Saturday, April 2, 2011

Benedict Arnold's Jewish Aide-De-Camp, David Salisbury Franks--Was he, too, guilty?

Among the most fascinating and mysterious characters in the American Revolution is David Salisbury Franks, a rebel and military hero who was Benedict Arnold's aide-de-camp at the time of the infamous treason. Arnold escaped to England, leaving behind his men. Was Franks also guilty of treason?  Many thought so at the time.

David Salisbury Franks was born in 1743 into a wealthy German-Jewish clan in Philadelphia, nearly all of them Loyalists. Among his relatives was the fascinating Becky Franks, a brilliant young woman, known to distinguished male admirers, including British invaders. as  “the beautiful Jewess.” (She is a character in my book.)  According to some sources,  David Franks' immediate family eventually settled in Quebec, living there presumably during the French occupation. After the British seized Canada from France, David and his father Abraham  re-located to  Montreal to set up a family business. David Franks must have been well regarded Montreal's Jewish community. He soon became the head--parnas--of Montreal's ’s only synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, also the name of New York City’s then-only synagogue.

Initially, many Canadians, like the colonies to the south, mounted their own rebellion against Britain.
In 1775, rebels in Montreal twrote beneath a statue of King George III a deragotry inscription: “This is the pope of the war and the fool of England.” Initially charged with the treasonous act, David Franks was arrested and detained for a week. Though released, he nonetheless gained a reputation as a rebel. Governor Guy Carleton included him in his list of “the principal leaders of sedition.”  David not only broke with the British that year, but also with his Loyalist father.

 Though the colonies had not yet officially declared war against the British, 1775 was a watershed year.  Rebels in Boston fought back the British at Lexington and Concord in April.In late December, hoping to force Canada to become the fourteen colony, rebels assaulted both Montreal and Quebec. Rebel troops remained behind, but Canada itself decided not to side with the "rabble," remaining loyal to the Brits instead. he assault on Quebec, bravely orchestrated by Benedict Arnold, ended in brutal defeat. Montreal, originally under the command of Richard Montgomery.

 During that seminal year,  David Franks immediately joined the rebels. “My good offices and purses” are open to you," he told them, advancing more than $3000 for the cause. When the American army retreated from Canada, David Franks joined them, attaching himself to the then-great Benedict Arnold. Sources are unclear, but it is generally believed that Franks was with Arnold at the victorious Battle of Saratoga. Not only a military success, that battle elevated the colonies in the eyes of the French King Louis XIV. After the success of that battle, France was only too happy to come to our financial aid and soon declared war on its mortal foe.

  Though many of his activities throughout the rebellion remain mysterious, David Franks, fluent in French, served as a liason to Count D’Estaing, commander of French forces in the colonies. In 1778, Franks, promoted to “major”, was  assigned to General Benedict Arnold. When the British evacuated Philadelphia in the summer of 1778, Arnold took over and Franks returned to his home town.

  Still following Arnold—then already engaged in secret talks with the British-- Franks was dispatched to West Point. Little did he know that the British had instructed Arnold to get a posting there! In  1780, Arnold crossed over to the enemy camp.

        David Franks was initially deemed guilty by association. Was it anti-semiticism? Some Jewish historians believe that to have been  the case. But Arnold’s other aide, Colonel Richard Varick, not a Jew, was similarly accused.

        General Washington soon received a letter. It was from none other than the traitor himself, now safely ensconced in Britain.  Having betrayed his own country, Arnold remained fiercely loyal to his aids. Both men, he wrote, were “totally ignorant” of the traitorous affair. After public hearings, both men were fully vindicated.

      The court singled out the Jewish hero:  “Every part of Major D.S. Franks’ conduct…. reflects the highest honor on him as an officer….and justly entitles him the attention and confidence of his countrymen.”
      Source: Samuel Rezneck, “Unrecognized Patriots: The Jews in the American Revolution (Greenwood Press 1975)

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