Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Nicolas-Maurice Gellée, 28 July 1779

From Nicolas-Maurice Gellée

ALS: American Philosophical Society

The letter printed below, in which Franklin’s French secretary tenders his resignation, sounds cool and formal, but the circumstances surrounding the event must have been highly emotional and have remained somewhat shrouded in mystery. Why did the young man, who had entered the Commission’s service so highly recommended,2 feel he had to quit one year later?

In a letter sent to John Adams the following fall,3 Gellée gives a different version from the one he offers in the present letter: early in June, perceiving that since the dissolution of the Commission he was no longer “in the Confidence” and that Temple had taken the only interesting business upon himself, he asked Franklin to tell him “the true Motive of that Change.” Franklin supposedly answered that, indeed, the business was less considerable than in the past and offered no scope for Gellée’s talents. One secretary was now sufficient. Still, Franklin offered the young man a chance to stay at the Valentinois until he found another position “of greater Trust and Emolument.” But Gellée would have none of this and left Passy, he told Adams. The tone of this letter and its warnings about rumors in France concerning supposedly treasonous activities on the part of John and Samuel Adams suggest that Gellée was on close terms with Adams.

That the parting was stormy is confirmed by Decambray’s letter (after July 28, below) in which the applicant for Gellée’s post refers to his predecessor’s not having properly appreciated Franklin’s kindness and thus deserved his disgrace.

Only thirteen years later, in the course of the French Revolution, did Gellée reveal the depth of his anger: he announced his plan to publish a work directed against Franklin, whose secretary he claimed to have been for two years.4 His revelations about Vergennes’ dealings with America, he said, were sure to compromise the late Foreign Minister’s reputation. If it was ever composed, the work in question has left no trace.

A Paris Le 28 Juillet 1779


Le Porteur de cette Lettre vous remettra La Clef de l’Appartement que j’occupois chez vous. Les Reflexions que vous me fites d’apres la Lettre que j’eus l’honneur de vous ecrire il y a trois mois5 et L’etat d’Inaction ou je me suis trouvé depuis m’avoient decidé a Regret a quitter un Poste que Les Circonstances ont rendu inutile.

Je ne vous ennuierai pas du Detail des Moyens que plusieurs Personnes ont emploiés pour hater ma Résolution; J’ai méprisé des Propos qui n’avoient pas Le sens commun. Je prendrois La Liberté de vous faire mes excuses du scandale qu’un fripon de tailleur a causé chez vous, si je n’etois pas convaincu qu’en refusant de le paier alors, et en voulant que La Justice decidat Le Different, je ne faisois que profiter de L’appui que Les loix accordent a La Jeunesse contre la friponnerie. M. Adams s’est trouvé dans Le même Cas que moi.

M. Didelot fermier general qui vouloit bien se charger de moi dans l’absence de mon Pere, aura L’honneur de vous remettre, Monsieur, L’argent que vous avez preferé de lui Lacher plutot que de disputer.6 Comme Les fonctions de ma place etoient devenües presque nulles, je serois humilié d’en toucher Les Appointemens.

M. Didelot paiera quelques Miseres que je dois a Passy et fera retirer de ma chambre une Malle que j’y ai Laissée et qui contient partie de mes effets.

Quoique je parte cette nuit pour Berlin je n’aurois pas manqué d’aller vous remercier de toutes vos Bontés pour moi. Mais j’ai pensé que ma Presence pourroit vous deplaire avant qu’on eût Levé Les Doutes qu’on a voulu vous insinuer sur mon Compte.

J’ai l’honneur d’etre avec Respect, Monsieur Votre tres humble et tres obeïssant serviteur

N M Gellee

Notation: Gellée Paris 28. juillet 1779.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

2See XXVI, 287–8, 401–2, 493–4.

3Dated Oct. 11, 1779, and published in Adams Papers, VIII, 195–7.

4Pierre Manuel, La Police de Paris dévoilée (2 vols., Paris, [1793–94]), II, 266.

5Possibly his letter of March 24 (XXIX, 205–6).

6The settling of Gellée’s affairs kept Didelot, a family friend from Châlons-sur-Marne, busy through the summer. On Aug. 3, he sharply reminded the young man to come and see him the following day and to return some books—which casts doubt on the proposed trip to Berlin mentioned in the letter. On Aug. 7, Didelot wrote BF or WTF that he was sending someone to pick up Gellée’s trunk, in accordance with the verbal agreement reached the previous day. On Sept. 7, Didelot, assuming that his Sept. 2 letter about Gellée had not reached BF since he had received no answer, wrote again. He was now sending a messenger to whom BF was requested to entrust his reply. The disappearance of the Sept. 2 letter and of a copy Didelot may have included on Sept. 7 suggests that this correspondence might have been tampered with.

Finally, a Parisian lawyer by the name of Bertinot (avocat au Parlement) sent, on Sept. 22, an agitated message to BF’s secretary (name left blank). He had “obliged” Gellée on Aug. 4—further indication that the young man was not in Berlin—and had not heard from him since then, even though he had urged an answer on Sept. 13. Irritated, he had penned a strongly worded letter that very morning and, as soon as he had mailed it, received the desired answer from Gellée, now back in Châlons. Could BF’s secretary return the angry letter addressed to Passy? All the documents cited are at the APS.

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