Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from James Mullin: Promissory Note, 18 February 1780

From James Mullin: Promissory Note

Passy, printed by Benjamin Franklin, 1780. Printed form with MS insertions in blanks, signed: American Philosophical Society

In mid-February, probably in anticipation of the expected prisoner exchange, Franklin printed on his Passy press a quantity of triplicate forms to replace the handwritten promissory notes that he had issued to escaped prisoners.7 These forms lasted him until June, 1781, when he reprinted them using different type. In March, 1782, he issued a third series, this time set entirely in italic, which kept him supplied until the end of his French mission. The last surviving note is dated May 23, 1785.8

The three sections of the first printed form, while identical in wording and general appearance, were curiously inconsistent in a few typographical details. Franklin italicized “America” in the second section, but not in the first or third. He used an ampersand between “Tenor & Date” in the first section, but in no other. And in the dateline, he used a period after “Passy” in the second section, but a comma in the first and third. Although in the second printing he standardized the inconsistent punctuation, he retained the peculiar italicization of “America.” This suggests, at the very least, that the deviation was deliberate.

We publish below a section of one of the two earliest surviving notes.9 In this case, James Mullin retained the first section, leaving Franklin with the second and third.1

PASSY. [written in blank: 18. Feby.] 17 [written in blank: 80]2

I PROMISE to pay to the honourable the President, for the time being, of the Congress of the United States of America, [written in blank: two] Louis d’ors, which I have received here from Benjamin Franklin, Esquire, Minister Plenipotentiary of the said States, and for which I have signed three Notes, all of this Tenor and Date, one of which being paid, the others are to be void.


James Mullin
from Philadelphia

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7For an example of a handwritten promissory note see John Bishop’s of Dec. 8.

8Well over a hundred of these printed promissory notes, signed and with one section detached, are at the American Philosophical Society. The second and third printings are reproduced in Livingston, Franklin and his Press at Passy, facing pp. 83 and 82, respectively. Livingston was not aware of the first printing, which was set in the type he identified as eighteen-point great-primer, font no. 1. This was the same type that BF used for the invitation to his Independence Day dinner, and the form for the condemnation of prizes: Livingston, pp. 97–8; XXIX, 726–7; XXX, 360–1.

9The other, also dated Feb. 18 and filled out for the same amount, was for Michael Smith of Hampton, Virginia.

1Through the end of February, ten other printed promissory notes have survived. On the 25th, Benjamin Alline, James Coffin, William Green, and John Revell each received six louis. On Feb. 28, the same amount was given to Thomas Elkins, Richard Briggs, Christopher Clark, Philip Howland, Ebenezer Legrow, and Silas Smith. (An undated receipt at the APS shows that Smith, Briggs, and Howland received assistance on their journey to Paris from François Bowens at Ostend and Francis Coffyn at Dunkirk.) With the exception of Coffin, Revell, and Howland, all these men are listed in Kaminkow, Mariners, as having been confined in Forton prison. The names of all men issued promissory notes by BF, along with the date and sum received, continued to be recorded in the Alphabetical List of Escaped Prisoners.

2Although we customarily use italic type to show handwritten insertions in printed forms, we have chosen to retain BF’s own printed italics. In this case, therefore, we opt for enclosing insertions in square brackets.

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