This Day in Jewish History, 1780

Jewish Colonel Not Involved in Benedict Arnold's Treason, Court Rules

George Washington, and Arnold himself, wrote to the court exonerating David S. Franks, who thus shook off treason charges - again.

Davepape, Wikimedia Commons

On November 2, 1780, Colonel David S. Franks was found not guilty by a Continental American military court of any collusion in the treason carried out by his superior officer, General Benedict Arnold. Arnold was the brilliant but ruthless commander of the West Point, New York, fortress during the American War of Independence, whose plot to turn the strategic post over to the British army was uncovered and foiled in September of that year.

David Salisbury Franks was born in colonial Philadelphia, probably in 1740, and was part of the large and prosperous Jewish Franks clan that peopled the Northeast colonies. (He is not to be confused with his cousin, businessman David Franks, also from Philadelphia, and who also escaped conviction on charges of being a British loyalist.)

David’s paternal grandfather, Jacob Franks, had arrived in North America from Germany in 1705. David’s father, Abraham, was a Philadelphia merchant, although he moved with his family to Montreal, Quebec, in 1774. David, who had been educated at Benjamin Franklin’s Academy and College of Philadelphia (forerunner to the University of Pennsylvania), joined the family in its move to Montreal, where he too was a merchant, and where he served as leader of the city’s Shearith Israel synagogue.

Accused of treason, first time

In 1775, Franks was accused of treason against the British crown after defending a man who had painted a slanderous graffiti on a bust of King George III in Montreal.

When a monarchist in the crowd that had gathered around the sculpture declared that the defacer deserved to be hung, Franks argued that insulting the king was not a capital offense, and got into a fight with him. The fistfight led to Franks’ arrest, and to his adversary accusing him of treason against the king. In the end, Franks was imprisoned for 16 days.

After his release, Franks joined the Continental Army and took on the important position of paymaster of its garrison in Montreal. After a failed 1775 attempt by the revolutionary army to conquer the city from the British, Franks left Quebec and returned to his native Philadelphia.

After a period of service as liaison to the French naval forces fighting with the Americans, Franks was made a major. He was and assigned to be aide-de-camp to Benedict Arnold, then governor of Philadelphia, the capital at the time.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration,Wikimedia

In July 1780, when Arnold was reassigned to West Point, New York, Franks accompanied him.

For all his military prowess, Arnold was quite unpopular for his high-handed ways. Feeling wronged by his treatment, he began negotiating with the British to switch sides in the war. But Arnold’s correspondence with British spy chief Major John Andre was captured, and his plot to surrender West Point was exposed. However, he managed to join up with the British before he could be arrested, and spent the remainder of the war fighting for England.

Put me on trial!

Though an initial trial on charges of assisting Arnold led to Franks’ acquittal -- thanks in part to letters from American commander in chief George Washington and, amazingly, one from Arnold himself – Franks demanded a full investigation and court martial.

General Washington agreed to Franks’ request, and on November 2, a court sitting in West Point acquitted him of all charges.

Franks’ next mission was to carry official documents to American officials in Europe – specifically to John Jay, who was in Madrid attempting to enlist Spanish support, and Benjamin Franklin, to whom he brought a copy of the peace treaty ending the war. Later, Franks was appointed U.S. vice-consul in Marseille, and helped negotiate a treaty between the U.S. and the North African monarchs whose forces were attacking American vessels.

On his return to the United States, in 1789, Franks was given a 400-acre land grant in recognition of his service, and was appointed assistant cashier at the Bank of the United States. Nevertheless, his tendency over the years to cover his official expenses with his own outlays left him with limited resources. When he died of yellow fever at age 53, in Philadelphia in 1793, his estate did not have the funds for a proper burial. A Gentile neighbor, the blacksmith Joseph Thompson, rescued his corpse from a pauper’s burial and arranged for his interment in the graveyard of Christ Church.