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Benjamin Franklin


Franklin confers membership in the American Philosophical Society

upon the French Admiral Luc Urbain de Bouëxic, Comte de Guichen,

who fought against Great Britain in the American Revolution

Benjamin Franklin, 1706 (O.S. 1705)–1790.  American Founding Father.  Partially printed Document Signed, B Franklin, one page, 9½” x 15”, Philadelphia, [Pennsylvania], January 20, 1786.

In this superb association document, Franklin, the former United States minister to France and then President of the American Philosophical Society, signs this certificate to confer membership in the Society upon French Admiral Luc Urbain de Bouëxic, the Count de Guichen, who had served gallantly in support of the American cause against Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War.  The certificate states that the Society, “held at Philadelphia for promoting useful Knowledge,” and whose members are “desirous of advancing the Interest of the Society by associating to themselves Men of distinguished eminence, and of conferring Marks of their Esteem upon Persons of literary Merit,” has elected the Count de Guichen to membership.  The Society’s records show that he was elected in the class of 1785.

The certificate identifies de Guichen as a “Lieutenant General in the French Armies,” likely reflecting an incorrect Anglicization of his French rank, Lieutenant Général des Armées Navales, essentially Vice Admiral, to which he was promoted in 1779. 

So soon after the French and Indian War, it was extraordinary for King Louis XVI to ally himself with the American colonists.  But French support for the Americans was crucial, and the French Navy diverted the attention of much of the British fleet.  The French government put extraordinary resources into its Navy during the Revolutionary War, and the Navy’s involvement exceed that of the French Army. 

At the height of his career during the American revolution, de Guichen (1712–1790) led French naval forces in a series of engagements against Great Britain in support of the fledgling United States. 

The Comte de Guichen was promoted to Rear Admiral in America’s critical year of 1776, and once France entered the war, he hoisted his flag in France’s English Channel fleet. On July 27, 1778, he commanded his flagship, the 90-gun La Ville de Paris, in a channel action against the British at the Battle of Ushant, a French island off the northwesternmost point of France.  Alongside the fleet flagship La Bretagne under the command of the Admiral Comte d’Orvilliers, the La Ville de Paris helped to stave off repeated cannonading by British Admiral Augustus Keppel, Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, and others.  de Guichen and his crew were awarded the “Cordon Rouge” for valor.  Overall the battle was indecisive, but it resulted in a violent quarrel between Keppel and Palliser that disrupted the British Navy and led to two courts martial.

After his promotion to Vice Admiral, in early 1780 de Guichen was sent to the West Indies in command of a strong squadron of 16 ships of the line, four frigates, a flute, three cutters, and a lugger, escorting 83 merchant ships and vessels carrying 4,000 troops.  In three battles on April 17, May 15, and May 19, 1780, off Martinique and Dominica, he fought the British fleet under the command of Admiral Sir George Rodney.  de Guichen acted carefully, but masterfully, and the French had the better of the battles, especially the last two.  Nevertheless, the battles were inconclusive, but de Guichen kept Rodney’s British fleet from doing harm to the French interests in the Antilles.  In the annals of French naval history, these battles are called “Les Trois Combats de Mons. de Guichen.”

Franklin undoubtedly knew much of de Guichen and his skill as a naval commander.  In 1778, the Continental Congress appointed Franklin, along with John Adams and others, to serve as United States minister to France—a vital position that brought Franklin into regular and close contact with the French civilian and military authorities.  Thus, Franklin would have known of de Guichen’s reputation as an accomplished, valorous, and high-minded gentleman and a commander skilled in directing the orderly movements of his fleets.  Following his retirement from the French Navy, de Guichen was awarded the Order of the Holy Spirit on January 1, 1784.  Under Franklin’s leadership, the American Philosophical Society elected him to its membership the next year.

In 2013, which marked the 230th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War in 1783, de Guichen received special treatment during an important tree-day international conference, hosted by the French Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to highlight the French military’s contribution to the war.  The Ministry of Defense also held a special exhibition in Paris to emphasize de Guichen’s role in both the Revolutionary War and France’s preceding war against Great Britain, the Seven Years’ War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War).

Benjamin Franklin has signed this document as President of the American Philosophical Society with a beautiful bold, black ink signature.  The document is countersigned by Vice Presidents John Ewing and William White, Samuel Vaughan, and Secretaries James Hutchinson, Robert T. Patterson, Rev. Samuel Magaw, and John Foulke.

Fragments of the document are missing along the bottom edge to the left and right of the ribbon and paper seal, which are intact.  There are circular stains from the seal above and to the left of the ribbon.  The paper loss on the right side and stains at the lower right affect the signatures of White and Vaughan, and one of the circular stains affects the signatures of Hutchinson, Patterson, and Magaw, although their signatures are still nicely readable.  Because the missing fragments affect two signatures, The Manuscript Society’s grading criteria, which we use, consider this document to be in fair condition.  Were it not for the missing fragments, however, it would be at least very good.

None of the defects affects Franklin’s magnificent signature, which easily grades 10 on a 10-point scale.

This document came directly from the descendents of de Guichen and had never been offered on the autograph market before we obtained it. 

The document represents a unique piece of American-French history—relating, as it does, to French naval assistance to the Americans in the Revolutionary War, and being signed by the renowned Franklin, one of America’s ministers to France during the war. 

The document is richly double matted in claret suede with a portrait of Franklin, an inlaid gilt wood fillet, and an engraved brass identification plate and is framed in a mottled gilt wood frame to an overall size of 19¾” x 21”.  The missing fragments of the document along the bottom edge to the left and right of the intact ribbon and paper seal are obscured by the matting, as are some of the countersignatures affected by stains.   



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