Benjamin Franklin’s desperate mission in 1776 took him through the North Country

While traveling last week, I was reading about the battle at Saratoga, one of the fabled turning points in our War of Independence.

In the early going of the account, I stumbled across the tale of Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic mission from New York City to Montreal in the early spring of 1776.

Franklin, who at age 70 was already an elderly gentleman and no longer in the best of health, traveled up the Hudson River, venturing by degrees into what we now know as the North Country.

“We had a heavy snow here yesterday and the waters are so out, as to make traveling difficult by land,” Franklin wrote from Saratoga on April 13th.

“There is a strong fresh in the river against the boats, but we shall endeavor to get on as well as we can.”

It must have struck his eye as a howling wilderness indeed, mountainous, war-wracked, and choked with mud and ice.

Just two months before he was tasked with helping to write the Declaration of Independence, Franklin traveled by bateau across the waters of Lake George.

With a small delegation from the Continental Congress, Franklin then camped rough along the primitive shore of Lake Champlain.

He dispatched a second letter, suggesting that the journey might be arduous enough to end his life:

“I am here on my way to Canada, detained by the present state of the lakes, in which the unthawed ice obstructs navigation,” he recounted mournfully.

“I begin to apprehend that I have undertaken a fatigue that at my time of life may prove too much for me, so I sit down to write to a few friends by way of farewell.”

We think these days of our Founding Fathers as statesmen and visionaries; and in their words, they tried to convey not only the rightness but the inevitability of their cause.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” they declared, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But the account of Franklin’s desperate journey through the shadows of the Adirondack and Green Mountains is a reminder of just how hardscrabble their effort was.  Victory was anything but self-evident.

In his tone, you can hear some of the bleakness of the hour.  In 1776, the early war was going terribly.  The decision to invade Canada and besiege Quebec City was unraveling, with horrendous losses.

Franklin was hoping to mitigate the damage by winning support from French-speaking subjects of the British Crown. The diplomatic mission failed abjectly, a rare case of his legendary charm falling on deaf ears.

His delegation eventually dispatched a letter to Congress, warning that the Canadians had begun to view the American revolution “as bankrupt and their cause as desperate.”

With the northern front in peril, efforts to secure New York City were also collapsing, with George Washington’s dwindling army faced by growing British and Hessian forces.

It seemed that soon the Colonies would be neatly divided, with King George’s armies and navy controlling the crucial water highway and portages between Montreal and New York.

In those dangerous months, Ticonderoga and Crown Point weren’t proudly defended American outposts.  They were refugee encampments, occupied by wrecked and disease-ravaged soldiers.

So on this 4th of July, it’s worth remembering that by the time Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, he knew in his bones what the fight for freedom would mean. It would be long and harrowing.

He had learned on that cold pilgrimage through the North Country that the patriots would have to be willing to put everything on the line.  Their comfort, their security, their lives.

That’s a tough choice for any  man to make, but for a gentleman of seventy years to join such a cause was remarkable.

This was the vision and courage of 1776.

To see past the mud and ice and the early defeats, to grasp that a Republic of free people, ruled with the consent of the governed, would be worth every sacrifice.

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49 Comments on “Benjamin Franklin’s desperate mission in 1776 took him through the North Country”

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  1. Ben was a remarkable man by any standard. His (and Thomas Jefferson’s) observations of weather set the foundations for modern meteorology. He was philosopher, scientist, author, publisher and diplomat all rolled into one. Today the press would hound and discredit him for his infidelity to his wife. I sometimes wonder how much greatness we miss in people to day because we are so enthralled with their faults.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Maybe if we could see that sin is what makes us human and binds us together, we would be more forgiving of each others faults including our own.
    They tried to form a more perfect union, knowing that the union would never be perfect.
    Happy July 4!

  3. Kathy says:

    Brian, thank-you for this article. It is rich with sacredness as I think about what it was like in those days. I have such honor for the men who conceived this nation with such sacrifice.

    A few thoughts if I may:

    Our statesmen engaged in fervent discussions and heated debates held in sweltering meeting places, wrestling over the grueling decisions for America’s birth, and Ben Franklin was one who often settled those debates with his words that I am certain brought a hush in those meetings. Over the years, others have continued with courage and conviction to forge America’s path into the future as they centered themselves on her foundation, despite the changes that must come along with progress.

    We can never have a perfect union. But I think the major differences we have in this nation is how we interpret and/or revere the “sacredness” of the Constitution.

    Some of us see it as living. Some of us do not.

    Our society has evolved. While I understand progress and change, I find that I am always looking for the foundation for assurance in my thinking. We owe it to Ben Franklin and others to look at the whole picture of how our statesmen were thinking in those days – and it’s right under our noses, bringing more understanding.

    Yet, many dismiss it despite the evidence. They pick and choose. And since our society has evolved into removing God from the picture (in the name of the separation of church and state, even though Jefferson meant the state would not interfere with the church; not the other way around – otherwise, why all of what I wrote below is all over our nation’s capitol?).

    Etched in granite, the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address trumpets from the heart of our nation, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    At the very top of the aluminum capstone on the Washington Monument, the Latin phrase “Laus Deo”, meaning “Praise to God”, cries out to its citizens to remember.

    Excerpts from the scripture line the stairway that leads to the monument’s great height: “Holiness to the Lord” (Exodus 28), “Search the Scriptures”(John 5:39), and “The Memory of the just is blessed”(Proverbs 10:7).

    On the rolling hillside of Arlington Cemetery, lay the remains of those who saw something beyond themselves; generations who gave their lives to preserve our nation’s God-given freedom. Continual vigilance is given hourly as the guard watches over the tomb – “in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

    This nation is a nation conceived with faith pulsating through the veins of its existence. In order to remove God from every aspect of our lives in the name of political correctness, we would have to remove the inscriptions on every building in our nation’s capitol.

    How can we erase this evidence? Yet, many have dismissed it in the name of progress. I will never understand how to validate this position since even in the physical realm, a foundation must be secure in order for any building to stand.

    As long as we cannot agree with what is factual, as long as those who do not want God a part of their lives make their demands (and we let them), I cannot help but wonder if our nation will stand. Not because of what I believe – but what is obvious in our nation’s capitol and in the hearts and minds of our Founders.

    I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? – B. Franklin

  4. Alan says:

    Find a copy of the recently released book “Conquered into Liberty” that focuses on all the battles in the Champlain Valley between various forces who were north and South:

    Interesting discussion that includes the surprise of 1776 that the 14th colony (Quebec) was not interested, the 15th (Nova Scotia) was the seat of rejection and that another (Vermont) was tepid at best and even seen as a problem by the other new states.

    Interest stuff but, in any event, happy 4th from a subject of the Crown to your west here in Kingston!


  5. Brian Mann says:

    Alan – the review looks fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Brian, NCPR

  6. mervel says:

    I think it is fascinating that he did so remarkably much in so many different fields, from politics to the sciences. Also traveling at 70 through the Adirondacks in 1776, must have been interesting.

  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Kathy, when it comes to the Constitution I choose life. Who could possibly want a dead Constitution? Surely not Franklin.

  8. Larry says:

    I think your religious interpretation of the Constitution is somewhat overdone. No doubt many of the Founding Fathers were men of deep personal faith but many of them were slave owners as well. One can only wonder what Jesus would have said about that!

  9. Kathy says:

    Larry, I was pointing out 2 positions regarding the Constitution. They are not my interpretations. They are “the” interpretations: living or originalism.

    I also took the liberty to set the tone of the day with the soberness in which the Founders laid the foundation. Again, not my interpretation. It speaks for itself.

    Interesting how the subject of slave ownership continues to be brought up to nullify the sincerity of deep, personal faith – as if that is the only criteria Jesus would use to disqualify someone as a Christian.

  10. Kathy says:

    KHL, if I were to interpret what Franklin would want, I think I would look at everything he said and stood for; including the quote I cited.

  11. mervel says:

    I always think of these guys because of the artistic representations as slightly fat and out of shape. But that could not be true of Franklin, here he is at 70 basically bush whacking 300 miles north.

  12. mervel says:

    Think of what the North Country was like in 1776.

  13. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think the subject of slave ownership comes up in any discussion of the Constitution to illustrate that the Founding Fathers didn’t always get it right, that many of them hoped for a different Constitution, but that they compromised in order to get something done. Something they could fix as need occurred, or that succeeding generations could revise or re-interpret.

    Franklin in particular seemed like the kind of guy who was constantly editing, changing his way of looking at things as new ideas or information came his way.

    We certainly could learn a thing or two about how to compromise and reach consensus from those him.

  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Franklin would have edited me above.

  15. Kathy says:

    KHL, what I like about Franklin is his humility; willingness to admit he doesn’t trust himself. Reading some of his quotes – he wasn’t 100% regarding the Constitution. He recognized the need for God’s assistance, revealing his view of the frailty of mankind. That is the part many leave out regarding America’s future. That is the part that is so easily dismissed today.

    A fascinating statement Franklin made:

    We assemble parliaments and councils, to have the benefit of their collected wisdom; but we necessarily have, at the same time, the inconvenience of their collected passions, prejudices, and private interests. By the help of these, artful men overpower their wisdom, and dupe its possessors; and if we may judge by the acts, arrets, and edicts, all the world over, for regulating commerce, an assembly of great men is the greatest fool upon earth.

  16. Kathy says:

    Think of what the North Country was like in 1776.

    Mervel, I am gripped with the thought of it and Franklin’s trek at 70 years old.

    I feel so passionate about preserving what he and men like him endured and sacrificed. It seems so trite to banter about politics (a-hem, apart from acknowledging God’s aid) as we sit in the comfort of our homes with our computers giving us access to everyone’s talking points, analysis, and opinions. It seems shameful in contrast to Franklin, et al. Sure, we are not conceiving a new nation. But we better darn be active in preserving it.

  17. Larry says:

    Stop already with the disingenuous religiosity. It may be a matter of faith with you to see the guiding hand of a Christian god behind everything but everyone does not share that thought. You think there’s only one way to look at things? Hardly. As for slavery, perhaps you would rather I didn’t mention it. I guess it kind of screws with the Jesus-centered cosmology you prefer.

  18. Kathy says:

    Larry, must be you don’t like the religious inscriptions all over Washington.

  19. Larry says:

    I neither like nor dislike them. What I do dislike is the idea that Jesus-focused conservative Christianity is the be-all and end-all. The Christian god Jesus is not the answer to every question.

  20. mervel says:

    From a religious stand point we are pretty interesting. I think it is good that people have always come here for religious freedom, from the pilgrims to the Amish to Catholics. This is not a bad thing. The structure for Religious liberty to thrive was really put down by Franklin and the others, part of that though was not establishing a state religion.

    Anyway although his mission failed to Quebec, in the end the French did come to our aid.

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m with Larry on this one.

    Mervel, don’t forget the Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists, B’hais, Hindus, Parsees, Wiccans, pagans, etc

  22. mervel says:

    I was mainly speaking from an early historical context which was uniformly based in European Christianity and enlightenment Deism. We are a County founded in large part by European Christians; that is our history and I think the inscriptions Kathy is speaking about and so forth are a reflection of European Christianity at that time. There is nothing wrong with that and there is no need to whitewash our Christian cultural roots. But there is no need to say they were totally dominant either or that the process of becoming a nation founded on individual liberty as an ideal; would not recognize that you must have individual religious liberty that would welcome Muslims as much as Christians, or for that matter welcome atheists.

  23. Kathy says:

    Mervel, I agree with you. I don’t believe the Founders were limiting American citizens to one religion.

    My take is not to make the United States a Christian nation. It is to acknowledge its beginnings since far too many wish to dismiss or remove God. If you want to practice Buddhism, Wicca, etc., you are free to do so in our country – but don’t try to rewrite American History or demand equality because of your religion beliefs.

  24. Kathy says:

    One can only wonder what Jesus would have said about that!

    I guess it kind of screws with the Jesus-centered cosmology you prefer.

    Larry, you’re the only one who is bringing up Jesus in all of this. I did not mention Jesus at all.

    You assume things about me that are not accurate.

  25. mervel says:

    Did he travel with a security contingent? I wonder how many went with him?

  26. Walker says:

    “I think it is good that people have always come here for religious freedom, from the pilgrims to the Amish to Catholics.”

    Well let’s not gloss over reality completely: the pilgrims came here to establish their own theocracy– they had no interest in anyone else’s religious freedom, just their own. And Catholics suffered fairly intense prejudice up through the mid 20th century. And then there’s Father Coughlin. I could go on…

  27. mervel says:

    They came here because it was better than where they were from and for many because there was less religious persecution here than they faced before. The glossing over would be to claim that Christianity played no role culturally in our founding and development.

    But you make a good point, there were a good many of the first people here who would have liked to form a theocracy. So its kind of hard to say that religion was not playing a major role in our development, for good and for bad.

  28. mervel says:

    CORRECTION: First Europeans here.

  29. Larry says:

    You introduced Jesus into the conversation. I made a few comments in response to that. I am not assuming anything about you, just responding to your comments.

  30. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted with satisfaction that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.” George Washington suggested a way for Muslims to “obtain proper relief” from a proposed Virginia bill, laying taxes to support Christian worship. On another occasion, the first president declared that he would welcome “Mohometans” to Mount Vernon if they were “good workmen” (see page 96). Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians,” a point that Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons resoundingly affirmed in 1810.

  31. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “…but don’t try to rewrite American History or demand equality because of your religion beliefs.”

    What???? I think that the current thinking is that we are ALL equal, regardless of ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual preference, or even hair color.

  32. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    My 6:37 post is an excerpt from the website listed and should have been clearly marked as such.

  33. Larry says:

    “…don’t try to rewrite American History or demand equality because of your religion beliefs.”

    I take it back: I’m going to go right ahead and make an assumption about you based on that statement. I can hardly wait for your reply….

  34. mervel says:

    When Ben Franklin was camping along Lake Champlain, did he use an REI tent? I mean how did they sleep? Did he travel with a bunch of porters who carried those big heavy tents with wood poles?

  35. Kathy says:

    I was trying to make the point that non-Christians have demanded God be removed. It is our heritage. Why should we allow it? In their demand for equality as an American (based on the Constitution) – it is wrong for them to push to remove God from our history.

    I wasn’t suggesting they are not equal.

  36. Kathy says:

    … or push to remove God presently.

  37. Larry says:

    You are wrong on so many levels it is hard to know where to start. You say you didn’t mention Jesus, but you go on about Christians. How do you separate one from the other? This is exactly the kind of disingenuous nonsense I objected to earlier.

    Unfortunately for you, all Americans are equal, and no matter what you say you meant, you implied that non Christians were not. They are equal and do not have to demand the rights we all enjoy. They are free to interpret American history as they please, as are you.

    Personal belief is just that: personal. You should not try to impose your views on others and you can’t do so by presenting your view of things as objective fact. Using the words “In God We Trust” does not mean we started out as a “Christian” nation, and even if it did, it doesn’t mean we have to be one now. We started out as a slave owning country and have thankfully evolved from that position.

    The religious right in the US is no better than Islamist fundamentalists or any other group of religious extremists. It saddens me that they have hijacked conservatism. I hope everyone understands that all conservatives are not religious fanatics.

  38. Kathy says:

    Larry, our country is seriously divided. My inclination is to go back to the beginning to bring clarity and understanding.

    Because I’ve read and learned of the tireless and heated debates as our nation was being formed, along with learning of Franklin’s trek to Canada at age 70, I offered my “personal belief” that we all do the same – look back. The same procedure we would use if our computer has problems or our vehicle breaks down. We try this or that until we work our way back to the beginning to fix the problem.

    Read Franklin’s appeal for prayer at the Constitutional Convention; 1787:

    I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

    I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.

    Here we see the elder statesmen cutting through the division of clashing interests as men pursued their goals for our nation. Prayer. Acknowledging the need for God’s guidance, assistance, and blessing.

    So I take issue with anyone who denies it is needed today. If we respect the leadership of Benjamin Franklin, I think we need to look at the whole picture of what made him the man he was. And it’s not limited to Franklin alone. Other statesmen of the day were men of faith and sought God’s guidance.

    Furthermore, it saddensme, Larry, that all you can do is lash out with unfounded accusations towards me. I thought I was clear in stating that Americans are equal. I did not imply non-Christians were not. I flat out said that non-Christians wish to remove God from our country (currency, the pledge, etc) because they demand their religion (or lack thereof) be recognized. All are free to worship here. They are not free to use “all men are created equal” as the means to erase our heritage because they are offended with Christianity.

  39. mervel says:

    “We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel”

    Well what do you expect; the guy was a some sort of religious fanatic.

  40. mervel says:

    That sounds like something the Taliban would say.

  41. Brian Mann says:

    All – Please take it down a notch and be more nuanced. Read what the other correspondents really say before formulating your response.

    One thing that’s certain is that the Founding Fathers found ways to talk across stark and vast differences, in their religious sensibilities among other things.

    I know it’s a high bar, but emulate their approach to the degree possible.

    –Brian, NCPR

  42. mervel says:

    Hey I wanted to talk about tents, but these guys keep bringing up religion.

  43. Larry says:

    “If you want to practice Buddhism, Wicca, etc., you are free to do so in our country – but don’t try to rewrite American History or demand equality because of your religion beliefs.”

    What you wrote is quoted – verbatim – above. As I read the English language it implies that Buddhists, Wiccans, etc., are not equal nor should they demand equality. Please clarify if you meant something other than what you wrote.

    Franklin’s appeal for prayer notwithstanding, there is nothing in our history to suggest that Christianity is or should be the official religion of the US. As we continue to evolve as a nation it is entirely possible that someday a majority of our citizens may be non-christians. Non-christians have made important and integral contributions to our nation’s history throughout and that should be recognized and celebrated as much as the contribution of the christians.

  44. mervel says:

    I think that was the whole point, there would be no “official” religion. Those guys had all been through that already. If you are anti-Christian you should actually really hope Christianity would become the official government sponsored state religion, this is the most effective way known to destroy and pervert the faith.

  45. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Jeezum crow Kathy! I don’t see any evidence that Christianity is under any serious attack. As far as I can tell you can hold any religious belief you want and nobody cares. The last church I know of that was purposely burned down in the North Country was lit on fire by a Christian in Pottersville.

    I even say “Merry Christmas” to people and “Happy Easter” and I’m an atheist. Get over your persecution complex.

  46. mervel says:

    Knuckle, no we Christians are not persecuted. I mean look at these other countries, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, China, there you will see true persecution of Christians going on right now today.

    I think there is a general divide as Kathy mentioned and frankly its pretty big culturally. I also think there is this effort on both sides of this divide to try to either claim the US was not Christian at all or to claim that the US was totally Christian in its founding. Neither of course is totally true.

  47. Kathy says:

    I have no further comments.

  48. Larry says:

    You should read Will Doolittle’s column in today’s Post Star. He very eloquently summed up the benefits of diversity and inclusion. No, we are not all Christians and we are better off because we aren’t.

  49. mervel says:

    I do think it is important for us not to ignore actual history though. Franklin held Christian beliefs and believed that God was directing and guiding the formation of this country. But others did not hold this belief and MOST agreed that there should not be on official brand of religion that the government took on.

    But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that somehow Christian belief and thought did not heavily influence our formation as a country. I think the Reformation also greatly played into our ideas of individual liberty etc. I think trying to pretend it did not is more about modern politics than it is history.

    But no today we are a diverse country and the founders were VERY wise and I think as a Christian I am very glad that they had the foresight to not force government into our Churches and religions.

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