Benjamin Franklin Papers

Editorial Note on Undated Letters Assigned to 1779

Editorial Note on Undated Letters Assigned to 1779

The number of undated documents we are publishing at the end of 1779 is the largest so far for the end of a year. The reason for such abundance is that after Franklin received news of his appointment as minister plenipotentiary in mid-February, many correspondents henceforth addressed him with that title, providing us with a safe chronological clue of “1779 or thereafter.” Our policy being to publish documents at the earliest plausible date, we have assigned to the following roundup a quantity of letters possibly written later but impossible to date with any precision.4

The following five documents, however, may well belong to the months of 1779 covered in previous volumes; while all are undated, they make reference to events that occurred earlier in the year.

Jean-Baptiste Le Roy informs Franklin that the proposed dinner party at de Montalembert’s has been postponed due to the host’s illness.5 He also mentions his pleasure at Franklin’s remark, made some time previously, to the effect that experiments carried out during an aurora borealis should employ needles of all kinds of metals and substances. They are in perfect agreement on that point.6 He also hopes that the Doctor will accept M. de Paulmy’s proposal.7

An interesting memorandum in Le Ray de Chaumont’s hand addresses the problem of the lack of Protestant schooling for the children of foreigners living in France. He suggests that, in order not to scandalize the clergy, the government should grant the privilege of a chapel to the consuls of foreign countries, just as the ministers from abroad have one in their residence. The consuls could occupy vast quarters where they would also gather a teaching staff. Since it is important to stem the discontent of fathers whose children are taken to mass against their will, he wonders whether Franklin would not open his own chapel and school in one of the many large buildings available in Passy, right in the neighborhood. To avoid friction and gossip no Catholics would be admitted. Since there will always be an American minister in Paris, such an institution, of great use to the kingdom, would last forever. It should not, however, receive too much éclat in order to spare the clergy’s lungs.8

A letter from Guénard de Faverolle, a twenty-two-year-old officer9 who seems more bent on a diplomatic career than on a military one, may also date from somewhat earlier in the year. For the last four years, he says, he has been attached to the marquis de Bombelles,1 France’s minister plenipotentiary to Regensburg. He has studied public law, traveled to various parts of Germany and Austria and has followed the negotiations of the Peace of Teschen. His great wish now is to join the chevalier de La Luzerne in America and he would be glad to carry letters and dispatches to Congress. The French minister to Munich, M. O’Dunne would vouch for his discretion.2

Joseph Parker addresses a letter to Franklin’s alias, “Monsieur François,” about his ship bound for England. He depends upon Franklin’s kind attention to his case, and sends some papers, which Franklin may forward or suppress as he thinks proper. Although Parker is a good friend of the Reverend Mr. Gordon, he hates to trouble him with mercantile business.3

A tantalizing note was sent by Le Roy one Thursday reminding his friend that around 4 p.m. a deputation of the Académie des sciences would come to see son appareil—but what instrument are they talking about? A mention of a letter from chevalier d’Arcy confirms that this was written before October, 1779, when he died.

Some notes, even though cryptic, reflect the intellectual interchange between colleagues, with its active borrowing and lending. Pierre Poissonnier, the chemist and doctor, asks Franklin to return to its author, Mauduit,4 the memoir on electricity that he had been reading. This can easily be done at the home of M. Watelet where they are to meet the following Saturday. Neighbor Le Veillard, writing in English, is sending a messenger to pick up The Conscious Lovers5 which he forgot to take along the previous day when Franklin lent it to him. An unnamed correspondent who must have shown the American minister a newspaper or gazette offers him the chance to insert in its pages whatever he wants about the brave colonies he is representing in France. He only has to send his recollections to M. Dérival6 in Brussels and he will receive further issues.

Samuel Wharton, while visiting in Passy, assures Franklin that in less than two hours he returned to Temple the American papers he had been lent. In another message, carefully dated by the hour but in no other way, Wharton desires to borrow the Parliamentary Registers containing the Howe correspondence and promises to return them by the following day.7 On a Wednesday when the London post brought him no newspaper, Wharton goes off to “Suave” to buy some portraits for his friends.8

Wharton’s friend Samuel Petrie, also in France, begs for a chance to read the most recent American papers and on another occasion forwards some item he received from London by that day’s mail.

Edward Bancroft forwards a letter from Lord Buckinghamshire’s brother that came from England via Mr. Walpole.9

Several of these undated notes have to do with dinner parties. A certain M de Bougon does not remember the exact date on which Franklin is to dine at the duc de La Vallière’s, a party which he is planning to attend himself.1 Bancroft accepts Franklin’s “obliging invitation” for an unspecified Thursday. Comte and comtesse de Brancas2 hope that Franklin and Temple can join them for dinner on a Wednesday the 6th at their residence in the faubourg St. Germain. Farmer General Geoffroy Chalut de Vérin asks the grandfather and grandson to have dinner with him the following Saturday.

In his capacity as secretary for Mme Helvétius, but forgetting to put a date, Cabanis answers a lost letter from Franklin and accepts his dinner invitation for the following day. He and the abbé de la Roche will certainly come, but the lady does not promise anything yet since she sees that the Doctor obviously prefers the comtesse de Forbach. Cabanis hopes that she will prevent “les révoltes” that Franklin mentions; they interest her much more than the Doctor seems to believe.

Le Roy expresses his regrets one Thursday: he is unable to accept Franklin’s dinner invitation for Saturday since the Académie will be in session. He and his wife will try their luck on Sunday but Franklin may be entertaining too many of his fellow Americans that day.

A few very short messages thank Franklin for a favor or express the writer’s goodwill toward him. Soeur Marie du St. Esprit, dating her note “De L’avé Maria de paris 1779,” warmly thanks Franklin for his generosity towards the poor and hopes that his benefactions will continue. The comte de Maillebois, of the Académie des sciences, is so glad that the package for America reached him just as he was leaving and will come soon to express his gratitude. Le Roy offers “mille et mille” good wishes, and recommends Billiaux, who will mend his lamps.3 Père Bertier, not finding Franklin at home, leaves greetings for him.4

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

4The letters from Bancroft, Parker, Petrie, and Wharton are in English; the rest are in French. Unless otherwise noted, all the documents mentioned are at the American Philosophical Society.

5Marc-René, marquis de Montalembert (1714–1800), was an engineer and general, a specialist in fortifications. He was also an associate of the Académie des sciences, and was celebrated for the good parties he gave. Larousse.

6This suggests that his letter may have been written some time near BF’s paper on the aurora borealis (XXVIII, 190–200), which was delivered to the Académie des sciences on April 14, 1779: XXIX, 323–4n.

7Perhaps Antoine-René de Voyer, marquis de Paulmy (1722–87), a former secretary of war: Michel Antoine, Le gouvernement et l’administration sous Louis XV: Dictionnaire biographique, p. 249.

8BF never carried out the proposal. It should probably be dated at some point before he resolved the problem of BFB’s schooling by sending him to Geneva in early April, 1779: XXIX, 325n, 351. The document is at the Library of Congress.

9In the Dragons de Penthièvre, according to his letter. He indicates he is a supernumerary, so he is not listed in the Etat militaire for the period.

1Who arrived at his post in late June, 1775: Repertorium der diplomatischen Vertreter, III, 116. Marc-Marie de Bombelles (1744–1822) after a long military and diplomatic career became a priest and then a bishop: DBF.

2Since La Luzerne left France on June 17, 1779 (XXIX, 490n), and Minister Plenipotentiary Jacques-Bernard O’Dunne left Munich on Nov. 14 of that year (Repertorium der diplomatischen Vertreter, III, 110), Guénard’s letter probably falls at some point between the two.

3Parker’s request is certainly related to the seizure of his ship by order of the Massachusetts General Court in 1775. The American Commissioners had earlier written on his behalf, and William Gordon took an active interest in the case in the winter and spring of 1779: XXVI, 517; XXVIII, 467.

4Pierre-Jean-Etienne Mauduit de la Varenne (d. 1792) of the Faculty of the University of Paris and Royal Society of Medicine published a book on the medical uses of electricity in 1779: Larousse; Quérard, France littéraire.

5Richard Steele’s comedy, published in 1722, had been translated and printed in Paris in 1778: XXVI, 414.

6This must be Dérival de Gomicourt’s Lettres hollandoises, ou Correspondance politique, sur l’état present de l’Europe, published in 1779–81: XXIX, 396n.

7J. Almon, ed., The Parliamentary Register … (17 vols., 1775–80), IX, 253–483. These papers were laid before the House of Commons on Feb. 19, 1778, and were published by Almon in 1779.

8We presume “Suave” refers to the manufactory of Sèvres, which was called “Sauve” by another English speaker, Christopher Baldwin: XXIX, 51.

9This was probably George Hobart (1731–1804), the half-brother of the earl of Buckinghamshire and a member of Parliament for Bere Alston until 1780. Mme du Deffand used him to correspond with Horace Walpole: DNB; Namier and Brooke, House of Commons, II, 627; Lewis, Walpole Correspondence, VI, 358; VII, 108–9.

1Louis-César de La Baume Le Blanc de La Vallière, great-nephew of the celebrated Louise of the same name, the mistress of Louis XIV, owned a remarkable book collection in his château at Montrouge. When he died in 1780, his books were bought by the comte d’Artois. Larousse.

2Who had entertained BF previously: XXVI, 27–8n.

3Also among BF’s papers is a two-page printed advertisement, dated Dec. 13, 1779, for a new odorless and smokeless lamp oil. Invented by an unnamed “Physicien,” it had been tested by several members of the Académie des sciences in the presence of the lieutenant-general of the police. APS.

4Joseph-Etienne Bertier, VIII, 358.

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