complete, and, to-day, the most glorious except one of Franklin's public life, they were to be signed and sealed. M. Gerard met the envoys in the evening. The treaties were read and compared with the translation, and various preliminaries settled. Mr. Lee then recurred to the vexed subject of the molasses, and did so, as he confesses in his diary, that his colleagues might hear M. Gerard's answer. "Do I understand you aright, M. Gerard, as having said that Congress might reject the eleventh and twelfth articles without affecting the ratification of the rest?" M. Gerard's politeness, it appears, was overtasked by this ill-timed revival of a disgusting subject, and he answered, says Lee, "with an appearance of ill humor which made Mr. Lee believe there had been some private insinuations made to him." M. Gerard said that he had had the honor of telling Mr. Lee at Versailles, “that as the articles were mutual, and it was endeavored to make them all so, and the basis of the treaty was mutual interest, wherever that mutuality was thought not to take place, there could be no objection to omitting them. And he believed upon a representation of it from Congress, there would be no difficulty here relative to the articles in question, which were assented to from an opinion of its being a very desirable thing in America."
The molasses being finally disposed of, the treaties were spread out upon the table, and M. Gerard took up his pen to sign. Again Mr. Lee interposed. There was still a formality wanting, which the veterans present had forgotten, or, else, considered of no importance. Lee, I suppose, had been reading some Diplomatist's Own Book, and was not going to be balked of a bit of ceremony. "M. Gerard was going to sign," records the punctilious tyro, "when Mr. Lee, having waited till the last moment for Dr. Franklin to propose it, observed that there was a previous ceremony necessary, which was the reading and exchanging their powers. Upon this M. Gerard delivered to them his powers, which were for each treaty, and the commissioners gave him their commission which was all the powers they had. M. Gerard then sealed and signed, and after him Dr. Franklin. They then went to the fireside and were talking, while Mr. Deane and Mr. Lee were sealing and signing. Mr. Deane inquired of Mr. Lee, with apparent anxiety, how he would sign to distinguish his two characters. Upon which Mr. Lee asked M. Gerard whether he thought it would be necessary for him to sign twice as plenipotentiary for France and for Spain, who said he thought not, but that the characters might be added to the signature. Mr. Deane then asked Mr. Lee how he would word that? to which Mr. Lee answered, Commissioner Plenipotentiary for France and Spain; upon which Mr. Deane observed, that there was no occasion to make this addition to more than the secret and separate article. The treaties were committed to the care of Dr. Franklin. M. Gerard, after some mutual compliments on having happily concluded so important a business, took his leave."
It was remarked by Dr. Bancroft and others, that on this occasion Dr. Franklin wore the same suit of Manchester velvet which he had worn on the day when Wedderburn, with the applause of a great concourse of lords, had insulted him in the Privy Council. "It had been intended," says Dr. Bancroft, "that these treaties should be signed on the evening of Thursday, the fifth of February; and when Dr. Franklin had dressed himself for the day, I observed that he wore the suit in question; which I thought the more extraordinary, as it had been laid aside for many months. This I noticed to Mr. Deane; and soon after, when a messenger came from Versailles with a letter from M. Gerard, the French plenipotentiary, stating that he was so unwell from a cold that he wished to defer coming to Paris to sign the treaties until the next evening, I said to Mr. Deane, 'Let us see whether the Doctor will wear the same suit of clothes to-morrow; if he does, I shall suspect that he is influenced by a recollection of the treatment which he received at the Cockpit.' The morrow came, and the same clothes were again worn, and the treaties signed. After which these clothes were laid aside, and, so far as my knowledge extends, never worn afterwards. I once intimated to Dr. Franklin the suspicion, which his wearing those clothes on that occasion had excited in my mind, when he smiled, without telling me whether it was well or ill founded. I have heard him sometimes say that he was not insensible to injuries, but that he never put himself to any trouble or inconvenience to retaliate."
The envoys, on this memorable occasion, affixed their signatures to three documents: 1. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce; whose thirty-one articles were only thirty-one variations upon the twin themes suggested by its title. It bound both nations to be good friends, and trade fairly, and grant no superior privilege to any other nation. It aimed to provide against all probable, and many improbable, causes of misunderstanding, descending even to mention what should be done in case a ship of one of the parties should "stick upon the sands" of the other. 2. The Treaty of Alliance; to be operative only in case France, by recognizing and aiding America, should be drawn into a war with Great Britain. It declared that "the essential and direct end of the present defensive alliance is to maintain effectually the liberty, sovereignty, and independence, absolute and unlimited, of the United States, as well in matters of government as of commerce;" and ordained, that "neither of the two parties shall conclude either truce or peace with Great Britain without the formal consent of the other first obtained," nor lay down arms until the independence of the United States was secured. If Canada should be conquered, it should belong to the United States: if any West India islands, they should belong to France. 3. A Secret Article, providing for the admission of Spain to the alliance, as soon as that tardy power should desire it; which would be, it was hoped, as soon as the silver ships had arrived and the Spanish navy had been put in order. (8)
The deed was done; but it was not avowed. M. Gerard solemnly bound the envoys to keep all that passed between them relative to the alliance in the strictest secrecy, until they had received notification that Congress had ratified the treaties; of which, strange to say, the French government had some doubts, thinking it possible Congress might be shaken by the offers of England. He, nevertheless, assured them that France and the United States had now a common cause, and that M. le Motte Piquet, the admiral who was to command the convoying fleet, had received strict orders not to give way one inch to the English, nor suffer any of his convoy to be touched; and if upon that ground the English chose to commence hostilities, “France was determined.” (9)
I have remarked before, that Dr. Franklin habitually made use of his acquaintance with the leaders of the English Opposition to convey to England correct information of the state of things in America. The interests of America and the interests of the Opposition were identical; a victory in the United States over the king’s troops presaged and hasted the decisive victory in the House of Commons over the king’s hired majority. During the progress of the late negotiations, Dr. Franklin resolved upon sending to England Mr. Austin, for the sole purpose of giving Lord Shelburne, Mr. Fox, Mr. Burke, Lord Rockingham, and the liberal members of Parliament, such a complete insight into American affairs as would enable them to demonstrate the impossibility of reducing the States to submission. The strange spectacle was then afforded of the most eminent British statesmen associating with, and entertaining in their houses, a commissioned emissary of their king’s revolted subjects; the king’s own son and heir not disdaining his society. The secret was well kept, however, and few persons, even at this late day, are aware that such an audacious mission was ever undertaken. At the death of Mr. Austin, in 1826, his family gave the public a brief account of this singular adventure, to the following effect:
“As a preparatory measure, Dr. Franklin required Mr. Austin to burn, in his presence, every letter which he had brought from his friends in America; in exchange for which he gave him two letters, which he assured him would open an easy communication to whatever was an object of interest or curiosity…. Trusting to his prudence, and enjoining on him the most scrupulous attention to preserve from all but the proper persons the secret of his connection with the commissioners, Dr. Franklin furnished him with the means of a conveyance to England….
“The letters of Dr. Franklin, and the desire that was felt by the leaders of opposition to see and converse with an intelligent American, who possessed the confidence of that distinguished man, and was recently from the country of their all-engrossing interest, brought Mr. Austin into personal and familiar intercourse with the master-spirits of the age.
“In reporting the progress of his mission, Mr. Austin writes: ‘My time passes with so little of the appearance of business, that if I was not assured it was otherwise, I should think myself without useful employment. The mornings I devote to seeing such objects of curiosity or interest as I am advised to, and wholly according to my own inclination. I attend constantly the debates of Parliament, to which I have ready admission, and have been particularly enjoined to attend, that I may not miss any question on our affairs. Dinner, or, as it ought to be called, supper, which follows, is the time allotted to conversation on the affairs of our country. I am invariably detained to parties of this kind, sometimes consisting of seven or eight, and sometimes of the number of twenty. The company is always composed of members of Parliament, with very few others; and no question which you can conceive is omitted, to all which I give such answers as my knowledge permits. I am sadly puzzled with the various titles which different ranks require. My small knowledge of French prevented this trouble in Paris; but here I frequently find myself at fault, which subjects me to embarrassment that is yet forgiven to a stranger.’
“Mr. Austin was domesticated in the family of the Earl of Shelburne; placed under the particular protection of his chaplain, the celebrated Dr. Priestley -- introduced to the present king (George IV.), then a lad, in company with Mr. Fox -- was present at all the coteries of the Opposition -- and was called upon to explain and defend the cause and character of his countrymen in the freedom of colloquial discussion, before the greatest geniuses of the age, amid the doubts of some, the ridicule of others, the censure of many, and the inquiries of all….
"The object of his visit to England was accomplished to the perfect satisfaction of Dr. Franklin, in whose family he continued for some time after his return to Paris. Being charged with the dispatches of the commissioners to Congress, he left France and arrived at Philadelphia in May, 1779. A very liberal compensation was made him by Congress for his services in Europe, and Mr. Austin returned to his business at Boston." (10)
Going again to Europe, later in the war, on public business, he was taken prisoner and conveyed to England; but his old friends of the Opposition procured his liberation, and he proceeded to the performance of his errand in Spain and Holland, as though he had merely visited England on his way. Such conduct as this, on the part of the Opposition, had been treason to the king, if the king himself had not been a traitor to the British Constitution.
1. Memoirs of Jonathan Loring Austin, in Boston Monthly Magazine for July, 1826.
2. Diplomacy of the United States, i., 56.
3. A London tory letter of December 9th, 1777, contains this passage: "The account of General Burgoyne's treaty with Mr. Gates, arriving when the two Houses of Parliament were sitting, and in the warmth of high debate, the friends of government were much confounded and staggered by such a shock; but you cannot imagine how furiously, illiberally, and indecently opposition triumphed on the occasion, opening and roaring like so many bull dogs against administration. The king, God bless him, for we never had a better one, and no other nation had ever so good a one, who feels every calamity and misfortune of his people, was greatly affected; but, with that magnanimity which distinguishes his character, he soon declared that such a cause could never be given up, that this loss must be retrieved by greater and more vigorous exertions, and that he would even 'sell Hanover and all his private estate, before he would desert the cause of his loyal American subjects, who had suffered so much for him.'
"In two or three days the nation recovered from its surprise, and now is ready to support the king and his ministers in the proper and vigorous use of such means as are adequate to the great end of reducing the revolted colonies to a constitutional subordination. Many in both Houses of Parliament have spoken to this effect with great spirit, and one member of the Commons, Mr. Cambridge, said that he would part with reluctance with one shilling in the pound towards raising another army of ten thousand men for America, yet he would cheerfully pay twelve shillings in the pound towards an additional army of sixty thousand men." — Frank Moore’s Diary of the Revolution.
4. Sparks, ix., 390.
5. Digne is pronounced like Deane.
6. Dr. Franklin, I may add, had a peculiar aversion to the principle of export duties, and would gladly have bound his country never to impose them: "To lay duties," he wrote, in July, l778, to James Lovell, "on a commodity exported, which our neighbors want, is a knavish attempt to get something for nothing. The statesman who first invented it had the genius of a pickpocket, and would have been a pickpocket if fortune had suitably placed him. The nations who have practiced it, have suffered four-fold, as pickpockets ought to suffer. Savoy, by a duty on exported wines, lost the trade of Switzerland, which thenceforth raised its own wine; and (to waive other instances) Britain, by her duty on exported tea, has lost the trade of her colonies. But, as we produce no commodity that is peculiar to our country, and which may not be obtained elsewhere, the discouraging the consumption of ours by duties on exportation, and thereby encouraging a rivalship from other nations in the ports we trade to, is absolute folly, which indeed is mixed more or less with all knavery. For my own part, if my protest were of any consequence, I should protest against our ever doing it, even by way of reprisal. It is a meanness with which I would not dirty the conscience or character of my country."
7. July 4th, 1777, Dr. Franklin and Mr. Deane had given Mr. Jonathan Williams such a letter as Mr. Lee had now applied for:
Paris, July 4, 1777.
Captain Weekes, Sir —
We have appointed Mr. Williams to take the direction of such affairs at Nantes as are more particularly within our department, and, accordingly, advise you to address yourself to him for any assistance you stand in want of, in the disposition of your prizes, or your other concerns; you will give directions to Captains Johnson and Nicholson, which renders it unnecessary for us to write to each one separately.
We are yours, &c, &c.
*Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, ii., 410 to 413.
8. As a curious specimen of the kind of lie that passes by the name of Historical Anecdote, I insert the following from a French work, entitled "Historical Anecdotes of the Reign of Louis XVI.:”
Mr. Deane, tired out by the delays, and even excuses of M. de Sartines, then minister of the marine, wrote to him, that unless within forty-eight hours he made up his mind to get the treaty of alliance signed, he would negotiate with England for a reconciliation. He adopted this hasty and irregular course without the participation of his colleagues. The moment Dr. Franklin heard of it, he thought all was lost. 'You have offended the court of France and ruined America,' exclaimed the philosopher. 'Be easy until we get an answer,' replied the negotiator. 'An answer! we shall be thrown into the Bastile.' 'That remains to be seen.'
"After the lapse of a few hours, M. de Sartines, chief secretary, made his appearance. 'You are requested, gentlemen, to hold yourselves in readiness for an interview at midnight; you will be called for.' "
‘At midnight!' cries Dr. Franklin, the moment the Secretary had gone; 'my prediction is verified; Mr. Deane, you have ruined all.'
"They were, of course, called upon at the appointed hour. The American envoys got into a carriage and reached a country house, where M. de Sartines chose to receive them, the better to hide this step under the veil of mystery. They were introduced to the minister, and the declaration so imperiously demanded by Mr. Deane was instantly signed.
"The American deputies returned to Paris in triumph; and Franklin confessed, that in politics patience was not always the only thing to be relied on."
The most remarkable thing about this narrative is, that it contains one grain of truth. Mr. Deane did propose demanding a categorical answer from the French government, and the decisive interview with the Count de Vergennes did take place in a cottage five miles from Versailles. Who manufactures these "anecdotes," of which the libraries of the world contain tons[?]
9. "Life of Arthur Lee," i., 398.
10. Boston Monthly Magazine, for July, 1826.
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