Captain Tom Truxtun was in London, probably at the Pennsylvania Coffee House in Birchin Lane, when he learned that the great Doctor Franklin wanted to engage ship to carry him home.
Benjamin Franklin had attended the Court of Versailles for more than eight years, during almost the whole of the Revolutionary War, obtaining for United States incalculably important aid from the French government. A man who enjoyed the company of learned men and charming women, he was about to leave a circle of friends and acquaintances who admired and loved him. "I have continu'd to work till late in the Day," he said; "tis time I should go home, and go to Bed."1 He was an old, old man, already in his eightieth year. He was afflicted with the stone and with the gout. As he put it, "I feel the infirmities of Age come on so fast, and the Building to need so many Repairs, that in a little time the Owner will find it cheaper p53to pull it down and build a new one."2 The stone bothered him greatly. The motion of a carriage caused him unbearable pain. He was not at all sure that he could survive the journey to the coast; and even if he got that far, he still might not be able to bear the motion of a ship.3 But he wanted to go home to be with his daughter and his grandchildren. He was determined at least to attempt the long journey; if he could not withstand it, there would be time enough then to think of returning again to his friends in Paris.
As soon as he learned that his term as Minister was completed and that he was at last free to go home, Franklin had looked about for a comfortable ship. In Amsterdam and Dublin, in London and Paris, his friends tried to locate accommodations that would be fine enough for one so old and so greatly esteemed.4
On the fourth of July, 1785 — it was now nine years since Franklin had helped frame the Declaration of Independence — he decided on the ship that would take him back to his beloved Philadelphia. Through a merchant doing business at the Pennsylvania Coffee House, he engaged the London Packet, which was to meet him in Havre if possible, or if not, then at Cowes on the English side of the Channel.5 He reserved the whole cabin for himself and his party in order that he "might not be intruded upon by any accidental disagreeable Company."6
Captain Truxtun was happy to accommodate the great man in any way he could, but to call at Havre would greatly increase his insurance costs; charging the increase to Franklin would almost double the amount he would have to pay for his passage.7 Therefore it was agreed that the London Packet would meet Franklin's party at Cowes; a French paquet boat would bring the party from Havre to meet the ship.
In London, Captain Truxtun hurried the loading of his cargo of "Shone's best porter in casks," chinaware, ship anchors of all sizes, and an assortment of pigments for inks and paints.8 He took on board thirteen German redemptioners, who were berthed in the steerage and who would pay for their passage by selling themselves into bondage for a stated number of years upon their arrival in America.9 When he was on the point of departure, he took in fresh provisions for his cabin passengers, consisting of a dozen pigs and sheep, several hundred chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese,10 and a goat to furnish fresh milk.11
p54 In Paris, Franklin and his two grandsons, William Temple Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Bache, were hard at work on the final preparations for their departure. Most of their belongings already had been sent on a barge down the river Seine with the expectation that it would be waiting for them when they arrived at Havre; but they had yet to pack the things they were going to carry with them. They managed finally to squeeze them all into twelve trunks, twelve boxes, three baskets, and a bale.12
M. de Castries, French Minister of Marine, learned of Franklin's intended departure only at the last minute. Had he heard of it sooner, he wrote to the American, he would have suggested that the King order a French frigate to take him home "in a manner suitable to the known importance of the services you have been engaged in, to the esteem you have acquired in France, and the particular esteem which his Majesty entertains for you."13 But it was too late to alter the plans already laid. Franklin was to be carried in a royal litter to Havre, where he would take passage in the paquet boat for Cowes.
On the twelfth of July, 1785, a heroic recessional began amidst a great crowd that had gathered to bid him farewell. There was a mournful silence, interrupted only by a few sobs, as the great man was helped into his stately conveyance. He rode in the litter — a sort of sedan chair, covered and curtained and supported by poles running fore and aft. It was slung between two very large Spanish mules, and a proud muleteer rode alongside the leading mule. Franklin was followed by his two grandsons and M. Le Veillard in a carriage; the baggage was consigned to a wagon that followed them.14
Within a week the little party was in Havre, where it was joined by Antoine Houdon, one of Europe's foremost sculptors, and his three assistants. He was on his way to Mount Vernon; he had been engaged by Franklin on behalf of the State of Virginia to execute a statue of General Washington.15 Houdon's baggage and his clay and tools also had been sent down the river Seine; but when the paquet boat was ready to depart with the company for Cowes, neither his baggage nor Franklin's had yet come down the river. The inconvenience to Franklin was slight, because he had brought a wagon load of luggage with him; but a "subscription of shirts and stockings" was taken up during the voyage to America in order to keep Houdon and his helpers properly clothed, and the sculptor had to buy new tools and materials when finally he arrived in America.16
p55 The venerable Franklin had survived his journey in the royal litter; and when he reached the English shore of the Channel after two days and two nights of being buffeted about by choppy seas he was able to say, "I was not in the least incommoded by the voyage";17 while his grandson Ben added, a little ruefully, "All the passengers had been sick except my grandfather."18 It was apparent that Franklin would have no trouble with the motion of a ship.
While Franklin's friends and admirers flocked to see him at the Star Inn, in Southampton, he followed the progress of the London Packet with keen interest. "Our Ship was at Gravesend the 22d," he wrote, and was expected in the Downs on the 24th.19 And finally, on the 26th, Jonathan Williams told him, "Capt. Truxtun is arrived at the Mother Bank," off Cowes. "Don't let Ben forget to bring all the mattrasses."20 Jonathan Williams, Franklin's grandnephew, who had arrived from Dublin to join the party, took care of the transfer of baggage from the paquet boat to the ship while Captain Truxtun went up to the Star Inn to meet his famous passenger.21
Finally, on the twenty-seventh, Captain Truxtun, accompanied by Franklin, his grandsons, Houdon and his assistants, and a host of visitors, returned to his ship. He entertained them all at dinner on board his ship, after which the entire company decided to stay on board overnight and to depart early in the morning. When Franklin next awoke, however, the ship was under way. The visitors had been put ashore at four and the Captain had weighed anchor at five o'clock in the morning.22 Franklin's old friend David Hartley, hurrying down from London, was yet •a mile from Cowes when he met one of the guests returning from the ship.23 So little late, and yet he would see the great man no more. Benjamin Franklin had quitted the shores of Europe for the last time. His day's work done, he was going home.
Franklin was in better health and spirits than he had been for some time. He was well situated in a stout ship whose commodious quarters were entirely at his disposal, and he was sailing with an amiable and capable captain. It is easy to picture a very old man, his life's mission completed, seated in a comfortable chair on the sunny leeward side of the deck, bundled in blankets to keep out the chill of the North Atlantic air, dozing fitfully as he watched the heaving horizon and listened to the gentle chuckling of the seas as they spent themselves under the bows of the ship.
p56 But the old philosopher fits no such picture. The London Packet, throughout this voyage, was a hive of activity, most of it a result of Franklin's insatiable curiosity about all manner of things. At his behest, Jonathan Williams started a special log even before they cleared the English Channel. Morning, noon, and evening, Williams lowered a thermometer into the water and recorded its temperature. He recorded also the usual information about wind direction, courses steered, and distance run.24 Franklin wanted the log in order to learn more about the relation between geographical position and water temperature. He thought that the thermometer could become an important aid to navigation, particularly ships sailing in or near the Gulf Stream. He convinced Captain Truxtun that this novel idea was a good one, and for many years the Captain went about plunging thermometers into most of the seas of the world.
Young Ben Bache, a lad of sixteen, kept a journal of the voyage and the other grandson, Temple, also kept one, though his was very brief.25 Franklin made only sporadic entries in his own journal, but his literary output exceeded that of all the others on board. Intending originally to bring his autobiography up to date during this voyage,26 he launched forth instead on some "Maritime Observations" that had been shifting about in his mind for some time.27 He discussed some of his ideas with Captain Truxtun, and the Captain's future was the richer for it. Franklin pointed out that sailors could sometimes profit from the advice of landsmen since it was certain that the first vessel ever built was the invention of a landsman. The echo of his words rang down through the years. "It was a Landsman who first invented a Ship," wrote Captain Truxtun twenty years later.28 Franklin talked over an idea he had for a collapsible sea anchor, to keep a vessel's head up into the wind when lying to; and when the Captain arrived in Philadelphia, he had one built for his ship.29
Franklin went on to list in some detail the things that a passenger about to embark on a long voyage should consider. The choice of captains was important, he said, "as you must for so long a time be confined to his company, and under his direction." A sociable, good-natured captain would make for a happy voyage but if he were only "skilful, careful, watchful, and active in the conduct of his ship," then excuse the rest, for these were the essentials.30 Temple's judgment of the Captain of the London Packet seemed to fit the requirements p57laid down by his grandfather. "It would be impossible for anyone," he said, "to be more careful or forehanded."31
Whatever image one may have of a frugal, sparing Poor Richard, it will be quickly destroyed by the instructions he wrote regarding personal stores, to be carried in addition to those provided in the ship. "It is good," he said, "to have some particular things in your own possession, so as to be always at your own command. 1. Good water, that of the ship being often bad. . . . 2. Good tea. 3. Coffee ground. 4. Chocolate. 5. Wine of the sort you particularly like, and cider. . . ." and so on, through "11. Jamaica spirits. 12. Eggs, greas'd. 13. Diet bread. 14. Portable soup. 15. Rusks." Even if the ship's provisions were good enough to make some of these unnecessary, Franklin pointed out that "there are frequently in the ship poorer passengers, who are taken at a lower price, lodge in the steerage, and have no claim to any of the cabin provisions, or to any but those kinds that are allowed the sailors." He continued, "These people are sometimes dejected, sometimes sick; there may be women and children among them. In a situation where there is no going to market to purchase such necessaries, a few of your superfluities, distributed occasionally, may be of great service, restore health, save life, make the miserable happy, and thereby afford you infinite pleasure."32 The steerage passengers in the London Packet were fortunate to have the good Doctor Franklin aboard.
When Franklin's nautical budget was exhausted in an essay of some ten thousand words, he launched into another ten thousand words on the cause and cure of smoky chimneys; and the world was the loser because he never quite got around to his autobiography. Meanwhile, his shipmates continued to plunge thermometers into the sea and into bottles and kegs of water brought up from the bottom, in order to learn more about the waters, tides, and currents.33
Half way across the Atlantic, the London Packet sailed into a furious squall. Captain Truxtun furled his sails as the wind increased until at last he was scudding under a single rag of canvas. When the squall was at its height this last sail carried away with a terrible crash, so loud that young Ben Bache thought surely the ship must have lost a mast. The ship rolled and pitched, dipping her main yard normally •fifty feet aloft, into the mountainous seas. Sculptor Houdon and young Ben stayed out on deck all through the storm "enjoying the beauty of this scene." The seas boiled into the staterooms, and p58the passengers spent the next day repairing and drying their damaged effects. When the squall had passed, Captain Truxtun told his passengers what every merchant master says, what even Charon must tell the dead souls as he ferries them across the Styx, that he "had never seen anything equal to it."34
After six and a half weeks at sea, the London Packet made her landfall some distance south of the Delaware capes, and on the evening of September 11, 1785, a pilot clambered aboard. Early on the morning of the 13th, the ship entered the bay, and by sunset of the same day she was abreast of New Castle; the pilot pressed on up the river by moonlight as long as the tide and the wind held out and then came to anchor.35
"With the flood in the morning," Franklin wrote in his journal, "came a light breeze, which brought us above Gloucester Point, in full view of dear Philadelphia!" The little city, basking in the sunshine of this warm September morning, was busily preparing a welcome for its most illustrious citizen. The old man could see row on row of three-story red brick houses, rising beside the river and marching inland for half a dozen blocks. If he looked sharp, he could just see the tiny spire on top of the State House, where he had labored so long and so well. He could pick out his church, the old Christ Church, whose steeple towered high above the whole city. In a little while his long journey would be at an end. At long last he was home.
All the vessels in the river were decked out with flags and pennants, and houses in the city were decorated with the flags of all nations. Cannon were discharged and bells everywhere rang out a joyous peal of welcome.36 A great concourse of people had gathered to welcome him as he was rowed ashore at the Market Street wharf. Grandson Temple, swept along in the press of the crowd, told a friend, "I cried for joy all through the streets and my tears were doubled when I saw I was not the only one thus moved."37
In his unassuming way, Franklin described his welcome. "We were received by a crowd of people," he wrote, "with huzzas, and accompanied with acclamations quite to my door. Found my family well."
"God be praised and thanked for all his mercies."38
This voyage was more than merely another event in the life of the young shipmaster. His whole future was affected in some degree by this encounter with the world-renowned statesman and philosopher. p59He added to his mental storehouse many facts and ideas during the six weeks at sea. More importantly, however, his intellectual curiosity was whetted by his observation of the many and varied activities of Doctor Franklin. Henceforth, the Captain seldom failed to study any work he could lay his hands upon that would increase his knowledge and understanding of the ways of the sea and of vessels that swam on its surface.
1 Benjamin Franklin, Writings, A. H. Smyth, ed. (New York, 1905‑1907), IX, 364.
2 Ibid., IX, 181.
3 Ibid., IX, 327.
4 I. Minis Hays, Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society (Philadelphia, 1908), III, 260‑61, 266; IV, 142.
5 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 360.
6 Ibid., IX, 371.
7 Charles F. Jenkins, "Franklin Returns from France — 1785," Amer. Philosophical Soc., Proceedings, XCII (1948), 417‑32, p420 cited.
8 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, September 16, 1785.
9 Jenkins, op. cit., p427.
10 Ibid., p430.
11 APS: Franklin-Bache Papers, Diary of Benjamin Franklin Bache, July 27, 1785, referred to hereinafter as Bache Diary.
12 Jenkins, op. cit., p423.
13 Franklin, op. cit., X, 458‑59.
14 Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin (New York, 1938), pp723‑74; Franklin, op. cit., X, 459; Jenkins, op. cit., p423.
15 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 346.
16 Jenkins, op. cit., p431.
17 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 370.
18 Bache Diary, July 24, 1785.
19 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 369.
20 APS: Franklin Papers, vol. 38, fol. 162.
21 Ibid., vol. 38, fol. 163.
22 Bache Diary, July 27, 28, 1785.
23 Franklin, op. cit., X, 461.
25 APS: Franklin Papers, Journal of William Temple Franklin.
26 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 371.
27 Ibid., IX, 372‑406.
28 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, March 17, 1806.
29 HSPa: Joshua Humphreys Account Books (1784‑1813), V, November 24, 1785.
30 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 400‑401.
31 Jenkins, op. cit., p430.
32 Franklin, op. cit., IX, 402.
33 Ibid., IX, 413 ff.
34 Bache Diary, August 23, 24, 1785.
35 Franklin, op. cit., X, 471. For evidence of moonlight, see HSPa: Christopher Marshall's Diary (1783‑91), September 13, 1785.
36 Connecticut Courant, Hartford, September 26, 1785.
37 Jenkins, op. cit., p430.
38 Franklin, op. cit., X, 471.
Images with borders lead to more information.
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
Page updated: 14 Jun 13