England would not permit the Colonies to unite and defend themselves, preferring to send English troops instead. When General Braddock and two English regiments landed in Virginia, the Pennsylvania Assembly sent Franklin, as Postmaster General, to confer with Braddock about sending dispatches and to tactfully change the General’s reported prejudice against the Quaker province. Franklin was able to reverse the General’s attitudes by telling him what the Assembly was willing to do for the army. He contrasted the number of wagons, horses, and drivers available in Pennsylvania with the 25 wagons of poor quality that the General’s scouting parties were able to find in Virginia and Maryland. Volunteering to procure these necessary items for the army, Franklin offered such terms as 15 shillings per day for a wagon, horses, and a driver, full compensation for any loss, and a guarantee that no driver would be conscripted into the army. He then wrote a long, public letter urging farmers to voluntarily provide the wagons for good pay, rather than have the army seize them by force. In two weeks he provided Braddock with 150 wagons, plus horses and drivers. And after Franklin’s urging, the Pennsylvania Assembly also sent extra supplies and horses as gifts for young subalterns who had been unable to afford proper gear.
Franklin used 200 pounds of his own money for advance payments, trusting the army; but the farmers, claiming that they knew Franklin and not Braddock, demanded Franklin’s personal bond for everything promised them. Franklin’s services were so gratefully received that he was asked to take charge of sending the army necessary supplies. He agreed, again using his own money, for which he was never completely repaid.
Braddock drastically underestimated both the Americans and the Indians. Thus he ignored Franklin’s warnings about probable Indian ambushes, thinking of war only in terms of besieging a fort. His army advancing on Fort Duquesne was slaughtered, and those escaping death fled, spreading panic among the troops left to follow behind. The remnants of the army rested, in fact, only after they arrived in Philadelphia, where the citizens could protect them. Franklin felt that “this whole Transaction gave us Americans the first Suspicion that our exalted Ideas of the Prowess of British Regulars had not been well founded.” In contrast to the French, who had marched from Rhode Island to Virginia in 1781 without disturbing any property, the British also plundered farms, ruining many poor families. Braddock was mortally wounded in the expedition, lingered several days before dying, but said only two things: “Who’d have thought it,” and “We shall better know how to deal with them another time.”
Since Braddock’s mission was so disastrous, his high recommendations of Franklin’s services went unnoticed. Franklin had asked only one personal reward for his work: Braddock’s promise to stop enlisting colonial indentured servants in the army, and the discharge of those already taken. Braddock agreed, but his successor refused even this request.
In their hasty retreat, Braddock’s men left their wagons and supplies to the enemy. Franklin’s personal bond covered material worth 20,000 pounds; to pay would have ruined him. A few farmers sued him, but finally General Shirley authorized the proper payments. And indeed, Franklin had had some inkling of what might happen to Braddock, for he had refused to contribute to a fund for buying fireworks to celebrate Braddock’s presumed victory.
Governor Morris had continually asked for taxes to cover the Colony’s defense, but had been refused because he wanted the Proprietors’ estates exempted. After Braddock’s defeat, the colonists’ English allies objected to this meanness. The Proprietors therefore offered to contribute 5,000 pounds to whatever sum was raised through taxes. The Assembly accepted this compromise and appointed Franklin to help oversee spending the defense budget. Franklin also persuaded them to pass a bill supporting a volunteer militia.
While the military companies were forming, Franklin agreed to direct defenses for the northwestern frontier by raising troops and building a line of forts. He easily assembled troops at Bethlehem, to march to the proposed fort sites. To his surprise, he found Bethlehem well fortified, for he had understood the Moravians who lived there were conscientious objectors to violence.
Franklin divided the troops at Bethlehem into three units, each of which was responsible for building a fort. He then went with the middle group to Gnadenhut, a Moravian village destroyed by Indians, where their first job was to bury the dead. On the march, the January rain made their guns useless; in fact, a group of farmers whom Franklin had armed were massacred at this time because their guns wouldn’t fire. But though the rain prevented their working every other day, Franklin’s Moravians built a rudimentary fort of 455 feet in a week: with their remarkable industry, they could fell a 14-inch-wide tree in six minutes.
Franklin observed that the men were happy when working and quarrelsome when idle. But a chaplain accompanying the group was also unhappy because of poor attendance at his services. Franklin solved his problems, however, by suggesting that he dispense the day’s rum directly after prayers. Thereafter everyone came to hear the sermon, and Franklin felt the solution much more satisfactory than compulsory worship.
Franklin’s hindsight after the Revolution — which he fervently supported — probably made him unfairly severe in describing the British resistance to colonial self-protection. Under any circumstances, the Colonies would have had to rely on extensive English help to withstand French and Indian attacks. And the comparison of English marauders to well-disciplined French troops also suggests the attitudes of the elderly Franklin rather than those he would have held in 1755. After all, Franklin had recently been the object of near idolatry during his last eight-year stay in France. Understandably, he felt warmer toward the French when he wrote in 1787 than he probably had 32 years earlier.