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Major David Salisbury Franks and the Founding Fathers in the American Revolution

David Salisbury Franks had perhaps the most fascinating career of any Jewish American who fought in the American Revolution. Franks was an associate of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and most significantly, Benedict Arnold. Franks had a close association with the most notorious traitor in American history. This caused a serious blow to his reputation. In addition to this, Franks had the misfortune to share a name with his uncle. Uncle David Franks was a contractor to the British Army and among the most well-known loyalists in Philadelphia. With these two connections, many doubted the patriotism of David Salisbury Franks and suspected that, like Arnold, he had supplied information to the British. At his own demand, he eventually received his day in court, where he was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. Though Franks was innocent of betraying his country, he was still no stranger to trouble. He was arrested at least three times in Quebec, Philadelphia and France.

The story can be told, at least partially, by looking at some of the letters of the Founding Fathers available from the National Archives, University of Virginia Press, and Princeton University.

Gilbert_Stuart_Williamstown_Portrait_of_George_WashingtonDavid Salisbury Franks was living in Canada when the American Revolution began. He served as president of the Spanish and Portugese synagogue in Montreal and worked as a merchant. Montreal was divided in its allegiance to between the British throne or the colonies, but Franks himself had always been a patriot. Following the Battle of Quebec, Franks joined the Continental Army as they headed back south and served as paymaster. In a 1789 letter to George Washington, Franks described his military career so that Washington could recommend him for a job:

Early in the Year 1774, I settled in Montreal with a small Capital and a considerable Credit as a Merchant & was successful in Business. In the Spring of 1775 I suffered a short tho rigorous imprisonment on Account of my attachment to the Cause of America. As soon as the Troops under General Montgomery took Possession of Montreal I did everything in my Power to promote their Success, & at one time advanced nearly to the Amount of Five hundred half Johanes in Goods & Money, which was afterwards paid to me in depreciated Paper. In 1776 soon after the unfortunate Attack on Quebec, General Wooster appointed me to the office of Clerk of the Checque or Paymaster to the Artificers of the Garrison of Montreal, in which Capacity I was indefatigable in forwarding the public Works, & again advanced considerable Sums of Money, at times when there was not a farthing in the Military Chest to satisfy the demands of the Workmen. When the Northern Army retreated from Canada, I join’d it as a Volunteer & continued attached to that army with some little intermission until the reduction of General Burgoyne. In 1778, after the evacuation of Philadelphia by the British Army & on the arrival of Count D’Estaing I procured Letters of recommendation from the Board of War, from Mr Gerard & Mr Deane who came with the Count & join’d him off Sandy Hook, I continued with that Admiral until he arrived at Rhode Island, when on the failure of that Expedition I returned to Philadelphia where my military Duty called me.

In 1779 I went a Volunteer to Charles Town & was an Aid de Camp in General Lincoln’s Family ’till I was recalled to attend the Tryal of General Arnold. In 1780, I was in Arnolds military Family at West Point until his Desertion to the Enemy, when a Court of Enquiry which I had solicited of the Commander in chief made the Report which accompanies this, and which His Excellency was pleased to accept and approve. In 1781 The Superintendant of Finance sent me with Dispatches to Mr Jay at Madrid & to Mr Franklin at Paris. I continued employed in Europe until the next Year when I returned home with the approbation of our Ministers, as well as of Mr Morris, for my Conduct while abroad. At my return I found myself deranged from the Line of the Army but on application to Congress I was reinstated for one Year only. When Mr Jefferson was going to Paris, one of the Commissioners for making a Treaty of Peace, he took me into his Family…

At the time it was revealed that Benedict Arnold had betrayed his country and sold his services to the British, David Salisbury Franks was his aide-de-camp and close associate. He and Colonel Richard Varick constituted Arnold’s “military family.” Franks was the man given the responsibility of bringing Arnold’s hysterical wife back to Philadelphia. In the months that followed, Franks was repeatedly accused of betraying his country. He wrote of the problem to George Washington in two letters of October 16, 1780 and November 24, 1780.

The first letter described his desire for an investigation that would exonerate him:

When last I had the Honor of seeing your Excellency, I requested to be indulged with a Court of Enquiry on my Conduct, not only to investigate what Knowledge or Share I might have had in the late General Arnold’s Perfidy, but also to take in a retrospective View of my Conduct whilst serving in his Family at Philadelphia.

You were so obliging as to accede to my Request and to promise that a Court of Enquiry should be called to examine into the first Part, but thought, that the Court could not with Propriety go into the second, as your Excellency was pleas’d to say; there appeared no Accusation.

It is with Pain I do inform you Sir, that a Report has been circulated thro’ this Part of the Country, and I believe has reach’d your Excellencys Ears, of a most cruel and injurious tendancy, That of having perjured myself last Winter to save Arnold from merited Punishment. This I feel most sensibly, unsupported by Connections or Interests on this Part of the Continent, I had here nothing but a Name unspotted I trust, untill Arnold’ baseness gave the Tongue of Calumny, Ground sufficient to w[ork] upon against any one unhappily connected with him.

A conscious Innocence of this abominable & groundless Charge of Perjury may cheer, yet cannot support me thro’ a World, too easily misled by first Reports and Prejudices; it however imboldens me earnestly to request your Excellency, to recommend to the Court, a strict examination into both Parts of my Conduct. I shall write to the Secretary of [the] Executive Council of the State of Pennsylvania, who will, I make no doubt transmit to the Court every Paper found among Arnold’s which may carry the smallest Tendancy to criminate me, and from wh[ich] I shall be fully able to exculpate myself.

Washington responded that he would direct General Heath to lead an inquiry that would address Franks’ conduct as Arnold’s aide, but not the matters that were strictly a civil affair. Franks’ November 24th letter addressed his desire to publish the results of his court martial:

As Your Excellency has been pleas’d to comply with Col. Varick’s Request respecting the Publication of the Report of the Court of Enquiry, in his Case; I have every Reason to hope your Humanity & Indulgence in this Instance will also be extended to me, and if entirely consonant to Your Excellency’s Judgement, the same Mode of Publication may be pursued.

The length of time which has elapsed since Arnold Defection makes me very solicitous that the Report may be put in orders as soon as possible, many People are to this Hour inclin’d to think that my Connection with Arnold could not be void of criminallity.

The inquiry took on the fascinating format. Arnold’s two aides, Franks and Varick, interrogated one another. The court issued a report completely exonerating both Franks and Varick and declaring them friends to their country.

Soon, Franks was promoted to lieutenant colonel and continued in service working as a diplomat. Thomas Jefferson wrote a fascinating characterization of Franks in a letter to James Madison on February 14, 1783. Perhaps it explains why, while Franks had a successful diplomatic career, it never reached the heights he aspired to:

Plaque at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia By Bob Brophy via Wikimedia Commons

My stay here has given me opportunities of making some experiments on my amanuensis Franks, perhaps better than I may have in France. He appears to have a good enough heart, an understanding somewhat better than common but too little guard over his lips. I have marked him particularly in the company of women where he loses all power over himself and becomes almost frenzied. His temperature would not be proof against their allurements were such to be employed as engines against him. This is in some measure the vice of his age but it seems to be increased also by his peculiar constitution.

Jefferson’s belief that Franks couldn’t control himself around women may have been an impediment to Franks rising as high through the diplomatic ranks as his ambition desired. Nevertheless he played an important role during and after the Revolution. He was entrusted to carry secret documents to John Jay and Benjamin Franklin on missions in Europe and North Africa.

It is revealing that Franks religion seems completely irrelevant. The fact that he was Jewish does not appear in any of the correspondence with the Founding Fathers. Franks was a fellow patriot, and that was what mattered. Franks died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia, where he worked for the Bank of the United States. He was buried at Christ Church burial ground when a neighbor took possession of his corpse to assure a decent burial instead of an anonymous mass grave.

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