Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes, 13 February 1781

To Vergennes

LS:1 Archives du Ministère des affaires étrangères; AL (draft): Library of Congress; copies: Columbia University Library, Library of Congress, National Archives (two); press copy2 and transcript: National Archives

Passy Feby 13. 1781.


I have just received from Congress their Letter for the King, which I have the honour of putting herewith into the Hands of your Excellency.3

I am charged at the same time to “represent in the strongest Terms, the unalterable Resolution of the United States to maintain their Liberties and Independence, and inviolably to adhere to the Alliance at every hazard and in every Event; And that the Misfortunes of the last Campaign, instead of repressing have redoubled their Ardour: That Congress are resolved to employ every Resource in their Power to expel the Enemy from every Part of the United States, by the most vigorous and decisive Cooperation with the Marine and other Forces of their illustrious Ally; That they have accordingly, called on the several States for a powerful Army and ample Supplies of Provisions and the States are disposed effectually to comply with their Requisitions. That if in Aid of their own Exertions, the Court of France can be prevailed on to assume a Naval Superiority in the American Seas; to furnish the Arms, Ammunition and Cloathing specified in the Estimate heretofore transmitted, and to assist with the Loan mentioned in the Letter, they flatter themselves, that under the Divine Blessing, the War must speedily be terminated with Glory and Advantage to both Nations.”

By several Letters to me from intelligent Persons, it appears that the great and Expensive Exertions of the last Year, by which a Force was assembled capable of facing the Enemy, and which accordingly drew towards New York and lay long near that City, was render’d ineffectual by the Superiority of the Enemy at Sea; and that their Success in Carolina had been chiefly owing to that Superiority, and to the Want of the necessary Means for furnishing, marching, and paying the Expence of Troops sufficient to defend that Province.4

The Marquis de la Fayette writes to me, that it is impossible to conceive without seeing it, the Distress the Troops have suffer’d for want of Cloathing; and the following is a Paragraph of a Letter from Geral Washington, which I ought not to keep back from your Excellency, viz:

“I doubt not you are so fully informed by Congress of our political and Military State, that it would be superfluous to trouble you with any thing relative to either. If I were to speak on Topicks of the kind, it would [be] to shew, that our present Situation makes one of two Things essential to us—a Peace—or the most vigorous Aid of our Allies, particularly in the Article of Money. Of their Disposition to serve us we cannot doubt: Their Generosity will do every thing their Means will permit.”5

They had in America great Expectations, I know not on what Foundation, that a considerable Supp[ly] of Money would be obtained from Spain but that Expectation has failed: And [the] Force of that Nation in those Seas, has been employed to reduce small Forts in Florida, without rendering any direct Assistance to the United States:6 And indeed the long delay of that Court in acceding to the Treaty of Commerce, begins to have the Appearance of its not inclining to have any Connection with us; so that for effectual Friendship, and for the Aid so necessary in the present Conjuncture, we can rely on France alone, and in the continuance of the King’s Goodness towards us.

I am grown old. I feel myself much enfeebled by my late long Illness; and it is probable I shall not long have any more Concern in these Affairs. I therefore take this Occasion to express my Opinion to your Excellency, that the present Conjuncture is critical; that there is some Danger lest the Congress should lose its Influence over the People, if it is found unable to procure the Aids that are wanted; and that the whole System of the new Government in America may thereby be shaken. That if the English are suffer’d once to recover that Country, such an Opportunity of effectual Separation as the present, may not occur again in the Course of Ages; and that the Possession of those fertile and extensive Regions, and that vast Sea Coast, will afford them so broad a Basis for future Greatness, by the rapid Growth of their Commerce: and Breed of Seamen and Soldier, as will enable them to become the Terror of Europe, and to exercise with Impunity that Insolence which is so natural to their Nation, and which will increase enormously with the Increase of their Power.7

I am with great Respect, Your Excellency’s most obedient and most humble Servant

B Franklin

His Exy the Ct. De Vergennes.

Endorsed: Rec. le 15. fever. 1781 M. de R.8 faire traduire

Notation: lettre ci-jointe du congrès au Roi pour lui demander des Secours

1In WTF’s hand, except for the last six words of the complimentary close, which BF wrote.

2Made from a copy in L’Air de Lamotte’s hand and enclosed with BF’s March 12 letter to Huntington, below. BF, who had just received the copying machine (XXXIII, 116n), also included the following handwritten note, which he signed with his initials:

“These Copies are not written, as they seem to be, but taken by Impression from the Originals; and being on thin Paper, are interleav’d to be more legible, tho’ that is not always necessary.

“All these Copies were taken in a few Minutes; and are sent as Sample of a Method that may be useful to the Secretary of Congress on many Occasions, when Secrecy, & Dispatch, are required.

“Such Copies can have no Errors; they must be perfectly exact with the Original.

“I will send the Machine and Directions if desired.”

3Congress’ Nov. 22 letter to Louis XVI, which was enclosed with Huntington’s Nov. 28 instructions to BF, above. The following paragraph is quoted from those instructions. BF told Huntington on March 12, below, that on Feb. 13 he also received his additional instructions of Dec. 27 and Huntington’s Jan. 1, 1781, letter (both of which are above), as well as a copy of Laurens’ instructions. Probably these were all carried by a packet that sailed from Philadelphia on Jan. 3: Smith, Letters, XVI, 552. This may have been the Franklin, which carried RB’s letter of Dec. 20, above.

4See, for example, Samuel Cooper’s July 25 and Sept. 8 letters: XXXIII, 119–20, 263.

5Washington to BF, Oct. 9, 1780; see also Lafayette’s letter of the same date: XXXIII, 399, 395. La Luzerne wrote Vergennes on Jan. 21 that he had received a confidential letter from Washington warning that without prompt naval and financial assistance American affairs could take a desperate turn (AAE).

6BF is writing in ignorance of Louisiana Gov. Gálvez’ direct help to the United States, for which see John W. Caughey, Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana, 1776–1783 (Berkeley, 1934), pp. 85–101. Gálvez’s latest conquest was the important West Florida port of Mobile: XXXIII, 13n.

7A paraphrase of an argument made by the commissioners four years earlier: XXIII, 261–2.

8Rayneval. Excerpts from the French translation are printed in Doniol, Histoire, IV, 540n.

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