US fails Canada regime change

From the Desk of Frances Sedgwick

O Canada! Getting to know you!

This is one of a series on the heartbeat of Canada

Canadians were first to rebuff

Washington on regime change

‘Never mind the propaganda, we want to see silver and gold’

When Benjamin Franklin abandoned Montreal to the British

he left behind a printer who founded The Montreal Gazette

This policy of tolerance and reconciliation infuriated the small group in Montreal that had come out early and openly for the Revolution and had risked everything in doing so. They charged the commissioners with showing more concern for Tories than for the “true sons of Liberty.”

The Great Diplomat Who Failed: Benjamin Franklin

By Edgar A. Collard
Montreal: The Days That Are No More
Image: Cover, Montreal the Days that are no More. Click to buy from  
Click to buy from  

Benjamin Franklin was an aging, ailing man when he set out for Montreal in the early, icy spring of 1776. He had gone only part of the way when he began to doubt whether he would live to arrive. When he reached Saratoga and found it under six inches of snow, he wrote a farewell letter to Josiah Quincy: “I am here on my way to Canada, detained by the present state of the lakes, in which the unthawed ice obstructs navigation. I begin to apprehend that I have undertaken a fatigue that at my time of life may prove too much for me; so I sit down to write to a few friends by way of farewell.”

Franklin’s reluctance to undertake the journey to Montreal had been overcome by this sense of duty. The invasion of Canada by the forces of the American Revolution, after its early successes, was in desperation. The American soldiers were ragged, unpaid, demoralized: the prestige of Congress in Canada was sinking and falling apart; even the people who might have been friendly and helpful were growing more and more skeptical, aloof or hostile. Something had to be done, and done at once, to give new leadership to the American invaders in Canada; and diplomacy was needed to bring Canadians to realize the advantages of independence. The very fact that such a mission might be almost too late gave it all the greater urgency; for it might be the last chance to make Canada the fourteenth colony of the American Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin had brought the obligation upon himself by recommending such a mission. On February 14 he had reported to Congress as the head of its foreign affairs committee. The report, written in his own hand, said that the French Canadian noblesse and clergy, to secure their own interests, had turned the French Canadian people against the revolution. Agents should be sent by congress to Canada to explain the revolutionary principles more clearly and to persuade French Canadians that liberty would mean more to them than submission to arbitrary authorities.

When Congress agreed with Franklin’s report, it turned to him to undertake the mission. He was the most persuasive diplomat of the Revolution. He, if anyone, could save the situation in Canada. Franklin realized the difficulty of refusal. If Canada were lost to the Revolution, speculation would never cease over what might have happened if he had gone there. He agreed to go, though it might cost him his life. He was seventy years of age. Among other ailments, he suffered cruelly from gout. He resigned from Congress’ Committee of Safety and from the Assembly. “It would be a happiness for me,” he explained, “if I could serve the public duly in all these stations; but, aged as I am, I feel myself unequal to so much business and on that account think it my duty to decline part of it.” If he felt unequal to so much Congressional business, he felt even more unequal to journeying through ice and snow to Canada to bring order out of chaos. But he went, writing along the route his farewell letters to his friends.

Immense authority

For his mission to Montreal, Congress clothed Franklin with immense authority — with almost absolute powers. He was to be the arbiter of military and civil affairs alike. His terms of reference were in the spirit of his own report to Congress. Canadians were to be diplomatically convinced that the Americans had invaded their soil only to set them free. They were to be given the liberty to set up any form of government as would, in their judgment, be most likely to promote their happiness. He was to assure them, in the strongest terms, that it was the earnest desire of the Americans to adopt them into the union as a sister colony.

Franklin was not sent alone to Canada. He was to head a commission. One of the commissioners serving under him would be Samuel Chase. As a supporter of the American Revolution Samuel Chase had been prompt and bold. When elected a member of the Maryland legislature in the old colonial days, he led the opposition to the royal governor. When riots broke out over the Stamp Act, he gloried in playing a conspicuous part. Naturally, he was sent as a delegate to the first Continental Congress in 1774. He even anticipated the Declaration of Independence by making one of his own, when he declared that “by the God in heaven he owed no allegiance to the king of Great Britain.” When Congress selected commissioners to accompany Franklin to Montreal it could have every confidence in Samuel Chase. And he readily agreed to go.

The second commissioner was Charles Carroll  Carrollton, whose signature, like that of Samuel Chase, is on the Declaration of Independence. (He used to add “of Carrollton” to his name to distinguish himself from his father “of Annapolis.”) Charles Carroll’s qualifications for the mission had been outlined by John Adams (who was to succeed George Washington as President of the United States). Adams described Charles Carroll as “a gentleman of independent fortune, perhaps the largest in America . . . educated in some university in France, though a native of American; of great abilities and learning, complete master of the French language, and a professor of the Roman Catholic religion, yet a warm, a firm, a zealous supporter of the rights of America, in whose cause he has hazarded his all.”

A Jesuit priest

These were the commissioners. To strengthen the mission still further, Congress appointed, as an associate or auxiliary, a Jesuit priest, Father Carroll (Charles Carroll’s cousin). John Adams looked  upon the appointment of Father Carroll as a “master stroke.” As a priest he could devote his time on the mission influencing the Roman Catholic clergy of Montreal to view the Revolution in a more favorable light. His qualifications were impressive: a Jesuit of learning and noble appearance trained in subtle debate and suave manners, with an education in France and (like his cousin) a fluent knowledge of French.

Congress also appointed a military associate: a Baron de Woedtke, once a high officer in the army of Frederick the Great. He had left Prussia after a falling-out with the Emperor and offered his services to Congress. He was a given a field commission with the rank of brigadier-general. The Baron was also fluent in French.

Franklin and his fellow commissioners had a rough journey to Montreal. Soon after they had set out from New York on April 2 and were sailing up the Hudson they were caught in a squall that nearly drove them on the rocks. The mainsail was split and took a day to repair. At another stage they were in flatboats, thrusting their way through drifting ice. They went ashore from time to time to warm themselves at a fire and cook their meals. At night Franklin slept aboard a flatboat, with no protection but an awning. When they traveled by wagon, they were bumped and jolted over deeply rutted roads.

“The roads at this season of the year are generally bad”, wrote Charles Carroll in his diary, “but now worse than ever, owing to the great number of wagons employed in carrying the baggage of regiments . . .”

On April 27, twenty-five days after leaving New York, they reached St. Johns on the Richelieu. All were cold, hungry and tired, but Montreal was now only twenty-seven miles away. French Canadian carriages — calèches with their enormous two wheels — had been ordered from Montreal. “I never travelled through worse roads, or in worse carriages,” complained Charles Carroll. When three or four miles from Laprairie they began to catch glimpses of Montreal. When they came to the South Shore of the St. Lawrence at Laprairie itself they stood and gazed across the river. “At La Prairie,” wrote Charles Carroll in his diary, ”the view of the town and the river, and the Island of Montreal form a beautiful prospect.”

US Montreal Commander Benedict Arnold fires thundering salute

When they landed at Montreal  they were received at the waterfront, “in the most polite and friendly manner,” by Benedict Arnold, by then a brigadier-general and Montreal’s commander. Arnold conducted them to his headquarters in the Chateau de Ramezay on Notre Dame Street, while the cannon in the citadel thundered a salute. Father John Carroll, in a letter to his mother, described Benedict Arnold’s hospitality: “At the general’s house we were served with a glass of wine, while people were crowding in to pay their compliments; which ceremony being over, we were shown another apartment, and unexpectedly, met in it a large number of ladies, most of them French. After drinking tea, and sitting sometime, we went to an elegant supper, which was followed with the singing of the ladies which proved very agreeable, and would have been more so if we had not been so much fatigued with our journey.” At the end of the evening’s entertainment, with its “decent mirth,” General Arnold conducted them to their lodgings in the splendid nearby house of Thomas Walker, one of the Revolution’s most implacable supporters in Montreal.

The next day Benjamin Franklin got down to business even though he had also to receive visitors and dine “with a large company.” He attended a council of war in the Chateau de Ramezay and began to form his opinions of the American prospects in Canada. The main problem appeared immediately: the Americans in Canada had no cash and they could expect to do nothing without it. The troops could not be disciplined while they were not being paid. Recruits among the Canadians were unlikely so long as they had no assurance of being paid either.

Nor could the Americans purchase supplies.. They had to seize what they needed, more or less with violence. They were looked upon as robbers, and hated as robbers always are. They had come into Canada as liberators; they were lingering as oppressors. Congress in Canada had no status. Its paper money, based on its credit, was laughed at. Franklin gave an example. The Americans in Montreal had trouble even arranging for the carriages to bring him and his commissioners from St. Johns. Nobody would accept an American dollar bill. Nothing could be done until someone friendly to the cause was willing to exchange the bill for silver.

The commissioners tried to borrow. But they could raise funds neither on the public credit nor on their own. Franklin advanced £353 of his personal gold. It was only a trifle compared to the needs. The commissioners sent an appeal to Congress to send £20,000 with the “utmost despatch.” And they added: “With this supply, and a little success, it may be possible to regain the affections of the people, to attach them firmly to our cause, and induce them to accept a free Government, perhaps to enter the Union.” Congress tried to respond. But its treasury held less than one-twelfth of the amount the commissioners in Montreal were requesting.

Canadians said no hard cash no deal

Franklin realized that neither his personal prestige nor his authority from Congress meant anything in Montreal in the absence of hard cash. The people had expected him to arrive with a large sum in silver and gold. When they came to understand that he had come with nothing more substantial than prestige and authority, he found himself left with little of either.

The commissioners were in trouble in another way. They tried to undo some of the harm done during the winter, when Brigadier-General David Wooster had commanded Montreal in the name of Congress. Wooster, ruling by harshness and oppression, had given a poor idea of the benefits of liberty — benefits the invading Americans were supposed to bring to the people of Canada. The commissioners felt obliged to improve the American image. They brought about the release of some of the prominent Montreal Tories sent by Wooster into exile in Albany.

This policy of tolerance and reconciliation infuriated the small group in Montreal that had come out early and openly for the Revolution and had risked everything in doing so. They charged the commissioners with showing more concern for Tories than for the “true sons of Liberty.” The commissioners replied that, “they could not do Evil that good might ensure.” It was “a substantial wrong” to tear a man away from his wife and family and exile him a hundred miles away from his home, and not for any defined charge but only because he happened (like many others) to belong to the wrong side. They added that, “a cause that can’t support itself upon the principles of Liberty is not worth pursuing.” And they expanded their policy of clemency, permitting the Montreal traders to renew communications with their posts to the west and releasing from Fort Chambly the militia officers confined there by General Wooster for refusing to resign their commissions.

Pro-revolutionary Montrealers annoyed by leniencey to Tories

Every easement of penalties and restrictions extended by the commissioners to the Tories only provoked a wilder rage in the pro-Revolutionary patriots in Montreal. They were in no mood to see justice done to their opponents on abstract principles at the very time when the struggle for Canada had reached a crisis. They charged the commissioners with taking “advice of the Tories.” The commissioners retorted that they took counsel of nobody but themselves, “that they themselves were equal to the purposes of their Embassy and if they had not pleased their friends, they had pleased themselves and nobody had a right to call their doings into question.” This assertion of superior authority was countered among the supporters of the Revolution in Canada who had become officers in the American forces. In Montreal some of them pulled out their commissions, trampled them under their feet and declared they would never serve under such treacherous leaders. In St. Johns an officer damned Samuel Chase to his face. When Chase prayed him to accept an important command, he said that, “he would not fire another Gun for the Congress, till their Officers & Soldiers were put on an Equal footing with their Enemies.”

Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin’s Jesuit associate, Father John Carroll, had set about his task of persuading the Roman Catholic clergy of Montreal that their future would be best secured under an independent  and republican form of government. But Father Carroll found the doors closed against him. The Roman Catholic Bishop, Msgr. Jean-Olivier Briand, had warned his clergy to have nothing to do with this revolutionary from the south. The only door opened to him was in the house of Jesuits on the north side of Notre Dame Street (on land now occupied by the eastern end of the Old Court House and La Place Vauquelin). At least once he dined with the Jesuits, though conversation at the table was said to be only social and general. The Vicar-General of Montreal, M. Etienne Montgolfier, relaxed the prohibition against him sufficiently to allow him to say Mass in the Jesuits’ chapel.

Father Carroll, however, had not come north to Montreal to engage in casual table talk or to say Mass. He was impatient to get down to political discussions. But these discussions, if they were to take place at all, would have to take place in secret. Arrangements were made to hold them in a garden. That garden may still be seen. It is back of the huge stone house on the northeast corner of  St Paul Street and Bonsecours. The spot was chosen in that spring of 1776 because the owner of that house, Pierre du Calvert, was a cryptic of the Americans while trying to preserve an appearance of loyalty to the British.

In Pierre du Calvert’s garden Father Carroll had his meeting with some of Montreal’s Roman Catholic clergy and presented his arguments to them. But he soon heard a rebuttal that frustrated even all his debating skills. He was told that by the Quebec Act of 1774 the British Government had granted to the Roman Catholics all their essential rights and privileges. Could they expect as much from the uncertainties of a revolutionary movement? Nor could they forget that the first Continental Congress in 1774, on the very brink of the Revolution, had utterly condemned the Quebec Act, calling most dangerous and destructive of American rights.” Why should the Catholics of Montreal believe that the leaders of the Revolution had changed their minds in only two years’ time?

They recalled other facts to Father Carroll’s attention. In many of the colonies in the south it was not safe even to harbor a Roman Catholic. Only in Maryland and Pennsylvania were Catholics tolerated; they had full rights only in Pennsylvania. Nor did Montreal Catholics have to look to the colonies to the south for instances of persecution. They had experienced religious persecution in their own town during the last winter, when US General Wooster had railed against the Church and even tried to intimidate the principal clergy, threatening to send them into exile.

British religious tolerance surprising

Father Carroll still did his best to suggest that Congress was to be trusted and that Catholic rights would be guaranteed. But he realized that his secret conversations in Pierre du Calvert’s garden had failed. His conscience was beginning to trouble him. He doubted that he would be morally justified in urging people toward revolution if they seemed reasonably satisfied with their existing government. He was also surprised by the extent of the consideration shown the Roman Catholics in Montreal by the British authorities. They had gone so far as actually to provide “a military escort to accompany the grand procession on the festival of Corpus Christi.”

Benjamin Franklin soon decided to get out of Montreal. He had been sent by Congress on a hopeless mission. He would have remained if he felt anything could be accomplished, but he had reached the point of despair. In his conclusions the other commissioners totally agreed. Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Samuel Chase had been busy moving about, examining defenses, holding military discussions. All they had to recommend was that certain points near Montreal might be strengthened to assure the American retreat.

On May 1, 1776, Franklin and his fellow-commissioners sent their first report to Congress. They had been in Montreal only two days. But it was long enough to realize that Congress commanded no confidence among the people. There was a “general apprehension that the Americans would be driven out of Canada as soon as the King’s troops arrived.” Canadians had come “to consider the Congress as bankrupt, and their cause as desperate.”

If the first report of May 1 was gloomy, the second report, of May 6, was final. It urged that failure be recognized. “You will see . . . that your commissioners themselves,” this report emphasized, “are in a critical and most irksome situation, pestered hourly with demands great and small that they cannot answer, in a place where our cause has a majority of enemies, the garrison weak, and a greater effort would, without money, increase our difficulties. In short if money cannot be had to support your army here with honor . . . instead of being hated by the people, we report it, as our firm and unanimous opinion, that it is better immediately to withdraw it.”

British war ships at Québec scare Americans into disorderly retreat

The end was at hand. While Franklin and his colleagues were writing their report in the Chateau de Ramezay in Montreal, a squadron of the Royal Navy, headed by H.M.S. Surprise, was sailing up the St. Lawrence to Quebec. On May 10 word reached Montreal that five ships of war had reached Quebec already and fifteen others were in the river. The American troops had given up the siege; they were in disorderly retreat toward Montreal. The commissioners passed the news on to General Philip Schuyler in New York. “We are afraid,” they told Schuyler, ”it will not be in our power to render our country any further service in this colony.”

Franklin had reasons of his own for wishing to stay no longer. His health was deteriorating. Boils tormented him; his legs were swelling; he feared it might be dropsy. On May 11 he suddenly decided to leave. Father Carroll went with him, to look after him. Slowly he made his way to Albany, then to New York. His illness lay heavily upon him; he was worn out and in pain. Samuel Chase and Charles Carroll stayed in Canada a few weeks longer. They held councils of war with “the generals and field officers.” But these councils were concerned mainly with disposing “matters so as to make an orderly retreat out of Canada.” On June 1 they left St Johns and headed south. They were interviewed by General George Washington. Far removed from Canada, Washington had no real understanding of what conditions there were like. After he had talked to Chase and Carroll he remarked to John Hancock “Their account . . . cannot possibly surprise you more than it has me.”

Benjamin Franklin recovered from the exhaustion of his futile mission to Montreal. He came to look upon it with a certain wry amusement. “Canada,” he would say, “Where I was a piece of a Governor (and I think a very good one) for a Fortnight.”

Franklin's Montreal mission not total failure

Yet Benjamin Franklin`s mission to Montreal was not altogether fruitless. There were incidental results. It led to the establishment of the craft of printing in Montreal, and it influenced the appointment of the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

When Franklin was sent north to Montreal in the Spring of 1776 Congress had instructed him “to establish a free press and to give direction for the publication of such pieces as may be of service to the cause of the United Colonies. “But Montreal had no press and no printer. Congress had to provide him with both. The printer selected was Fleury Mesplet. He was a Frenchman, of revolutionary principles, who had left his own country to set up his press in London`s Covent Garden. He apparently arranged an interview with Franklin, then in London as agent for a number of the American colonies. Franklin is said to have advised Mesplet to settle in Philadelphia and even to have given him a letter of accommodation. In Philadelphia, from 1774 to 1776, Congress awarded him three contracts for printing, in French, revolutionary appeals to the French inhabitants of Canada.

When Franklin`s commission was about to leave for Montreal, Congress appointed a committee to inquire into Mesplet's qualifications to go with it, as the printer of`such pieces as might be of service to its influence. One of the three members of this was Franklin himself. Mesplet was approved.

On March 18, 1776, Mesplet set out from Philadelphia, his press and all his other belongings loaded in five wagons. When he reached Lake George they were loaded on to five bateaux. The boatmen decided to run the rapids to Chambly to save a longer haul from St. Johns. But it was spring, and high water. The bateaux were nearly swamped. Most of his fine paper, and his wife`s clothes and his own, were ruined. He reached Montreal on May 6. It was too late. Franklin and his fellow-commissioners had already given up and were making ready to get out. Mesplet did no printing for them. He found himself abandoned, for he could not join the commissioners in their flight. Traveling with a printing press was not easy, as he had realized in his journey from Philadelphia. Nor was he likely to find anyone to accept payment in American currency. In any case, he may not have been eager to leave. He may have felt more comfortable in Montreal, a town mostly French-speaking, than in English-speaking Philadelphia. He had made a flying visit to Quebec and Montreal in early 1775 and may, even then, have had some intention of settling in a French environment.

Jailed printer founds The Montreal Gazette

When the British forces came back to Montreal, Mesplet was thrown into prison. Twenty-six days later he was released. He seemed harmless and might prove useful in a town with no other printer. He had set up his press on Capitale Street — the lane running from St. Sulpice Street (then called St. Joseph) to St. Francois-Xavier. His press was busy. Mesplet turned out Montreal`s first books (including the first illustrated book in Canada) and its first pamphlets, commercial printing and newspaper. This newspaper, begun in 1778 as La gazette du commerce et litteraire, was so abusive of the judges that it was suspended and Mesplet was imprisoned. After his release, he revived his paper in 1785, in a more prudent spirit, as The Montreal Gazette.

If Fleury Mesplet was made Montreal`s first printer as an offshoot of Franklin`s Montreal mission, so was Father John Carroll led (at least in part) to become the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States.

Father Carroll had been a source of aid and comfort to Franklin. Franklin had found him a singularly agreeable companion — intellectually interesting and gifted as a conversationalist. Far more than this, as Franklin was an aging invalid, too old and too ill to have undertaken the journey to Montreal, he appreciated Father Carroll`s attentiveness in smoothing the problems of difficult travel. When he reached New York on the way home, Franklin wrote: “I find I grow daily more feeble, and I think I could hardly have got along so far but for Mr. Carroll`s friendly assistance and tender care of me.”

In the years that followed, Franklin lost no opportunity to recommend Father Carroll to the Roman Catholic authorities, especially while representing the American colonies in Paris. His recommendations were not without their effect. The Roman Catholic Church was planning to set up its first ecclesiastical organization in the United States. The first bishop would have to be a man of extraordinary tact and wisdom. Recommendations for Father Carroll from someone as eminent in the new United States as Benjamin Franklin, and with so high a reputation for sound judgment, powerfully strengthened Father Carroll's claims for the office. On July 1, 1784, Franklin wrote in his private diary: “The pope's nuncio called, and acquainted me that the pope had, on my recommendation, appointed Mr. John Carroll superior of the Catholic clergy in America, with many powers of bishop; and that probably, he would be made a bishop. . . ."

The appointment of Father Carroll as Bishop of Baltimore came in 1789. As the first Roman Catholic Bishop he laid the foundations for the church in the new nation. He held the first synod. He drew up the first rules of ecclesiastical administration. He set up Catholic schools and colleges. He welcomed many of the religious orders to begin work in the United States. In 1808 he was appointed archbishop. His huge diocese of Baltimore was then divided into the four new dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Kentucky. He virtually nominated the bishops and supervised their administration. He reconciled many differing and often conflicting national traditions. Before his death he had entrenched the Roman Catholic Church as a truly American branch of the universal church.

Yet the far-reaching influence of Archbishop John Carroll on the church history of the United States might never have been felt if he had not come to Montreal with Benjamin Franklin on the mission that failed in 1776.