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In their own words: Adams, Franklin, and Vergennes (part IIc)

Adams's time Paris ended on a sour note. Portrait of John Adams (ARC 530963)

In the last post, we brought the Adams-Vergennes story up to their abrupt break in late July 1780. Adams departed for the Netherlands, where he hoped to raise additional funds for the United States war effort and make the United States less dependent on France.

Meanwhile, Vergennes appealed to Franklin and through Franklin to Congress, requesting that Adams be relieved of his ambassadorial duties. Vergennes supplied Franklin with the Adams correspondence, and Franklin forwarded it to Congress. Vergennes also made France’s wishes known to Congress through Ambassador Anne-Cesar, Chevalier de la Luzerne, in Philadephia.

In this letter, Franklin makes clear to Vergennes that Adams was not speaking for him or Congress:

It was indeed with very great Pleasure that I received the Letter . . . communicating that of the President of Congress and the Resolutions of that Body relative to the Succours then expected: For the Sentiments therein express’d are so different from the Language held by Mr Adams, in his late Letters to your Excellency as to make it clear that it was from his particular Indiscretion alone, and not from any Instructions received by him, that he has given such just Cause of Displeasure, and that it is impossible his Conduct therein should be approved by his Constituents. I am glad he has not admitted me to any Participation in those Writings, and that he has taken the Resolution he expresses of not communicating with me or making use of my Intervention in his future Correspondence. . . . I live upon Terms of Civility with him, not of Intimacy. I shall as you desire lay before Congress the whole Correspondence which you have sent me for that purpose.
Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Count de Vergennes, August 3, 1780. Original in the Archives du Ministère des affaires étrangères; copy in the Library of Congress. For text, see the Digital Edition of the Franklin Papers, Packard Humanities Institute.

Luzerne, France’s ambassador to the U.S. Congress, requested that Congress replace Adams with Franklin as America’s peace negotiator. Meanwhile, an anti-Franklin faction in Congress was advocating Franklin’s removal. Luzerne describes the plots against Franklin in a letter to Vergennes:

Congress is filled with intrigues and cabals respecting the recall of Dr. Franklin, which the delegates from Massachusetts insist on by all sorts of means. That minister has very little direct support in Congress but the fear entertained by both parties, that his place would be supplied by one of the opposite party, has served to sustain him. The States of Massachusetts and South Carolina, and a few individual voices, influenced by Mr. [Richard Henry] Lee and Mr. [Ralph] Izzard, have declared, in a positive manner, that there is no person who is not preferable to the present minister; and they urge, that, by his supineness and the influence of those around him, the American cause has been ruined in France.
Letter from Luzerne to Vergennes, December 15, 1780. The Life of Benjamin Franklin: Autobiography and a Continuation by Jared Sparks, 1859, pp. 465-466.

Instead, Congress appointed five peace commissioners: Adams, Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Laurens, and John Jay. But Jefferson turned down the appointment due to the recent death of his wife, Jay was in Spain, Adams was in Amsterdam, and Laurens would be captured at sea and held prisoner in the Tower of London.

The final Page of Franklin's letter to Vergennes, February 1781.

Until Jay’s arrival in June 1782, two years after the appointment of the peace commissioners, Franklin was on his own.

Across the Atlantic, the American war effort went badly for most of 1780 and early 1781. The French Navy under Admiral Comte d’Estaing abandoned their blockade of New York and headed to the West Indies. This freed Lord Cornwallis to take his army to South Carolina and to win a series of victories there.

Anticipating another bad winter, General Washington wrote to Franklin in October of 1780 that “If I were to speak on topics of the [political and military] kind it would be to show that our present situation makes one of two things essential to us. A Peace, or the most vigorous aid of our Allies particularly in the article of money.”

As a good diplomat—and recognizing American leverage would be weak without a major American victory—Franklin decided he would pursue Washington’s second option, “the most vigorous aid of our Allies.”

In this letter to Vergennes, Franklin makes a strong case for the importance of the Revolution to the success of French interests:

the present Conjuncture is critical; . . . there is some Danger lest the Congress should lose its Influence over the People . . . that the whole System of the new Government in America may thereby be shaken. That if the English are suffer’d once to recover that Country [United States], such an Opportunity of effectual Separation as the present, may not occur again in the Course of Ages; and that the Possession of those fertile and extensive Regions, and that vast Sea Coast, will afford them so broad a Basis for future Greatness, by the rapid Growth of their Commerce: and Breed of Seamen and Soldier, as will enable them to become the Terror of Europe, and to exercise with Impunity that Insolence which is so natural to their Nation, and which will increase enormously with the Increase of their Power.
Letter from Franklin to de Vergennes, February 13, 1781. Multiple copies in the National Archives, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention. For text, see the Digital Edition of Franklin Papers, Packard Humanities Institute.

Franklin was successful once again. He received only 6 million livres of the 25 he requested, but it was enough to fund the American forces and keep the British at bay until the final American victory at Yorktown in 1781, when a British band would play the tune “The World Turned Upside Down.”

In our next post, Adams arrives in Paris, and he and Franklin work together to conclude peace with Great Britain.

Many of the documents featured in this series are duplicated online at DocsTeach, a tool designed for using primary materials in the classroom. There are now almost 6,000 items in DocsTeach.

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