Benjamin Franklin’s sword — A symbol of friendship, democracy and progress

Arms & Armour specialist Howard Dixon, and two descendants of the man to whom Franklin presented his sword, discuss this remarkable emblem of friendship between nations

This court sword is a testament to the diplomatic, scientific and intellectual achievements of America's foremost statesman, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). After representing his country's interests in London during the events leading up to 1776, Franklin secured military and financial support from the French government for the American Revolution. His was a victory as great as any fought in combat, since the struggle for American independence depended greatly upon French intervention.

During his nine years in France Franklin also won over the hearts and minds of the French people; one of these was Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), a young student of medicine and philosophy. Despite a 50-year age gap, Cabanis and Franklin were kindred spirits. 

Both men of the Enlightenment, they shared a love of scientific study (Cabanis was a member of the prestigious Académie Française, where this film was shot, and Franklin was a foreign associate) as well as a broader interest in humanism, morality and liberty. 'Franklin was very much the father figure that Cabanis looked up to,' confirms Howard Dixon, Christie's specialist in Arms & Armour.

The Benjamin Franklin silver-hilted small-sword. Possible Spanish, circa 1760. The locket (upper scabbard mount) bearing a silver maker’s mark of SS in a rectangle, determined to be that of Samuel Soumaine (1718-circa 1769) of Annapolis, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The sword 33½ in (85 cm) blade; 40⅜ in (102.5 cm) overall. The case 42⅝ in (108.3 cm) long.

The Benjamin Franklin silver-hilted small-sword. Possible Spanish, circa 1760. The locket (upper scabbard mount) bearing a silver maker’s mark of SS in a rectangle, determined to be that of Samuel Soumaine (1718-circa 1769) of Annapolis, Maryland and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The sword: 33½ in (85 cm) blade; 40⅜ in (102.5 cm) overall. The case: 42⅝ in (108.3 cm) long. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. This lot is offered in the Fine American Furniture, Silver, Outsider and Folk Art sale on 20 September at Christie's New York

The two developed a deep friendship and before departing back to America in 1785, Franklin gave this sword to Cabanis. 'To be given this great symbol would have been a very important moment for the younger man,' Dixon says. 

Cabanis went on to encompass both politics and science in his career — a physician and physiologist, he became a member of the Council of Five Hundred and later the Senate. After abandoning politics during the rule of Napoleon, he wrote a groundbreaking study on the links between physiology and psychology that saw him hailed as the pioneer of modern neurology. 

Until the present sale, the sword has been in the possession of Cabanis's direct descendants. 'The sword is a symbol between two countries, two ideals — both of democracy and progress,' says Emmanuel de Lipkowski, one of the present owners of the sword and a descendant of Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis.

With its scabbard locket bearing the silversmith’s mark of Samuel Soumaine (1718-circa 1769), Franklin’s neighbour in Philadelphia, the sword can be assuredly determined as having belonged to Franklin. The mark on the scabbard, an SS in a rectangle, is virtually identical to that on several pieces attributed to Soumaine, who lived close to Franklin’s house at 325 Market Street in Philadelphia. 


‘Although ceremonial swords were generally required in court, Franklin pointedly eschewed a sword, a wig and any formal attire’

In the late 1750s and 1760s, Franklin twice served in London as an agent of various colonial assemblies. From 1757 to 1762 he represented the Pennsylvania Assembly, and from late 1764 to 1775 he represented Pennsylvania as well as Massachusetts, Georgia and New Jersey.

When Franklin next visited Europe, he did so as an American patriot whose country had recently declared itself independent of Britain and its monarch. After securing French military support with the signing of the Treaty of Amity, Franklin and the other commissioners were officially received by Louis XVI in March 1778. Although ceremonial swords were generally required in court and porters were even on hand to lend such items to visitors, Franklin pointedly eschewed a sword, a wig and any formal attire. 

Nevertheless Franklin would have been acutely aware of the significance of swords as gifts — they could represent official recognition of services performed, but when a sword was owned by the gift bearer, its offering betokened a more personal connection.