Benjamin Franklin: “Our Salvation depends on you”

1767 portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Current location: White House

Benjamin Franklin was appointed an American Commissioner to France on September 26, 1776. [1] One month later he set sail for France where he arrived safely on December 3. His mission was to gain French support for American Independence. Little did he know that shortly after he arrived he would be confronted with an issue that he had not considered and that was not a declared part of his commission. On March 7, 1777, he received a letter from Patience Wright, an American living in England. She begged for his assistance in securing the freedom of Ebenezer Platt, a merchant from Georgia, whose vessel and person were seized in Jamaica, and who was currently detained in a British prison. Platt’s situation concerned Franklin, but something Mrs. Wright wrote at the end of the letter also caught his attention:

There is 23 more unhappy Prisoner at Portsmout and gosport and the Same

perdiecterment of Mr. Platt they wish to Know what to hope from You. For gods Sake have Compasion on those Strangers whos Property is all taken from them and they in Iorns No one to Comfort them, and it is not in the powe of the People to help them without You. You must be our Delivier our Salvation depends on you and you Sir have it in your Powr to Set us all in order. [2]

On February 23 and April 2, Franklin wrote to Lord Stormont proposing an exchange of prisoners; only after the second letter did he receive a brief and abrupt response: “the king’s ambassador receives no applications from rebels, unless they come to implore his Majesty’s mercy.” [3] To show their further resolve, on March 3, Parliament adopted the Treason Act; it suspended habeas corpus for persons “charged with or suspected of a crime of High Treason committed in any of His Majesty’s colonies or Plantations in America, or on the High Seas, or the crime of Piracy.” [4] Americans could now be detained at the King’s pleasure for piracy provided that adequate evidence could be shown. Over the next two months, because a substantial number of American sailors were detained, the British government was forced to consider how and where they should be held. On May 8, the Admiralty ordered that two locations be established as “places of confinement for such Rebel Prisoners.” One of the prisons, Mill Gaol, was located near Plymouth and the other, Forton Gaol, was located near Portsmouth. [5] Charles Herbert, a prisoner at Mill, described the conditions:

Many are strongly tempted to pick up the grass in the yard and eat it and some pick up old bones in the yard that have been laying in the dirt a week or ten days and pound them to pieces and suck them. Some will pick up snails out of the holes in the wall and from among the grasses and weeds in the yard, boil them and eat them and drink the broth. … Our meat is very poor in general; we scarcely see a good piece once in a month, Many are driven to such necessity by want of provisions that they sold most of the clothes off their backs for the sake of getting a little money to buy them some bread. [6]

It would not be until November that the Commission of Sick and Hurt Seamen, a commission under the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, made it known that there was “a great want of clothing and of Shoes and Stockings amongst many of the prisoners.” [7]

On June 4, Franklin received a letter from Dr. Josiah Smith. He had been captured aboard a ship en route to France. He told Franklin,

When I left Plymouth there were about 200 of my country men, prisoners there; and as many more at Portsmouth; the former of which I frequently visited; and informing them that I should go directly to France, they beged of me to represent their situation to your Honour. [8]

With the future of exchanges in doubt, Franklin at least wanted to relieve some of the prisoners’ distresses. On October 14, he wrote to his friend and Member of Parliament, David Hartley.

With Regard to the Prisoners now in your Gaols – They complain of severe Treatment.

They are far from their Friends and Families, and a Winter is coming on, in which they must suffer extremely  … I shall content myself with proposing that your Government would allow us to send or employ a Commissary to take some Care of those unfortunate People … If you could have Leisure to visit the Gaols in which they are confined … I wish you would take the Trouble of distributing among the most necessitous according to their Wants five or six hundred Pounds, for which your Drafts on me here should be punctually honour’d … If you cannot obtain for us Permission to send a Commissary, possibly you may find a trusty humane discrete Person at Plymouth, and another at Portsmouth, who would undertake to distribute what Relief we may be able to afford, those unhappy brave Men. [9]

Franklin was going to create a relief program. On December 4, he again wrote to Hartley.

We have requested the Bearer Mr. Thornton, to visit your Goals and bring us a true Account of the Situation of the American Prisoners, believing it too much to request of you during the Session of Parliament: When you see his Account you will judge in what manner the Relief I requested you to distribute can best be given, and whether you can make any Use of that Account in Parliament favourable to those unhappy People. [10]

John Thornton was given the following instructions: to deliver “a Letter to Lord North and another to Sir Grey Cooper Secretary of the Treasury;” “to obtain Permission to visit and examine into the Situation of our People in their Gaols;” “administer the relief” (the money); and “wait on Mr. Hartley and desire his Advice or Orders.” [11] Unbeknownst to Franklin, there already were men offering such assistance. They were Deacon Robert Heath, a Calvinist Methodist, at Mill Gaol and Rev. Thomas Wren, a Presbyterian, at Forton Gaol. Both men were supported by Thomas Digges, a London merchant, who visited both prisons. [12]

The plight of the American prisoners was also known in London. On December 1, Lord Abingdon called for an investigation into prison conditions and ten days later, pleaded the American prisoners’ case in Parliament before announcing that he intended to encourage the creation of a subscription on their behalf. On December 24, a meeting was held at the King’s Arms Tavern in the Cornhill section of London for “relieving the Distresses of the American Prisoners.” Nearly 100 were in attendance. A decision was made to create a subscription on the prisoners’ behalf. By the end of the meeting about £1500 was pledged; by January 8, 1778, the amount had risen to £3815; and by January 15, to £4657. [13]

For the next eighteen months, individual allotments were distributed each week – 2s per sailor and 5s per officer. [14] The funds were used by the prisoners to purchase additional food at the merchants’ market set up each day in the gaol’s courtyard. Other items distributed to the prisoners were warm clothing, tobacco, medicine, books, writing necessities, and tea.

John Thornton visited Forton Gaol between December 28 and 30. In his memorandum to the American Commissioners he stated that on the first day he had “to bribe the Invalid centries to permit [me] to speak to the prisoners” … and on the second day, he was allowed to speak with the prisoners but he had to be accompanied by the Agent’s Clerk of the gaol.

There is not the least distinction made between the Officers and common Sailors, and the Prison having no glazed windows, they can not have any light without having the

Northern and Westerly Winds, their provisions are but scanty at best … There are now in the Infirmary 20, and  few days ago 27 in the black hole … the 27 were confined on 2d December and till lately were not let out at all … these men have only the half allowance of provisions. [15]

There were 119 prisoners at Forton Gaol at the time; he implied that similar conditions existed for the 289 American prisoners at the Mill Gaol. He also reported that Rev. Wren provided “the greatest service and behaved with great Humanity to the American prisoners.” [16]

Franklin’s relief plan received unexpected assistance between October 1777 and May  1778; first came news of the surrender of Burgoyne and his army at Saratoga on October 17, 1777; then came news of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance between France and the American Colonies on February 6, 1778; and finally the success that Capt. John Paul Jones had in taking British ships in European waters and turning over the crews as prisoners of war. With British manpower being threatened, it did not surprise Franklin when the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty expressed interest in an exchange.

Diaries of cruise with privateer from Boston, capture, ordeals in Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, England, attempted escapes, and release, 1779 (Boston Public Library)

The letter that Franklin had given to Thornton on December 11 for Lord North was a request for a prisoner exchange. North agreed to the request as well as to Hartley serving as the intermediary between the Commissioners of Sick and Hurt Seamen and the American Commissioner. Six months later, on May 25, Franklin wrote to Hartley, “I wish to know whether your Ministers have yet come to a Resolution to exchange the Prisoners they hold in England.” [17] Hartley wrote back “you should send me the number and rank of the prisoners which you have on your side to deliver upon the receipt of which an equal number shall be prepared on this side for the Exchange.” [18] The exchange would take place at Calais, France.

The American Commissioners were given more reason to be optimistic when they received news that Captain Jones had captured the Drake, a twenty-gun British Sloop-of-War, in Belfast harbor. He was bringing the prize and 200 prisoners to Brest.

Some of the prisoners were not about to sit around and wait for an exchange. They devised a number of ways to escape; they dug tunnels, assumed disguises, bribed guards, stole keys, and some even feigned illness in order to be sent to the infirmary where there was little security. Once beyond the gaol’s walls, however, they were far from safe. Men called “five pounders” were waiting in the countryside and nearby towns. Their name referred to the amount of money they were paid for each escapee caught and returned to gaol. Thomas Digges set up a series of safe houses that provided escapees with clothing, food, and money. If they were lucky, they were able to make their way to London and then to France. In London many found refuge in the homes of Thomas Digges, Dr. George Williams, and John Blyth. [19] Caleb Foote, a prisoner at Forton, described the emotional journey: “We fled from the Valley of Destruction to the City of Refuge, where we spent but little time, and then we crossed the Gulf of Despair and arrived safely at the Promised Land.” [20] Once in France some made their way to Franklin’s home in Passy where they hoped to secure further assistance. If they received money, they were required to sign a promissory note handwritten by Franklin stating taht they would repay the amount to the Superintendent of Finance for the United States shortly after arriving home.

On July 13, Franklin sent Hartley the list that he had requested on June 16. Hartley promptly responded,

The prisoners to be exchanged from hence will be taken from Forton and Plymouth [Mill] in proportion to their numbers in each place, and to consist of those who have been the longest in confinement … As to the passport … I am authorized to say that it will be granted by our Admiralty, if you will give me assurance that our ship going to Calais shall have free entrance without molestation, and free egress with the prisoners in Exchange.[21]

Franklin knew that for the exchange to occur in France, he would need a passport from Minister Sartine, the Secretary of State for the French Marine. On August 18 he submitted the request. On September 14, Franklin informed Hartley that the passport had been secured but “The Port of Calais was not approv’d of, and I think the Ports mention’d (Nantes and L’Orient) are better for you as well as for us … as being nearer to Plymouth.” [22] The American Commissioners, confident that an exchange would occur in the near future, wrote to the Prisoners at Forton and at Mill.

We have not been unmindful of your interests, your comfort, or your liberty. We have been engaged a long time in negotiating a cartel of exchange. This work we found attended with many difficulties, but at last have obtained assurances from England that an exchange shall take place … we can not certainly say, however, that all will be immediately exchanged, because we fear we have not an equal number to be sent to England. Those that remain, if any, will be those who have been the latest in captivity, and consequently have suffered the least. [23]

Four weeks later, Franklin received, by way of Hartley, a letter from the Admiralty Office requesting the exact number of prisoners to be exchanged. He wrote back,

I cannot at present give it to you, they being dispers’d in different Ports … the Number continually changing by new prisoners brought in, and some escaping … we make this Proposition, that if their Lordships will send us over 250 of our People, we will deliver all we have in France. If the Number we have falls short of the 250, the Cartel Ship may take back as many of those she brings as the Deficiency amounts to, delivering no more than she receives. [24]

Hartley told Franklin that as soon as he was informed of the place and the name of the exchange agent, he would send it on to the Commissioners of Sick and Hurt Seamen. [25] On January 1, 1779, Franklin informed Hartley that the exchange would take place at Nantes and the American Agent would be a Mr. Schweighauser. [26]

On the 22nd, Franklin responded to a letter from Minister Sartine. Sartine wrote,

You are undoubtedly aware that American seamen escaping from English prisons often arrive in French ports without the basic necessities. I can instruct the commissioners in ports where you have no agents to treat these men as they would French escapees. [27]

Franklin wrote back

We … are much obliged to you for the interest you take in what concerns the unhappy prisoners who may escape from England. We had not been inattentive to that subject. There are persons who supply them at Bordeaux, Brest, L’Orient, Nantes, and Dunkirk [and] a gentleman at Calais has voluntarily done this service. [28]

Franklin’s agents in place were merchants already engaged in commercial business on behalf of the United States, John Bondfield at Bordeaux, Berube de Constentin at Brest, James Moylan at L’Orient, J. D. Schweighauser at Nantes, Francis Coffyn at Dunkirk, and Jacques Leveux at Calais. They served in similar roles as Wren, Heath, and Digges, but on French soil. When the Americans arrived in France, without proof that they were Americans, they were arrested by French officials because they were thought to be English spies. They were detained in places such as St. Malo Prison, Dinan Castle, Dunkirk Prison, and Calais Prison. It was the responsibility of Franklin’s agents to assist them until they were aboard a ship bound for the United States, but when some were detained, Franklin had to bring their situation before Sartine and request their release himself.

The first formal exchange of prisoners occurred on April 2. According to David Hartley, the first ship departing Spithead for Plymouth was “beat back twice [by the wind] … between the Downs and Plymouth.” [29] Schweighauser reported that 97 prisoners eventually arrived in port and were exchanged. Franklin informed the Committee of Foreign Affairs in Philadelphia that “this is to continue till all are exchanged.” [30]

On June 24, Hartley informed Franklin that a second shipload of prisoners for exchange would be coming from Forton gaol. [31] Three weeks later, Digges informed Franklin that 92 prisoners were exchanged at Nantes. Hartley proposed that the next exchange take place at Morlaix since it was much closer than Nantes. This meant that Franklin needed a new passport from Sartine. At first Sartine was reluctant because Morlaix was only fifty miles from the port of Brest, a French naval base, but eventually he agreed to issue it. On October 8, Digges reported to Franklin that on September 23, Capt. John Paul Jones fought and defeated two British men of war, the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough, and that “Mr Paul Jones has … got 350 Seamen besides the Crews of thirty odd vessels which he took & destroyd on his late cruise.” [32] Jones wanted to take his prizes and prisoners to Dunkirk, but his French captains insisted on Texel, Holland. Franklin now believed he had more than enough British prisoners to exchange and Morlaix was the closest French port to Holland for the exchange. On October 19, Franklin wrote to Hartley,

Having just received the Passport desired for the Cartel to make use of the Port of Morlaix, I take this first Opportunity of sending it to you, in hopes of releasing by more expeditious Voyages of the poor Prisoners on both Sides before the Severity of Winter comes on. [33]

It is unclear if Franklin was planning to move the prisoners from Holland to Morlaix or to conduct the exchange in Holland. He would receive three letters over the next nine days, two from Hartley and one from Hodgson. Each requested the number of British prisoners in France as well as the name of the American exchange agent in Morlaix. It was the letter from Hodgson, however, that changed whatever Franklin was planning. William Hodgson, in David Hartley’s absence, had just returned from a meeting with the Commissioners of Sick and Hurt Seamen.

They do not mean to send any Vessell to Morlaix untill your Answer returns … I mentioned to them the Crews of the Serapis & C of Scarbro captured by P. Jones. I found that the objection against sending to the Texel was that those Vessells & their Crewes might possibly be retaken on their Return to Dunkirk or elsewhere. [34]

Jones, not long after arriving, was urged by the Dutch government to leave the Texel as soon as possible because Holland was a neutral country and feared retaliation from the British for harboring a rebel and a pirate. Because the British were not going to accept an exchange of prisoners in Holland and with “eight of the enemy’s ships laying in wait for him at the south entrance and four more at the north entrance to the port,” if he was going to escape, Jones needed to leave his prizes and prisoners behind. He entrusted them to the French Ambassador to the Hague, the Duc de la Vauguyon, who wrote to Franklin,

All his representations were reduced to soliciting that his crew was not deprived of the rights he had over the prizes, and that his prisoners were exchanged for Americans; I have promised to join him and you to M. de Sartines in order to obtain all the satisfaction he desires in this respect. [35]

On December 6, Captain Jones’ prizes and prisoners were placed under the French flag. [36]

At the beginning of 1780, Thomas Digges reported to Franklin that there were 183 prisoners at Mill gaol and 227 at Forton gaol. [37] Franklin, knowing that Hartley was out of town and learning that the prisoners would be arriving on two separate ships, secured a second Morlaix passport and sent it to Hodgson. Franklin assured him that he would request Minister Sartine to send the 48 British prisoners at L’Orient and the 36 at Brest to Morlaix. One week later he informed Hodgson that the Duc de la Vauguyon had exchanged all of Jones’ prisoners for French prisoners. Sartine planned for the prisoners to man the two French-captured ships, the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough as well as the French frigate Pallas, and French brig Vengeance that were trapped in the port.

On February 2, Franklin told Hartley, who had returned, that he would have enough prisoners with a French complement to exchange at Morlaix:

The Number of Prisoners we now have in France is not easily ascertained. I suppose it exceeds 100; but you may be assured that the Number which may be brought over by the Two Cartels, Shall be fully exchanged by adding to those taken by us as many as will make up the Compliment out of those taken by the French. [38]

The following day Franklin received a letter from the prisoners at Forton prison. It may have been the most painful letter he received during the war. The prisoners wrote,

The Season being Cold and blusterring our donation has been of great Service to us but it is now almost Exhausted being For this Some months past only a three pence per week. We are Very discontented amongst us being Informed by Mr. Newsham [the British Agent at the prison] that it is intirely owing to your Neglect that we have not gone for Long ago. [39]

Because he had expected the exchange to take place before winter set in, Franklin had not replenished the relief fund. If anything, this letter was an impetus for Franklin to work even harder on behalf of the prisoners. On February 12, he wrote to Minister Sartine as promised, requesting the above transfers, and to Hodgson informing him that the American agent at Morlaix was a Mr. Pitot.

In anticipation of the large prisoner exchange, Franklin decided to change the form of his financial assistance from the handwritten notes he had used up to this time to printed ones. He needed to “standardize and [better] account for the money he anticipated distributing.” The forms

he designed were a blank order and a promissory note. The blank order read,

Pay to               or order, the Sum of               Livres Tournois, to assist                in returning to the United States of America; being lately from Prison in England. — Charge he same to the PUBLICK ACCOUNT of               .

The order was to be taken to Mr. Grand, Franklin’s banker for cashing. This order was used only for money paid to an American who had escaped from a prison or who had been exchanged. The promissory note read

I Promise to Pay to the Honourable the Superintendent of Finances, for the Time being, of the United States of America,               Livres Tournois, which I have received here from Benjamin Franklin, esquire, Minister Plenipotentiary of the said States; and for which I have signed three Notes, all of this Tenor and Date: one of which being paid, the others are to be void.

This note was used for an American who had been on board a ship captured by the British. If a loan of a large sum of money not limited to any specific purpose was necessary, a different promissory note had to be signed. It was similar to the first promissory note except it stated payment was to be made to “the President, for the time being” and the amount of money lent was in Louis d’ors and not Livres Tournois.[40]

One copy of every order and note was kept by Jean l’air de Lamonte, an aide to Franklin, in a list. They were entered by bearer, date, and sum. The first series of promissory notes was used until June, 1781; the second series in a different typeface was used until March, 1782; and the third series set in italics was used until the end of his embassy in France.

On March 10 Franklin received a letter Thomas Digges:

A vessel saild from Plyo. with 100 [actually 119] on the 5th Int. There remains but 86 and what is rather singular there is pardons lodgd for 68 of that number agt. The return of the vessel … the next Cargoe by the rotine must go from Portso … The Revd Mr heath – has been a second Wren to those people. [41]

Franklin thought the exchange had taken place as planned until he received a letter from Hodgson on March 28,

I am much concerned to find that the Cartel vessel is returned from Morlaix without a single prisoner in Exchange – I heard from Plymo & have since been desired to go to the Sick and Hurt office who confirmed the Acc’t. They appear to be much disgusted at the proceeding & say it is a breach of Faith … I hope Sir you will furnish me with such an explanation of this Affair as shall be satisfactory and expedite future exchanges at present untill the Affair is cleared up all further progress in this business must be put a Stop to. [42]

Franklin was astonished. He believed that Sartine, as part of the agreement between the two of them, was going to deliver a complement of British prisoners held by France to Morlaix for exchange.

I applyed for 100 English to be rendered at Morlaix for the Exchange and was told that orders should be that Day given; … I have now desired of M. De Sartine that two hundred may be immediately sent over. One to pay for the 100 Americans received and the other to Exchange a fresh Parcel. His verbal Answer is, that the request is just, and shall be complyed with, and he will write a Letter to me to morrow, which I may send over to be shewn to The Board of Sick & Hurt, that will explain the matter, and clear me from any Charge of bad Faith. [43]

Sartine never offered a satisfactory explanation to Franklin as to why the prisoners were not delivered, but the reason may be found in a letter from Sartine to Franklin near the end of April:

These prisoners [the British captured by John Paul Jones] having been regarded as taken in the sea by a French Wing, and their Exchange having been arrested by the two Ministers under this denomination.

Sartine was claiming that because the Bon Homme Richard had been fitted out and belonged to the King of France that any prisoners taken at sea by its captain and crew belonged to France. This allowed the French Ambassador to the Hague to exchange them for French prisoners. With regard to the 48 British prisoners at L’Orient, they had been captured by the Black Prince, another privateer with a captain and crew that were American and Irish but which was fitted out and belonged to the King of France. It seems that Sartine was going to exchange every British prisoner detained in a French prison, if he could present an argument that their capture was due to a ship or ships that belonged to the King of France. This would explain why no British prisoners were transferred to Morlaix. To make the entire situation even more questionable Sartine told Franklin that if he wished to appeal his decision regarding who had the right to exchange which prisoners, he could appeal to the king. On May 16, Franklin wrote to Charles Gravier de Vergennes, the Foreign Minister of King Louis XVI. He laid out the entire timeline and communications between Sartine and himself. [44] This author has not found any response from Vergennes.

On the same day, Franklin received a letter from Hodgson:

The Board [of Sick & Hurt Seamen] were of Opinion it wou’d be better to wait those further explanations (which you promised to send to Mr. Hartley … after receiving them from Monsieur de Sartine) & lay the whole before the Admiralty at one View. [45]

By mid-1780 William Hodgson began to take on the role formerly performed by David Hartley. The need for this was first brought to Franklin’s attention by Thomas Digges on October 8.

There seems a strange detention of the [cartel] ship in every voyage and Mr H[artley] being in the Country & not sticking close to the Agents here, I fear helps in this detention. [46]

Hartley’s private affairs were causing him to be away from London. Because Hodgson had worked at Hartley’s side, he was the obvious choice to serve as Franklin’s new intermediary in London. Hodgson was a well-respected merchant which gave him status with the Board and Digges knew that as an American he could not appear before the Board. On February 10, Digges again wrote to Franklin,

I think more might be done thro Him [Hodgson] than by D[avid] H[artley], (at least at the Office on Tower Hill, for, with the best intentions & wishes to do good, that Gentn is so much out of Town & employed in other Par[liamentar]y matters, that the necessary business  for the Prisoners cannot be duly attended to by Him. [47]

Digges’ recommendation proved to be fortuitous because in the fall elections David Hartley was not returned to Parliament. In August, Hodgson reported,

I had a Message from the Board of Sick & Hurt desiring to see me, I waited upon them accordingly & they shewed me a Letter from the Lords of the Admiralty … It consisted of the recital of my propositions & concluded by the Declaration that having taken into Consideration they could not depart from their former Resolution, viz to exchange Man for Man of the American Prisoners against Man for Man of his Majestys Subjects taken by American Vessels in Europe. [48]

It was the last six words of the letter that changed everything for Franklin. Little did he know that the exchange that had been scheduled for Morlaix would be the last exchange until the fall of Lord North’s ministry. For the remainder of the year, Franklin encouraged John Paul Jones and all of the privateers to secure as many British prisoners of war as they possibly could. On December 4, he received a letter from Hodgson stating, “there remains due from you 41 Prisoners to make up the Number of the last Cartel, & untill that Debt is paid it is in Vain to expect any more exchanges.” [49]

The year 1780 had been a difficult one for Franklin: in January, he had learned that Captain Jones’ prisoners had been exchanged for French prisoners; in February, he received the letter from the prisoners at Forton prison; in March, there was the Morlaix exchange fiasco and he regretted not maintaining the relief fund; in August, he learned of the new restrictions on any future exchanges; and in September, David Hartley lost his seat in Parliament. The final disappointment occurred in the spring of 1781, when he learned that Thomas Digges had not been delivering the prisoners’ allowances that had been sent to him, but rather had absconded with an estimated £300. [50] Franklin fumed over Digges’ misappropriations:

He that robs the Rich even of a single Guinea, is a Villian, but what is he who can break his sacred Trust by robbing a poor Man and a Prisoner of Eighteen Pence given charitably for his Relief, and repeat that Crime as often as there are Weeks in a Winter … we have no Name in our Language for such atrocious Wickedness. If such a Fellow is not damn’d, ‘tis not worth while to keep a Devil [51]

Fortunately, he had the financial resources to continue the prisoners’ allowances, or so he thought. In December, he sent £150 to Hodgson only to hear back,

I observe that you wish the allowance for provisions & Cloathes during the Months of Jany. Feby & March shou’d be equal to 16p. per week per each Man, have you Sr considered how soon so large a distribution will swallow up the present remittance, there are not many Prisoners [short of] 500, so that in that proportion they will Require a supply of near £150 per month.

In April, Franklin had to send an additional £250; in June, another £100; in July, £110; in September, £200 and in October, £400. [52] The money was enough to maintain the allowances for the 500 prisoners until he learned in April that the number had risen to near 600, then on September 18 that “the Prisons here are now much crowded – there being upwards of 700 in Confinement & the Commissioners told me they expected very soon near as many more – it gives me much concern” and then on December 21, “there now being nearly if not quite 800 Prisoners.” [53] The reason for the increase was that the Lords Commissioners had permitted the transfer of American prisoners from North America to England in addition to their refusal to exchange any Americans for Englishmen not taken by American vessels.

Franklin, concerned about the growing number of prisoners and aware of Lord Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, hoped the Admiralty would give new consideration to an exchange. On November 19, he wrote to Hodgson,

I would make a Proposal thro’ you to the Commissioners, which is, that if they will send me over hither all the American Prisoners, they possess, I will give an Acknowledgement of receiving them, and engage that an equal Number of English shall be deliver’d  for them in America, Soldiers or Sailors or both. [54]

Four weeks later, he heard back from Hodgson,

On receipt of your Letter I immediately drew up a Memorial to the Sick & Hurt Board, proposing an Exchange of Prisoners under the Terms & Provisos … I called upon them a few days ago to know the result, I rec’d for answer that my paper had been sent to the Admiralty Board. [55]

Hoping that the response would be positive, Franklin needed an up-to-date assessment of the gaol conditions similar to the one that John Thornton had supplied in December of 1777. This time he sent Matthew Ridley to conduct the visits, with the following instructions:

To wait on Edmd. Burke … and request to know whether he has done anything … on the Subject of [an exchange]; [to] “wait on Mr. William Hodgson … [and learn]  what Answer [to the Proposal] , if any, has been received; and “to procure the best Acct of the present Situation of our People in the English Prisons … and if … they suffer for want of Necessaries … to obtain Leave for the residence of a Commissary near each of those Prisons, for the purpose of taking proper Care of them. [56]

On January 15, 1782, Hodgson, probably after working with Ridley, wrote to Franklin,

I shall enclose you a state of the Acc’t with the Prisoners, they now are near 900 & however strange it may appear to you, I have not yet been able to procure a reply to the memorial I presented on the 4th of Decr … I am sorry to have to Call upon you for more Cash, from Plymo they have only a supply for this week. [57]

Near the end of February, Hodgson wrote, “the Prisoners are now so numerous that they take from £50 to £60 per week at 1s. each & little extraordinaries.” [58] The next day Franklin received a letter from Richard Hare, an Irish merchant, delivered by Job Whipple and Elijah Lewis, two gaol escapees.  He learned that there was a British gaol in Kinsale, near Cork, Ireland. Originally a French gaol, it was located in Desmond Castle. The gaol at one point held 336 prisoners. [59] This was the second letter from a prisoner who had been detained at Kinsale in the last four months; the first was from Jonathan Avery, a surgeon aboard the brig Wexford commanded by Captain John Rathburn.

The Sufferings of a number of our unfortunate Brethren, whom the Fortune of Warr have thrown into the Hands of People, void of Humanity, can be releated by either of the above Gentlemen, … near two hundred are at present confined in a wretched prison … Your Excellency will be pleased to take their pityable case into your serious Consideration & endeavour to have an Exchange effected, which, if speedily done , may be the means of saveing the Lives of a number of brave, tho’ unfortunate Men. [60]

While Franklin was preparing a letter to Hodgson on how to relieve the prisoners’ distresses at Kinsale, he received a letter from him which stated,

the Number of Prisoners which I have before [me is ] about 1000 … the Administration of this Country … the whole of the Old Ministry, so hostile & so inimical to America are to Retire … [and] Burke has introduced into Parliament a Bill for the exchange of American Prisoners. [61]

Within days he finished his letter to Hodgson regarding the American prisoners at Kinsale.

I just hear from Ireland, that there are 200 of our People, prisoners there, who are destitute of every Necessary, and die daily in  numbers. You are about to have a new Ministry. If a sincere reconciliation is desired, Kindness to the Captives on both sides may promote it greatly. I have no Correspondent in Ireland. Can you put me in a way of sending those poor Men some Relief? [62]

Franklin did not realize that, like Reverend Wren at Forton and Deacon Heath at Mill gaols, the prisoners at Kinsale were cared for by Rev. William Hazlitt, a Unitarian minister; and similar to Thomas Digges, he was assisted by Reuben Harvey, a Quaker merchant. From this day forward, Franklin made sure the Americans at Kinsale were included in every exchange.

Because of the change in the Ministry, Franklin and Hodgson’s appeal for an exchange had to be presented to the new ministers. Franklin delegated the writing of a memorial to Hodgson. On April 6, the memorial was presented to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty:

In December last … I presented, to the late Lords of the Admiralty … Propositions of an Exchange, to which Memorial their Lordships did not make a reply. Since … the Legislature have passed an Act for the removal of certain Difficulties, which obstructed the exchange – I take the Liberty therefore of renewing to your Lordships, those Propositions.

The first proposition is, that … all American prisoners in Great Britain and Ireland to be sent over to France, Dr. Franklin will give an acknowledgement of receiving them and will engage that an equal Number of English Prisoners shall be delivered for them in America Soldiers or Sailors or both. Or 2dly that the Prisoners now here shou’d be sent to America in English Ships, and be exchanged there, under the directions of his Majestys Admirals or Generals, commanding on that Station.

My Lords … my Propositions are founded upon the Principles of Humanity, they go to the relief of Englishmen. Languishing in Confinement, and equally to the relief of Americans, who have suffered a much longer Duration of it. [63]

“The removal of certain Difficulties, which obstructed the exchange” referred to a bill proposed in the House of Commons by Edmund Burke on February 26, “An Act for the Better Detaining, and More Easy Exchange, of American prisoners brought into Great Britain.” The House of Commons passed the bill on March 19 and the House of Lords and the King approved the bill on March 25. [64] The American prisoners would no longer be viewed as rebels, but rather as prisoners of war. Eight days later, Hodgson sent Franklin an exchange agreement worked out between himself and Mr. Nepean, an under-secretary. He stated “that the Transports, to take the Prisoners on board, will be ready, in a short Time; therefore no Time shou’d be lost, in finishing the business.” Near the bottom of the letter he added “alltho the Propositions agreed upon, do not mention Ireland, yet, I have been assured, that a Vessell shall call at Kinsale, to take on board, the Prisoners, that remain there.” The principle parts of the agreement read as follows:

The American prisoners now in Forton & Mill Prisons, are to be sent forthwith to America in Transports … & to be supplyed with provisions for their Subsistence during the passage at the expense of the [British] Government: The Prisoners who belong to Massachusetts Bay & the Colonies adjacent, to be conveyed to Boston & those belonging to the southern Colonies to be conveyed to the Chesapeak or Philadelphia … The Master of the Transport is to be furnished with a Certificate of the Number he receives from such agent as may be appointed to superintend their Embarkation & upon such Certificate being produced by the Commander in chief of his Majestys Forces in North America the like Number of British Seamen, soldiers or Marines, as are specified in the said certificate, who have been made Prisoners by the Americans, shall be immediately released … It is expected that the Transports which are to receive them on board are to be furnished with a proper Proportion of Provisions for the Subsistence of the British Troops so exchanged. [65]

On April 26, Franklin wrote that he had sent

the Passports and Powers [to sign the agreement] … which I hope will be sufficient … I confide the whole Transaction to your Judgement and Equity, and shall be satisfied with any Agreement you make … Whatever Allowance [Lord Sherburne] makes for the Prisoners in England, I suppose he will extend also to those in Ireland. – If not, I request you will desire your Friends at Kinsale to furnish it, and I will pay the Account upon Sight. [66]

Hodgson reported to Franklin on May 10 that the Lords Commissioners at his request gave orders to the British agent at each port of embarkation “to supply such Prisoners as may stand in need with Slops to an Amount not exceeding 20s. each Man, so that they will gt away decently & comfortably provided with necessary’s for the Voyage.” [67]

Four weeks later, Hodgson reported,

The Prisoners from Portsm to the amount of 330 are gone … The wind having been contrary the Transports for the Plymo prisoners were not arrived, but I imagine they are by this Time … there will be upwards of 700 Prisoners from Plymo – the greatest part of those from Kinsale being arrived at Plymo – some few sick will remain so that another Vessell will be required as a Cartel in a short Time. [68]

Robert R. Livingston, the Secretary of State of Foreign Affairs, learned of the agreement between Franklin and the Lords Commissioners for the first time on June 25.

I had obtained from the British Ministers a Resolution to exchange all our Prisoners … it was made by an Act of Parliament declaring us Rebels, and our People being committed as for high treason. I impower’d Mr Hodgson … to treat and conclude on the Terms of the Discharge, and have approved of the Draft he sent to me of the Agreement. I hope Congress will see fit to order a punctual Execution of it. [69]

Because he did not get Livingston’s input regarding or approval for the agreement beforehand, Franklin was not sure how the agreement was going to be received. So until he heard back, he was going to continue with the exchange.

On July 13, Hodgson proudly informed Franklin, “The Prisoners are all gone except about 120 – who remain for some [are] sick in the Hospitals & they I expect will go in a very few days.” One month later, he wrote, “I have made application for another Cartel Vessell to carry what America Prisoners have been collected since the last sailed – with those who were left behind sick the No. is about 130 and I am promised they will be sent away [as soon] as a Vessell can be procured for the purpose.” [70]

There would be minor issues to resolve before all of the prisoners on both sides were

exchanged. Congress threatened not to release their British prisoners because the exchange of a soldier for a sailor was an unequal proposition; the British claimed they did not have any American soldiers to exchange and that this was once again a breach of faith on the part of the Americans. Congress knew they possessed two groups of prisoners that Britain wanted returned forthwith, Burgoyne’s Convention Army and Cornwallis’s Yorktown Army (less those who had escaped), and appeared ready to hold out. Finally, on January 9, 1783, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty “ordered Vessells to depart immediately with all the American prisoners.” Congress however still refused to release any British Prisoners until the Provisional Articles of Peace became the Definitive Articles of Peace. This occurred on April 15, when Congress “resolved, unanimously, that the said articles be ratified, and that a ratification in due form be sent to our Ministers Plenipotentiary at the Court of Versailles, to be exchanged if an exchange shall be necessary.” [71] Three weeks later, Livingston wrote to Franklin “A great part of the [British] Prisoners are on their way to New York, and the whole will be sent in a few days – they will amount to about six thousand Men.” [72]

Franklin’s relief program had accomplished what it set out to do: bring home as many imprisoned Americans as it could. The efforts ended as quietly as they began and since have been relegated to a mere footnote in history. There is no definitive number of prisoners directly or indirectly Franklin saved. The records are far from complete. Most biographies of Benjamin Franklin give little attention to this chapter in his life. He risked a great deal and asked for nothing in return. This is just one more reason why he truly deserves to known as one of the greatest founding fathers.


[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1906), 5:827.

[2] “From Patience Wright, after March 7, 1777,” The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (Yale University Press, 1954-), hereafter “PBF,” 23:447.

[3] “The American Commissioners to Lord Stormont, April 3, 1777,” PBF, 23:548; Reported by Lord Stormont to Lord Weymouth, April 3, 1777, S.P. 78/302.

[4] 17 Geo.3 c.9.

[5] Francis Abell, Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756-1815 (London: Oxford University Press, 1914), 214-234.

[6] Gardner Weld Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), 2:642-43.

[7] “Commissioners for Sick and Hurt Seamen to Admiralty, November 25, 1777,” Adm/M/404, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

[8] “From Josiah Smith, June 4, 1777,” PBF, 24:117.

[9] “To David Hartley, October 14, 1777,” PBF, 25:64-67.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “The American Commissioners: Instructions to John Thornton, December 11, 1777,”

PBF, 25:269.

[12] William Bell Clark, “In Defense of Thomas Digges,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (1953), 77:389-90.

[13] The Annual Register, or a View of the History Politics and Literature for the Year 1778, 3rd edition (London,1778), 79; Gentleman’s Magazine, (1777), 47:607; (1778), 48:43; The Public Advertiser (London), January 2, 1778; The London Evening Post, December 23-25, 1777, January 8-10, 1778; The Public Advertiser, January 10,1778; The London Evening Post, January 13-15, 1778.

[14] “From Thomas Wren, March 25, 1778,” PBF, 26:165.

[15] [John Thornton]: Memorandum for the American Commissioners, Between January 5 and 8, 1778,” PBF, 25:414.

[16]  Ibid.

[17] “The American Commissioners: Instructions to John Thornton, December 11, 1777,” Answer appended to PBF, 25:269.

[18] “From David Hartley, June 16, 1778,” PBF, 26:628.

[19] “From [Thomas Digges], November 10, 1779,” PBF, 31:79; “From Dr. George Williams, October 2, 1778,” PBF, 27:491.

[20] Caleb Foote, compl., Reminiscences of the Revolution. Prison Letters and Sea Journal of Caleb Foote, “October 14th, 1780,” The Essex Institute Historical Collections, XXVI (1889), 22.

[21] “From David Hartley, July 14, 1778,” PBF, 27:94.

[22] “To David Hartley, September 14, 1778,” PBF, 27:399.

[23] Francis Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Serial Set 2585 (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1889), 2:729.

[24] “To David Hartley, October 20, 1778,” PBF, 27:574.

[25] “From David Hartley, December 10, 1778,” PBF, 28:218.

[26] “From David Hartley, January 1, 1779,” PBF, 28:321.

[27] “Sartine to the American Commissioners, December 22, 1778,” PBF, 28:262.

[28] Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, 3:7.

[29] “From David Hartley, March 30, 1779,” PBF, 29:233.

[30] “To the Committee of Foreign Affairs, May 26, 1779,” PBF, 29:57.

[31] “From David Hartley, June 24, 1779,” PBF, 29:732.

[32] “From T[homas] D[igges], October 8, 1779,” PBF, 5:94.

[33]  “From David Hartley, October 19, 1779,” PBF, 30:559.

[34] ”From David Hartley, November 15, 1779,” PBF, 31:349; ibid, “November 17, 1779,” 31:118; “From William Hodgson, 23 November 1779,” 31:142.

[35] “From Duc de la Vauguyon, November 25, 1779,” PBF, 31:150.

[36] “To John Paul Jones, December 6, 1779,” PBF, 31:203.

[37] “From Thomas Digges, January 10, 1780,” PBF, 31:364.

[38] “To David Hartley, February 2, 1780,” PBF, 31:436.

[39] “Two Hundred Eighty American Prisoners to Franklin, February 3, 1780,” PBF, 31:442.

[40] .

[41] “Thomas Digges to Franklin, March 10, 1780,” PBF, 32:80.

[42] “From Hodgson, March 28, 1780,” PBF, 32:167.

[43] “To Hodgson, April 11, 1780,” PBF, 32:236.

[44] John Bigelow, ed., The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. VIII Letters and Miscellaneous Writings 1779-1781 (New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904), 227-27.

[45] “From William Hodgson, May 12, 1780,” PBF, 32: 377.

[46] “From T[homas] D[igges], October 8, 1779,” The Benjamin Franklin Papers, (The Historical Society of Pennsylvania), 5:94.

[47] Ibid., “February 10, 1780,” 5:118.

[48] “From William Hodgson, August 11, 1780,” PBF, 33:180.

[49] “From William Hodgson, December 4, 1780,” PBF, 34:115.

[50] “Franklin to Robert R. Livingston, June 25, 1782,” in Wharton, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, 5:512; “To Thomas Digges, December 5, 1780,” PBF, 34:118; “To William Hodgson, January 30, 1781,” 34:326; “To Ferdinand Grand, February 23, 1781,” 34:399; “From William Hodgson, March 20, 1781,” 34:475; “To William Hodgson, April 1, 1781,” 34:507; “From William Hodgson, April 12, 1781,” 34:537; “To William Hodgson, April 25, 1781,” 34:572; “From William Hodgson, May 8, 1781,” 35:44.

[51] “To William Hodgson, April 1, 1781,” PBF, 34:507.

[52] “From William Hodgson, January 9, 1781,” PBF, 34:256. Ibid., “April 1,1781,” 34:507; Ibid., “June 29, 1781,” 35:198; Ibid., “July 8, 1781,” 35:233; Ibid., “September 4, 1781,” 35:439; Ibid., “October 31, 1781,” 35:673.

[53] “To William Hodgson, April 1, 1781,” PBF, 34:507; Ibid., “From William Hodgson, September 18, 1781,” 35:508; Ibid., “From William Hodgson, December 21, 1

[54] “To William Hodgson, November 19, [-20] 1781,” PBF, 36:61.

[55] “From William Hodgson, December 21, 1781,” PBF, 36:276.

[56] “To Matthew Ridley, before December 26, 1781,” PBF, 36:301.

[57] “From William Hodgson, January 15, 1782,” PBF, 36:439.

[58] “From William Hodgson, February 22, 1782,” PBF, 36:605.

[59] John How was Agent for Prisoners of War at Kinsale by James Coleman in “Antiquarian Remains and Historic Places in Kinsale District,” Journal of the Cork Historical & Archeological Society, 2nd Series, XVIII (Cork, 1912), 136.

[60] “From Richard Hare, Jr., February 23, 1782,” PBF, 36:607.

[61] “From Hodgson, March 22, 1782,” PBF, 37:31.

[62] “To William Hodgson, March 31, 1782,” PBF, 37:79.

[63] “William Hodgson to the British Board of Admiralty, April 6, 1782,” PBF, 37:124.

[64] 22 Geo III, ch. 10; Journals of the House of Commons (London), 38:859, 866, 900, 904, 907.

[65] “From William Hodgson, April 14, 1782,” PBF, 37:152; “To William Hodgson, April 26, 1782,” ibid, 37:228-229.

[66] “To William Hodgson, April 26, 1782,” PBF, 37:228-229.

[67] “From William Hodgson, May 10, 1782,” PBF, 37:356.

[68] “From William Hodgson, June 7, 1782,” PBF, 37:446.

[69] “To Robert R. Livingston, June 25, 1782,” PBF, 37:535-539.

[70] “From William Hodgson, July 13, 1782,” PBF, 37:625; “From William Hodgson, August 26, 1782,” PBF, 38:420.

[71] Journals of the Continental Congress, Gaillard Hunt, ed. (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1922), 24:242.

[72]  “From Robert R. Livingston, May 9, 1783,” PBF, 39:578.


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1 Comment

  • Superb research on a story taking place behind the curtains of war that many of us really know very little about. Meaningful certainly for Franklin’s legacy.

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