Adams Papers

Jonathan Williams to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, 31 January 1779

Jonathan Williams to Benjamin Franklin and John Adams

Nantes Jan. 31 1779

Honourable Gentlemen

I am well informed that two Indorsements have been made on the Accounts1 I have had the Honour to present to the Commissioners, one of which contains Accusations as injurious to my Reputation as they are false and malignant. The first of these Indorsements is on my Account dated Sept. 10 1778 and is written in the following Words.—

“N B The Order from B Franklin and John Adams Esqrs. to the public Banker for the Payment of all Mr. Williams’s Demands is dated the 10th July,2 yet he charges a Louis d’or a Day from that Time to the 11th of August, besides the whole Charge being such as was never heard of before.”


A Lee

The Charge here mentioned appears to me reasonable, and is by no Means unprecedented. I left Nantes by Order of the Commissioners to lay my Accounts before them—I was a long Time in Paris for the sole Purpose of having them settled, and I returned as soon as I thought myself justifiable in so doing. Five Louis Per Day is certainly not an Object for a Merchants Absence from his Business.

The second Indorsement contains Accusations of a most criminal and atrocious Nature, and which if true would deservedly brand me with the Name of Villain; but I trust in God my Character (hitherto unimpeached) will stand the piercing Eye of Justice, and this Appelation be elsewhere more effectualy applied.

On the Back of my Accounts settled May 30. 1778 is thus written.—

“At Chaillot 6 of October 1778

“I have examined the within Accounts, the Articles of which may be distinguished into such as are without Orders or manifestly unjust, or plainly exorbitant, or altogether unsatisfactory for want of Names, or Dates, or Receipts, or any other Voucher whatsoever. Being also perfectly satisfied from his own Accounts that Mr. Williams has now and has long had in his Hands upwards of an hundred thousand Livres belonging to the Public, and which have not been employed to the Public Use, or by Order of those who were entrusted with the Public Money, I do refuse to concur in passing these Accounts or allowing the Balance demanded and do protest against such Use of the Public Money.”

signed A Lee3

This violent Attack on what is most dear and valuable to an honest Man was so privately made, that I am indebted to Accident only for the Knowlege of it. He who can deliberately massacre the Reputation of an other, must not only be lost to the exquisite Feelings of Humanity in himself, but must delight in glutting his Soul with the Carnage of Characters.

The Accusation of my Transactions being without Authority, is an Affront to the Characters of Doctor Franklin and Mr. Dean for I have their express Orders to support me in them—but if I had not, would the sending Cloathing for thirty thousand american Troops be considered as a Crime—That my Charges are “exorbitant” I deny, and I pledge myself to prove that the whole Profit issueing to me from the Public Business for eighteen Months, and for shipping Supplies to the Amount of near three Millions two hundred thousand Livres (of which only about two hundred thousand Livres were taken) does not exceed an averaged Commission of one and a quarter Per Cent. Compare this, Gentlemen, with the common Charges on American Business in Nantes, and you will find that if five Per Cent was to be charged only on the Sale of three Cargoes of Tobacco (and this is the usual Charge) it would more than equal all the Reward of all my Services. In short the being usefull to my Country and the Establishment of my Reputation, have been Considerations with me superior to any Emolument, as is evinced by the moderate Commission I charged.

Mr. Lees Assertion that I have upwards of an hundred thousand Livres Public Money in my Hands, I have Charity to think he does not believe to be a Fact; and surely the Protest is an Insult on you who have approved my Drafts for the Money which is here said to be used for private Purposes.

My Character, Gentlemen has been too long wounded by Mr. Lee—my Accounts too long unsettled, and as it is my Intention to depart soon to America, I humbly conjure you to fix on some Method whereby my Reputation can be vindicated from such unjust Slanders, or my Conduct publicly reprehended and condemned. To this Purpose as the major Part of the Public Debts under my management were contracted in and near Nantes, and as the Persons live in this Neighbourhood, I earnestly request you to order an Examination of my Accounts. There are here several Gentlemen of Character Residents of America who are well versed in commercial Transactions—permit me to mention their Names—Mr. William Blake, Mr. Daniel Blake, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Fendall, Mr. Wharton, Mr. Ridley, Mr. Ross, Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Oglivie. Choose if you please, all these Gentlemen to scrutinize my Charges and Vouchers, or refer them to any three of them, and I will recall every Allowance for my Services, whether under the Name of Commission, or otherwise, and for these as well as for the whole of my Accounts, I will abide by their Decision.4

It is Justice I want;—Justice is my Due—and it is equaly indifferent to me who are my Judges, so that Honesty and Impartiality are the Umpires.

I have the Honour to be with the greatest Respect Honourable Gentlemen Your most obedient & most humble Servant

Jona. Williams

RC (PPAmP: Franklin Papers); docketed, not by JA: “Jonathan Williams about his Accts.”; in another hand, a crossed out calculation adding: “£387.18. 9,” “. 6. 5,” and “. 7,” with an incomplete total of “[.]1.”

1The accounts to which williams refers comprised two groups: the first settled through 30 May 1778; the second through 10 Sept. 1778. What is apparently a duplicate of the first group, for it does not contain Lee’s endorsement, is in the Lee Papers (ViU). The second group has not been found, but see Williams to the Commissioners, 22 Sept. 1778 (above). The fate of the specific set of accounts on which Lee entered his endorsements and returned to the Commissioners’ archive at Passy is unknown.

As is indicated on the second endorsement copied by Williams in this letter, Lee apparently examined the accounts and made his entries in Oct. 1778. According to Lee, he returned the accounts to Passy, presumably to the Commissioners’ papers that were in JA’s custody (Lee to Franklin, 16 March, PCC, No. 83, I, f. 341–342). There they lay until Franklin received Arthur Lee’s letter of 22 Jan. (above) concerning the Williams-Montieu accounts and was moved, on the same day, to write to JA (above) to ask for the “public papers” in his possession. In a letter to Arthur Lee on 27 March, Franklin explained both his request for the papers and the reason that the accounts had gone so long unnoticed: “It was not till lately that, being pressed by M. Monthieu for a settlement of his accounts, and finding that they had a reference to Mr. Williams, I got those from Mr. Adams. They were put up in a paper case, which covered the note you had made upon them, and that case was fastened with wax. This prevented the notes being before seen either by myself or by Mr. Adams, among whose papers you had left those accounts” (Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 3:101).

JA delivered the papers to William Temple Franklin, who probably undertook the examination, for it was he who informed Jonathan Williams, in a letter not found, of Arthur Lee’s endorsements (Williams to Temple Franklin, 28 Jan., Cal. Franklin Papers, A.P.S. description begins I. Minis Hays, comp., Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1908; 5 vols. description ends , 4:14). JA was as displeased with the endorsements and Lee’s apparent effort to conceal them as were Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Williams. In his letter to Lee of 27 March, Franklin wrote: “Mr. Adams spoke in strong terms of your having no right to enter notes upon papers without our consent or knowledge, and talked of making a counter entry, in which he would have shown that your assertion of our having ’given an order for the payment of all Mr. Williams’ demands’ was not conformable to truth nor the express terms of the order (that of 10 July to Ferdinand Grand, vol. 6:277–278), but his attention being taken up with what related to his departure, was probably the cause of his omitting to make the entry” (Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 3:101–102).

So far as Lee was concerned, the present letter may have been the last straw. (Williams sent him a copy on 8 March [ViU: Lee Papers, with an attached note by Hezekiah Ford; Cal. Franklin Papers, A.P.S. description begins I. Minis Hays, comp., Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1908; 5 vols. description ends , 4:283]). Although Lee had written the congress in the past, criticizing Williams’ dubious accounting practices, on 23 April he composed a 46-page “Memorial” (PCC, No. 83, II, f. 176–222), which was later published as Observations on Certain Commercial Transactions in France (Phila., 1780; Evans description begins Charles Evans and others, comps., American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of All Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America [1639–1800], Chicago and Worcester, 1903–1959; 14 vols. description ends , No. 16819). There Lee, using portions of his correspondence with Williams and Franklin, sought to support his charges of wrongdoing, including those in the two endorsements, and to refute Williams’ defense. In doing so, he bitterly attacked Benjamin Franklin’s acquiescence in his nephew’s activities.

2See vol. 6:277–278.

3Williams gives only the last half of the endorsement. The first half, containing some details of Williams’ reparation of arms at Nantes, can be found in Lee’s “Memorial” (f. 197–198).

4In a letter of 13 March (MH-H: Lee Papers) Franklin stated that, as a consequence of the charges made in the endorsement of 6 Oct., he had decided to have the accounts carefully examined and asked Lee to inform him of any other charges against Williams. He also expressed regret that Lee had informed neither him nor JA of the endorsement at the time that it was made, so that the matter could have been resolved then. On 16 March, Franklin wrote to Williams to inform him of this decision and added J. D. Schweighauser to the list of disinterested referees proposed by Williams (Edward E. Hale and Edward E. Hale Jr., Franklin in France, 2 vols., Boston, 1887–1888, 1:283–284).

Although the exact makeup of the panel cannot be determined with certainty (see Hezekiah Ford’s note on the copy of this letter of 31 Jan. sent to Lee by Williams, ViU: Lee Papers), it apparently met and, from Williams’ point of view, exonerated him (Williams to JA, 1 Feb. 1780, below).

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