By Robert Leslie Cohen
“He is light, indiscreet, active, honest, affectionate.’
– Thomas Jefferson, in a letter about Franks
While conducting research on the Revolutionary War and some of its major players, I came across a novel about Benedict Arnold, written by John Ensor Harr and titled Dark Eagle. Despite Arnold’s infamous reputation, he has always intrigued me. Here was one of the Revolution’s best field commanders, a man whose troops admired, respected, and followed him without reservation, from his great maneuver at Valcour Island in the autumn of 1776 to his brilliant leadership at Saratoga. Arnold was truly one of America’s earliest and most courageous heroes until he made his fatal blunder of betraying the patriot cause at West Point, New York in 1780, thus destroying his reputation and branding himself as a traitor throughout history.
In Harr’s well-researched book, the novelist mentioned that during the fateful time of Arnold’s treason, the officer had two aides-de-camp. One was Richard Varick of Hackensack, later to be mayor of New York, and the other was David Salisbury Franks. There are several variations on his middle name – Solebury, Salisbury, Salesbury, Solesby. I will use Salisbury, but what caught my attention most was his religion. Here is where my curiosity took a leap of faith: David S. Franks was Jewish.
The trajectory of Franks’ colorful and occasionally perilous life is amazing. Born in Philadelphia, Franks emigrated to Canada, became a synagogue leader in Montreal, then a provisioner to General Montgomery’s troops at the Battle of Canada, and later an officer in the Continental Army. After the war ended, Franks served as a diplomat to England, France, Spain, and Morocco. He was also an important courier for the Revolutionary government, an assistant at Washington’s first inauguration, and one of three high ranking officers of the Jewish faith who served in the Continental Army. Lieutenant-Colonel Franks was well known to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Robert Livingston and John Jay, among others.
The early history of the United States was more than the accomplishments of the founding fathers. It also took the grit, determination, and fortitude of many in lesser positions who worked as hard for the patriotic cause as the luminaries mentioned. For the most part, the suppliers of wagons, sailors, farmers, foreign idealistic officers, and countless enlisted men and women are glossed over when we delve into the Revolutionary War and its aftermath. An individual like Franks helped continue the struggle for independence and get the country established.
The family name Franks was originally Franco; his ancestors were of Sephardic origin and had lived in Holland and then in England.1. Let us first look at the early years of his life, even though the historical documentation is by no means abundant. We know he was born in Philadelphia, around 1740, the son of merchant Abraham Franks. He attended Franklin’s Academy, which later became the University of Pennsylvania, and at the outbreak of the Revolution lived in Montreal and was a businessman. He had strong patriotic feelings.
As a youth in Philadelphia, Franks developed a fluency in French and Spanish, and there is evidence he learned surveying. In 1774, he went to Montreal, and following in his father’s profession, he became a merchant. He also took an active role in Montreal’s synagogue, becoming president of the congregation. There is evidence Franks had signed a petition to protest an Act of Parliament that took away the right of trial by jury.
Franks also displayed patriotic feelings by getting into a physical altercation with another Montrealer over defacing a statue of King George III. The Frenchman insisted the vandal should be hanged while Franks thought the offense was minor. After the fight, Franks was arrested and marched under bayonet to prison. He was jailed for a week and then released.2 After General Montgomery made his way with Benedict Arnold to Montreal, Franks immediately aided the patriot cause by advancing both goods and money to Montgomery’s troops.
At this point, Franks joined the American Army and was appointed by General Wooster paymaster of the garrison of Montreal. Franks actually issued his own money, which was later reimbursed to him in depreciated cash by order of Congress. After a stay in Philadelphia in 1777, Franks joined the Third Artillery Regiment in Boston. He served throughout the campaigns in the northern theater of war and probably was at Saratoga when Burgoyne surrendered.3 In December 1777 and during the winter of 1778 we find him at Valley Forge with Washington’s army. Here, a miniature portrait was painted of him by Charles Willson Peale.4 Franks was on good terms with the commander-in-chief. (The portrait was in the possession of a great-grandson of a sister of Colonel Franks, Clarence I. DeSola of Montreal. It is now in the Hannah R. London Collection, American Jewish Archives.) In the spring of 1778, he was assigned to the staff or “family” of General Benedict Arnold as an aide-de-camp with the rank of major.5
After the arrival of the French fleet under Count Charles Henri d’Estaing, Franks, using his language skills, and carrying letters of recommendation from the Board of War and Silas Deane, joined the fleet at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. He remained with the French until August 1778, when he returned to Philadelphia and rejoined General Arnold’s staff.
James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and friend of Franks, was then a lawyer defending some prominent Tories who were being prosecuted for treason. A riot ensued and shots were fired at Wilson’s house. Among those who aided Wilson was Major Franks. Franks was charged with participating in this disturbance, where some were mortally wounded. The charges against Franks were dropped. James Wilson, after both leaving and then returning to Pennsylvania, was a prominent member of the Continental Congress and became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Immediately after this incident, Franks was assigned to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was an aide-de-camp to General Lincoln.
At the end of 1779, he was called back to Philadelphia to testify at the trial of Benedict Arnold, who was charged with abusing his powers as military governor of Philadelphia. Arnold received a reprimand and based on his own recommendation, was assigned the command at West Point.
When Arnold transferred to the American fort at West Point on the Hudson, both David S. Franks and Richard Varick accompanied him as aides-de-camp. At West Point, Major Franks discharged his responsibilities in an exemplary manner. One letter from Chevallier de Villefraud related to requesting troops to help repair the chain that had been placed across the Hudson at West Point to prevent British ships from advancing up the river. The chain was an effective obstruction for the duration of the war.
In September 1780, with the complicity of the British high command in New York City, and with Major André as an intermediary, General Arnold attempted to hand over the plans for West Point to the British, thereby compromising the fort. It might be added that Arnold, upon hearing of André’s capture, abandoned his position at the fort, as well as leaving behind his wife, Peggy Shippen, and their newborn child. General Washington, who arrived at the fort soon after Arnold’s departure, found Mrs. Arnold in a hysterical state and ordered her back to her family in Philadelphia, accompanied by Major Franks. Mrs. Arnold, while not formally charged with treason, had strong Loyalist leanings and circumstantially appeared to be implicated with her husband’s treason. At the time, however, General Washington placed the entire charge of treason upon Arnold.
Because of Arnold’s proximity to both Colonel Varick and Major Franks, some suspicion was cast on them. Nonetheless, General Washington, in a letter regarding Arnold’s aides wrote, “I have the greatest reason to believe [Varick and Franks] were not privy in the least degree to the measures he was carrying on to his escape.”
Both Varick and Franks, because of the cloud hanging over them, demanded a full investigation by means of a court martial. This was granted by General Washington. Both Varick and Franks were completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. In so doing, the court said of Franks, “his conduct was not only unimpeachable but … did him great honor as an officer … and sincere friend to his country.” General Washington accepted and approved the report of the court.6
Upon the conclusion of the tribunal, and under the jurisdiction of Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance, with permission of Congress, Major Franks was sent with important dispatches to John Jay in Spain and Benjamin Franklin in France. Franks was chosen for this important mission not only because of his competence in French and Spanish, but more significantly, the sense of trust the highest echelons of the American government had placed in him. He would inform Jay and Franklin of the military and economic situation in the colonies, and he could give the ministries of Spain and France updated information about the progress of the situation at home.
Franks embarked for Europe in July 1781. After his arrival in Spain, he delivered his dispatches to Jay. For some time, Jay had been trying to obtain assistance from Spain for the American cause. Franks subsequently gave testimony to the Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, which greatly aided the Americans in their quest for independence. In October, Franks departed for France with dispatches for Dr. Franklin. Unable to secure passage to America, Franks spent time touring France.7 He returned to America in June 1782. Based on a recommendation by the Secretary of War, Franks was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.
Before the army disbanded in June 1783, some of its officers established the Society of Cincinnati, and Colonel Franks had the distinction of being one of its charter members. He was present at Fraunces Tavern when the officers gathered to hear General Washington’s memorable Farewell Address.”8
After the war ended, Colonel Franks remained in the Army and was employed by Congress, where he was instructed to carry the Treaty of Paris to the American ministers in France and the Netherlands. This peace treaty, which concluded Revolutionary War hostilities, had been ratified by Congress.9
Letters from Benjamin Franklin and John Jay in Europe mentioned that Franks had performed his duties. Soon after this mission was completed Franks left the army and requested a diplomatic post in France. With the intercession of Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson, he was appointed in September 1784 as Vice-Consul at Marseilles. Franks remained in the diplomatic service during the middle 1780’s. During this time America was having difficulties with Algiers and the Emperor of Morocco, as both were preying on American shipping. The American government appointed Thomas Barclay as Ambassador to Morocco, and Franks was selected as his secretary.10 A treaty with Morocco was concluded in early 1787 and Franks carried it from Madrid to Paris and then to London for the purpose of securing the signatures of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Franks was then instructed to return to America with the signed treaty so it could be approved by Congress. This was accomplished in April of 1787 and brought Franks’ diplomatic career to a close.
In 1789 Franks was awarded a bounty of land of 400 acres for his service during the Revolutionary War. Because of a fire at the War Office in 1800, the location of this bounty is unknown.
There was some confusion as to a David Franks who took part in the Scioto Land Company, settling émigrés from France on land in Ohio and Indiana. The David Franks who took part in the Scioto land transactions, however, was most likely an uncle to David S. Franks. David Franks, the uncle, was involved in the formation of the company in 1768, along with Governor William Franklin and other stockholders. As a great tribute to Franks, he was chosen on April 30, 1789 to be one of seven assistants in the first inaugural procession of President Washington. It started at the Presidential Mansion at One Cherry Street and proceeded to Federal Hall where President Washington was inaugurated. The procession was headed by Captain Stakes with a troop of cavalry, followed by the assistants, including Colonel Franks, after which came a committee of the House and a committee of the Senate.11
Franks’ final years were spent as assistant cashier of the Bank of the United States. The bank was located in Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia.12 In 1793, the city was plagued by yellow fever. Some five thousand Philadelphians died during that stifling summer, and among those who succumbed was Colonel Franks. A letter from Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, indicates that John Thompson, a blacksmith, recognized the body of Franks in a burial cart and made certain the valiant officer received a decent burial. Franks was laid to rest in the Christ Church Burial Yard.13
This brings us to the end of a remarkable and distinguished story. Although Franks’ role in the quest for independence is virtually forgotten, he is no less a patriot than the well-known Paul Revere of Longfellow fame, the plucky Molly Pitcher who manned the cannon at the Battle of Monmouth, and the intrepid fifers and drummers who played “Yankee Doodle” to rally our often dispirited troops. David Salisbury Franks stood with the best of them.
In preparing this essay on David Salisbury Franks, I would like to thank the following people whose help proved invaluable. To Adina Anflick, archivist at the American Jewish History Society, and other archivists, who were always willing to offer assistance. To the previous writers on Colonel Franks, I offer my admiration and respect. To the individuals I peppered with questions and who provided material and answers often with enthusiasm, I remain in their debt. To John Ensor Harr, author of Dark Eagle, a well-researched novel about Benedict Arnold, I convey my thanks for generating in me the passion for exploring Franks’ little known role in American history.
Finally, my gratitude to Jacob R. Marcus and his seminal work on the Colonial American Jew, and for producing many volumes on the same subject. For over forty years, I have admired his indispensable scholarship.
- Clarence I. De Sola, “Some Notes Respecting the Career of David Salesby or Salisbury Franks,” 1917.
- Max J. Kohler, The Magazine of History, vol. IV, August 1906, No. 2, pp. 64-65
- Hersch L. Zitt, Pennsylvania History, vol. XVI, April 1949, No. 2, p. 80.
- New York Sun, May 1, 1914, p. 6. The article mentions the miniature portrait of David Salisbury Franks, painted by Charles Willson Peale at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1778.
- Zitt, Pennsylvania History, vol. XVI, April, 1949, No. 2 p. 80.
- John Whiting, Lieutenant, Orderly Book of Court Martial of David S. Franks,1780; see also Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 4, 1986, p. 85.
- Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, No. 4, 1986, p. 85; see also Robert Morris, Letter Book A, Library of Congress, p. 152, 1781.
- See notes of Society of Cincinnati, Fraunces Tavern, New York City.
- Oscar S. Straus, “New Light on the Career of Colonel David S. Franks,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, November. 10, 1902, p. 103.
- Letter, Ambassador Thomas Barclay to the President of Congress, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 18, 1909, p. 210.
- Confirmed by Mr. Tom Savini, Director, Livingston Masonic Library, 71 W. 23rd, New York City 10010 in 2003.
- Leon Huhner, Publications of American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 12, 1904, p. 164.
- Zitt, Pennsylvania History, vol. XVI, April 1949, No. 2.