Cover image for David Franks: Colonial Merchant By Mark Abbott Stern

David Franks

Colonial Merchant

Mark Abbott Stern


$66.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03669-4

$33.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03098-2

Available as an e-book

288 pages
6" × 9"

Keystone Books

David Franks

Colonial Merchant

Mark Abbott Stern

“Mark Abbott Stern’s well-written and extremely well-researched biography of Philadelphia merchant David Franks (1720–1793) ranks among the best works on early American Jews. It is also the finest study I know that clarifies the complicated story of army contracting during the French and Indian War and the bureaucratic intricacies of caring for prisoners of war during the American Revolution.”


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David Franks, a colonial businessman in Philadelphia, was one of the most important figures in American Jewish history in the eighteenth century. This extensively researched biography illuminates not only Franks's personal dealings, but also his business life. Franks was involved with Indian trade, ship design and building, manufacturing, international trade, land speculation, westward exploration, and military provisioning. This volume follows Franks from his beginnings in a prominent Jewish family to his trials for treason and his exile in the postrevolutionary period, offering a unique portrait of a forgotten American.
“Mark Abbott Stern’s well-written and extremely well-researched biography of Philadelphia merchant David Franks (1720–1793) ranks among the best works on early American Jews. It is also the finest study I know that clarifies the complicated story of army contracting during the French and Indian War and the bureaucratic intricacies of caring for prisoners of war during the American Revolution.”
“In this gracefully written book, Mark Abbott Stern tells the story of a Jewish man, his Christian family, and his adopted city of Philadelphia during the era that led to American independence. David Franks: Colonial Merchant is the sweeping and illuminating chronicle of a businessman’s engagement with history, the grand intersection of personal temperament with war, westward expansion, and social assimilation. Demonstrating remarkable archival scholarship, Stern writes with skill, sympathy, and mastery about a man in his times.”

Mark Abbott Stern is a retired engineer and amateur historian. He has devoted the past eleven years to studying the life of David Franks.


Foreword by William Pencak

Preface and Acknowledgments


1. David Franks, Arrested for Treason

2. Family, Friends, and Associates

3. Indian Affairs, Family Growth, and Supplying the Army

4. Commercial Adventures

5. Plumsted and Franks, Agents for the Contractors

6. General Jeffrey Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet

7. Major General Thomas Gage

8. Franks, Inglis and Barkly, Agents for the Contractors

9. Levy and Franks and Land Speculation Companies

10. A Time of Transition

11. Working Both Sides of the Street

12. War and Financial Turmoil in Philadelphia

13. The Revenge of the Radicals

14. A Time of Trials

15. Exiles

16. The Final Chapter

Appendix A Letters to the Editor

Appendix B Questions of Death and Burial

Appendix C “Dear Mrs. Cad”: A Revolutionary War Letter of Rebecca Franks




Chapter 1

David Franks, Arrested for Treason

On November 10, 1778, Philadelphia newspapers reported, “Last week, Mr. David Franks, late Commissary for the British Prisoners . . . had been confined by Congress in the new goal in this city, for writing letters of an improper nature and dangerous tendency to the enemy.” Franks had written the letter in question to his brother, Moses Franks, the night after his son-in-law’s brother, William (Billy) Hamilton, was acquitted of treason against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. One of several merchants in charge of supplying the British forces in North America, Moses was among London’s leading commercial figures. But Franks did not send the news to his brother directly, as it was impossible to send letters to London in the middle of war. Nor would it have been possible for Franks directly to contact loyalist brigadier general Oliver DeLancey, his brother-in-law, who had married his sister Phila in 1741 and had done business with Moses Franks before the war. Instead, David sent his report to Captain Thomas William Moore, a cousin of his wife’s, who was serving in DeLancey’s loyalist brigade, to have DeLancey forward it to Moses. The letter stated, “Last Night ab[ou]t 12 oClock Billy Hamilton after 2 hours tryall was honourably acquitted—the jury ab[ou]t two minutes absent . . . —it appears an ill Natured prosecution.”

Franks was not alone in considering the prosecution “ill natured”; George Clymer, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a U.S. congressman, wrote to General John Cadwalader of the Continental army that the behavior of Joseph Reed, the president of Pennsylvania, during the trial had demonstrated “the extremity of baseness” of those who “participated in the prosecution.” But by calling into question the wisdom of a Pennsylvania judicial decision in a letter to his brother, sent surreptitiously through British lines, Franks brought his own loyalty into question, even though many of Pennsylvania’s revolutionaries, such as Clymer, also thought the new revolutionary government had begun to replicate the tyranny it claimed to replace.

Expressing his happiness that Billy Hamilton had been acquitted was not the worst of Franks’s letter. An enclosure also discussed the high prices of foodstuffs in Philadelphia as a guide for Moses in purchasing items for the army, and the rampant inflation Franks disclosed reflected a food shortage about which the revolutionaries would have preferred to keep the British in the dark. Franks was delivered up to the civil authority, brought before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and after a hearing released on bail: “himself bound in £;5000 and Mr. Joseph Simons [actually, Simon] of Lancaster, and General Cadwalader becoming sureties for him in £;2500 each.”

Simon’s offer of help was understandable. This sixty-five-year-old Jewish businessman was the leading merchant in Lancaster and the leading Jewish citizen of its community. But General Cadwalader was one of George Washington’s most trusted officers. This incident occurred just one month after Cadwalader had turned down an appointment as brigadier general in the Continental army, preferring to remain with the Pennsylvania militia. The relationships among Franks, Cadwalader, Hamilton, and Reed are a fascinating illustration of how friendships, family ties, and rivalries among Pennsylvanians could make the question of who was a loyalist and who a patriot extremely complicated, not to say a matter of bitter recrimination and equally strong personal loyalty.

General John Cadwalader remains one of the most neglected figures of the American Revolution. The story of his extraordinary service to the patriot cause needs to be told so that his vouching for Franks’s innocence will be given the weight it deserves. Beginning in December 1776, Cadwalader commanded the Pennsylvania militia. His support of Washington’s campaign in southern New Jersey, following through on his commander’s detailed plans, contributed to the victories at Trenton and Princeton. Washington placed great confidence in Cadwalader, who participated in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth, and offered him command of the cavalry in the Continental army. This was the first of three unsuccessful attempts by Washington to persuade Cadwalader to leave the Pennsylvania militia.

Yet, although he remained with his Pennsylvania troops, Cadwalader’s loyalty to his commander was beyond question. In 1778 a plot developed to remove Washington from his role as commander of the army and replace him with General Horatio Gates. The leader of the conspirators was Thomas Conway, for whom the plot was named “the Conway Cabal.” Cadwalader challenged Conway to a duel, during which the plotter was shot in the mouth. Cadwalader was unhurt, and Conway survived his wound. Word of Cadwalader’s defense of Washington spread throughout the colonies. General Nathanael Greene, a favorite of Washington’s and a close friend of Cadwalader’s, wrote from Camp Fredricksburg, New York, two years later, “Since the battle of Monmouth I have never had the pleasure to see you, or even hear of you only by accident. I mean such as shooting People through the Head. Your duel made a great noise in the American World. Most People rejoiced at Mr. Conways fate.”

Cadwalader also played a leading role in the politics of his own state. In the aftermath of the Trenton hostilities, Cadwalader was a key figure in a scandal involving General Joseph Reed, the man who would prosecute Franks. Reed was then adjutant general of the Continental army. Washington had sent him to assist Cadwalader, who was waiting at Bristol (about fifteen miles north of Philadelphia on the Delaware River) for the engagement to begin. During their wait, Reed expressed his view that “affairs look very desperate” and that “we were only making sacrifice of ourselves.” Further, he said that General William Howe had offered “pardons and protection for persons who should come in before January 1st, 1777,” which was less than a week away. Reed also told Cadwalader that “he had a family, and ought to take care of them; and that he did not understand following the wretched remains of a broken army.” Was it not true that “Galloway, the Allens and others had gone over and availed themselves of the pardon and protection?” Joseph Galloway had been a leading member of the Continental Congress and former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and William Allen, the head of the prominent Allen clan, the former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

These were borderline treasonous words, and they presented Cadwalader with the knotty problem of how to proceed without causing a general panic among the troops. On top of that, a maid overheard Reed discussing the same issues in the same way with an unnamed colonel who appeared ready to accompany Reed when the time came. Reed was saved by the victorious battle of Trenton, after which he was all too willing to forget these conversations. The victory made the question of desertion moot. Cadwalader, however, shared his recollections of this event with half a dozen or more of his associates.

A few years later, Reed was accused in the public newspapers of “having meditated a desertion to the enemy.” He issued a pamphlet addressed to Cadwalader attempting to defend himself from the charges and making a variety of negative comments about the general. In addition to the desertion issue, a small financial transaction between them remained unresolved and was addressed in their communications to each other. In 1782 Cadwalader issued a fifty-four-page pamphlet that included depositions from a number of his associates at the time of Reed’s contemplated desertion and letters from Washington, Henry Laurens, and others. The pamphlet was reported in local newspapers. The exchange of pamphlets and letters continued for years, as biographers and descendents of the principals continued to disagree over the details of the incident. As late as 1842 letters to newspapers were still being exchanged, and in 1848 a second edition of Cadwalader’s pamphlet was published and distributed. Reed was either an incredible hero or a borderline traitor—depending upon which author you chose to believe.

After his doubts about the American cause dissolved, Reed had embarked upon a career in politics, holding a succession of positions that included membership in the Continental Congress and president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (the equivalent of governor). The council was charged with identifying, arraigning, and prosecuting wartime loyalists whose actions helped the British or hindered the Continental army. Reed and his secretary, Timothy Matlack, pursued this assignment with vigor, prosecuting not only obvious loyalists but also their own political enemies, some of whom supported the Revolution halfheartedly, tried to remain neutral, or, though favoring the patriot cause, were among the increasing number of Pennsylvanians who tired of their rulers’ disregard for personal liberty. Benedict Arnold was clearly a traitor, but Billy Hamilton was a very different case. Billy was an effete botanist from a wealthy family. Son and grandson of famous lawyers—his grandfather Andrew came to New York to defend John Peter Zenger in his famous 1735 trial—Billy maintained the family estate as a botanical garden, importing rare and exotic plants from all over the world and overseeing their development and growth. The estate, Woodlands, was one of the great showplaces of Philadelphia. Billy had little interest in politics or the war and lived a quasi-hermitic life.

Unfortunately, the Hamiltons were marked as loyalists, and Billy was brought to trial for treason on October 18, 1778. Among those testifying on his behalf were his uncle, James Hamilton, his sister-in-law, Abigail (Abby) Hamilton, and General John Cadwalader. Abby Hamilton was married to Billy’s brother, Andrew, and was David Franks’s eldest daughter. The Hamilton and Franks families had been neighbors and close friends for many years. Cadwalader, also a neighbor of both and a close friend, was livid about Reed’s persecution of Billy and testified enthusiastically on his behalf. Declaration of Independence signer George Clymer commented that Reed was projecting his own disloyalty onto people he disliked for personal reasons: “it indicated the extremity of baseness in him, to attempt to destroy another for taking the very step he had once lifted his own foot to take.”

A few days after Billy’s acquittal, Franks’s arraignment for treason and subsequent posting of bail took place. After twenty years of conducting business with the British Crown and ignoring the tug of revolution, David Franks was bailed out by one of George Washington’s most respected and loyal officers.

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