J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Letter of Recommendation for the Baron de Steuben

Yesterday I started to analyze evidence about Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s sexuality. In sum, I think that evidence strongly suggests he was gay, but it’s not nearly as definite as popular articles have recently claimed.

I’m drawing from the draft of an essay I started years ago, somewhat abashed that I’m pulling it off my hard drive in response to a cartoon. Nevertheless, here’s the second installment of replies to claims in that cartoon.

“Franklin knew about Von Steuben’s past, but still decided to write a letter of recommendation to George Washington.”

There’s no evidence Benjamin Franklin knew about the allegations of child-molesting or homosexuality against Steuben in the principality of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. That statement rests on the assumptions that (a) that gossip reached Paris by September 1777, and (b) Franklin heard it. But actual evidence would be some document showing that Franklin knew more facts than he let on.

In fact, the evidence we have suggests Franklin knew less. Here’s the letter that he and his fellow envoy  Silas Deane sent to Gen. George Washington on 4 Sept 1777, recommending Steuben for a role in the Continental Army. The diplomats wrote:
The Gentleman who will have the Honour of waiting upon you with this Letter is the Baron de Steuben, lately a Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service, whom he attended in all his Campaigns, being his Aide Camp, Quartermaster General, &c. He goes to America with a true Zeal for our Cause, and a View of engaging in it and rendring it all the Service in his Power.
Steuben had never been “a Lieutenant General in the King of Prussia’s Service” or a “Quartermaster General.” He had indeed been an aide de camp to Frederick the Great for a while, but his highest Prussian army rank was captain. He’d been working in the civil government of a small German state since 1764.

I have to add that there’s nothing in Steuben’s European career to suggest he had “a true Zeal” for America or republican government, unlike some other Old World officers offering their services. He had personal reasons, both legal and financial, for sailing thousands of miles from home.

Where did Franklin and Deane get their information about Steuben? They dropped the names of two French high officials: “Mr Le Comte de Vergennes,” the foreign minister and spymaster, and “Mr Le Comte de St Germain,” the minister of war. St. Germain especially admired the Prussian military, and his attempts to reform the French army along those lines ran into such opposition that he resigned later that September.

But most of the American diplomats’ information probably came from Steuben himself. And he was a habitual liar. In John Macauley Palmer’s 1937 biography there’s an index entry for “Steuben…, his fictitous autobiography, 2-5, 53, 85-6, 103-108, 305, 407.” And those pages don’t even include all of his false claims to have become become a lieutenant general in Europe (e.g., 97, 138).

Palmer viewed Steuben as indispensable to American independence, and he didn’t want to believe that his hero lied as he offered his services to the young nation. In fact, when Palmer considered that possibility early in his research, he was ready to set aside the project. He wrote:
My first reaction upon discovering that my hero was a systematic, circumstantial and deliberate liar, was one both of disgust and disappointment. I was disposed to proceed no further with my book. Here was, indeed, a golden opportunity for a debunker or a muckraker, but that sensational role made no appeal to me. 
But eventually Palmer came up with a way to explain the discrepancy between the baron’s actual résumé and what Franklin and Deane wrote about him: Franklin came up with the lie. 

This approach depended on Franklin’s status in American culture and memory. We accept him as a trickster. From his teen-aged essays as “Silence Dogood” to his false supplement for a Boston newspaper printed at Passy and how we remember the oil in his cane, we enjoy stories of Franklin fooling people. We don’t tell such stories about Washington, Adams, or Hamilton, and Jefferson’s duplicity still gets people angry.

In the case of Steuben, Palmer decided that the baron didn’t make any false claims about his career to Franklin (who was supposedly too smart to fall for such lies, anyhow). Instead, Franklin was so smart that he made up those falsehoods himself. He recognized how useful Baron de Steuben would be near the top of the Continental Army. Therefore, he ensured that Gen. Washington and the Continental Congress would treat this newcomer as a man of invaluable experience who deserved top rank by harmlessly—even helpfully—inflating his Prussian credentials.

As for the hapless Silas Deane, Palmer blamed him for falsely claiming to have seen documents to confirm the baron’s credentials—a deception that, unlike Franklin’s, he couldn’t forgive. Palmer didn’t present the simpler possibility that Steuben had fooled Deane. The baron appears to have flashed papers and described their contents at his first meeting with the American envoys, but never handed them over; at the second meeting he said that, alas, he had left those documents behind.

Thus, Palmer rejected the evidence that Baron de Steuben was gay and argued that he was—if only at this crucial moment—honest about his past. Many later authors who accept that Steuben was gay have adopted Palmer’s conclusion that he was also honest. But if there’s one thing we can say for sure about the baron, it’s that he told a lot of lies about himself.

The simplest explanation for the glowing recommendation that Franklin and Deane sent to Gen. Washington is that they actually believed what Steuben had told them about his brilliant career. And the simplest explanation for why Franklin didn’t write anything about the baron being gay is not that he covered up that fact but that the baron didn’t tell him.

TOMORROW: Gen. Steuben in the Continental Army.


G. Lovely said...

I've gotta be honest, I never knew the Ben Franklin oil / cane story, and doubted that the oil on water trick even worked. It's a bad day when you don't learn anything new, and today I learned two things, somthank you. Check out:


J. L. Bell said...

I first read about Franklin and his cane when I was a kid chewing up books about old magic tricks. It was presented (complete with line drawing) as Franklin making a few passes over a lake and still the waves as if by magic when he was really just dispensing oil from his cane.

When I looked up sources for that story as part of writing this post, I didn’t find anything to suggest Franklin tried to fool people that way. As written, he could simply have been a crank telling strangers, “Look what happens when I spill oil onto a lake! I happen to have some oil right here…”