Benjamin Franklin Papers

Editorial Note on the Secret Committee, 18 September 1775

Editorial Note on the Secret Committee

On September 18, 1775, Congress established what became one of its principal institutions for waging the war, the secret committee.9 Its nine members, Franklin among them, were elected the next day. Their chief responsibility was to obtain arms and ammunition, and the methods of doing so had been worked out some months earlier. Nonexportation had been relaxed to permit produce, with a few exceptions, to be carried abroad whenever the ship returned with war material of equivalent value; and Congress had made contracts with individual merchants to import gunpowder at a set commission.1 The committee thus moved into a sphere of action in which the rudiments of procedure had been established.

Two-thirds of the original members were delegates who were also active merchants, but this mercantile majority shrank somewhat when the membership was enlarged.2 Meetings usually consisted of the bare quorum, five. The chairman, Samuel Ward, was the most assiduous attender until his death from smallpox in March, 1776. In that period the next most faithful member was Franklin; of the thirty-seven meetings when those present were recorded, from the inception of the committee until his departure for Canada in late March, he was at twenty-nine. After his return in June, however, he seems to have given up attending.3

The documents that survive from the six months in which he was active are few and far between. They consist of one letter from the committee that he did not sign, one to it that he probably did not see, an export licence, and six contracts, some of which he signed; a much greater number of contracts, which were the committee’s central business, are minutely described in its minutes but have since disappeared. We summarize those extant documents with which Franklin was clearly connected, and omit the others.4 His exposure to contracts, whether we print them or not, must have been educational in the ways in which merchants competed with each other and pulled strings in Congress. After Franklin arrived in France he asked, when it suited his purposes, to be “excus’d from any Concern in Matters of Commerce, which he so little understands.”5 But no one who had served on the secret committee was so innocent as he implied about the business side of conducting a war.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

9JCC, II, 253.

1See the resolutions on trade above, under July 21, and for an early contract JCC, II, 210–11. See also Jennings B. Sanders, Evolution of Executive Departments of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1935), p. 78.

2John Alsop and Philip Livingston of New York, Thomas Willing of Philadelphia, Silas Deane of Connecticut, Samuel Ward of Rhode Island, and John Langdon of New Hampshire. The three who were not merchants were BF and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Thomas McKean of Delaware. Dickinson soon resigned and was replaced by Josiah Bartlett, a New Hampshire physician, Archibald Bulloch, a Georgia lawyer, and Francis Lewis, another New York merchant. In December Robert Morris replaced Willing, his partner, and more changes were made in January, 1776.

3He did sign, with others, two letters from the committee (below, Sept. 13 and 27, 1776), but the minutes of its meetings make no mention of him after March. These minutes, copied by Richard Henry Lee, are published with some omissions in Smith, Letters, II-V, passim. They do not always list the members present, and when they do are at times confusing: in two cases BF is recorded as both present and absent, which we take to mean that he was there part of the time.

4The omissions are: a contract of Oct. 9, 1775, drawn at a meeting from which he was absent; letters to the R.I. and Va. committees of safety of Jan. 29 and Feb. 13, respectively; a letter to Schuyler of Feb. 21, signed by Ward for the committee, and a letter from Nicholas Brown to the committee, written in Providence on March 20, 1776, only six days before BF left for Canada. The texts of these documents may be found in Naval Docs., II, 383; III, 1262–3; IV, 419–20; Smith, Letters, III, 166, 293.

5Smyth, Writings, VII, 154.

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