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    Benjamin Franklin Requests a Review of His Nephew's Account After an Attack by Fellow Commissioner, Arthur Lee

    Benjamin Franklin Autograph Letter Signed "B Franklin." Four pages of a bifolium, 15.75" x 12" (sight), Passy [France], April 8, 1779. Addressed to "Merchants now at Nantes" Joseph Wharton, Matthew Ridley, Joshua Johnson, Mathew Mease, John Ross, Jonathan Nesbitt, J. Cummings, Joseph Gridley and J.D. Schweighauser, Franklin, at the time one of the commissioners to France, writes, in full:

    "Great Objections having been made by the honble. Mr Arthur Lee to the Accounts of Mr Jonathan Williams late Agent for the Commissioners at Nantes, which are therefore yet unsettled, and as not being conversant in mercantile Business, I cannot well judge of them, and therefore, as well as for other Reasons, I did not and cannot undertake to examine them myself, and they may be better examined at Nantes where the Business was transacted than either here or in America. I beg the Favour of you, Gentlemen, that you would for the Sake of Justice and of the Public Good, take that Trouble upon you; and make Report to me thereupon. Which I do hereby agree shall be conclusive and final (subject only to the Revision of Congress) in case Mr Williams shall previously sign an Engagement to abide thereby. If it should not suit you all to attend to this Business, I shall be content with the Judgment of as many of you as can and will attend it, the Number not being less than three. If an equal Number undertake it, and should be divided in their Opinions, I request them to join in chusing an Umpire, that the Matter may be concluded. I did desire Mr Lee, if he had any further Objections to furnish you with them; But he has in a Letter to me declined it. I have the Honour to be, with great Respect, Gentlemen, Your most obedient humble Servant, [signed] B Franklin."

    At the end, he has placed a postscript: "Hoping you will comply with my Request, I have ordered Mr Williams to lay his Accounts fully before you.--" Docketed on the verso. Folds are weakened with areas of minor separation resulting in some paper loss, most notably along the upper two horizontal folds. Small places along the edges are chipped. Ink spots and spots of foxing are scattered about. Beautifully matted and framed to a size of 22.75" x 19.75". This smaller frame is then able to hang onto a larger frame with two screws allowing the viewer to see all pages of the letter. This second frame is matted with a portrait of Franklin and framed to an overall size of 40" x 31".

    The letter from Lee, which Franklin references at end of the above letter, was written March 16, 1779. In it, Lee states, in part as written: "Upon examining the first accounts given in by your Nephew [Jonathan Williams Jr.], which was six months after the goods had been shipt, I found a darkness & inaccuracy which I had never seen in Accounts before, & that they were not accompanied with either Bills of Loading, or reciets to elucidate & support them. I stated my objections in writing. The Answers neither informd nor satisfyd me. It appears too that you-yourself, Sir, was convinc'd that these Accounts, as they stood coud not be passt, because tho you agreed to pay him the ballance he demanded, you stated in the order, that this payment was not to be considerd as any approbation of his Accounts, nor prevent Mr. Williams from being accountable to Congress, or the Commissioners for the expenditure of the Sums entrusted to him. . . . When your Nephew sent us his 2d. Account . . . I examind it also, & reported my opinion endorsd on the Account itself, on purpose that you might not examine it without seeing my observations. The Account so endorsd, I returnd immediately to Passy. It is therefore singularly unfortunate that you shoud not have seen this endorsment, in the course of near six months, 'till lately & by accident, as you inform me, & that I shoud have incurrd some degree of your censure as not having- 'shewn it to you when made, & there by occasioning the matter to have been so long neglected.' In all this, Sir, I acted equally to all, from the irresistible motives of duty to the Public as a Commissioner; & have been unhappy enough to have seen it taken up personally, & subject me to the greatest ill-will & abuse. You must there fore excuse me, Sir, now that it is no longer my indispensible duty, from concerning myself with a business which is in much abler hands. If Congress shoud call upon me for farther reasons than those I have already given, it will then be my duty to act & I will obey- But as this has been made a personal matter, I shall expect, as an act of justice, to have a Copy of your Nephew's Accounts, as settled by the impartial persons, to whom you do me the favor to inform me, you mean to refer them."

    Arthur Lee had a history of disagreement with Benjamin Franklin and his grand-nephew, Jonathan Williams Jr., commercial agent for the United States at Nantes. It all began years earlier, with the appointments of Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane in 1776 to act as commissioners to France to persuade the French government to lend financial support to the Americans fighting for independence from Britain. The commissioners were successful in their mission, though Deane exceeded his mandate and was eventually recalled to America. Before he left, however, personal differences with Arthur Lee were beginning to tear the commission apart.

    In 1777, Congress had appointed Thomas Morris, the alcoholic half-brother of financier Robert Morris, as commissioner for Nantes to handle the sale of prizes. As he was absent drinking the majority of the time, Franklin and Deane took it upon themselves to appoint Jonathan Williams for the job, and he performed it diligently. Meanwhile, news of Morris' drinking came to Congress and they secretly appointed William Lee, Arthur Lee's brother, as co-agent with Morris. Upon his arrival in France, Franklin and Deane detained him and hid his instructions from Congress. Arthur was furious with Franklin over his appointment of his nephew, believing that Lee was using it as a front to discredit Deane and make himself rich.

    In the end, Franklin and Deane agreed to recall both Williams and Thomas Morris and leave William Lee solely in charge at Nantes, but for reasons unclear, Arthur declined. All the disagreement was moot as in September of that year, William Lee was sent to the Holy Roman Empire and Prussia as commissioner and his brother, Arthur, was sent to Spain in the same capacity. Thomas Morris died of alcoholism in January 1778 and Jonathan Williams remained in Nantes gathering supplies for the war in America.

    Reference: Jonathan R. Dull. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. Yale University Press, 1987; Charles Rappleye. Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution. Simon and Schuster, 2010; National Archives. Founders Online. (accessed August 31, 2014).

    Auction Info

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    October, 2014
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