David Salisbury Franks was a hero of the American Revolution. Ironically, because he was assigned as aide-de-camp to the traitorous Benedict Arnold, Franks’ reputation was tainted. Although cleared on all charges of complicity in Arnold’s efforts to surrender West Point to the British in 1780, Franks suffered from charges of disloyalty. Despite formal exoneration, Franks’ reputation never fully recovered. Unfortunately, his name is rarely included in the pantheon of first-rank Revolutionary heroes.
David S. Franks was born in Philadelphia around 1740 into a large and highly respected Jewish merchant family. As a young man, Franks’ father relocated his branch of the family to Quebec. In 1775, on the eve of the Revolution, David S. Franks was living in Montreal, serving in the distinguished position of parnas (president) of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in that city, though he was of German Jewish descent. According to the late historian Jacob Rader Marcus, because Franks publicly defended the right of a protester to compare King George III of England to the Pope and call him a fool, Franks was jailed and held for 16 days. The experience converted him to the colonists’ cause and, when the Continental Army invaded Quebec to "liberate" it from the British, Franks joined the revolutionaries. He was appointed paymaster of the Continental Army in Quebec and apparently expended his own funds to pay the salaries of the American volunteers.
When the American campaign faltered in Canada, Franks retreated to Philadelphia, reaching it in July 1776. He joined the Continental Army and served actively until October 1777. Because he spoke French, Franks was then assigned as liaison officer to the Comte d’Estaing, commander of the French naval forces fighting on the American side. Franks attained the rank of major and was assigned as aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold, the military governor of Philadelphia. Arnold alienated several of the city’s leading merchants and was given command of the strategic garrison at West Point, which controlled access to the upper reaches of the Hudson River.
When Arnold’s treason became known, Franks fell under suspicion of complicity. To make matters worse, David Salisbury Franks was probably confused with his uncle, David Franks of New York City, who remained a notorious Tory. The court martial dropped all charges against David Salisbury Franks on the ground that they were unfounded. Remarkably, Benedict Arnold himself wrote a letter from a British ship exonerating Franks. One can imagine, however, that a letter of support from the traitorous Arnold did little to restore Franks’ good name.
After Franks was returned to active duty, General George Washington had him assigned to his command. However, the other officers of Franks’ own regiment started a whispering campaign against him. Seeking to clear his name definitively, Franks asked General Washington to initiate another court-martial, one that would investigate—rather than simply drop—the scurrilous charges against him.
After a month-long investigation, the court issued a thorough report completely exonerating Franks. A promotion in rank immediately followed. Franks was entrusted by the State Department to carry highly secret documents to diplomats Benjamin Franklin in Paris and John Jay in Madrid. In 1783, Franks returned to Philadelphia but soon left for Paris to deliver to Franklin the official copy of the peace treaty that ended the war and granted American independence. According to his accounts, Franks often paid more of his expenses than his beloved young nation could afford to reimburse.
At the war’s end, Franks was made American vice-consul at Marseilles. In 1786, he was appointed to the American diplomatic team that negotiated a trade treaty between the United States and the potentates of Morocco. Yet, political opponents pursued David S. Franks. To a degree not comprehensible today, politics in the 1780s was a "blood sport" in which it was commonplace to attack opponents with accusations of vile moral corruption. Some political leaders pressured the Confederation government to remove him from the diplomatic corps, wrongly claiming he might have aided Benedict Arnold. In 1786, the attacks succeeded and Franks was dismissed from the diplomatic corps. He returned to the United States discredited and bankrupt.
Undaunted, Franks fought to restore his reputation. Several times, he petitioned President Washington for reappointment to the diplomatic service. Finally, in 1789, Congress granted Franks 400 acres of land in recognition of his service during the Revolutionary War and President Washington brought him back into the government. His last position was that of assistant cashier at the Bank of the United States in Philadelphia.
David Salisbury Franks died of yellow fever in October of 1793 at the age of 53. His fortune gone, a Christian neighbor rescued his corpse from the coroner’s wagon before it went to potter’s field. Franks today lies buried today in Philadelphia’s Christ Church Burial Yard, saved from the pauper’s fate but not among his fellow Jews.
Like so many other "minor" patriots, Franks’ name is not well known today. His courage, loyalty, and willingness to expend his personal fortune for the cause of independence, plus his dogged determination to clear his name, deserve remembrance. Had he not had the bad fortune to be assigned to serve under the infamous Benedict Arnold, that name might rank with that of Haym Salomon, Mordecai Sheftall, and Francis Salvador among the best-known Jewish patriots of the American Revolution.
Source: American Jewish Historical Society.