Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Vergennes, 3 March 1782

To Vergennes

LS:5 Archives du Ministère des affaires étrangères; press copy of LS: National Archives; copies: Library of Congress; transcript: National Archives

Passy, March 3. 1782.


I received the Letter your Excellency did me the honour of writing to me the 26th. past,6 enclosing an Official Paper on the Part of the Danish Court, relating to the Burning of some English Vessels on the Coast of Norway, by three American Ships. I shall not fail to transmit the same immediately to the Congress, who will, I make no doubt, enquire into the Facts alledged, and do there-upon what shall appear to be just & right, it being their constant and earnest Desire to avoid giving any Offence to Neutral Nations, as will appear by their Instructions to all armed Vessels, of which I have the honour to present a Copy.7

In the meantime, as it is natural to expect, that those who exact a rigorous Observation of the Law of Nations, when their own Interest or Honour seems affected, should be themselves ready to show an Example of their own Regard for those Laws where the Interest of others is concerned, I cannot but hope the Court of Denmark will at length attend to a Demand long since made by me, but hitherto without Effect, that they would restore to the United States the Value of three Vessels amounting to Fifty Thousand Pounds Sterling.8 These Vessels were fair and good Prizes which had been made by our Ships of War, not on the Coast of Denmark but far distant on the high Seas, and were sent into Bergen as into a Port truly neutral: but there, contrary to the Law of Hospitality as well as the other Laws of Nations, they were forcibly wrested out of our Hands by the Governor of that Place, and delivered back to our Enemies. The Congress have not lost Sight of this Violence, but constantly expect Justice from the Equity and Wisdom of his Danish Majesty.

I am, with greatest Respect, Sir, Your Excellency’s Most obedient and most humble Servant

B Franklin

His Exy. Mr. Le Cte. De Vergennes

Endorsed: M. de R

Notation: Envoyé la traduction à M de Blôme

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

5In L’Air de Lamotte’s hand, except for the last six words of the complimentary close, which are in BF’s hand.

6Vergennes’ letter, above, was written on Feb. 24.

7BF must have enclosed a copy of the instructions for privateers approved by Congress on May 2, 1780, and amended by an ordinance of March 27, 1781: JCC, XVI, 406–8; XIX, 314–16. We know he had copies of this particular set of instructions and ordinance because he printed them on his press at Passy. We speculate that he sent Vergennes his Passy imprint, surmising that he had printed these documents in the wake of his having to send a handwritten copy of the ordinance to Capt. John Angus; see our annotation of Angus to BF, Jan. 11. Examples of both Passy imprints are in the Yale University Library (and elsewhere) and are reproduced in facsimile in Luther S. Livingston, Franklin and his Press at Passy (New York, 1914), facing pp. 84 and 85. The chief differences between BF’s printed version of the ordinance and the Philadelphia imprint (David C. Claypoole, 1781), besides those of typography, are in punctuation and capitalization. BF, for example, changed the initial “K” in “King of Great Britain” to lowercase.

We do not know when or by whom BF received a copy of these instructions for privateers. It was perhaps by the hand of an American captain, since there is no record of Congress having sent them. But BF obviously did not know that this version had been superseded by the new set of instructions approved on April 7, 1781 (JCC, XIX, 360–4), altered to permit the free navigation of neutral vessels.

8XXXI, 261–5.

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