Benjamin Franklin Papers

Editorial Note on Promissory Notes, 1783

Editorial Note on Promissory Notes

Although the hostilities had ceased and most prisoners had been exchanged, American seamen who had escaped from British jails continued to appear at Franklin’s door seeking assistance. When they received it, they either signed or made their marks on triplicate promissory notes that Franklin had printed. Little is known about these men, as their notes were rarely filled in with anything other than their names and the amount.4

Seven men received 24 l.t. on May 20: Alexander Cox, Bannet and Stephen Jarboe, Barnard Limes, John White, John Wilson, and B. Youton. On May 24 William Carter, John Collins, William Harris, and William Morgan each received the same amount. The passport that Franklin issued to them still survives; signed the same day, it identified them as American sailors and allowed them to travel to Nantes.5 Micel Benet signed a promissory note for 24 l.t. on May 29.

On July 10 William Pease and John Rush each signed notes for 15 l.t. Two days later, notes were issued for Robert Harrison, who received 24 l.t., and for Ann Jamie, who received twice that amount. This was presumably for herself and her husband: Ferdinand Grand’s accounts indicate that an Alexander “Jemmy” and his wife each received 24 l.t.6 On July 16 John Smith, taken in the Jack of Salem, was granted 24 l.t.7

Two handwritten receipts survive from this period. On June 15, Franklin wrote a receipt for James Fife, who signed it: “Recd. of Mr Franklin One Guinea to bear my Expences to Nantes in my way home to Philadelphia, which I promise to repay on Demand.” On July 6 William Temple Franklin wrote a receipt for three sailors whose names appear on the Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners: “Recd from B. Franklin Esqr fifteen Livres each to assist us in getting to America.” It was signed by David Coleman, John Gray, and Thomas Howing.8

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

4All the printed promissory notes described here are at the APS, and all the signatories are listed on the Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners. No promissory note has been located for William Herwins, whose name appears on the Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners as having received 36 l.t. on Aug. 1. That payment is confirmed by Grand’s accounts (Account XXVII, XXXII, 4).

5This passport (University of Pa. Archives) was printed with the large script type cut for BF by Fournier le jeune; see XXXVII, 283n and the facing page, where the earliest known example is shown. In this printing, BF reset the forms and altered certain elements. In the first line, for example, he capitalized “Franklin” instead of “Nous,” and at the bottom of the form, beneath the space left for his signature, he used a smaller type which allowed him to spell out his title in full: Ellen R. Cohn, “The Printer at Passy,” in Page Talbott, ed., Benjamin Franklin: in Search of a Better World (New Haven and London, 2005), p. 253.

6Account XXVII (XXXII, 4). Ann Jamie is the only woman we have seen in this category. Her name (but not her husband’s) was added to the Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners, perhaps on the basis of her signing their joint promissory note.

7His was probably the Mass. ship commanded by David Ropes, which had been captured in 1782 off Nova Scotia. Some crew members were imprisoned at Kinsale: Allen, Mass. Privateers, pp. 189–90; Royal Gaz., June 26, 1782; C. J. F. MacCarthy, “The American Prisoners at Kinsale,” Jour. of the Cork Hist. and Archaeol. Soc., 2nd ser., XCIV (1989), 46.

Smith must have landed at or near Calais, where five days earlier he received 24 l.t. from Jacques Leveux “pour se rendre chez le Docteur francklin.” The certificate Leveux wrote for Smith, attesting to the loan and requesting that he be allowed to travel freely to Passy, is dated July 11, 1783 (APS).

8Both sheets are at the APS.

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