Lieutenant Colonel David Salisbury Franks (1740-1793) was born in 1740 to a Jewish merchant family in Philadelphia with Sephardic roots.
The Franks family found themselves living in Quebec as hostilities between the Colonists and British monarchy began taking shape. The young David Franks was already a very active member of the community; in addition to running his own business, he served as the president of the ten-year-old Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal, which would eventually become known as the oldest Jewish congregation in Canada.
In 1774, the Quebec Act was issued by the British Parliament. While it acknowledged the rights of Catholics to practice their faith, it failed to acknowledge the civic rights of Jews. Franks denounced King George III, and after an altercation over the defacement of a statue of the king, he was arrested, being held in a jail in Montreal for over a week. This incident created a simmering family feud: Franks identified with the Patriots, while his father and an uncle—who shared his name—were staunch Loyalists.
When Franks joined the war effort, General George Washington appointed him as paymaster at the American garrison in Montreal. Franks was well suited for this role and sometimes used his own funds to pay his soldiers. When American troops left Montreal, Franks went with them, joining the Continental Army in Albany, New York. Later he enlisted as a volunteer in the Massachusetts Regiment before moving on to serve in the Navy at sea, ultimately landing a coveted position in Major General Benedict Arnold’s garrison, serving directly under Arnold as his aide-de-camp.
Arnold was arrested on September 23, 1780 for his attempt to surrender West Point to the British. As one of Arnold’s closest aides, then-Major Franks was arrested by the Patriots along with a second aide-de-camp, Colonel Richard Varick. Given their excellent reputations, the arrest was a formality and they were quickly freed. However, some questioned their loyalty, and the two men were so appalled that their characters had been called into question that they insisted on having their belongings searched and that they undergo a full inquiry. They were cleared in the two subsequent courts martial and the charges were dropped. But when that didn’t stop rumors from spreading, they insisted on having another trial that would fully investigate their actions.
In preparation for their second trial, Franks and Varick wrote to Washington asking for his assistance in clearing their names. In response, Washington sent the court a personal letter that spoke favorably of the defendants, writing, “I have the greatest reason to believe [Varick and Franks] were not privy in the least degree to the measures [Arnold] was carrying on to his escape.” Even Arnold himself tried to defend Franks and Varick by sending a letter from his safe haven aboard a British ship of war, but that obviously didn’t help much; if anything, it made things worse.
The trial itself proceeded in an unusual way: The two men were charged with interrogating each other, a responsibility they accepted in a grave and thorough manner. The inquiries ended in a complete exoneration. The court declared that Franks’ “conduct was not only unimpeachable but… did him great honor as an officer… and sincere friend to his country.”
As the Revolutionary War ended, Franks left his military position to work as a high-level diplomat for the United States, negotiating peace and trade agreements as well as carrying diplomatic packages across England, the Netherlands, Spain, France, and Morocco, with correspondences held with the luminaries of the time, including Thomas Jefferson, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.
Despite his exoneration, Franks continued to face scrutiny and questions about his loyalty, which ultimately cost him his diplomatic position. He went back to the United States, discouraged and penniless. Rather than give up, he continued to fight for his reputation.
Fortunately, Franks could count on Washington’s trust. In exchange for his service to the Patriot cause, Congress gave Franks 400 acres of land. It seems that his Jewish identity was not an issue. In all surviving letters and documents about Franks, there is no mention of any founding father taking issue with Franks’ religion. They simply considered him a loyal Patriot.
Lt Col Franks’ final position was working as an assistant cashier at the Bank of the United States. He died in Philadelphia in 1793 during a yellow fever epidemic that took the lives of 5,000 people.
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.