Benjamin Franklin Papers

The American Commissioners to the Baron de Rullecourt, 10 January 1777

The American Commissioners to the Baron de Rullecourt2

Copy: University of Virginia Library3

This letter of appointment is the only dated record of one of the most bizarre schemes to which the commissioners ever lent themselves. A considerable amount of material about the plan is extant among Franklin’s papers in the American Philosophical Society: two letters from the Baron to the commissioners, a proposed agreement between him and Franklin, and a memorandum to the Doctor from some one who identifies himself merely as “L.B.” These documents are undated, but with one exception were undoubtedly written before the present letter. They are all related to that letter, even though we do not know precisely how, and for that reason we summarize them here.

What appears to be the earliest is a note from Rullecourt to the commissioners, to enclose a letter to them from the abbé Baudeau which they should answer promptly; a messenger will await their response at eight the next morning. The enclosed letter cannot be identified with certainty but was, we are inclined to believe, the memorandum mentioned above, entitled “Developpement de deux idées capitales communiquées au venerable docteur franklin par son serviteur et ami L.B.”4The first idea is that an American embassy be established in Switzerland, with the writer as its secretary. The second, already explained to Dubourg, is for a Mediterranean campaign: an ostensible commercial company based on Monaco, and using its flag, will collect ships and, with the secret consent of the King of the Two Sicilies, occupy and fortify the island of Lampedusa; the ships will scatter through the Mediterranean, and on a given date raise American colors and attack British commerce. The function of Lampedusa, and its garrison under Rullecourt’s command, will be to protect the privateers once they have disposed of their prizes.

The proposed agreement between Franklin and Rullecourt appears to be somewhat later, for the base has shifted: Lampedusa, between Malta and Tunisia, has given place to the deserted Zaffarin Islands off the coast of Morocco. The Baron will hold them as governor for the United Colonies, and as soon as they are fortified will sail under the American flag against enemy commerce; he will have colonel’s rank and will commission his own officers. His command will be at least five hundred men, with the same pay and maintenance as in the British army. Proceeds from prizes will be divided, part to defray the cost of the military establishment, part for the company providing the ships, and part for the soldiers and crews. Franklin will supply as far as possible sailors, supplies, etc., and Rullecourt will furnish the initial funds. Congress will ratify the agreement at the earliest feasible moment.

Rullecourt’s second undated letter to the commissioners, probably written some weeks after the present letter of appointment, indicates that the secret was no longer between him and them. He had broached the scheme (if indeed it was the same one) to the man who could best ensure its success, M. “de Beaum . . .” Beaumarchais, to whom he presumably referred, had given a Delphic response: he would not meddle in the business but, if the commissioners asked him about it, would know what to reply. As for the rumor about Lord Stormont, Rullecourt added, it was doubtless false; in any case the suspicions of the British Ambassador would not outlast the Baron’s departure.5There the story ends.6The newly enlisted American “Cheif of a Corps” remained in France, and the Zaffarin Islands remained deserted.

Paris Jany. 10th. 1777


In the name and by the authority of the Congress of the United States of America, we take you into their service, as Cheif of a Corps, which you are to command, agreable to your plan, upon the deserted Zafarimes Islands.

We authorize you, as Commander in Cheif, to fortify and defend, the said Islands. And as we agree to your request to naturalize you and the officers of your Corps, you are allowed to carry the colours of the thirteen United States of America, and under them to combat their Enemies. Wishing you health and success, We are, Sir, Your sincere Friends

Signd. B. Franklin
Silas Dean
Arthur Lee

To the Baron de Rullecourt Colonel of Infantry &c. &c.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

2See the note on Chaumont to BF above, under Jan. 4.

3Two unsigned copies, with slightly different wording, are respectively in the APS and the British Library.

4The abbé had been in contact with BF years before; hence he might have been expected to call himself his friend but scarcely “L.B.” (unless for concealment) when his first name was Nicolas. See above, XIX, 235–6 n.

5Not until late February, it seems, did Stormont get wind of the plan. It lay behind Arthur Lee’s trip to Madrid, Paul Wentworth in London reported to Suffolk on March 3; Chaumont and Aranda were providing the money. The planners, Wentworth added two days later, were assuming the tacit support of Spain, which claimed sovereignty over the islands; the Moroccans might occupy them and defeat the whole scheme. Stevens, Facsimiles, II, no. 144; I, no. 54.

6Two brief letters from Rullecourt to the commissioners, of Jan. 18 and 20 (University of Pa. Library), deal with obtaining a ship that seems to have been destined for America, and to have had no connection with the Zaffarin scheme. The final extant letter from the Baron was on Sept. 7, 1777 (APS). In it he reverted to his proposal a year before to recruit a corps from those who had served with him in Poland, and from foreigners already in the United States.

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