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The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 32: March 1 through June 30, 1780

The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 32: March 1 through June 30, 1780

by Barbara B. Oberg

During the spring of 1780, Benjamin Franklin was midway through an eight-and-a-half-year mission to France. He was in good health, energetic, and occupied with a variety of important ministerial tasks and private pursuits. In this volume, the fifth in the sequence dealing with Franklin's tenure as sole minister to the French court, and tenth of a projected twenty


During the spring of 1780, Benjamin Franklin was midway through an eight-and-a-half-year mission to France. He was in good health, energetic, and occupied with a variety of important ministerial tasks and private pursuits. In this volume, the fifth in the sequence dealing with Franklin's tenure as sole minister to the French court, and tenth of a projected twenty volumes covering his years in France, Franklin focuses on diplomatic activities and takes on the role of expressing to France America's pressing needs in this time of economic instability and military stalemate.
Demonstrating wide-ranging talents and activities, Franklin's correspondence is singular in scope and interest. Working purposefully to surmount one difficulty after another, Franklin sought a general prisoner exchange, assisted escaped prisoners, drafted passports, honored bills that were presented to him for payment, and remained involved in the effort to assemble and ship uniforms, arms, and gunpowder to America. During these months he also bought an entire type foundry, purchased two presses, conferred about a script type he had commissioned, received shipments of paper and type from England in spite of the war, designed a method to determine the conductivity of metals, submitted to the Académie des sciences a lengthy memoir on lightning rods for the Strasbourg Cathedral, and penned a jocular essay on 'inflammable air' in response to  a Royal Academy of Brussels mathematical prize question that he regarded as frivolous. 

Publication of this volume was assisted by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Series
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5.75(w) x 8.63(h) x (d)

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VOLUME 32 March 1 through June 30, 1780


Copyright © 1996 the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge and by Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-06617-3

Chapter One

Editorial Note on Franklin's Accounts

Two new accounts begin during the period covered by this volume:

XXV. Account of Postage and Errands, April 1, 1780, to May 31, 1783: American Philosophical Society, 237 pages. A collection of monthly statements and bills which are all marked as having been paid by order on Ferdinand Grand. For the months under consideration in this volume the statements, in French, were submitted by the cook, Coitmet. They consist mostly of postal expenses, about half of which are for mail sent by la petite poste, meaning that they originated from the district to which they are delivered. Coitmet also kept track of a vast number of what he calls comistions pour paris, without explaining what kind of errands he means. They cost 1 l.t. 4 s. each. The same sum is charged for washing the cabriolet (gig), an activity that occurred three times in April and once in May.

The only other expenses indicated, all of them in May, are 1 l.t. for sawing wood for the masters, 3 l.t. for Mr. Franklin's wigmaker (this must refer to WilliamTemple Franklin), 1.4 l.t. to pay for a bath, and 1 l.t. for sweeping the kitchen chimney.

XXVI. Franklin's Account with Chaumont, March 19, 1780, to December 22, 1780: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 8 pages. These sheets, in the hand of Jean L'Air de Lamotte, are part of Franklin and Chaumont's efforts to reconcile their differences through the arbitration of Ferdinand Grand, and they frequently duplicate the items appearing in Account XIX (XXVIII, 3). Made up mainly of disbursements by Chaumont to fill the congressional order of supplies entrusted to Jonathan Williams, Jr., this account also contains other expenses, including Chaumont's statement for rent due him. When this account was drawn up and signed on July 9, 1782, he proposed a figure of 20,000 l.t. for five years' retroactive rent to Franklin and the other commissioners.

The entries that apply to this volume are a sum of 250,000 l.t. that Franklin put in the hands of Grand on March 19 and 193 l.t. 10 s. for a courier to go from Passy to Nantes.

Two accounts are here identified whose entries begin during an earlier period:

Account XXVII. Accounts of the Public Agents in Europe, 1777-1787: National Archives, 1,020 pages. A fully indexed and cross-referenced group of accounts of the American and European agents who represented the United States. These include salaries, bills of exchange drawn for supplies, foreign loans, interest accounts, payments for American prisoners, war supplies from the French royal storehouse and the arsenal at Nantes, accounts of various ships, and sundry other expences incurred by the American ministers. While containing many entries that can be found in accounts cited previously in our edition, these are the most complete records that we have found for Franklin's official expenditures, handled through Ferdinand Grand. For the period covered by our present volume, those entries not cited elsewhere in our annotation include a payment to Bancroft on May 9 for newspapers (320 l.t., 16 s.), to Moutard for books on June 22 (470 l.t.), and 300 l.t. on May 22 for transporting prisoners from Dunkirk to Paris.

These accounts have been microfilmed (National Archives Publication M1004) but unlike most of the records from the National Archives cited in this edition, including Account XXVIII, they are not part of The Papers of the Continental Congress.

Account XXVIII. Abstracts of Ferdinand Grand's Accounts with the United States, February 28, 1777-March 1, 1783: National Archives, 266 pages. On May 10, 1783, Ferdinand Grand told Franklin and his fellow peace commissioners that the previous month he had submitted his accounts to Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris (Library of Congress). Abstracts in English of these accounts were made in Philadelphia and are now in the National Archives, 210 pages bearing the date, "Register's Office, May 31, 1783," and 56 pages undated. Several sections relate to Franklin, including a seven-page abstract of Grand's account with him (September, 1777, to August, 1781), and a separate three-page abstract of his account with him (January, 1781, to January, 1782). There are also three-page abstracts of Grand's account with Commissioners Franklin, Deane, and Lee (March, 1777, to April 1778) and Commissioners Franklin, Lee, and Adams (April to July, 1778). Numerous sections also record payments Grand made on Franklin's behalf.

While these accounts are more readily available than Account XXVII, they are less reliable. Translated by someone unfamiliar with the names mentioned and unskilled at reading French handwriting, misspellings abound.

We also offer a summary of entries from Franklin's accounts which have not found a place elsewhere in our annotation but which provide insights into Franklin's private and public life between March 1 and June 30, 1780.

Account XVI (Cash Book, XXVI, 3).

The expenses connected with Franklin's press in Passy are, as usual, one of the prominent items. The staff (Hémery, Bieuville, Rocque, Garre-as he is now spelled-and Madelon) remain the same, at the same salary as indicated in XXXI, 3. Almost 400 l.t. were spent in March on lead and 30 l.t. on silver. On April 27, two presses were bought from Fagnion for the use of the secretary's office, at a cost of 300 l.t. Franklin noted: "As I purpose to keep them after my Mission here is finish'd, they must be put to my private Account." A large disbursement of 5,000 l.t. was made on May 7 for the purchase of Hémery's foundry, as well as more lead and antimony for 373 l.t. and on the 17th Fagnion received 144 l.t. for punches and matrices.

Assistance to prisoners recurs frequently: substantial contributions to Thomas Digges and William Hodgson for that purpose are indicated in our annotation, below, as well as loans to Baron de Wulffen. A "poor Frenchman" who had served on the Boston and been long a prisoner in England received 48 l.t., and Franklin advanced a louis to Thomas Kearl, a Virginian returning to America (XXXI, 556-7).

A few sundry items were purchased: tea for 9 l.t. from the abbé Morellet, books, a pocket glass and other glass from Ciceri, and an écritoire.

Brunel the joiner was paid for his work, and Miss Chaumont was reimbursed 360 l.t. for her account, the rest to be paid by an order on banker Grand.

Account XVII (Franklin's Private Accounts with Ferdinand Grand, XXVI, 3)records the purchase, on March 9, of one share from the Caisse d'Escompte, and the sum of 644 l.t. 2 s. on May 29 for Benjamin Bache's schooling.

Account XXIII (William Temple Franklin's Accounts, XXIX, 3) provides, as always, some insight into the family's life. The chevalier O'Gorman is paid 150 l.t. on March 11 for a cask of burgundy. Cabaret the stationer and Pissot the bookseller both receive payment for their wares. The new secretary, L'Air de Lamotte, really settles into the household, since a bed is bought for him and no longer hired. An English penknife is purchased for Franklin. The various servants, Coitmet the cook and Joseph Bogey (Bogay) the kitchen boy, receive their wages, while François and Arbelot are also reimbursed for their own food when they serve their masters at dinner parties. Money is advanced to Robert Drybrough (for whom see Jones's letter of March 14) and Pomier de l'Etang (who presented a note on John Torris).

Finally, a somewhat exotic note on April 19: 240 l.t. "Advanced to M. Secleback, a Maltois to assist him in returning to his own Country, he being taken by the English in going to serve in America and confined in Prison for two Years."

Editorial Note on Promissory Notes

Now that Franklin was distributing printed promissory note forms to prisoners receiving assistance, we will no longer publish individual promissory notes as sample documents. Instead, in this and subsequent editorial notes, we will take notice of each person, the date on which he received a loan, and the sum.

Printed forms survive from thirteen escaped prisoners for the months covered by this volume. On March 11, Franklin gave three louis apiece to Benjamin Ashton and George Girdler. Two days later he gave six louis apiece to Nicholas Bartlett and Peter Duhard, both from Marblehead, Francis Robins, from Boston, and Capt. William White. The baron d'Arendt received 25 louis on May 18. On May 23, Franklin gave one louis to James Tille (or Tilee), and on May 27 (or possibly the 23rd) he gave two louis to Frank Foster of Portsmouth, Virginia. On June 8 the baron de Wulffen signed a note for 20 louis, and on June 25 William Hammond and Benjamin Hyland each received two louis.

Five men signed notes handwritten for them by L'Air de Lamotte. Jeremiah Peirce, of Rhode Island, received four louis on March 22. On April 3, Franklin gave David Gardner, of Boston, two louis. John McFarland, of Boston, and Redmond Conningham Henderson, of Philadelphia, received a joint sum of five louis on April 26. On May 4, Nathaniel Harrington received the same amount.

The Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners records sums given to two men whose promissory notes have not survived. On April 6 Franklin gave four louis to Benjamin Robert Chew. Elias Ellwell, on April 14, received a mere 12 l.t., half a louis.

From Henry Coder LS: American Philosophical Society

<[before March, 1780], in French: I feel sorrier every day that my suggestions of two years ago were not accepted. Had we been allowed to attack under the American flag the English sailing in the Mediterranean, as I proposed, we would have destroyed their commerce. If Sartine had given me the twelve hundred deserters for which I had asked, I would have created an auxiliary corps allegedly financed by Congress-in truth by me-and together with Captain Jones we would have landed near Exeter, raised immense contributions, and burned some important port. We could have captured 300 or 400 rich people who come to bathe at Britinston [Brighton] and used their horses to seize the principal residents of Sussex in order to bring them to Passy as hostages. We could have forced the King of England to recognize American independence and also captured Jersey and Guernsey, but instead Sartine gave the men to the Prince of Nassau, with humiliating and expensive results. Lafayette's proposed expeditions to the very places I had suggested also came to naught.

About a month ago I sent Sartine a note to suggest that our Channel fleet be placed under the joint command of d'Orvilliers and du Chaffault. If instead of risking the fleet in the Channel this late in the season they put it in a position to intercept British commerce and menace Ireland, they can draw the British into battle. We could then use a squadron of four ships of the line, four frigates, and two fire ships under the command of Captains Jones and Cornix to escort a landing party of 4,000 men to Sussex. After luring the British there, they could reembark in forty-eight hours and capture Plymouth. Meanwhile other forces could capture Jersey and Guernsey and then attack Portsmouth. This would compel the English to sign what ever peace we want. If the neutral powers object we could pretend that the ships were yours; no one could blame you for making reprisals. Sartine merely sent his thanks via his secretary, M. de La Croix, and that is that.>

To John Paul Jones

LS: National Archives; two copies: Library of Congress

Dear Sir, Passy March 1st. 1780.

I received the Letter you did me the Honour of writing to me the 25. & 28th past.

I am glad to learn that you can take a Quantity of the Cloathing and Arms: and that you can accommodate the 4 Gentlemen I had mentiond to you. M. De Sartine desires also a Place for a Passenger that goes on some Business from him: I make no doubt of your Willingness to oblige that Minister. I could wish also that you would find Room for Mr. Brown of S. Carolina, who is about returning there.

I do not know that I have Authority to give the Order you desire to Lieutenant Rhodes. But if you and he agree in the Transposition proposed I have no objection to it.

Capt. Landais has demanded of me an Order to you to deliver him his Trunks and Things that were left on board the Alliance. I find him so exceedingly captious and critical, and so apt to misconstrue as an intended Injustice every Expression in our Language he does not immediately understand, that I am tired of writing anything for him or about him, and am determined to have nothing further to do with him. I make no doubt however, that you will deliver his Things to any Person he may impower to receive them, and therefore think such an Order unnecessary.

I have not as yet received an Answer to the Memorial I sent to the Court of Denmark, reclaiming the Prizes sent into Norway, and deliver'd up unjustly by that Court to the British Consul. I have not heard that they have yet left Bergen. I hope we may yet recover them or their Value.

There is a Mr Lockyer, who has served 22 Years in the British Navy as a Master, and having met with some Injustice would go to America, in hopes of finding Service there. He wishes to go with you, and if you can give him any Employment on board it will be very agreable to him.

Dr Bancroft being by this time with you will take all the Steps possible to promote your Refiting, and forward the Payment of the Prize Money. I do not comprehend what the Weight of Metal has to do with the Division unless where Ships are fitted out by different Owners.

I hope your Indisposition will soon be over, and your Health restablished, being, with sincere Esteem Dear Sir, Your most obedient & most humble Servant. B Franklin

Hon Capt. Jones.

Notation: From his Excellency Dr. Franklin Passy March 1. 1780

To Pierre Landais Copy: Library of Congress

Sir, Passy, March 1. 1780

I receiv'd the Letter you did me the honour of writing to me the 28th. past.

Inclos'd I send you the certificate I gave you the last time I saw you to justify your stay in Paris till the Time of its Date, You left it on my table.

As I do not understand that Capt. Jones has refused to deliver your Things, or that any Application has been made for them, an Order to him from me seems unecessary. I am persuaded that if you send an Inventory of Them to any friend you may have among the officers of the Ship, or in L'Orient, impowering him to receive them, you may have them without difficulty.

I suppose that Besides the money you received in Holland, and the 50. Louis here, you have since had 100. Louis more to defray your Expences in coming from Holland, Staying here, and going to America, which I imagine is sufficient. As to your Prize Money and Wages, the Payment of them does not belong to me.

It is not in my Power to give you a Passage to america. Many Vessels are now going, and if you have a desire of rending your self there to obtain a Trial, you may doubtless easily find a Passage among them.

I have the honour to be, Sir, &c.

Capt. Landais.

From Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont

AL: American Philosophical Society

[March 1, 1780?]

M. de Chaumont a L'honneur d'envoyer a S. Ex. la depesche cy Jointe de M. Dumas, et La Lettre de M. Landais pour Scavoir Ce que S. Ex. veut qu'il Reponde.

M. De Chaumont Croit que M. Jones n'a lair de Chercher a estre employé en france que pour pouvoir dire en amerique qu'il ne Couroit pas après Le Commandement de L'alliance.

Notation: M. de Chaumont.


Excerpted from THE PAPERS OF BENJAMIN FRANKLIN Copyright © 1996 by the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge and by Yale University . Excerpted by permission.
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