Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    Benjamin Franklin's proposals for the humane conduct of war

    Benjamin Franklin Copy-Press Letter of Autograph Letter Signed. Three pages, 8.25" x 12. 5", Passy, France; July 10, 1782. In this early example of a copy press letter, Franklin, serving as American Peace Commissioner, writes his close friend, British merchant Benjamin Vaughan, discussing peace negotiations to end the Revolutionary War and outlining his thoughts on the laws of nations for war and peace. A few years later, Franklin used a copy press to make a duplicate of his Autobiography, which he also sent to Vaughan. Copy pressing remained rare until well into the 19th century. This letter, therefore, reflects not only Franklin's humanitarian views on the conduct of war, but his tireless curiosity for new technologies.

    "Dear Sir,

    I have before me your several favours of June 7, June 17, & July 9. The Box sent to Mr. Bowens at Ostend is also come to hand. It contain'd a Dozen 4to Vols. of my Writings, and a Number of Pamphlets which you have been so good as to chuse for me; but the Remembrances, & Registers bought for me by Mr Young [Moses Young served as a secretary to Henry Laurens], and left by him as he tells me with Mr Johnson, to be sent me, were not included, & I hear nothing of them. I beg you would inquire about them.

    I wish you all kinds of good Fortune in your Speculations for America. I think you will be well serv'd by Mr Young [Young and Vaughn planned a joint business venture], who appears to be [illegible].

    Mr Laurens [Henry Laurens (1723-1792) an American merchant, slave trader, planter and political leader from South Carolina, who was a delegate to and later president of the Second Continental Congress] is gone to the South of France, and has declined acting in the Commission for making Peace. Mr Oswald [Richard Oswald (1705-1784), a Scottish merchant and advisor to the British government on the conduct of the American Revolutionary War, who served as the British peace commissioner and negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783] has not given me the Acct you suppose he may have given, of a certain Person's strange Behaviour. When you have Leisure, acquaint me with it.-

    I shall confer with Mr Jay [John Jay (1745-1829) was an American public official, diplomat, and one of the signors of the Treaty of Paris of 1783] concerning the Bills. There will be no Difficulty in getting them paid if he approves of it. Should his first Opinion [illegible], I cannot interfere, the Bills being drawn on him. What you tell me, of the first Indorser's going out with a Passport from me, and that these Bills were remitted as part Payment, shows me that I was imposed on by that man [illegible] my Passport was obtained on Assurance that the Goods to be carried over were bona fide the Property of the intended Settler; and should not have been used as a Cover for the Goods of an English Merchants instrusted to him, to carry on a contracted Commerce. The Bills of Harley & Drummond [A London banking firm] which you mention as having been enclosed in the same Letter, afford farther Suspicion of his Station in that Country, & that the Bills have not been fairly come by.-

    Your Sentiments relating to Privateers appears to me very just, & those concerning Arbitrators not less so, tho perhaps less likely to be adopted. I go with you as far as you go, in Proposals for diminishing the Occasions & Mischiefs of War, & perhaps a little farther. --By the Original Law of Nations, War & Extirpation was the Punishment of Injury. Humanizing by degrees, it admitted Slavery instead of Death. A farther Step was, the Exchange of Prisoners instead of Slavery. Another to respect more the property of private Persons under Conquest, [&] be content with acquir'd Dominion. Why should not this Law of Nations go on improving? Ages have interven'd between its several Steps; but as Knowledge of late encreases rapidly, why should not those Steps be quicken'd? Why should it not be agreed to as the future Law of Nations that in any War hereafter the following Descriptions of Men should be undisturbed, have the Protection of both sides, & be permitted to follow their Employments in Surety, viz
    1. Cultivators of the Earth, because they Labour for the Subsistance of Mankind.
    2. Fishermen, for the same Reason.
    3. Merchants & Traders, in unarm'd Ships; who accommodate different Nations by communicating & exchanging the Necessaries and Conveniencies of Life.
    4. Artists & Mechanics, inhabiting & working in open Towns.

    It is hardly necessary to add that the Hospitals of Enemies should be unmolested; they ought to be assisted.

    In short, I would have nobody fought with but those who are paid for Fighting. If obliged to take Corn from the Farmer, Friend or Enemy, I would pay him for it; the same for the Fish or Goods of the others.

    This once established, the Encouragement [to war which arises from a Spirit of Rapine] would be taken away, and Peace therefore more likely to continue & be lasting.-

    I send you the Passport you desire for the young Man. His Talents may be useful in a new Country.

    Your Brother John [John Vaughan (1756-1841), a wine merchant, philanthropist, and long-time treasurer of the American Philosophical Society] is arrived in New York, the Vessel being taken. I have heard nothing more of him since.

    The Persons you mention to have recommended to me, are not yet arriv'd. I am ever, my dear Friend,

    Yours most affectionately
    B. Franklin"

    Franklin himself put these principles into practice. "The most famous example," writes biographer Ronald W. Clark, "is probably his call to commanders of armed ships on commission from Congress to treat Captain Cook and his crew 'with all civility and kindness, affording them, as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power which they may happen to stand in need of.'"

    This letter was made on a copy press by Franklin from his original immediately after it was written. Franklin sent this duplicate, along with another letter, to Vaughan the next day. In an era of uncertain mail delivery, several copies of important letters were often sent to the same recipient. The letter copying press was invented in 1779 by James Watt (1736-1819), noted for his significant work on steam engines. Also called sponge-paper copying, he received a patent for it in 1780. His invention had a revolutionary impact on office practice in a way similar to that of the typewriter in the second half of the 19th century. The inked page was placed upon a dampened sheet of a special, absorbent tissue paper, or "flimsy paper." The sheets were pressed together so that a "true" copy of the writing was transferred to the back of the tissue, which could then be read through the papers from the front. In addition to Franklin, Washington and Jefferson both frequently used the invention. Due to their fragility, copy-press letters are very rare.

    Benjamin Vaughan (1751-1835), was a British merchant and a close friend of Benjamin Franklin. Their correspondence is of particular importance because it continued uninterrupted despite the start of the Revolutionary War. In 1779, at the height of the Revolutionary War, Vaughan published a selection of his friend's works, including letters, under the title Political, Philosophical, and Miscellaneous Pieces by Benjamin Franklin. This may be the publication to which Franklin refers in the present letter, and the "Mr. Johnson" mentioned is almost certainly the radical bookseller, Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published it. In 1806, Vaughan also supervised the publication of the Complete Works of Benjamin Franklin. In addition to his friendship with Franklin, Vaughan had close ties with Lord Shelburne, the British Prime Minister, to whom this correspondence was evidently forwarded.

    Condition: The letter has usual folds and much creasing. It is on absorbent tissue-like paper watermarked "J Watt & Co Patent Copying." The paper has several small areas of paper loss where ink has bled through and paper loss on the edges of page 3; the areas of paper loss have been professionally repaired with tissue backing. About six lines' legibility have been affected by the ink bleeding through paper; fragile.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    October, 2019
    26th Saturday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 3
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 324

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    25% on the first $300,000 (minimum $49), plus 20% of any amount between $300,000 and $3,000,000, plus 12.5% of any amount over $3,000,000 per lot.

    Sold for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Only 15 days left to consign to the 2020 June 7 Arms & Armor, Civil War & Militaria Signature Auction - Dallas!

    Learn about consigning with us

    You reach a customer base that is in many ways completely unknown to the major auction houses, and your marketing to this base is as professional as one could hope for. As I continue to wind down my holdings.
    Michael Z.,
    Hawthorne, NY
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search