A clandestine meeting that could have ended the American Revolution
Notre Dame Cathedral’s place in European history is clear, but it also very nearly played a key role in ending the American Revolution early.
In 1778, a mysterious stranger who called himself “Charles de Weissenstein” wrote to Benjamin Franklin about arranging a secret rendezvous inside Notre Dame to start a process that could secure an early end to the war between the United States and England.
The stranger identified himself as an Englishman who shared Franklin’s desire “to put a stop to the desolation of America, and to prevent the baneful effects of that storm which threatens to deluge the whole world with blood.” He acknowledged that the vastness of the United States made it harder for England to win the war, but also said they would never give up:
“Our title to the empire is indisputable, and will be asserted either by ourselves, or successors whenever occasion presents. We may stop a while in our pursuit to recover breath, but shall assuredly resume our career again.”
The first step to ending the war, Weissenstein said, was to determine the “preliminaries” – America’s requirements for negotiating peace. He instructed Franklin, then the U.S. minister to France living in Paris, to write down his wish list and
“carry them yourself to the Cathedral Church of Notre Dame between the hours of twelve at noon and one; either on Monday the 6th of July instant, or on Thursday the ninth. If the Iron Gates on either side of the Choir are open, you will enter, and there find a gentleman who has no idea of the nature of his commission, so do not give him any suspicions by taking extraordinary notice of him. He looks upon it as an intrigue, and has promised to convey the packet he finds to me, and to conceal my real name, whatever extraordinary circumstances may happen; and I am quite certain I can trust him, even tho he discovers what he has been employed about.
You will ascertain my friend by his having a paper in his hand as if drawing or taking notes; on any ones coming near him, he will either haddle it up precipitately, or folding it up, tear it with an appearance of peevishness, and walk away. At that very altar where he stood, place your packet within reach, or if there is nobody else near throw it on the ground, and walk away instantly. Don’t, if you can avoid it, let even him see it is you that bring it, much less any body else; as soon as he sees the coast is clear, he will return to look for the packet.”
“If the Iron Gates above mentioned happen to be shut, you will find him in the aisle of the right hand on going in, on the same side (if I mistake not) where the huge statue of St. Christopher is. For your more certain guidance, I have desired him to stick a rose, either in his hat, which he will hold in his hand up to his face, or else in the buttonhole of his waistcoat, either of which will be remarkable enough, with the other circumstances.”
Weissenstein said he believed he could share Franklin’s proposals directly with the King without having to go through the normal ministers.
Franklin was having none of it. He drafted a response that included the following:
“You would have me give them to or drop them for a stranger I may find next Monday in the Church of Notre Dame, to be known by a rose in his hat. You, yourself, Sir, are quite unknown to me; you have not trusted me with your true name. Our taking the least step towards a treaty with England thro’ you, might if you are an enemy, be made use of to ruin us with our new and good friends.”
Acknowledging his reputation, Franklin wrote,
“I may be indiscreet enough in many things: But certainly if I were dispos’d to make propositions (which I cannot do, having none committed to me to make) I should never think of delivering them to the Lord knows who, to be carried to Lord knows where, to serve no-one knows what Purpose.”
The idea that Franklin could become an actor in such public espionage was ludicrous to him. This was world-famous scientist, author, and diplomat Benjamin Franklin – this wasn’t some special episode of a 1980s sitcom where the family visits Europe and gets embroiled in wacky cloak and dagger hijinks. This was delicate international politics, and there were rules. Besides – nobody would look more out of place at Notre Dame than Franklin.
“Being at this time one of the most remarkable figures in Paris,” he wrote,
“even my appearance in the Church of Notre Dame where I cannot have any conceivable business; and especially being seen to leave, or drop, or deliver any letter to any person there, would be a matter of some speculation, and might from the suspicions it must naturally give, have very mischievous consequences to our credit here. The very proposing a correspondence so to be managed, in a manner not necessary where fair-dealing is intended, gives just reason to suppose you intend the contrary.”
Franklin wrote this response but decided not to send it after conferring with John Adams. I’m betting that discussing what to do about this was one of the most interesting things Franklin and Adams had to deal with together in France, and maybe the most heated discussion they had since sharing a bed.
Instead of meeting this spy, they shared his letter with the authorities. Franklin didn’t go to the secret meeting, but Parisian police did.
John Adams recorded what happened next:
“The day after the one appointed to meet the messenger at Notre Dame the Count De Vergennes sent us the report of the police of Paris, stating that at the day, hour and place appointed a gentleman appeared and finding nobody wandered about the church gazing at the statues and pictures and other curiosities of that magnificent cathedral, never losing sight however of the spot appointed and often returning to it, looking earnestly about at times as if he expected somebody: His person, stature, figure, air, complexion, dress and everything about him was accurately and minutely described. He remained two hours in the church and then went out, was followed through every street and all his motions watched to the hotel where he lodged.”
Parisian police determined he was a former captain in King George’s guard. It is unknown whether he was the “Charles de Weissenstein” who wrote the letter, and the author’s true identity has never been determined.
Franklin suspected that the source of the letter was ultimately King George himself, but this has never been proven. Even if it was coming directly from the King, Franklin knew better than to engage in a secret back channel with the enemy that could ultimately backfire and sabotage their revolutionary efforts.
Adams speculated about the author’s true intent. “Whether the design was to seduce us commissioners, or whether it was thought that we should send the project to Congress and that they might be tempted by it, or that disputes might be excited among the people, I know not. In either case it was very weak and absurd and betrayed a gross ignorance of the genius of American people.”
“To Benjamin Franklin from “Charles de Weissenstein,” 16 June 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives
“From Benjamin Franklin to [“Charles de Weissenstein”], 1 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives
“[July 9. 1778.],” Autobiography of John Adams, Founders Online, National Archives
I enjoyed the intrigue and the dialogue back and forth about Ambassador Franklin’s dealings with the French.
Thank you! Part of me really wishes Franklin and Adams had gone to Notre Dame to make the drop. The scene plays out in my head like a hodgepodge of Dan Brown, James Bond, Merchant Ivory, and Laurel & Hardy.