SEIZING DESTINY

EXCERPT

Pages 131-135

 

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SEIZING DESTINY                                                                   Pages 131-135

 

 

Ben Franklin, foxy negotiator

 

OF THE FIVE AMERICAN peace commissioners named by Congress, only one was positioned to begin negotiating in earnest. John Jay was still mired in Madrid, making little headway with the wary – and newly aggressive – Spaniards. John Adams was doing better in Holland, where he had to remain in order to work out the final wording of a treaty with the financially powerful Dutch republic to extend diplomatic recognition to the United States. Thomas Jefferson remained home in Virginia, a grieving widower now, and Henry Laurens was still held in London as a prisoner of war. That left old Ben Franklin, with whom – fortunately for them both – Lord Shelburne had been well acquainted in prewar days. To speak forthrightly with the American sage, yet yield as little ground to him as possible, the British minister sent no sly diplomat but a private subject of the crown, Richard Oswald, a commoner friend of Shelburne, with a like-minded worldview, extensive knowledge of American society, and no ulterior motive beyond loyalty to his taskmaster.  

By age (seventy-five), profession (wealthy merchant), and personality (plainspoken Scotsman but so lively and well read, despite poor eyesight, that historian Thomas Carlyle would describe him as "a man of great knowledge and ready conversation"), Oswald seemed ideally suited to engage in a fateful dialogue with Franklin. It would run, on and off, for eight months. Having made his fortune as a supplier of equipment for British troops, Oswald added to his wealth as a slave trader while attending to the estates his wife had inherited in Jamaica and the Carolinas. "He is a pacifical man," Shelburne wrote in the letter of introduction that Oswald handed to Franklin, "and conversant in those negotiations which are most interesting to mankind. This has made me prefer him to any of our speculative friends [those involved in the proposed American land settlement schemes that Franklin had urged Shelburne to support in the 1760s] or to any person of higher rank. He is fully apprized on my Mind, and you may give full credit to every Thing he assures you of."

Oswald won Franklin's confidence almost at once with a confession so candid as to seem unworldly. Britain, he opined, had become "foolishly involved in four wars" simultaneously – in North America, the West Indies, the Mediterranean, and India – and had strained its resources to the point that reaching a general peace settlement had become "absolutely necessary." Lest the American luminary take his remark for indiscretion, Oswald quickly added that, however war-weary Britain seemed, it would not, of course, accept humiliating peace terms, that there was some sentiment in Parliament to levy an emergency 25 percent war tax to fight on if necessary, and that America, with its primary goal now in clear view, would be ill-advised to yoke itself too tightly to France and Spain, which might foolishly attempt to make excessive demands on the hard-pressed British ministry.

 

 

 

 

 

SEIZING DESTINY                                                                   Pages 131-135

 

 

It was a well-targeted warning. France's majordomo in the peacemaking process, the Comte de Vergennes, had the very opposite misgiving. He feared that the Americans, ground down by the long war and swayed by the still substantial segment of crown Loyalists among them – said to range from one-tenth to one-third of the citizenry – would hurry back to nestle in mother Britain's capacious bosom.  Such a reunion, the French foreign minister wrote his envoy in Philadelphia, would "make us lose in large part the fruit of the costly efforts that we are making to save America:” When Franklin took Oswald to Versailles to meet Vergennes, the minister shortly advised the Scotsman that France would not take kindly to any effort to wean the United States from its benefactor or tolerate a separate British-American accord that failed to address French concerns as well.

Over the ten-day getting-acquainted phase of their exchanges, before informal talks turned into official negotiations, Franklin let Oswald know that just as he understood imperial Britain had hardly been brought to its knees by the war, neither was the United States prepared to settle for crumbs off the peace table or some sort of satellite sovereignty. When the Scotsman came to Passy for breakfast with Franklin and an hour of socializing before his return to London, his host framed a message for Shelburne and his ministry that he must have suspected would astonish his adversaries and throw them off balance. Franklin remarked that his countrymen were entitled to reparations for British war crimes, in particular the widespread destruction and looting of civilian property and the "scalping and burning parties," as he termed them, conducted by Britain's Indian allies.

The very mention of such a claim stole a march on the British. Throughout the peace talks their most persistent source of concern would turn out to be some form of compensation to the crown's American Loyalists, many of whom had lost their homes and other personal possessions, their businesses, and their civil rights, suffered punitive taxes and expulsion from public office, and, finally, were hounded from their communities altogether. Britain's honor would demand that the Tory victims of a fratricidal war be restored to their former standing. But Franklin was first to claim the higher moral ground. Then he very kindly suggested that nothing would better ensure "a durable peace and a sweet reconciliation" between the two countries than for Britain to make amends voluntarily – and he had in mind the ideal means to do so: Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

SEIZING DESTINY                                                                   Pages 131-135

 

 

Ever since the British, with considerable assistance from their American colonists, had driven the French from North America, Franklin had been advocating a single, English-speaking domain occupying at least the eastern half of the continent. He had been much in favor of the doomed American military strike to gain control of Canada at the very start of the War for Independence. Now, speaking from rough notes, Franklin made his vision manifest to Oswald, who attentively heard out the Old Conjurer (as John Adams liked to describe him). There were at least three good reasons for the crown to cede Canada, all of it, to the United States, Franklin contended. First, it would save Britain the expensive headache of governing and defending so vast and frigid a wilderness, hardly worth the £50,000 or so of income from fur trapping that the region produced each year. It was the same rationale that had carried the day when the crown chose in the 1760s, in the face of massive tax resistance by American colonists, to abandon the lands west of the Appalachians to the natives and place the entire region off-limits to white settlers. Nothing, though, could halt the westward flow of land-hungry frontiersmen, as the British had discovered. If Canada was now to remain in British hands, said Franklin, there would be constant tension and endless disputes between American settlers and neighboring British subjects all along that immense stretch of boundary. This translated less subtly as: Save yourselves a lot of lives, money, and anguish and just give us Canada, or we pugnacious Americans will be compelled to take it off your hands.

Franklin's other two arguments were only a bit less confrontational. Canadian land, he pointed out, could be sold off to recompense America's civilian victims of British war crimes. Then he added, with benevolence he would shortly come to regret, that some sectors of Canada could be given for settlement to, or sold for the benefit of, the 80,000 Loyalist refugees, half of whom had fled the American colonies and taken refuge in Quebec province or the Maritimes. Both of these functions could have been performed without a British handover of Canada, but Oswald was too polite to nip Franklin's ploy in the bud. Finally, Shelburne's emissary was told, unless the Americans won Canada along with independence, they would be forced to preserve their close ties with France as a defensive measure – presumably in case Britain someday chose to launch an invasion against the United States from the Canadian provinces.

 

 

 

 

 

SEIZING DESTINY                                                                   Pages 131-135

 

 

Did Franklin think that Shelburne, the king, and Parliament would actually entertain the voluntary transfer of such a huge piece of imperial real estate, the dimensions of which were unknown but indisputably colossal, to an adversary who (1) had failed to conquer the smallest part of it, (2) surely did not require it for survival, and (3) had next to nothing in common with most of its occupants?  Since he was too smart to believe his own flummery, the more plausible explanation for this display of consummate brass was that the canny Franklin was asking for the moon and stars at the outset so that the true territorial ambitions of the United States would look less monumental when unveiled. Franklin's chief obstacle in pushing Congress's mandate to gain the Mississippi as the nation's western boundary was that no American soldiers and very few civilians could be found west of the Appalachians by the war's end. Claiming he could not do justice to Franklin's almost offhand, not to say laughable, Canadian proposition, Oswald asked if he might please borrow the doctor's rough notes to convey their essence most faithfully to Shelburne. Franklin, probably calculating that he had little to lose, reluctantly agreed.

Whatever the British cabinet's reaction, Franklin could not have been in any doubt about how Vergennes would have viewed his proposal that the boundaries of the infant United States should enclose Canada as well. To the French mindset the only thing more absurd than Franklin's suggestion would have been for Britain to succumb to his sweet talk and sophistry. Such a development would invite the resulting, monstrously oversized newborn to end its reliance on France and emerge overnight as a brash – and very likely unmanageable – player on the world stage, probably in close alliance with its mother country. That Franklin broached the idea without first clearing it with Vergennes was clear evidence that he had no intention of slavishly following Congress's instructions to the commissioners to act only in concert with the French court. If Canada could be had just for the asking, Franklin would have been guilty of negligence of duty not to ask for it. Besides, France was obliged by its treaty with the United States to honor any territorial gains the Americans might realize at Britain's expense, whether through conquest or at the peace table, even if France felt such self-aggrandizement by its young ally to be flagrant…

 

 

 

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