U.S. Businessman Falsely Accused of Treason Is Born

Jewish businessman David Franks in pre-revolutionary Philadelphia was a patriot - but all his relatives were loyalists.

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Christ Church, Philadelphia, where David Franks is believed to have been buried.
Christ Church, Philadelphia, where David Franks is believed to have been buried.Credit: PVSBond

September 23, 1720, is the birthday of David Franks, a well-off Jewish businessman in pre-Revolutionary Philadelphia, who found himself accused during the War of Independence of treason against the newly declared country that he had done so much to serve.

David Franks was the youngest son of the English-born Jacob Levy and the former Bilhah Abigail Levy. As a young man, David moved to Philadelphia, where he began to work as a shipping agent, fur trader and land speculator. He married Margaret Evans (1720-1780), a non-Jewish woman, and although it is known that he agreed that she would be free to practice her Christian faith and to raise their children as Christians, it is also known that he continued to be an active member of Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel synagogue – and according to his biographer Mark Abbott Stern, he also paid dues to New York’s She’arith Israel Congregation, in which he had grown up.

Franks served briefly in the Pennsylvania provincial legislature, and during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) – the American theater of what turned into the Seven Years’ War between the United Kingdom and France – he was a supplier of goods to the respective armies of the mid-Atlantic colonies, fighting on the side of the British crown. Much of what he imported he bought from his brother Moses, who lived in London. In 1765, Franks was a signatory to the Non-Importation Agreements, in which colonial merchants agreed to boycott goods from England until certain political rights were recognized.

During the War of Independence, Franks held the less-than-enviable position of deputy commissary responsible for supplying British prisoners-of-war with provisions and supplies. This duty could only be carried out with the knowledge and cooperation of the Continental authorities, but it sparked resentment on all sides: His threadbare fellow Americans didn’t like to see the King’s prisoners being better fed or clothed than their own forces; the British weren’t anxious to transfer money into his hands, especially as he was permitted to accept payment only in gold or silver.

Biographer Stern says that Franks had the misfortune to be an American patriot nearly all of whose relations were loyalists. In 1778, William Hamilton, the brother of Franks’ son-in-law, was tried and found not guilty of treason in a Pennsylvania court. David Franks, writing to his brother Moses back in England of the acquittal, added his belief that “it appears an ill-natured prosecution.” He sent the letter, which also made reference to food shortages among American forces, by way of the British forces with whom he had dealings.

A short time later, Franks was arrested and charged with being a loyalist and a security threat. Both Stern and historian Fritz Hirschfeld believe that Franks was pursued on trumped-up charges, and was, in Stern’s words, a victim of “radical [Continental] revolutionaries, who sought scapegoats for their own mismanagement of the government.”

Franks was found not guilty, but was relieved of his assignment as commissary, and found himself holding large numbers of assets that he could not convert into cash. He moved back to England for several years, but in 1793 returned to Philadelphia, where he became a victim of that year’s yellow fever epidemic, and he died that October. His nephew David Salisbury Franks, who was aide-de-camp to General Benedict Arnold and was arrested on treason charges at the same time as Arnold – though quickly exonerated – also died that same year, also of yellow fever, also in Philadelphia.

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