Original Credentials for a Colony's First European Representative, Yielding Likely the Largest Military Transaction After Saratoga.
Provenance: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
When news reached France of the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen colonies, it was perceived by many as the incarnation of the Enlightenment spirit against the tyranny of England. When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on December 21, 1776, he found much sympathy for his cause...
Provenance: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
When news reached France of the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen colonies, it was perceived by many as the incarnation of the Enlightenment spirit against the tyranny of England. When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on December 21, 1776, he found much sympathy for his cause and he himself was the “celebrated Dr. Franklin” from the beginning. The people gathered in crowds to see and acclaim him and shopkeepers rushed to their doors to catch a glimpse of him as he passed along the sidewalk. Perhaps no person in history has come to symbolize America as Franklin did in Paris. The official reaction to Franklin’s cause was, however, more restrained, as France did not wish to rush into a war with Britain or back a losing cause.
In France, Franklin acted as diplomat charged with convincing France to ally itself with America and funding the Revolution; he was purchasing agent to acquire ships and war supplies to be sent home; head recruiter seeking experienced or promising officers for the Continental Army; loan negotiator to obtain monies the virtually bankrupt Congress; intelligence strategist handling information in the chess game between the American, French, British and Spanish governments; funds disburser for the American acquisitions effort; and generally act as the main representative of the new United States in Europe. Just two weeks after his arrival, Franklin formally requested French aid. King Louis XVI approved a response to them and on January 13, 1777 they received a verbal promise of two million livres. In March 1777, Franklin established himself at Passy, a charming village outside Paris where he remained throughout his French mission. In early June, he received the first proceeds from the French, an advance of one million livres, which they immediately deposited with a private banker that the United States used in Paris, Ferdinand Grand. This would prove a prototype, as in the future private entities would be utilized by the French government to provide clandestine aid in the way of secret arms, supplies and funds to the Americans. But for the present, the aid was meagre and halting.
Military news coming from America in the summer of 1777 was not good, so France looked to Spain and they both hesitated to make such an alliance. The situation became worse when news arrived in September of American reverses in the field near Philadelphia. No state was in more dire need of aid than Georgia, which faced a shortage of weapons and other vital resources. Early in 1777, its Legislative Council formed a committee to find ways to get arms and ammunition, and having a long and beneficial commercial relationship with French interests in the Indies, it determined to approach France for aid. In doing so, it followed the suggestion of the Continental Congress that states supplement U.S. efforts with their own. The Committee authorized the selection of an agent for this purpose. Benjamin Franklin had filled such a capacity temporarily. But the Committee chose Emmanuel-Pierre de la Plaigne to be its first functioning, formal representative. M. de La Plaigne was a native of France and long time resident of the French island of St. Domingue, coming to Georgia in 1775 to help the American cause. He worked his way to become a Captain in the Georgia Infantry. On May 26 1777 the Assembly ratified de la Plaigne’s selection and sent with him to France a letter of introduction addressed to Benjamin Franklin at Passy. He was to obtain, under Franklin’s care, munitions, equipment for troops, hospital medicines, goods, and recruits for the militia. While de la Plaigne was on board his vessel headed for France, dodging British vessels on the Atlantic, the Americans won a decisive battle against the British at Saratoga, where the entire British force under General John Burgoyne surrendered. This demonstration of superiority would give France the impetus it needed to formally recognize the Americans. But news of the victory was just days behind de la Plaigne, who arrived in France and made his way to Passy, where he saw Dr. Franklin on December 3 and presented him with the letters and other documents from the Georgia legislature attesting to his patriotic mission. John Paul Jones would arrive on December 4 with the news about Saratoga; the war effort was about to change. And Franklin’s visa, this very document, would play a part in that.
Autograph Document Signed, Passy, December 3, 1777, being de la Plaigne’s original credentials issued by Franklin allowing him to negotiate with the French for aid. "I do hereby certify whom it may concern, that the Papers herewith connected under my Seal, viz. the Extract from the Minutes of the Assembly of Georgia, signed by Henry Cuyler, Clerk; and the Instructions to Capt. De la Plaigne signed by N W. Jones Speaker, are genuine and authentic Papers. B Franklin."
The next day, Jones arrived and word spread through Paris like wildfire. French Foreign Minister Vergennes told Franklin informally on the 6th of December that the goal of French recognition was imminent. By the 7th, that word came more formally. On the 11th, de la Plaigne secured a very significant aid package consisting of munitions and a detachment of officers and soldiers skilled in areas lacking in America: artillery and engineering. This was likely the first large aid transaction to take place in France after Saratoga and attests to the power with which the news swept the French. Franklin had personally intervened, given de la Plaigne support and these credentials, and directed de la Plaigne to an acquaintance in the industry, personally intervening to encourage the transaction. Bayard, the negociant, would later write Franklin of the affair and refer to his active participation.
On February 6, 1778, just two months later, France signed a Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States. This alliance would eventually bring victory in the Revolution and lead to American independence.
This Benjamin Franklin letter, purchased by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1946, was gifted to a donor on December 18, 1972, in token of his generosity. The HSP minute records also note that this ‘gift’ was not to set a precedent, showing the unique disposition of this document.
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