Rebecca Franks Biography | Women of the Revolution


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      The celebrated Miss Franks, so distinguished for intelligence and high accomplishment in Revolutionary times, could not properly be passed over in a series of notices of remarkable women of that period. In the brilliant position she occupied in fashionable society, she exerted, as may well be believed, no slight influence; for wit and beauty are potent champions in any cause for which they choose to arm themselves. That her talents were generally employed on the side of humanity and justice, – that the pointed shafts of her wit, which spared neither friend nor foe, were aimed to chastise presumption and folly – we may infer from the amiable disposition which it is recorded she possessed. Admired in fashionable circles, and courted for the charms of her conversation, she must have found many opportunities of exercising her feminine privilege of softening asperities and alleviating suffering – as well as of humbling the arrogance of those whom military success rendered regardless of the feelings of others. Though a decided loyalist, her satire did not spare those whose opinions she favored. It is related of her, that at a splendid ball given by the officers of the British army to the ladies of New York, she ventured one of those jests frequently uttered, which must have been severely felt in the faint prospect that existed of a successful termination to the war. During an interval of dancing, Sir Henry Clinton, previously engaged in conversation with Miss Franks, called out to the musicians, “Give us ‘Britons, strike home.'” “The commander-in-chief,” exclaimed she, “has made a mistake; he meant to say, ‘Britons, go home.'”

      The keenness of her irony, and her readiness at repartee, were not less promptly shown in sharp tilting with the American officers. At the festival of the Mischianza, where even whig ladies were present, Miss Franks had appeared as one of the princesses. She remained in Philadelphia after its evacuation by the British troops. Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Steward of Maryland, dressed in a fine suit of scarlet, took an early occasion to pay his compliments; and gallantly said: “I have adopted your colors, my princess, the better to secure a courteous reception. Deign to smile on a true knight.” To this covert taunt Miss Franks made no reply: but turning to the company who surrounded her, exclaimed – “How the ass glories in the lion’s skin!” The same officer met with an other equally severe rebuff, while playing with the same weapons. The conversation of the company was interrupted by a loud clamor from the street, which caused them to hasten to the windows. High head-dresses were then the reigning fashion among the English belles. A female appeared in the street, surrounded by a crowd of idlers, ragged in her apparel, and barefoot; but adorned with a towering head-dress in the extreme of the mode. Miss Franks readily perceived the intent of this pageant; and on the lieutenant-colonel’s observing that the woman was equipped in the English fashion, replied, “Not altogether, colonel; for though the style of her head is British, her shoes and stockings are in the genuine continental fashion !

      Many anecdotes of her quick and brilliant wit are extant in the memory of individuals, and many sarcastic speeches attributed to her have been repeated. It is represented that her information was extensive, and that few were qualified to enter the lists with her. General Charles Lee in the humorous letter he addressed to her – a jeu d’esprit she is said to have received with serious anger – calls her “a lady who has had every human and divine advantage.”

      Rebecca Franks was the daughter and youngest child of David Franks, a Jewish merchant, who emigrated to this country about a century since. He married an Englishwoman before coming to America, and had three sons and two daughters. The eldest daughter married Andrew Hamilton, brother to the well-known proprietor of “The Woodlands.” After the termination of the war, Rebecca married General Henry Johnson, a, British officer of great merit, and accompanied him to England. He distinguished himself by some act of gallantry in one of the outbreaks of rebellion in Ireland, and received the honor of knighthood. Their residence was at Bath, where their only surviving son still lives. The other son was killed at the battle of Waterloo.

      The lady who furnished the above details, informed me that her brother was entertained, in 1810, at Lady Johnson’s house in Bath, where she was living in elegant style, and exercising with characteristic grace the duties of hospitality, and the virtues that adorn social life. He described her person as of the middle height, rather inclining to embonpoint; and her expression of countenance as very agreeable, with fine eyes. Her manners were frank and cheerful, and she appeared happy in contributing to the happiness of others. Sir Henry was at that time living.

      It is said that Lady Johnson, not long after this period, expressed to a young American officer her penitence for her former toryism, and her pride and pleasure in the victories of her countrymen on the Niagara frontier, in the war of 1812. It has been remarked that favorable sentiments towards the Americans are general among loyalists residing in England; while, on the other hand, the political animosity of Revolutionary times is still extant in the British American Colonies. A loyal spinster of four-score residing in one of these, when on a visit to one of her friends, some two years since, saw on the walls, among several portraits of distinguished men, a print of “the traitor Washington.” She was so much troubled at the sight, that her friend, to appease her, ordered it to be taken down and put away during her visit. A story is told also of a gentleman high in office in the same colony, on whom an agent of the “New York Albion” called to deliver the portrait of Washington which the publisher that year presented to his subscribers. The gentleman, highly insulted, ordered the astonished agent to take “the thing” out of his sight, and to strike his name instantly from the list.

      Miss Franks, it has been mentioned, was one of the princesses of the Mischianza. This Italian word, signifying a medley or mixture, was applied to an entertainment, or series of entertainments, given by the British officers in Philadelphia as a parting compliment to Sir William Howe, just before his relinquishment of command to Sir Henry Clinton, and departure to England. Some of his enemies called it his triumph on leaving America unconquered. A description of this singular fête may be interesting to many readers; I therefore abridge one written, it is said, by Major André for an English lady’s magazine.

      I have seen a facsimile of the tickets issued, in a volume of American Historical and Literary curiosities. The names are in a shield, on which is a view of the sea with the setting sun, and on a wreath the words, “Luceo discedens, aucto splendore resurgam.” At the top is General Howe’s crest, with the words, “Vive vale.” Around the shield runs a vignette; and various military trophies fill up the back-ground.

      The entertainment was given on the 18th of May, 1778. It commenced with a grand regatta, in three divisions. In the first was the Ferret galley, on board of which were several general officers and ladies. In the centre, the Hussar galley bore Sir William and Lord Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, their suite, and many ladies. The Cornwallis galley brought up the rear – General Knyphausen and suite, three British generals, and ladies, being on board. On each quarter of these galleys, and forming their division, were five flat boats lined with green cloth, and filled with ladies and gentlemen. In front were three flat boats, with bands of music. Six barges rowed about each flank, to keep off the swarm of boats in the river. The galleys were dressed in colors and streamers; the ships lying at anchor were magnificently decorated; and the transport ships with colors flying, which extended in a line the whole length of the city, were crowded, as well as the wharves, with spectators. The rendezvous was at Knight’s wharf, at the northern extremity of the city. The company embarked at halfpast four, the three divisions moving slowly down to the music. Arrived opposite Market wharf, at a signal all rested on their oars, and the music played “God save the king,” answered by three cheers from the vessels. The landing was at the Old Fort, a little south of the town, and in front of the building prepared for the company, a few hundred yards from the water. This regatta was gazed at from the wharves and warehouses by all the uninvited population of the city.

      When the general’s barge pushed for shore, a salute of seventeen guns was fired from His Majesty’s ship Roebuck; and after an interval, seventeen from the Vigilant. The procession advanced through an avenue formed by two files of grenadiers, each supported by a line of light-horse. The avenue led to a spacious lawn, lined with troops, and prepared for the exhibition of a tilt and tournament. The music, and managers with favors of white and blue ribbons in their breasts, led the way, followed by the generals and the rest of the company.

      In front, the building bounded the view through a vista formed by two triumphal arches in a line with the landing place. The pavilions, with rows of benches rising one above another, received the ladies, while the gentlemen ranged themselves on each side. On the front seat of each pavilion were seven young ladies as princesses, in Turkish habits, and wearing in their turbans the favors meant for the knights who contended. The sound of trumpets was heard in the distance; and a band of knights in ancient habits of white and red silk, mounted on gray horses caparisoned in the same colors, attended by squires on foot, heralds and trumpeters, entered the lists. Lord Cathcart was chief of these knights; and appeared in honor of Miss Auchmuty. One of his esquires bore his lance, another his shield; and two black slaves in blue and white silk, with silver clasps on their bare neck and arms, held his stirrups. The band made the circuit of the square, saluting the ladies, and then ranged themselves in a line with the pavilion in which were the ladies of their device. Their herald, after a flourish of trumpets, proclaimed a challenge; asserting the superiority of the ladies of the Blended Rose, in wit, beauty and accomplishment, and offering to prove it by deeds of arms according to the ancient laws of chivalry. At the third repetition of the challenge, another herald and trumpeters advanced from the other side of the square, dressed in black and orange, and proclaimed defiance to the challengers, in the name of the knights of the Burning Mountain. Captain Watson, the chief, appeared in honor of Miss Franks; his device a heart with a wreath of flowers; his motto Love and Glory. This band also rode round the lists, and drew up in front of the white knights. The gauntlet was thrown down and lifted; the encounter took place. After the fourth encounter, the two chiefs, spurring to the centre, fought singly, till the marshall of the field rushed between, and declared that the ladies of the Blended Rose and the Burning Mountain were satisfied with the proofs of love and valor already given, and commanded their knights to desist. The bands then filed off in different directions, saluting the ladies as they approached the pavilions.

      The company then passed in procession through triumphal arches built in the Tuscan order, to a garden in front of the building; and thence ascended to a spacious hall painted in imitation of Sienna marble. In this hall and apartment adjoining, were tea and refreshments; and the knights, kneeling, received their favors from the ladies. On entering the room appropriated for the faro table, a cornucopia was seen filled with fruit and flowers; another appeared in going out, shrunk, reversed and empty. The next advance was to a ball-room painted in pale blue, pannelled with gold, with drooping festoons of flowers; the surbase pink, with drapery festooned in blue. Eighty-five mirrors, decked with flowers and ribbons, reflected the light from thirty-four branches of wax lights. On the same floor were four drawing-rooms with side-boards of refreshments, also decorated and lighted up. The dancing continued till ten; the windows were then thrown open, and the fire-works commenced with a magnificent bouquet of rockets.

      At twelve, large folding doors, which had hitherto been concealed, were suddenly thrown open, discovering a splendid and spacious saloon, richly painted, and brilliantly illuminated; the mirrors and branches decorated, as also the supper table; which was set out – according to Major André’s account – with four hundred and thirty covers, and twelve hundred dishes. When supper was ended, the herald and trumpeters of the Blended Rose entered the saloon, and proclaimed the health of the king and royal family, followed by that of the knights and ladies; each toast being accompanied by a flourish of music. The company then returned to the ball-room; and the dancing continued till four o’clock.

      This was the most splendid entertainment ever given by officers to their general. The next day the mirrors and lustres borrowed from the citizens were sent home, with their ornaments. The pageant of a night was over; Sir William Howe departed. The folly and extravagance displayed were apparent not only to the foes of Britain. It is said that an old Scotch officer of artillery, when asked if he would be surprised at an attack from General Washington during the festivities of the day, replied – If Mr. Washington possess the wisdom and sound policy I have ever attributed to him, he will not meddle with us at such a time. The excesses of the present hour are to him equivalent to a victory.”

      It is interesting to contrast the situation of the two hostile armies at this time; and to follow the destiny of the revellers. When the alliance was concluded between France and America, it was determined in Great Britain immediately to evacuate Philadelphia, and concentrate the royal forces in the city and harbor of New York. In one month knights and army marched from the city they had occupied. Major André, represented as the charm of the company, who had aided in painting the decorations, and illustrated the pageant by his pen, went forth to mingle in graver scenes. General Wayne writes, on the twelfth of July: “Tell those Philadelphia ladies who attended Howe’s assemblies and levees, that the heavenly, sweet, pretty redcoats – the accomplished gentlemen of the guards and grenadiers, have been humbled on the plains of Monmouth. The knights of the Blended Roses, and of the Burning Mount – have resigned their laurels to rebel officers, who will lay them at the feet of those virtuous daughters of America who cheerfully gave up ease and affluence in a city, for liberty and peace of mind in a cottage.”

      But the empire of beauty was not to be overthrown by political changes. The belles who had graced the fête found the reproach cast on them by indignant patriots speedily forgotten. When the Americans, on their return to the capital, gave a ball to their own and the French officers, and it was debated whether the ladies of the Mischianza should be honored with invitations, the question was soon decided by the reflection that it would be impossible to make up an agreeable company without them.

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