Wielded in the courts and among likeminded philosophers rather than on the battlefield, this small sword is a testament to America’s foremost statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) (fig. 2) and his unprecedented diplomatic, scientific and intellectual achievements. After fighting for 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 with the 1778 Treaty of Alliance. His was a victory as great as any fought in combat as American independence depended upon French intervention. Franklin’s biographer, the Yale historian Edmund S. Morgan has hailed Franklin’s negotiations as “the greatest diplomatic victory the United States has ever achieved.”1 In addition to this treaty, Franklin was a key figure and signatory to the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the United States Constitution in 1787 and stands as the only figure to have signed all of the most crucial documents relating to the founding of America. During his nine years in France, Franklin also won over the hearts and minds of the French people and one of these was Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808) (fig. 1), a young student of medicine and philosophy. Despite a fifty-year age gap, Cabanis and Franklin were true kindred spirits. Both men of the Enlightenment, they shared not only a love of scientific study but a broader interest humanism, morality and liberty. The two developed a deep friendship and before departing back to America in 1785, Franklin gave this sword to Cabanis. Until the present sale, the sword has been in the possession of Cabanis’ direct descendants and beginning with the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, long celebrated as a symbol of Franco-American amity.
With its scabbard locket bearing the silversmith’s mark of Samuel Soumaine (1718-circa 1769), Franklin’s neighbor in Philadelphia, the sword can be assuredly ascribed to Franklin’s ownership. The mark on the scabbard, an SS in a rectangle, is virtually identical to that on several pieces ascribed to Soumaine. Born in New York, Samuel probably trained with the City’s renowned silversmith Simeon Soumaine (circa 1685-1750) who was presumably one of his relations. In the early 1740s, the younger Soumaine moved to Annapolis and from 1754 to 1765 advertised in Philadelphia. There, he lived close to Franklin’s house at 325 Market Street between Third and Fourth Streets. Franklin referred to Soumaine as “one of my Good Friends and Neighbours” and surviving correspondence indicates that the two families were in frequent contact. In 1755, Franklin offered employment to Soumaine’s lodger and in 1762 Franklin and Soumaine were both involved with a debt owed by a printer in Jamaica. When Soumaine’s daughter, Elizabeth (Soumaine) Epsom, moved to England, Franklin wrote a letter of introduction and while Franklin himself was in London, his wife’s letters from 1765 to 1769 often remark upon the deteriorating health of the Soumaines.2
The presence of Soumaine’s mark indicates that the sword was in the silversmith’s shop and thus can be placed in Philadelphia in the 1750s or 1760s. The sword was most likely with Soumaine when both he and Franklin were in Philadelphia at the same time: Between 1754 and 1757, when Soumaine first advertised in Philadelphia and before Franklin departed for London or between 1762 and 1764, when Franklin arrived back from London only to return again two years later. The sword’s design is distinctive and seen on the shell-guard, knuckle-guard and scabbard locket are stylized motifs comprising a drum lying on its side, clusters of scroll-work and wing-like elements with inner borders and dots. These same details are seen on a Spanish sword in the Lattimer Family Collection with a blade marked “Toledo,” a center of sword-making in central Spain.3 Supporting a possible Spanish attribution is the absence of assay marks and the lack of any parallels in England, France and America. Soumaine may have imported the sword or its component parts and assembled them in his shop or Franklin may have otherwise obtained the sword in Philadelphia. Alternatively, it is possible that while in London between 1757 and 1762, Franklin purchased the sword or received it as a gift and then when he returned to Philadelphia, he had reason to place it in Soumaine’s shop for a minor repair or adjustment at which time the silversmith applied his mark to the scabbard. Confirming that the sword and scabbard are original to each other, metallurgical testing reveals that their composition of silver, copper and traces of lead and gold are consistent to each other and other examples of eighteenth-century silver.4 Furthermore, the decoration on the scabbard locket is en suite with the same scroll-work, drums and wing-like motifs. European small swords were fairly common in colonial America. Franklin also owned a French sword (fig. 4) and several of Washington’s swords were London-made, including a 1767 small sword now at Mount Vernon.5
In the late 1750s and 1760s, Franklin twice served in London as an agent of various colonial assemblies and during this time he may have worn the sword. 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. Samuel Soumaine probably died soon after October 1769 when Deborah Franklin noted that “poor Mr. Sumain has laid like one near his end,” her last mention of their neighbor. A 1767 portrait of Franklin in London shows him wearing an elegant blue coat with gilt buttons and gold braid, a wig and spectacles (fig. 3). Here, he is dressed for court and a sword such as the one offered here would have completed the ensemble. An evolution of the rapier, small swords or “dress” or “ceremonial” swords were standard accessories for a gentleman’s dress. In the same year, Franklin travelled to France where he was received by Louis XV in Versailles. From Paris, he wrote “I had not been here Six Days before my Taylor and Peruquier had transform’d me into a Frenchman” and noted that he wore a “bag wig,” which revealed the ears. Although not otherwise described, his dress was undoubtedly equally stylish and may also have included this sword.6 At this time, Franklin was still very much a loyal British subject and adhered to courtly customs. When he 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 Treat 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. Instead, he proudly wore his signature simple brown suit and distinctive glasses, symbols of his persona that had already endeared him to the French nation.7 However, on other official occasions during his nine year stay in France, Franklin probably did carry a sword as the French example in fig. 4 is said to have been worn at the French court.
Regardless of Franklin’s adherence to customs in his dress, the statesman would have been acutely aware of the significance of swords as gifts. On the one hand, they could represent official recognition of services performed, such as the sword commissioned by Franklin on behalf of the American Congress in 1778 and presented to the Marquis de Lafayette to commemorate his successes in battle during the early years of the Revolution. Seven years later, Congress employed the same Parisian fourbisseur to craft swords for ten other heroes of the War.8 However, when a sword was owned by the gift bearer, its offering signified a more personal connection. Among the gifts believed to have been exchanged between Washington and Lafayette, for example, was Lafayette’s French infantryman’s sword, which the Marquis is believed to have been given to Washington after his return from France in 1780.9
Just as Washington and Lafayette held each other in the highest esteem, Franklin and Cabanis formed a deep friendship based on professional admiration, likeminded political beliefs and great personal affection. They met in 1779 through Madame Helvétius (1722-1800) (fig. 5), a widow whose house in the Parisian suburb of Auteuil became a center for intellectuals such as Turgot, Condorcet, Voltaire and Diderot known as “L’Académie d’Auteuil.” At the time, Cabanis was a twenty-two year old student of medical philosophy living in an outbuilding on the property. He served as Mme. Helvétius’ secretary but became more like an adopted son and upon her death, she bequeathed him her Auteuil estate. Living nearby in Passy, Franklin was equally close to “Notre Dame” as he penned Mme. Helvétius. They enjoyed a witty repartee and close friendship that continued long after she politely declined Franklin’s marriage proposal in 1779.10 At the first meeting of Franklin and Cabanis, the American was struck by the younger man’s “passion and ardor” and is quoted as saying, “At your age, a man’s soul is still at the window, looking outside.”11 For seven years, the two lived within walking distance and appear to have seen each other at least twice a week. They were both also members of La Loge des Neuf Sœurs, the Masonic lodge of Nine Sisters. Cabanis was in awe of Franklin’s scientific accomplishments and probably witnessed France’s first lightning rod, which Franklin installed on the roof of his house in Passy.12 Cabanis was even more impressed by his methods of self-improvement. While together, Franklin recounted his life history and began his autobiography, which included a chart for measuring his development of selected virtues. Now it was Cabanis’ turn to discuss souls. “We touched this precious booklet,” he later wrote, “we held it in our hands. Here was, in a way, the chronological story of Franklin’s soul!”13
Je vous les laisse comme des reliques et comme des souvenirs d’amitié [I leave these to you as relics and memories of friendship]
--Benjamin Franklin to Cabanis and his friends at Auteuil, 1785.
Their friendship continued after Franklin decided to return to Philadelphia in 1785. His departure from Auteuil was particularly difficult and as noted by Cabanis, “many honorable tears… were shed on both sides.”14 To his various friends, Franklin bestowed several of his personal items to serve as mementoes. In addition to the sword offered here, Cabanis also received the hollow cane Franklin used for his experiments with oil and water.15 As recorded by Cabanis himself and published posthumously as part of his Oeuvres in 1825, Franklin said, “I leave them to you… as relics and as memories of friendship.”16 The following year, Franklin made several of his French friends, including Cabanis, honorary members of the American Philosophical Society and upon the statesman’s death in 1790, Cabanis wrote a detailed and extensive biographical note, “Notice Sur Benjamin Franklin,” in which he faithfully recorded and extolled Franklin’s many accomplishments.17
By this time, Cabanis was gaining increasing recognition and like Franklin, his career encompassed both politics and science. A physician and physiologist, he published a well-received treatise on the management of hospitals, served as Professor of hygiene at the Medical School of Paris and from 1789-1791, was the personal doctor of Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791), the popular leader during the early years of the French Revolution. Cabanis was initially an ardent supporter of the Revolution and a member of the Council of Five Hundred and later the Senate, but during the Reign of Terror, he declined to be appointed as a representative to the United States, preferring to stay in France in order to help and protect his friends. He was also Deputy of the Seine, Member of the Académie Française and Commandeur of the Légion d’honneur. During the rule of Napoleon, he abandoned politics and concentrated on his academic career. His principal work, Rapports du Physique et du Moral de l'Homme [On the relations between the physical and moral aspects of man] (1802), was a groundbreaking study on the links between physiology and psychology and Cabanis is widely regarded as a major pioneer of modern neurology. In 1796, Cabanis married Charlotte Félicité de Grouchy (1768-1844) (fig. 7, 10) and for a time, the couple lived in Mme. Helvétius’ Auteuil estate with their two daughters. After his sudden death in 1808, Cabanis was buried in Paris in the Pantheon, a church where the most distinguished of France’s citizens are interred and was granted posthumously the title of Count of the Empire by Napoleon.
Since the early nineteenth century, the sword has passed down from generation to generation among Cabanis’ descendants, many of whom had distinguished military careers, and its significance as a symbol of Franco-American unity continues to resonate to this day. The sword presumably remained among the possessions of Cabanis’ widow before passing to their eldest daughter, Geneviève Aminthe (1793-1876) (figs. 7, 10), the wife of Jean-Pierre Hecquet d’Orval (1783-1859) and subsequently to their son Emile Hecquet d’Orval (1816-1887). At the time of its loan to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the sword was owned by Emile’s son, Fernand Hecquet d'Orval (1851-1911), a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war who resided at Château du Bois de Bonance in Port-le-Grand in northern France, a house he had also inherited from his father (fig. 8). The house and sword continued to descend together to Fernand’s son, Honoré Hecquet d'Orval (1892-1950) (fig. 9), who is recorded as the sword’s owner when it was exhibited in Paris in the 1920s. A veteran of World War I and part of the French Resistance during World War II, Honoré would have personally experienced American reciprocity in the twentieth century for French military support in the eighteenth. More recently, the sword was featured in an exhibition celebrating French involvement in the American Revolution on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 and has been treasured as a family heirloom (fig. 10). With no direct descendants to continue the tradition, the current owners have decided to sell the sword in America and celebrate the enduring legacy of one its most famous and beloved Founding Fathers.
Christie’s would like to thank Donald L. Fennimore, Curator Emeritus, Winterthur Museum, for his assistance with this essay.
1 Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic: 1763-89 (4th edition, Chicago, 2013), p. 83.
2 “From Benjamin Franklin to Daniel Fisher, 28 July 1755,” “Charles Somerset Woodham to Samuel Soumain, 22 July 1762,” “From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson, 4 May 1764” and “To Benjamin Franklin from Deborah Franklin, 8?–13 October 1765, 12 January 1766 and 4 October 1769,” The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. (New Haven, 1959-1969), vol. 6, p. 113, vol. 10, pp. 135-136, vol. 11, p. 190, vol. 12, pp. 299-304, vol. 13, pp. 29-35 and The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven, 1972), vol. 16, pp. 212-214. Unless otherwise noted, all letters cited are available at Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin.
3 Daniel D. Hartzler, Silver Mounted Swords: The Lattimer Family Collection (2000), p. 51, fig. 85.
4 Arms and Armour Research Institute, University of Huddersfield, “Analysis of a sword traditionally associated with Benjamin Franklin and presented to Pierre Georges Cabanis,” 9 August 2016. Please contact the department for a copy of this report.
5 This second sword descended to Franklin’s grandson William Franklin Bache and was given to the Franklin Institute in the late 19th century. See http://www.benfranklin300.org/frankliniana/result.php?id=139=2. For Washington’s 1767 small sword, see http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/collections-holdings/washingtons-swords/the-1767-silver-hilted-smallsword/.
6 “From Benjamin Franklin to Mary Stevenson, 14 September 1767,” The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven, 1970), vol. 14, pp. 250–255.
7 Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York, 2003), p. 348.
8 See for example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, acc. no. 17.87.3a, b
9 See http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/collections-holdings/washingtons-swords/model-1767-epee/.
10 For “L’Académie d’Auteuil,” see Claude-Anne Lopez, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (New Haven, 1966), pp. 273-301; Isaacson, pp. 363-375; Robert Middlekauff, Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies (Los Angeles, 1996), pp. 18-20; Martin S. Staum, Cabanis: Enlightenment and Medical Philosophy in the French Revolution (Princeton, 1980), pp. 17-18.
11 Lopez, op. cit., p. 273. See also Antoine Guillois, Le Salon de Madame Helvétius; Cabanis et Les Idéologues (Paris, 1894), p. 60.
12 Franklin was highly regarded among France’s scientific elite and one of only a few non-French citizens elected to its most prestigious institutions, the Royal Academy of Science and the Royal Society of Medicine.
13 Lopez, op. cit., p. 277. Cabanis and Franklin were also members of the Masonic Loge des Noeufs Soeurs. See R. William Weisberger, “Benjamin Franklin: A Masonic Enlightener in Paris,” Pennsylvania History 53, no. 3 (July 1986), p. 168.
14 Lopez, op. cit., p. 299.
15 The cane descended along the same lines of descent as the sword and was included in the exhibition at the Musée de Rennes in 1976 cited in Literature, above.
16 Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, Oeuvres Posthumes de Cabanis, Le Tome Cinquième de Ses Oeuvres Complètes (Paris, 1825), p. 251.
17 Cabanis, op. cit., p. 220-274. Staum, op. cit., pp. 17-18