There is no more fascinating character among the Founding Fathers than Benjamin Franklin. An intellectual powerhouse credited with an extraordinary number of inventions and writings, he also was one of the three most pivotal players in establishing the new colonial government, along with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Franklin was also known as the great communicator among the major players in the colonial era. His joie de vivre and sense of humor ingratiated him with everyone, which is why he became the primary diplomat from the colonies, an ambassador to the French and Prussian courts and U.S. minister to both France and Sweden. In each capacity he negotiated treaties and opened communication between supporters in Europe and the colonies.
It was as ambassador to France that Franklin helped a gay man escape prosecution to become a pivotal figure in the American Revolution. In fact, Franklin’s role in bringing gay military strategist Baron Friedrich von Steuben from the court at Paris to George Washington at Valley Forge might have been his greatest contribution to the war effort.
Washington certainly came to regard von Steuben as vital to his success against England. Von Steuben’s military manual “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States” became the fundamental guide for the Continental Army. It remained in active use through the War of 1812 and was published in over 70 editions.
Had it not been for Franklin, however, Washington would never have gotten this extraordinary advisor, and von Steuben might have spent the remainder of his life in prison in Europe.
At the beginning of the Revolution, Franklin was a mediator between the French and the colonists in negotiating the support of France against the British. It was during this period of intense political complexity and foment that von Steuben was first approached.
Franklin knew of von Steuben’s same-sex encounters, but he didn’t consider them relevant to a position in Washington’s Continental Army. In June 1777, rumors of homosexual activity had forced von Steuben to resign his role as chamberlain to Prince Joseph Friedrich Wilhelm of Hohenzollern-Hechige, in southern Germany. Von Steuben travelled to Paris – some say he fled – seeking a position in the French or the Continental Army.
At the time, Washington was looking for a military strategist who spoke fluent English. Von Steuben spoke German and French and very little English. So Franklin was initially leery of recommending him for the position.
But Franklin had empathy for von Steuben’s increasingly problematic circumstances and decided to make the recommendation to Washington after all. This came after Franklin discovered von Steuben was in danger of being prosecuted for his sexual behavior.
A letter dated August 13, 1777, to the prince for whom von Steuben had been chamberlain warned: “It has come to me from different sources that M. de Steuben is accused of having taken familiarities with young boys which the laws forbid and punish severely. I have even been informed that that is the reason why M. de Steuben was obliged to leave Hechingen and that the clergy of your country intend to prosecute him by law as soon as he may establish himself anywhere.”
Franklin and von Steuben met again, and Franklin expanded and revised von Steuben’s résumé to make it more attractive to Washington. He wrote letters of recommendation for von Steuben and arranged for his passage to Pennsylvania.
Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778, with his 17-year-old French lover, Pierre Etienne Duponceau.
The rest – thanks to Franklin – is history.
It wasn’t solely as ambassador that Franklin made gay-friendly history in early America. In his role as America’s printer extraordinaire, Franklin was responsible for facilitating the printing of the first male same-sex love story in North America through his friendship with French printer Fleury Mesplet.
Franklin had befriended Mesplet after meeting him in London during one of his many sorties there. There are different versions of how Mesplet arrived in Philadelphia, but his friendship with Franklin deepened during his time there. He then moved to Montreal with the American Army in 1775 as a printer for the colonial Confederation. But when he failed to convince Quebec to engage in the American Revolution, he was charged with sedition and imprisoned by the British Crown.
Mesplet would become one of the most historically significant printers in Canada. In 1785, he founded the Montreal Gazette, now the oldest continuing newspaper in Canada. For LGBT historians, however, Mesplet is famous for printing the first book in Montreal, which was also the first homoerotic publication in North America.
In 1776 Mesplet published the play “Jonathas et David,” or “Le Triomphe de l’Amitie.” The play details the homoerotic relationship between Jonathan and David in the Old Testament – a depiction still considered controversial today.
Franklin’s life was mesmerizingly rich and the breadth of his contributions to America incalculable. Added to that, now, can be his contributions to LGBT history in North America.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist and syndicated columnist. She is the author and editor of nearly 30 books, including the award-winning “Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life” and “Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic.” In 2010, she founded Tiny Satchel Press, an independent publisher of young adult books for tweens and teens, which specializes in books for LGBT youth and youth of color.