Franklin’s Failed Diplomatic Mission

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis. Current location: National Portrait Gallery, Washington

Benjamin Franklin’s Revolutionary War diplomatic successes have been well chronicled. He was instrumental in persuading King Louis XVI to enter into a military alliance with the fledgling United States and for negotiating the Treaty of Paris with the British ending the Revolutionary War. Less remembered is Franklin’s first diplomatic mission after the onset of hostilities.

Capitalizing on the capture of Ft. Ticonderoga, the Patriots invaded Canada to drive out the British and unite the 13 colonies with Canada. Initially the invasion was slow moving, but successful. The Canadian cities of St. Johns, Chambly and Montreal fell to Patriot attackers and the Continental Army swept to the gates of Quebec, the strategic key to remaining Canadian positions held by the British. However, a December 31, 1775 assault failed and an enfeebled Patriot army camped outside the city walls.

With the Continental Army deteriorating from disease and a lack of provisions and anticipated British reinforcements, something had to be done to sustain the Patriot conquest of Canada. General Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Department, reiterated a previous request that the Continental Congress send a delegation to win over the Canadians. Congress thought that Canada should send a delegation to Philadelphia similar to the other colonies.[1] Given the now dire situation, Congress reconsidered and authorized a diplomatic commission to travel to Montreal to persuade the Canadians to join the 13 colonies in rebellion against British rule.

The Commission

On February 15, 1776, Congress established a three person diplomatic commission consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll. Franklin, a member of Congress, was the most experienced diplomat as he had represented colonial interests in Britain before the rebellion. Chase, a member of Congress from Maryland, was selected to demonstrate that Protestants and Catholics could live harmoniously within one political entity, and he was a good friend of northern commander General Schuyler. Charles Carroll, who was fluent in French, was selected because of his Catholic faith and his enormous personal wealth. Congress also requested that Carroll’s cousin, The Reverend John Carroll, a practicing priest, accompany the commission to interact with the Canadian religious authorities.[2]

After over a month of deliberations, Congress formally charged the Commission with the objective of convincing the Canadian populous to join the 13 colonies in separating from Britain. The commissioners were authorized to offer the following inducements.[3]

  • “Free and undisturbed Exercise of their Religion”
  • “Possession and Enjoyment of their Estates”
  • Rights to enact laws governing their colony
  • Representation in Congress
  • Establishment of a free press
  • Mutual defense

Accompanying the Commissioners was Fleury Mesplet, a French-speaking printer from Philadelphia who would publish materials sympathetic to the Patriots. Mesplet carried a printing press, as the only press in Canada was located in British controlled Quebec. Congress believed that a publishing operation was critical to widespread dissemination of its proposals thereby engendering Canadian support for joining rebellion against British rule.[4]

Another important component of the Commission’s charge were expansive military powers.   Military officers were subordinate to their command and the Commissioners were authorized to sit and vote in councils of war. The Commissioners had the authority to settle disputes between the Continental Army and the Canadians (including several jailed Canadians) and to enact regulations concerning relations. Further, Congress furnished blank officer commissions to form up to 4 new regiments and to enlist willing volunteers among the Canadian populace.

Lastly, the Commissioners sought to secure the allegiance of the Native American tribes who straddled the border between Canada and New York (including modern day Vermont). At the very least, they sought the tribes’ neutrality as the New Yorkers and New Englanders recollected the fearful Indian attacks during the French and Indian War. The Commission was also charged with encouraging good relations and trade with Indian Nations. Passports were authorized to facilitate trade and to keep the peace.

The Reception

The late winter journey from Philadelphia to Montreal required Benjamin Franklin and the commissioners to travel through wilderness country, to brave wintery elements and to sleep in makeshift quarters. The 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin was uncertain that he could complete the arduous journey and wrote to Josiah Quincy:

“I am here on my Way to Canada, detain’d by the present State of the Lakes, in which the unthaw’d Ice obstructs Navigation. I begin to apprehend that I have undertaken a Fatigue that at my Time of Life may prove too much for me, so I sit down to write to a few Friends by way of Farewell.[5]

Franklin persevered and arrived in Montreal on April 29, 1776. Brigadier General Benedict Arnold and a salute from the cannon of the city’s citadel welcomed Franklin and the other two commissioners. A grand party and feast was held to celebrate their arrival and to impress the local inhabitants of the importance of the commissioners.[6]

However, the reception from the general population was considerably muted. When General Richard Montgomery, leader of the Patriot forces in Canada first came to Montreal on his way to Quebec, the Canadians provided supplies and assistance. However, his defeat gave pause to the Canadians in giving additional support. Lacking hard currency, the Patriots could only offer relatively worthless Continental dollars for needed goods and services. This led Canadians to believe that Congress was bankrupt and they would not honor Continental dollars. In fact, Franklin had to find a fellow traveler to exchange Continental currency into silver to pay for a calash (a two wheeled, one horse vehicle) to take them into Montreal.[7]

On May 1, the Commission wrote to Congress requesting twenty thousand pounds to prosecute the war effort. The money would be used to establish a bank to exchange Continental notes and to pay off existing debts. Further, Franklin indicated that without this money, it was impossible to propose a union of Canada with the 13 colonies[8].

The intended good will by Father John Carroll engaging with his Canadian ecclesiastical counterparts did not generate pro-Patriot support. Carroll briefly met with Father Peter R. Floquet, a Jesuit priest in Montreal. Father Floquet was open to speaking, possibly because he was concerned with Patriot backlash against Catholics in Maryland and Pennsylvania. To further incent Father Floquet, the Patriots restored his Montreal residence to him that had been requisitioned for military use. However, all other Catholic priests followed Bishop of Quebec Monseigneur Briand’s orders forbidding any contact with Father Carroll and the Patriots[9].

The Canadian clergy believed that they had positive assurances of religious freedom under the Quebec Act from the British government and only unsubstantiated promises from the Patriots. The clergy experienced first hand intolerance from Brigadier General David Wooster, a Patriot officer serving in Canada, and became aware of Congress’s harsh denouncements of the Roman Catholic faith. Further, some of the colonies prohibited Catholic priests from serving as missionaries among the Native Americans and treated those that disobeyed the ban harshly. These experiences led the Canadian Catholic Church to reject John Carroll’s entreaties and to support the British.[10]

Compounding the funding and religious issues, the Canadians observed many disheartened Patriot soldiers abandoning the campaign and returning home at the end of their enlistments. Canadians increasingly perceived that the Patriots were not committed, so why should any Canadian enlist to fight the British?

Colonel Moses Hazen in a letter to General Schuyler summed up the situation with respect to the local population,

“…we no longer look upon them as friends, but, on the contrary, waiting an opportunity to join our enemies….who would wish to see our throats cut, and perhaps would readily assist in doing it.”[11]

The military situation was increasingly bleak. There were only 3000 men remaining in the northern army versus the planned 8000 complement. Smallpox further decimated the ranks.[12] The current Patriot positions were not defensible given the expected large number of British Army and Navy reinforcements. On May 6, Franklin and the other two Commissioners recommended that Continental Army be withdrawn from Quebec and Montreal to defend the northern entrance of Lake Champlain.[13]

The Outcome

Historian Justin Smith hypothesized that if Montgomery and Arnold were successful in capturing Quebec at the end of 1775, the Canadians would have sent representatives to the Continental Congress and joined the rebellion. He cites as evidence the initial support along the patriot invasion paths down the St. Lawrence and Chaudière River valleys.[14] However strong, any early Canadian support evaporated by the time Franklin and the other commissioners arrived in Montreal. The Patriots had earned enemies among the population with broken promises and worthless currency.

Since the commission carried little hard currency and none was likely to arrive in time, Franklin quickly realized that it would be impossible to win over the Canadians to the Patriot cause. Franklin rightly discerned that with the Quebec Act that guaranteed French Canadian cultural, religious and legal customs, there was no burning platform for rebellion against British rule.

The Canadian population now viewed the Continental Army as an invading and occupying force. Further, the Americans were regarded with suspicion of not sharing the same respect as the British for the French Canadian way of life. There was the strong possibility that the populace would take up arms against the Patriots.

Given these poor prospects for success and his declining health, Franklin departed Montreal on May 11 to return to Philadelphia. Reverend Carroll accompanied him, as he could make no headway with the French Canadian religious authorities. The other two commissioners, Charles Carroll and Samuel Chase, remained in Montreal for another 20 days and departed only when the military situation deteriorated and the fall of Montreal to the British was imminent.

Franklin’s outreach to the seven Indian tribes of Canada was also not successful. Initially, the Native Americans pledged neutrality, probably because there were few British forces outside of Quebec. However, the Great Council of the Onondagas reported that they received a hatchet (a symbol of alliance) from the British authorities but refused to give it up to the Patriots until a council of the entire seven nations could be conducted. The Commissioners suspected that the tribes were delaying taking sides to see who was likely to prevail.[15]

Never again would the Patriots invade Canada nor seriously pursue a political combination. However, Franklin learned valuable lessons as part of this mission. He realized that proper funding to procure logistics and army supplies were critical to the revolution’s success. Without the means to pay for goods and services the Continental Army would be treated as an occupier wherever it went.

On the positive side, Franklin procured a soft marten fur cap to protect him from the Canadian cold and wind. This cap would make him famous in Parisian society as a country sage and homespun American.[16]

In France, Franklin was strikingly more successful in winning the hearts and minds of both the French government and people.   During his time in Paris, he secured vital funding and military support for the fledgling Patriot cause. Franklin’s Canadian diplomatic mission provides another example that highly successful people generally “fail” early in their careers. These failures provide life lessons that lead to future successes. In Franklin’s case, they contributed to brilliant and extraordinary diplomatic and political successes!

 


[1] Justin H. Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony – Canada and the American Revolution (New York & London: The Knickerbocker Press, 1907), 2:325.

[2] Journals of the American Congress from 1774 to 1788, February 15, 1776 (Washington: Way & Gideon, 1823), 265.

[3] Instructions and Commission from Congress to Franklin, Charles Carroll and Samuel Chase for the Canadian mission, March 20, 1776, http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed November 16, 2014.

[4] Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony, 334.

[5] Letter dated April 15, 1776 from Benjamin Franklin to Josiah Quincy, Sr. http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed December 12, 2014.

[6] Brant Mayer, ed., Journal of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1876), 92-3.

[7] The Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 1, 1776 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed November 16, 2014.

[8] The Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 1, 1776 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed November 16, 2014.

[9] Henry De Courcy, The Catholic Church in the United States 2nd Edition, John Gilmary Shea, ed., (New York: Catholic Publishing House, 1856), 46-50.

[10] Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony, 334-5.

[11] Letter From Colonel Hazen to General Schuyler, April 1, 1776, American Archives: Documents of the American Revolution, 1774-1776, http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/amarch/getdoc.pl?/var/lib/philologic/databases/amarch/.14244 accessed 11/21/2014. For more information on Colonel Hazen and his support of the Patriot cause, see http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/11/top-5-foreign-continental-army-officers/

[12] The Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 1, 1776 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed November 16, 2014.

[13] The Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 6, 1776 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed November 16, 2014.

[14] Smith, Our Struggle for the Fourteenth Colony, 446.

[15] The Commissioners to Canada to John Hancock, May 6, 1776 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin//framedVolumes.jsp accessed November 16, 2014.

[16] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin – An American Life (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2003), 306.

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11 Comments

  • As I’m reading this, I can’t stop thinking of Fleury Mesplet traveling around with a Printing Press “in tow”, as I sit here on this snowy day in New York walking around my home with a hot cup of coffee and a laptop “in tow”.

  • An excellent peice on a portion of Franklin’s career that even some of his finest biographers overlook. I particularly enjoy Carrols’s journal of the trip; there is one portion when thier vessel up the Hudson puts into Peekskill Bay for repairs; Carrol and Chase go to examine Anthony’s Nose, but Carrol notes thats “Mr. Chase, very apprehensive of the leg of mutton being boiled too much, [was] impatient to get on board.” One can only picture Chase in the musical 1776 spending all of his time eating in Congress! I guess there was some truh to it.

  • Well written Gene. I find it ironic that countless New England soldiers, who were instrumental in starting the war, (Lexington/Concord, Ticonderoga, Bunker Hill) left as soon as their enlistments expired, well before reaching Quebec City. From what I’ve gathered, it looks like the majority of these men were of the self-serving variety from Connecticut and Massachusetts.

    Even with soldiers leaving early on, the loss of the battle, and David Wooster’s poor leadership, would you say that Congress’ culpable ignorance was the driving force in losing the Canadian support, especially in not realizing/providing the hard currency a campaign of this magnitude would require? To make up for lost time, they may have felt that sending someone of Franklin’s caliber to lead the commission would allow them to still achieve their objective.

    • Thank you Jeff for your comments. As you point out, Patriot troops leaving Canada by either desertion or at the end of their enlistments contributed to the lack of Canadian interest in joining the rebellion. While the Connecticut forces dwindled throughout the campaign, additional units from the states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and New Jersey were sent to aid the Canadian invasion. These reinforcements were led by future successful battlefield commanders such as John Sullivan, Anthony Wayne and John Stark. In the end, lack of money, inadequate supplies, increasing sickness and substantial British reinforcements limited wide spread Canadian support which doomed the invasion.

      As to your second point, the Continental Congress should have known that it would be difficult to entice the Canadians to join the rebellion. Neither of two Congressional letters inviting Canadian representatives to become members resulted in any participation.

      • Thanks Gene, you make a couple of great points. In regards to the increasing sickness of the soldiers, I almost forgot how the smallpox epidemic ravaged the army, more so than any attacks imposed by the British.

        You make an excellent observation about the battlefield commanders that came out of the Canadian campaign. Despite the loss of Canada, Sullivan, Wayne, Stark, and Arnold, would prove to be exceptional field commanders. The experience each of them gained in Canada undoubtedly helped shape their strategic/leadership skills.

        Unfortunately Montgomery, one of the finer brigadier generals initially appointed by Congress, was killed. He would have been a great asset for Washington and the Continental Army going forward.

  • Gene, thanks for this informative piece. I’m particularly interested in Native American/European/American relations. It seems here that the blandishments of Franklin & Co. did not fool the men of the Seven Nations. I think it’s interesting to speculate about when the Native American leaders first figured out that the white men were not their friends, and would relentlessly dominate the indigenous peoples. Certainly, it was long before 1776.

    • Richard, for an interesting perspective on your thesis, see a new book published this month by Colin Calloway entitled “The Victory with No Name”. The book is written from a neutral perspective and provides some insight into Native American geopolitical and strategic thinking. It confirms your point that the Native Americans may have had transitory alliances and treaties, but nothing permanently respecting their rights and home lands.

      Interestingly, the 1790 Native American victory giving rise to Calloway’s title was much larger and more significant that the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. It was the largest American Army defeat in all of the Indian Wars.

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