Since 1874 a growing assumption, indeed an assumption expanding to the status of “fact,” has arisen that a document known as “The Sale of the Hessians” was a piece of propaganda written by Benjamin Franklin. A quick online search using the search terms of “Sale of the Hessians” and “Franklin” will bring up many books, college courses and websites confidently proclaiming that Franklin wrote the piece. However, some hedge their bets just a bit by qualifying the statement, adding that “The Sale of the Hessians” is “assumed” or “probably” written by Franklin. Seemingly, none state that the author of the propaganda hoax is unknown.
There are three fascinating aspects of the story of “The Sale of the Hessians.” The first, and the least significant, is the propaganda document itself. The second is the ready acceptance that it was written by Benjamin Franklin. The third, and the most significant aspect of “The Sale of the Hessians,” is that there is no evidence at all that it was written by Benjamin Franklin.
The document known as “The Sale of the Hessians” is a fake letter dated 18 February 1777 purported to have been written by a “Count de Schaumburg to the Baron Hohendorf, commanding the Hessian troops in America.” Both the Count and the Baron are fictitious. The letter was written as satire in order to make the German Count appear to be pleased with the Hessian deaths at Trenton (December 1776). The letter written in French states bluntly that the British pay for dead Hessians and therefore the more dead the better and in fact it is preferable not to treat the seriously wounded and instead allow them to die. Frequently, modern authors claim the letter was designed to spur Hessian desertions.
Until 1874 there was no evidence that anyone attributed “The Sale of the Hessians” to Franklin. However in that year the Franklin biographer John Bigelow included “The Sale of the Hessians” in his book “The Life of Benjamin Franklin.” He commented, “Nor do I think I am doing Doctor Franklin any injustice in suspecting him of being its author. Since the death of Swift [Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745] who besides Franklin, was sufficiently a master of this kind of satire to have written it?” Since then Franklin’s alleged authorship has grown until it has become not only commonplace but seemingly required whenever “The Sale of the Hessians” is discussed in any format.
Yet, the sole evidence of Franklin’s involvement in the “Sale of the Hessians” hoax boils down to Bigelow’s “…who besides Franklin…” comment. That is hardly sufficient evidence to persuade anyone, which begs the question as to why Franklin’s name is still connected with the hoax.
A 1983 article, “Franklin and ‘The Sale of the Hessians’: The Growth of a Myth” by Everett C. Wilkie, Jr. in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, thoroughly, and very convincingly, traces the entanglement of Franklin’s name with “The Sale of the Hessians” hoax. Wilkie maintains that there is no evidence prior to Bigelow that anyone connected Franklin with “The Sale of the Hessians,” that there is no evidence that it was published prior to 1782 or that anyone in Europe “had any interest in it beyond the passing interest shown in such witty, ephemeral productions. Wilkie also asserts that Franklin could not write French well enough in 1777 to have written the piece.
Wilkie does leave one very slight possibility that Franklin was involved: Bigelow’s argument based on internal evidence. However, Wilkie sums up his position by writing that “unless new more reliable evidence is forthcoming, there would appear to be little reason at all to attribute ‘The Sale of the Hessians’ to Benjamin Franklin.”
The little hole Wilkie left open, involving internal evidence, was effectively plugged by Jan Pilditch in 1988. After comparing and contrasting various potential authors Pilditch concludes that, “far from Bigelow’s assertion that ‘who besides Franklin?’, the internal evidence viewed alongside other American and European satires would seem to suggest, not Franklin and not American either.”
The editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, William B. Willcox, agrees that there is no tangible connection between Franklin and “The Sale of the Hessians.”
One has to wonder just why Franklin’s name is continually associated with “The Sale of the Hessians” by those who profess to be historians. Perhaps it’s simply a good story and adds to the luster of Franklin. Or, perhaps it is just easier to repeat what others have repeated.
 The full text of the Sale of the Hessians, translated from French to English, may be found in John Bigelow, editor, Life of Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself, (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1875), 2:395-399. https://books.google.com/books?id=vv51SuTo9RcC&pg=PA395 accessed 8 January 2015.
 Everett C. Wilkie, Jr., “Franklin and ‘The Sale of the Hessians’: the Growth of a Myth,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 127: 202-212.
 Jan Pilditch, “Franklin’s Sale of the Hessians: American or European Satire?,” Australasian Journal of American Studies, 7: 13-22.
 William B. Wilcox, editor, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1983), 23:480-484.
It is not surprising, in a way, that this satire is still attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Washington led a war on the battlefield while Franklin led a war on paper. It was Franklin who convinced the Congress to make generous offers to encourage Hessians to desert even before that set foot in America. He might not have known much about soldiers, but he sure knew a lot about human beings. He was the leader of a psychological warfare that gave results, well, a country at least.
Your well researched and reasoned article reflects a basic problem in analyzing and interpreting intelligence activities in history. When a deliberate effort is made to protect identities involved, belief or non belief of a story tends to be made on the basis of other factors such as details included, comparison of stated “facts” to knowledge of how things were done, similar actions by comparative actors, etc. The case of John Honeyman immediately comes to mind. His story can neither be proven or disproven based on currently available evidence.
While biographer Wilcox is certain of no Franklin involvement, a former biographer, Carl Van Doren, usually considered a pretty fair historian, has a different opinion (see “Benjamin Franklin”, 1991reprint by Penguin Books, USA, p.575). He believes that while no proof exists that Franklin wrote it, he doubts anyone else could have.
He also notes(p. 575) that a Count de Schaumbergh did exist and acted as an agent of King George III in 1777 attempting to purchase the services of soldiers from the Duke of Saxe-Weimar. Van Doren cites “American History in German Archives”, 1904, by J.G. Rosengarten (pp. 26-31) as his source.
This book can be found at : http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011923520.
It also includes a discussion regarding if Franklin was the author of the “letter”.
It might be worth mentioning that this propaganda attempt was not cut out of whole cloth. Some of the agreements between the English and German Prices did actually contain a “blood-money” clause.
The Duke of Brunswick for instance, was to receive a sum “equal to the levy money” (a bit over seven pounds, evidently) for each soldier killed, incapacitated or captured, and, “according to custom” the same amount for every three wounded — so, in cold economic terms, it actually would have made “sense” for the Duke to wish that the wounded men did in fact eventually die.
One wonders if the common German solider knew of these clauses, and would have thus had more reason to believe the letter – whoever wrote it.
[for agreement specifics see Uhlendorf, “Revolution In America / The Baurmeister Journals” (Rutgers Univ Press, 1957) pp 5-10]
Great update and analysis, as always, Hugh.
In the “well, who else but Franklin could have written it?” category, historians may also be recalling a similar parody that Franklin DID write. In fact it was one of Ben’s final public acts; he died just three weeks later.
In Franklin’s final years, he had turned very anti-slavery. Under the pseudonym “Historicus”, he wrote a parody of a pro-slavery speech given by Georgia’s James Jackson in which Jackson used Christian ideals to justify enslavement of Africans.
This time Franklin wrote that he had noticed the similarities (lightly implying plagiarism) between Jackson’s pro-slavery speech, and the words a century before of Sidi Mehemet Ibrshim, an Algerian pirate (made up by Franklin), who used exactly the same words as Jackson’s – only replacing Christians with Islam, and Africans with Christians.
Franklin’s point was to get across that the slavery justification was the same in both cases and, through Franklin’s clever parody, the reader could see that the justification was wrong in the second case as much as in the first case. Although not printed in southern newspapers, it apparently was printed in many northern newspapers.
Circumstantial evidence, at best, and until the authenticated document by Franklin is discovered someday laying undisputed claim to his authorship of “The Sale of the Hessians”, style conjecture will continue.
Again, great article, Hugh!
Thank you all for your comments. John, I’m fascinated by this slavery parody you mention. I’d not heard of it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. And, when you find evidence that Franklin wrote the Sale of the Hessians…please let me know!