Benjamin Franklin Hires a Pirate

Benjamin Franklin

While in France during the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin sought help for the American prisoners in England. In this effort, help came from an unusual source.

Despite his busy schedule and numerous responsibilities, Benjamin Franklin efforts in France not only aided in America’s fight for independence, but also helped gain the release of many American prisoners in England. Benjamin Franklin’s determination to help the American prisoners was strong and unwavering. He arranged for money and supplies to be provided to the Americans held in the two prisons in England, the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth and Forton Prison in Portsmouth.

Benjamin Franklin Discovers That Americans Can’t Hold British Prisoners in France

After his arrival in France, Dr. Franklin soon learned that it was normal practice to release the English prisoners brought into France, sometimes furnishing a ship to take them back to England. So while the English were holding hundreds of American prisoners in English prisons and prison ships, Americans were being forced to release their prisoners by the French government.

Some of the prisoners in England were able to escape, and Dr. Franklin had assistance ready to help them reach safety in France. This wasn’t enough as far as Dr. Franklin was concerned. He wanted all the American prisoners released. In order to hold prisoners in France, Dr. Franklin had to convince the French government to allow it. Then the next problem was to find a way to capture more prisoners for trading purposes.

In Ireland, Luke Ryan is Having Problems of His Own

Far away, in Ireland, 25 year old Luke Ryan was already a rebel against England. As a smuggler, Luke Ryan was an active participant in Ireland’s current discontent with England. After recently escaping from jail and stealing their cutter back from the government that had confiscated it, however, Luke Ryan and his crew had switched their classification from smugglers to pirates. If caught by the British again, they would now hang.

Luke Ryan Heads to France, Looking for Help from Benjamin Franklin

Luke Ryan’s creative solution was to join the Americans in their revolution. With an American commission, they would be privateers, not pirates. Captain Ryan figured that if they were caught as privateers, they would be considered prisoners of war and thereby avoid the hangman’s noose. So they sailed to France in search of Dr. Benjamin Franklin and his commission which would name them American privateers.

The Treaty of Alliance Opens a Door

Meanwhile, Dr. Franklin signed the Treaty of Alliance with France on February 6, 1778. The Treaty of Alliance made France and America allies in their fight against England and allowed the Americans to hold their prisoners in French ports. Now that he could hold prisoners for an exchange, it wasn’t long before Dr. Franklin had an agreement from Britain to exchange prisoners. All he had to do was capture more prisoners.

How to Hide a Pirate from an American Ambassador

After renaming the cutter the Black Prince to cover up its origins, Captain Ryan allowed Mr. Marchant, an American, to carry the title of captain. He called himself second captain, but it was still his crew. Dr. Franklin, needing more English prisoners, signed the commission. So the Black Prince set sail from Dunkirk as an American privateer on June 12, 1779, It was the first Irish privateer vessel commissioned by an American in France.

Benjamin Franklin’s Privateers Deliver Havoc but Not Many Prisoners

Before Benjamin Franklin’s adventure in privateering was over, he commissioned three Irish-captained vessels to patrol the Irish Sea and English Channel. With his own fleet of vessels, he hoped to bring in more prisoners for a prisoner exchange with the British. Although his small fleet failed to bring in as many prisoners as he wanted, they terrorized the shipping lines and caused havoc in the British waters.


  1. Clark, William Bell, Ben Franklin’s Privateers, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1956.
  2. Morley, Vincent, Irish Opinion and the American Revolution, 1760-1783, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press,2002.
  3. Morris, Charles V., ed. Admiral Franklin? Yes, Admiral Franklin, New York: Privately Printed, 1975.
  4. Wilbur, Keith C., M.D., Pirates and Patriots of the Revolution, Old Saybrook, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1984.