Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes, 24 July 1782

To Vergennes

ALS: Archives du Ministère des affaires étrangères

The two extracts inclosed in this letter were brought to Passy as part of a conciliatory mission that backfired. On July 11, Franklin wrote Benjamin Vaughan to express doubts about Shelburne’s intentions. Vaughan immediately showed that letter to Shelburne, who denied any grounds for suspicion. Vaughan volunteered to visit Franklin and reassure him in person, rather than answer in writing. Shelburne agreed, instructing him to return in two days and allowing him (for his “private Instruction”) to copy in shorthand passages from two important letters that demonstrated Britain’s commitment to American independence.4

Vaughan violated those instructions once he got to Paris. He transcribed both passages and gave them to Franklin.5 He volunteered to put “public benefit” above private concerns (his wife was in the final stages of pregnancy) and stay in France for days, months, or even years if the Americans thought he could be useful. Franklin evidently asked him to stay until he composed a response, which he would delay until “a courier should advise the final disposition of the Court of London.”6

When Shelburne later received Richard Oswald’s letter of July 12, also informing him of Franklin’s suspicions,7 he obtained the King’s permission to send Oswald full copies of the same two letters he had quietly shown to Vaughan. Oswald, who was not told that Vaughan had already seen them, was encouraged to “communicate to Dr. Franklin such Parts of both, as may be sufficient to satisfy his mind, that there never have been two Opinions since you were sent to Paris, upon the most unequivocal Acknowledgement of American Independancy.”8 Far from being satisfied, both Franklin and Vergennes found in the letters confirmation of British duplicity. By the time Oswald received Shelburne’s packet, which was dated July 27, not only had Franklin sent the present letter to Vergennes, but Vergennes had also sent copies of the extracts to Spanish Chief Minister Floridablanca.9

Passy, July 24. 1782


Inclos’d I have the honour of sending to your Excellency, Extracts from two Dispatches of the British Ministry, (one of them to the Commissioners for restoring Peace in America) which are communicated to me by Order of Lord Shelburne, expressly for the Purpose of restoring Confidence between him and me. Your Excellency will judge how proper they are for such a Purpose, when the first is evidently calculated to create Division not only between France & us, but among ourselves;1 and the second is contradictory respecting a principal Point, the Independance.2 I am, with great Respect, Sir, Your Excellency’s most obedient and most humble Servant

B Franklin

M. le Comte de Vergennes

Endorsed: rep

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

4This account is derived from Shelburne’s explanation to Oswald in a letter dated Sept. 3: Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 547–8.

5Vaughan’s excerpts are in the Franklin Collection at the Library of Congress, mistakenly catalogued as Vaughan to BF, June 5, 1782.

6Vaughan to WTF, July 26, 1782; Vaughan to Shelburne, July 31, 1782; both at the APS. Vaughan stayed for months, claiming that it was at BF’s urging (Vaughan to Shelburne, Aug. 7 and 17, Sept. 11, 1782, APS). BF insisted to Oswald, however, that Vaughan’s decision was entirely his own; see our annotation of Hartley to BF, July 26.

7This letter is discussed in annotation to BF to Shelburne, July 12.

8Shelburne to Oswald, July 27, 1782, in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 479.

9Harlow, Second British Empire, I, 271n. See also Vergennes’ reply of July 28.

Oswald was alarmed to discover that BF had advance knowledge of the letters he bore. He feared there was a leak in Townshend’s office. Shelburne explained the source of BF’s information (Sept. 3, cited above), admitting that his own “misjudgment” was to blame for the awkward situation Oswald had found himself in. Shelburne also wondered at BF’s “singular Unfairness” in “surprizing and embarassing” Oswald. (This portion of the Sept. 3 letter, not in Emerging Nation, is published in Harlow, Second British Empire, I, 272.) In addition to presenting these third-party letters, however, Oswald also provided news that unlocked the stalemate in the negotiations: Shelburne had made major concessions concerning peace terms. See the headnote to Shelburne to BF, July 27.

1The first extract was of a June 5 letter from Shelburne to Lieut. Gen. Guy Carleton and Rear Adm. Robert Digby, the military and naval commanders in America who served concurrently as peace commissioners. It informed them that the cabinet had directed Grenville “that the Independency of America should be proposed by him in the first Instance, instead of making it a Condition of a general Treaty.” As Harlow points out, the phrase “in the first instance” meant that Britain was prepared to concede independence in a preliminary agreement with the Americans before the conclusion of a general treaty involving all the combatants. It did not mean that Britain would concede independence in advance of negotiations, as Fox wished: Harlow, Second British Empire, I, 270. The passage also said that once independence was promised, the French would still be disinclined to terminate the war. It would then become clear that the war’s continuation would benefit not America but France, Spain, and Holland, and would expose the motives of those Americans “devoted to France.” French troops in America would soon become “dangerous enemies” rather than allies. Jay sent a copy of the excerpt to Livingston on Nov. 17: Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, VI, 15–16. The full text is published in Giunta, Emerging Nation, I, 421–6.

2The second extract, in French, was of a June 28 letter from Fox to Russian Minister Ivan M. Simolin acquainting him with Grenville’s instructions.

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