- David Franks: Colonial Merchant
The second half of the eighteenth century in North America was dynamic and filled with opportunity, tragedy, and change. From the Seven Years’ War period to the Colonial Crisis and culminating with the Revolutionary War, the era presented individuals with both tremendous opportunity and significant risks. Perhaps no colony experienced such a drastic shift during this period than Pennsylvania. Still a Quaker-dominated government at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War, the colony-turned-state had become the seat of a revolutionary government, significant battlefield, and home to radical revolutionaries during the War for Independence. This period of transition, however, presented outstanding financial opportunities for men willing to seize them—including David Franks. Mark Abbot Stern, a retired engineer, [End Page 83] adeptly tracks the life and business career of one of Philadelphia’s leading merchants between the Seven Years’ War and the conclusion of the American Revolution in David Franks: Colonial Merchant.
David Franks was born to a New York–based Jewish mercantile family in 1720. In early adulthood, the ambitious and entrepreneurial Franks moved to Philadelphia, presumably to extend his family’s commercial connections. There he thrived through a series of partnerships with both relatives and other business associates. He married into a Christian family, raised a Christian family, and became a participant in Philadelphia’s Christ Church while simultaneously remaining active in New York’s Jewish community. Throughout his career, Franks dabbled widely in the variety of mercantile pursuits available to him. The Indian trade, land speculation, the import/ export business, and even shipbuilding attracted his attention, with varying degrees of success. Military contracting for the British, however, proved both the most lucrative and dangerous of Franks’ endeavors. While supplying British armies and garrisons in Pennsylvania during the Seven Years’ War and the interwar period provided a steady profit, his contract to supply British prisoners of war during the War for Independence ended disastrously. Despite Franks having congressional approval and General Washington’s support, radical patriots in Philadelphia targeted him as a Tory sympathizer. The consequent arrests and ultimate departure from his adopted city resulted in tremendous damage to his family and finances.
While Stern attempts to develop a comprehensive biography, his work heavily favors David Franks’ mercantile activities. The author, however, openly acknowledges this result, noting that the available resources necessitated such a treatment. As it stands, Stern’s work should prove extremely useful to scholars of the late colonial and Revolutionary periods in a variety of ways due to the scope of detail provided by the author. The transitory nature of Franks’ business partnerships, as well as the extensive networks he developed, illuminates the business practices of the era. The initial success he enjoyed, moreover, demonstrates the tremendous opportunities for profit war and a military presence provided Pennsylvanians. David Franks will thus be found useful for economic and urban historians.
Franks’ extensive involvement in land speculation, the Indian trade, and military contracting in western Pennsylvania is likewise valuable in examining connections between Philadelphia and the colony’s hinterlands. For scholars more interested in the British military, the detailed listings of goods provided by Franks will prove immensely useful in perfecting present [End Page 84] understandings of the regular soldier’s life. Correspondence between Franks and Henry Bouquet, as well as other British officers, appears quite valuable for those wishing to study the relationship between Pennsylvanians and newly arrived Britons and Europeans.
Finally, Stern’s work might best make a contribution to our understanding of the Revolution. Neither an outright patriot nor a loyalist, the author portrays Franks as an individual who simply attempted to survive the conflict while doing what he had always done—providing goods to those who needed them. While treatments of the Revolution naturally gravitate toward those who clearly took a side, be they patriot or loyalist, Stern’s discussion of Franks might assist scholars who seek to describe the experience of the ambivalent or undecided, which certainly represents a larger proportion of American society than historians generally...