No Guns, No Glory: The Race to Arm America


If it hadn’t been for weapons and ammunition bought by clandestine channels in Europe and the West Indies, the American Revolution would have failed. As early as October 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Social gathering, Britain banned the importation of weapons to the American colonies. A brisk contraband commerce instantly sprang up, centered on the Dutch-controlled island of St. Eustatius within the Caribbean. Basic Thomas Gage, the commander in chief of British forces in North America, warned the prime minister, Lord North, that the colonists, as well as, have been “sending to Europe for all types of Navy Shops.”

In New England, an independence motion had step by step received sympathy, particularly amongst retailers who had been buffeted for a decade by ever-harsher British commerce restrictions and taxes. Males who had for many years constructed legit industrial networks doing enterprise everywhere in the world now turned arms retailers, channeling their experience into what the British condemned as smuggling.

In 1774, after Parliament closed the port of Boston in retaliation for the Tea Social gathering, Connecticut’s Basic Meeting commissioned two new impartial firms of militia, every recruited, outfitted, and bankrolled by rich ship house owners. Jonathan Trumbull, the royal governor and a number one importer, had higher allegiance to his enterprise than to the king who had appointed him: He anonymously drafted resolutions ordering all cities to double their arsenals of powder, balls, and flint. Connecticut additionally mustered six new regiments of militia, greater than 6,000 males in a colony of 100,000 residents. The colony’s meeting, dominated by retailers, dispatched quick ships to the Caribbean to purchase weapons and gunpowder and ordered all militia to coach for 12 days, double the conventional time period of service, paying them six shillings a day, twice the wages of a talented artisan.

Within the spring of 1775, when he returned from London after a decade as lobbyist for Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin was appointed a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and chairman of Pennsylvania’s Committee of Security. Franklin wrote to a pal in Britain’s Parliament of discovering “the graduation of a civil warfare with all ranks of individuals in arms, disciplining themselves morning and night.” Twice in earlier colonial wars with France, Franklin had armed and arranged the protection of the Quaker colony towards France and its allies. Franklin properly knew that no cannons have been produced in Pennsylvania. He instantly opened secret negotiations with British, Dutch, and French retailers for shipments of munitions by their colonies within the Caribbean. 

Clockwise from prime left: British employees fill, seal, and stack mortar bombs at London’s Woolwich arsenal; the Continental brig Andrew Doria receives a salute from the Dutch fort at St. Eustatius on November 16, 1776; Robert Morris, a rich Philadelphia service provider, would develop into generally known as “the financier of the Revolution.” (Clockwise from prime: Nationwide Maritime Museum, Greenwich; Naval Historical past and Heritage Command; Nationwide Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Establishment)

Although the governments of Europe’s monarchies prevented direct complicity with the rebellious Individuals, they seldom interfered with entrepreneurs concerned in contraband commerce. Dutch arms makers have been working their mills at full capability for the clandestine American market. In the summertime of 1775, Maryland’s Conference dispatched industrial brokers to Guadaloupe within the Caribbean to transship arms bought in Europe by small vessels.

In July 1775, a 12 months earlier than the vote on independence, the Second Continental Congress, in clear defiance of the British, resolved that any ship transporting munitions for “the continent” may load and export to France any produce—principally tobacco—in change for credit to pay for the weapons. Two weeks later, it appropriated $50,000 (roughly $1.3 million in 2021 {dollars}) for chosen retailers to purchase gunpowder for the Continental Military—at a 5 % fee.

Two months later, in September 1775, Congress created the Committee of Secret Correspondence, empowering its members—retailers John Alsop and Philip Livingston of New York Metropolis and Thomas Prepared and Robert Morris of Philadelphia—to attract on the Continental treasury to purchase one million rounds of gunpowder, 10,000 muskets, and 40 discipline items. Congress would step by step put Morris in command of the enterprise aspect of the warfare. At first, he capitalized on Prepared and Morris’s huge industrial community of contacts in nearly each British colony and in a lot of Europe. Morris’s actions have been solely recognized to a small interior circle of retailers, financiers, and members of Congress, although in time he would develop into recognized publicly as “the financier of the Revolution.” Morris defended his secret dealings in a letter to Connecticut service provider and Congressman Silas Deane: “It appears to me the chance of bettering our fortunes ought to not be misplaced, particularly because the very technique of doing it should contribute to the service of our nation on the identical time.”

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Inside days, Congress additionally created the Secret Committee on Commerce. Samuel Ward of Rhode Island, a service provider, chaired the committee. Alsop, Livingston, and Francis Lewis of New York joined Deane, Morris, and Franklin within the committee’s secret proceedings. Augmenting his and Prepared’s community, Morris selected 24-year-old William Bingham because the committee’s principal agent within the Caribbean. Bingham, the son of a distinguished Philadelphia service provider, owned a number of ships. Assigned to sail to Martinique, he was to pose as a personal service provider whereas cultivating diplomatic connections with the French authorities and to purchase 10,000 muskets for the Secret Committee on Commerce. He was additionally to buy a shipload of gunpowder underneath a personal contract between Prepared and Morris and the colony of Virginia and, as well as, to buy a cargo of linens and different French finery on Morris’s personal account. Morris warned Bingham that the danger of seize of those ships was excessive however so was the chance of nice revenue: “One arrival can pay for two or 3 or 4 losses.”

With a British naval blockade tightening, Morris envisioned a industrial windfall. “The shortage of products throughout this continent affords a positive alternative to non-public adventurers,” he wrote to an acquaintance in France. Foreseeing good-looking earnings for hard-to-get on a regular basis requirements, he ordered “woolens, linens, pins, needles, and many others. fitted to the consumption of this nation.”

By January 1776, Morris had emerged as America’s main capitalist when the Secret Committee on Commerce issued its largest contracts, requisitioning $300,000 (roughly $9 million as we speak) in funds to purchase arms, gunpowder, and material for uniforms, tents, and sails. Whereas the order was divided amongst eight contractors, Morris’s agency acquired totally half. When Samuel Ward died, Congress voted unanimously to nominate Morris chairman of the Secret Committee on Commerce. Requested his opinion of Morris, John Adams, a delegate to Congress from Massachusetts, confided, “He has huge designs within the mercantile method and little doubt pursues mercantile ends that are all the time acquire, however he is a superb member of our physique.”

Charleville Model 1763
Arsenals in France turned out giant numbers of muskets for the Continental Military. The Charleville Mannequin 1763 was the commonest, and shortly all French-made muskets have been known as “Charlevilles.” (Nationwide Museum of American Historical past, Smithsonian Establishment)

As its Treasury started to dry up, Congress voted to permit commerce with Caribbean islands. Quickly, cod, lumber, tobacco, indigo, and different items have been being exchanged for arms and ammunition, and brokers commissioned by Congress started to order and funnel provides from Europe and the West Indies to the Continental Military.By December 1775, a deputation from a number one delivery agency in Nantes, France, arrived on the headquarters of George Washington, in control of the Continental Military in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to make preparations to covertly provide his military with warfare matériel.

Individuals shipped tobacco to England; British manufactured items discovered their option to New England from Canada, by way of Nova Scotia. A loyalist service provider complained to British vice admiral Molyneux Schuldham that the majority American ports east of Boston acquired “each day arrivals from the West Indies, however most from Saint Eustatius; everybody brings kind of gunpowder.”

Abraham Van Bibber, Maryland’s agent within the Dutch free port, reported that whereas the Dutch authorities had imposed an embargo on promoting arms and ammunition to the Individuals to mollify the British, “the Dutch perceive fairly properly that the enforcement of the legal guidelines, that’s, the embargo, would imply the break of their commerce.” Statia, as St. Eustatius turned recognized, was the primary overseas port to salute the American flag. No surprise: Dutch retailers on the island have been promoting gunpowder to the Individuals at six occasions the going charge in Europe.

“Our need of powder is inconceivable,” Washington complained in December 1775.

By mid-1776, arms, ammunition, material, and quinine have been flowing by Louisiana into the Carolinas. Gunpowder smuggled in sugar hogsheads arrived in Charleston from Jamaica; from Bordeaux, 300 casks of powder and 5,000 muskets sailed for Philadelphia—on ships flying French colours—to be hauled overland to Boston. One wagon prepare was led by Benjamin Franklin himself.

Rejecting a petition from the largely mercantile Metropolis of London asking the king to outline the phrases of a simply and honorable peace earlier than unleashing the complete drive of British arms towards the colonists, George III in his annual Speech from the Throne opening Parliament in October 1775 mentioned he regretted the miseries his topics had “introduced upon themselves by an unjustifiable resistance to the constitutional authority of this Kingdom.” Till royal authority might be reestablished and the “now present insurrection is at an finish,” he added, “there could be no peace.”

For conservatives like rich Philadelphia service provider Robert Morris, who had been pushing aside a choice about independence, the king’s response “completely destroyed all hopes of reconciliation,” making “a declaration of Independency” all however inevitable.

However whilst Thomas Paine was calling for a warfare of independence in his bestselling pamphlet Widespread Sense, Washington remained gloomy concerning the prospect of equipping a military “with none cash in our treasury, powder in our magazines, arms in our shops…and by and by, when we will be referred to as upon to take the sector, shall not have a tent to lie in.”

Because the colonies girded for warfare, they might solely discover weapons in gun outlets, buying and selling homes, and personal properties—muskets, rifles, fowling items, pistols, blunderbusses, and so forth. Some volunteers had no firearms in any respect—simply pikes or swords. The few iron forges that existed have been in distant reaches of the colonies. Within the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, bathroom iron was was cannonballs; in Salisbury, Connecticut, a forge based by Ethan Allen to provide iron cauldrons for boiling potash was transformed to provide cannons.

Silas Deane
In 1776 Congress appointed Silas Deane of Connecticut to behave as its agent in procuring uniforms for the Continental Military in addition to “portions of arms and ammunition.” (Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum)

Connecticut additionally arrange a small musket manufacturing facility at Waterbury; Pennsylvania expanded its weapons trade, centered in Lancaster County and drawing on iron mines and foundries in Carlisle, Studying, and Warwick. Extra generally, gunsmiths labored alone or with one or two apprentices to make extremely individualistic weapons. They may manufacture, on common, just one gun a day. The U.S.-made gun value $12; a French musket, $6. At one level, Washington even thought of sending lots of of unarmed militiamen residence earlier than Congress determined to confiscate weapons from loyalists.

In his memoirs, Main Basic William Moultrie of South Carolina remembered with awe that the colonists dared resist British may “with out cash, with out arms, with out ammunition, no normal, no armies, no admirals and no fleets.”The residents of Charleston lacked weapons and ammunition till they broke into royal magazines and took some 1,000 muskets after which seized a British brig carrying 23,000 kilos of gunpowder. “The need of powder was a really severe consideration with us,” Moultrie wrote. “We knew there was none available upon the continent of America.” Certainly, there have been no powder mills working within the American colonies when the warfare began. Most, maybe even all, of the gunpowder in colonial powder magazines had been saved, untested, for the dozen years for the reason that French and Indian Warfare, which had led to 1763.

“Our need of powder is inconceivable,” Washington wrote on Christmas Day, 1775. At one level, no man on the 13-mile-long cordon of colonial troops round Boston had even an oz of gunpowder.

In Pennsylvania, Franklin marketed for weapons within the newspapers. The few cannons out there in New York Metropolis lined the parapets of Fort George on the Battery till college students at King’s Faculty (now Columbia College), led by 20-year-old Alexander Hamilton, dragged them away underneath fireplace from the British man-of-war Asia to arm the primary artillery firm of the Continental Military.

As Congress debated independence within the spring of 1776, Silas Deane, a member of its Secret Committee on Commerce, was crusing to France, posing as a Bermudian service provider. Congress’s main industrial agent, Deane, the Yale-educated son of a blacksmith, had amassed wealth by two marriages. Serving within the First Continental Congress, he had been defeated for reelection however determined to remain in Philadelphia to proceed working with Morris and the commerce committee. In Could 1776, Morris supported Deane’s appointment by Congress to behave as its industrial and diplomatic agent—America’s first diplomat—and, as historian John Ferling places it, “to discover the depth of France’s friendship for the American trigger.”

Franklin and Morris supplied Deane with lists of French contacts who may organize entry to Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, the French overseas minister. Deane ostensibly was to debate industrial ties with France, however his prime precedence was to obtain uniforms for a military of 25,000 males and, in keeping with his congressional fee, “portions of arms and ammunition,” together with 100 cannons. As well as, he agreed to behave as Morris’s industrial agent on the customary 5 % fee.

Mob tearing down King George III's Statue
On being learn the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a lot of George Washington’s troops joined a mob surging by Manhattan that may destroy the equestrian statue of King George III in Bowling Inexperienced. (New York Historic Society)

Franklin and Morris additionally instructed Deane to find out if, within the occasion the united colonies fashioned an impartial state, France would acknowledge them as such and type a army or industrial alliance—or each. Ever since France had misplaced Canada and far of the American West to Britain by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French overseas ministry had watched the creating radical motion within the British colonies with eager curiosity. 

Vergennes had already posted to London as an unofficial observer service provider Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, playwright of The Marriage of Figaro. On the residence of John Wilkes, the radically pro-American lord mayor, Beaumarchais was launched to Arthur Lee, youthful brother of Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to Congress from Virginia. The youthful Lee was finding out regulation and appearing as industrial agent for the Lee household’s intensive pursuits. He had additionally assisted Franklin’s colonial companies.

Beaumarchais knowledgeable Lee that on June 10, the French authorities had accredited a present of 1 million livres to assist the American revolutionaries. Beaumarchais was to handle the fund by organising a dummy mercantile home, Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie, to masks France’s participation. Underneath worldwide regulation, brazenly supplying contraband weapons to the rebellious Individuals was a transparent violation of French neutrality.

With King Louis XVI’s private approval, the French authorities adopted the pretext that it was excessive time to refit its weaponry. Declaring a lot of its arms and ships “outmoded,” it allowed designated retailers to take away munitions from royal arsenals for a nominal sum to assist the Individuals.

As Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, some 90 miles away, Washington’s inexperienced militia confronted the most important fleet and strongest military Britain had ever despatched from its shores. Washington had the Declaration learn aloud to his troops and ordered them again to their billets. As an alternative, many joined a mob surging by the streets. Reaching Bowling Inexperienced, on the tip of Manhattan, they vaulted the fence surrounding the 15-foot lead equestrian statue of King George III, looped ropes across the monument, and toppled it. One man sawed off the king’s head; the remainder was carted off to Litchfield, Connecticut, the place a small military of girls transformed it into 42,088 bullets.

He and Morris, Bingham wrote, had mastered “the artwork of uniting warfare and commerce.”

By December 1776, Deane was capable of inform Congress that he had dispatched some 200,000 kilos of gunpowder and 80,000 kilos of saltpeter from France to Martinique and 100,000 kilos of gunpowder from Amsterdam to Saint Eustatius for transshipment to the American mainland on smaller American vessels. By the top of the 12 months, congressional brokers have been working brazenly in all of the Dutch, Spanish, and French colonies within the West Indies and in European ports.

At each cease American retailers and their brokers, amongst them Morris and Deane, have been taking 5 % of the sale value of the munitions for themselves. These wartime commissions would mount into the tens of millions.

By December 1776 it had develop into clear that the Continental Congress wanted to take care of a extra formal diplomatic presence in France. After assembly secretly with a French agent in Philadelphia, the Committee on Secret Correspondence chosen Franklin to affix Deane in Paris. Arthur Lee was to cross the Channel from England to affix them to type the primary American diplomatic mission. Franklin took alongside his grandson, William Temple Franklin, as secretary, and his nephew, Jonathan Williams, to behave because the mission’s industrial agent. 

They joined Deane at Passy, a village overlooking Paris, taking over residence within the property of Jaques-Donatien le Rey de Chaumont, a authorities contractor, and kinsman of France’s prime minister. Franklin would dwell there for the following 9 years. Chaumont mentioned he would cost no lease however that Congress may present its appreciation by giving him an appropriate grant of land. 

Congress had legalized privateering in March 1775, solely three weeks after studying that the British deliberate a blockade of all American commerce. It was an necessary transfer by a fledgling authorities with no navy and no means to gather taxes. Congress granted buyers commissions to arm their ships—at their very own expense—and to boost crews of seamen, who have been assured shares within the proceeds of any enemy ship they captured intact. A captured ship was sailed to port and auctioned together with its cargo. Traders divided the booty with officers and crews in keeping with a method accredited by Congress, reserving a ten % reduce for the commander in chief to make use of for the wants of the military. 

So worthwhile was privateering for all fingers that the Continental Navy and the 11 state navies had issue recruiting crews. Many sailors abandoned Continental ships, lured away by the prospect of a share of the loot.

To get across the huge expense of constructing a large navy, Congress registered some 1,697 personal vessels. Of those, 600 carried letters of marque that served as commissions from Congress. As well as, brokers overseas equivalent to Franklin and Deane commissioned some 300 personal warships, bringing the full commerce-raiding vessels to 2,000. Fitted out, in all, with 18,000 weapons—most captured from British ships—this mercantile armada transported contraband arms and items from the Caribbean whereas trying to find profitable prize British merchantmen. In little greater than the primary 12 months of the warfare, in keeping with the registry stored in Lloyd’s Espresso Home in London, American privateers captured 733 British service provider vessels. By warfare’s finish they might seize greater than 500 vessels with cargoes collectively valued at an astonishing almost $10 billion in as we speak’s {dollars}.

On October 17, 1777, after his demoralizing loss to the Individuals on the Battle of Saratoga, British main normal John Burgoyne surrenders his remaining males and fingers his sword to Main Basic Horatio Gates. (United States Architect of the Capitol)

The proceeds would enrich a number of members of Congress, together with Robert Morris. At first, Morris abjured personally investing in privateering. He had too many pals in England to remove any of their property, he defined. However because the combating at sea intensified and the British took a number of of his service provider ships, he wrote to his associate, William Bingham, that “I conceive myself completely justifiable within the eyes of God and man to hunt what I’ve misplaced from those who have plundered me.” Morris joined Bingham as a silent associate in commissioning the Retaliation, which captured 13 prizes on its maiden voyage. “My scruples about privateering are all carried out away,” he wrote to Bingham. Collectively, Morris and Bingham, within the junior associate’s phrases, mastered “the artwork of uniting warfare and commerce.”

In Philadelphia, Morris’s hauls from the captured ships have been well-known. When François Jean de Beauvoir, the marquis de Chastellux, visited the town, he reported that Morris was “so accustomed to the success of his privateers that when he’s noticed on a Sunday to be extra severe than common, the conclusion is that no prize has arrived within the previous week.”

Nobody tallied Morris’s and Bingham’s earnings, however Morris had enlisted all of the members of his Secret Committee on Commerce community, sending their ships to Europe and the Caribbean and taking shares in different privateers’ cruises.

In France, with Chaumont as his backer, Deane fitted out privateers and offered prizes, and in England he organized a world buying and selling firm with Chaumont, Morris, and Thomas Walpole. Charles Prepared, Morris’s associate in Barbados, organized transshipment of European items to the American mainland. Morris’s associates in Philadelphia had brokers within the West Indies and in New Orleans. In an early instance of world capitalism, American retailers and their worldwide community of brokers broke the bonds of Britain’s historical mercantile system.

France’s maritime ministry appointed Chaumont, Franklin’s landlord, to take the helm of the clandestine privateering operation, permitting the American brokers to work with out rivals. No prizes might be offered with out his approval after which solely on his phrases. As buying brokers for Congress, Chaumont and Jonathan Williams, Franklin’s nephew, purchased items captured by privateers and, as prize brokers, offered the booty to their associates, together with Morris. Franklin would later attest that some transactions reaped earnings as excessive as 8,000 %.

Franklin inspired privateers to promote their captured ships in French ports, realizing that this was an act of illicit commerce that violated French neutrality and infuriated the British. When British officers complained, France promised to crack down, however the move of captured items continued. Historian Peter Andreas explains that privateers offloaded items onto French ships at sea and offered the ships they captured “simply past the harbor, thus technically exterior French waters.”

“England is extraordinarily exasperated on the favor our armed vessels have met with right here,” Franklin reported to Congress in September 1777. “To us, the French courtroom needs success to our trigger, winks on the provides we receive right here, privately affords us each important assist, and goes on making ready for warfare.”

That France was contemplating dropping its masks of neutrality and brazenly forming an alliance with the American revolutionaries was such a rigorously guarded secret that apparently even George Washington was unaware of it. As British armies attacked from Canada and the Chesapeake, he may discover little that was redeeming within the operations of retailers like Robert Morris.

Certainly, Washington was coming to suspect Morris of “engrossing”—the morally questionable follow of shopping for huge quantities of wheat and different scarce provides and speculating in them by holding onto them till costs rise. After a winter of close to hunger for his military at Valley Forge, Washington wrote to his former aide-de-camp, Joseph Reed, a number one radical Pennsylvania politician, that he was inclined to carry “these murderers of our trigger—the Monopolizers—forestallers—& engrossers—to condign punishment.” He bemoaned the failure of a number of states to “hunt them down because the pests of society, and the best enemies we’ve got to the happiness of America.”

Washington got here to detest what he referred to as the eagerness of Morris and different retailers to revenue from the warfare. Writing to his kinsman Brigadier Basic Andrew Lewis, Washington blamed “need of advantage,” which he “dreaded greater than the entire drive of Nice Britain.”

“Sure I’m, that, until extortion, forestalling and different practices which have crept in, and develop into exceedingly prevalent and injurious to the frequent trigger, can meet with correct checks, we should inevitably sink underneath such a load of gathered oppression,” Washington wrote. “To make and extort cash in each form that may be devised, and on the identical time to decry its worth, appears to have develop into a mere enterprise and an epidemical illness, calling for the interposition of each good man and physique of males.”

In the summertime of 1777, for the second time in lower than a 12 months, British expeditionary forces have been sweeping south from Canada. Sir John Burgoyne had retaken Fort Ticonderoga, the munitions base of the American northern military, and was slowly marching south to hyperlink up with a British military anticipated to assault north from New York Metropolis.

In mid-July, because the American military retreated, Main Basic Philip Schuyler wrote to Washington of the awful prospect of stopping the British, who had a military “flushed with victory, plentifully supplied with provisions, cannon and each warlike retailer” whereas the American military “is weak in numbers, dispirited, bare, in a way destitute of provisions, with out camp equipage, with little ammunition and never a single cannon.”

Schuyler apparently was unaware that, all by that spring, a French fleet, eluding the British blockade by
showing to sail for the Caribbean, was escorting eight provide ships bearing the fruits of Silas Deane’s clandestine dealings to ship weapons and ammunition, sneakers, blankets and stockings, tents, and instruments to the Continental Military.

Two of the French vessels, Amphitrite and Mercure, had arrived at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, their holds full of 20,000 muskets and 52 brass cannons, and convoys of oxen have been dragging them over the Berkshires.

When Burgoyne crossed the Hudson, he discovered the Individuals entrenched in elaborate defensive works and closely armed with French artillery. By this level, many of the Individuals’ arms at Saratoga have been state-of-the-art French weapons, which enabled the Individuals to battle the British invaders to a bloody standstill, with British casualties double the American toll.

After weeks of ready, Burgoyne realized that he may anticipate no assist from Sir William Howe, who had captured Philadelphia and determined to spend the winter there in consolation. Burgoyne, surrounded by Individuals outnumbering him now three to at least one, his retreat to Canada reduce off, surrendered. Whereas the battles of Saratoga have been received by troopers, their victory wouldn’t have been attainable with out the well timed arrival of the weapons and ammunition obtained from the French.

The lack of a complete military at Saratoga proved to be the turning level of the Revolutionary Warfare. The defeat of Burgoyne’s military was all that Benjamin Franklin in Paris wanted to persuade the French that, not solely would the Individuals stand and battle however, with the monetary and army assist of France, america may defeat Nice Britain and safe its independence.


Willard Sterne Randall, an award-winning journalist and historian and professor emeritus of historical past at Champlain Faculty, is the writer of 15 books, together with the forthcoming The Founders’ Fortunes: How Cash Formed the Delivery of America (Dutton, 2022), from which this text is customized.



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