Following is an article I wrote about an ancestor. A version of it was published in Carologue, Spring 2016, the quarterly journal of the South Carolina Historical Society.
Envoy Designate - Ralph Izard, Commissioner to Tuscany
by Robert E. Gribbin
In July 1777 the Continental Congress named Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Izard of South Carolina Commissioner to the Court of Tuscany. Izard who was then in France, accepted the diplomatic assignment with alacrity, “The Department they have allocated to me -- is Tuscany. I shall go to Florence, as soon as I understand that anybody from America -- in a public character -- will be admitted there.”[i] He was correct to be concerned, because ultimately the Grand Duke refused to receive an American diplomat. Thus Izard’s formal diplomatic career was short lived. But how did this all come about?
Born in 1741 Ralph Izard was the scion of a prominent Charleston family. His father died young. At an early age Ralph was sent to England for schooling. He studied at Hackney and then at Christ College, Cambridge. Upon returning to America he divided his time between the family plantations near Charleston and New York city where he met and in 1767 married Alice De Lancey, herself from a well known family. The Izards departed for England in 1771 and settled in London. There they made many friends and contacts. Izard’s intellectual bent and passion for politics, especially as American colonial issues evolved, ensured that he became acquainted with many important personages of the realm.
In 1774 Ralph and Alice toured the continent for several months. While in Rome they posed for a portrait by John Singleton Copley, a painting renown as one of his best. (The painting was purchased from the artist’s widow in 1834 by the Izards’ grandson Charles Manigault. It descended to his son Dr. Gabriel Manigault and was sold by his estate in 1903 to the Boston Museum of Fine Art, where it resides today.)[ii]
Although he never operated in any official capacity in London, Izard became known as an articulate proponent of American causes. He found that most British decision makers, as well as the public at large, were quite contemptuous of American pretensions seeing colonials as bumbling backwater cowards. How dare they challenge the wisdom of Parliament, the decisions of the king or ultimately the military power of the empire?
In his letters home, often to friends who were delegates to the Continental Congress, Izard reported on atmospherics in England. Regarding a 1775 Continental Congress petition to the King, Izard observed, “Your Petition to the King is just published, and I admire it much. It was extremely well-judged, to have drawn it in such moderate terms. Do not, however, imagine that argument will affect him, or that justice will operate on his mind. The people of America must, by this time be pretty well acquainted with his character. ..I wrote to you (earlier) that the people of England were much more against America than they are at present; that is they were much more ready to adopt the Ministers’ measures ...that the Americans were cowards and would not fight ; consequently they expected an easy triumph... the opinion of people now (after fighting at Lexington and Concord) begins to change; they affect to feel for the effusion of blood and the distresses of their countrymen. Humanity is a pretence: fear, and interest, act more powerfully on their minds." [iii]
Izard debated and entreated with intellectuals, Parliamentarians, and ministers of the crown. He attended debates in Parliament and was asked to testify before the House of Lords. He pressed throughout for common sense, for understanding of the American position that if unresolved Britain’s unfair taxation and trade policies would lead to further conflict. Initially Izard believed that differences could be sorted out short of separation and supported the idea of Britain’s sending a negotiating team to America. However as that proposal jelled in London, it became clear that such a team would not be empowered to negotiate with the Continental Congress, but would merely offer amnesty to certain individuals. Izard’s support evaporated. He passed his views on to Prime Minister Lord North, and later commented, “God knows whether I may have done any good. Ministers, generally, think themselves too wise to be instructed. I have, however, done my duty.” [iv]
Izard continued to provide insight into the British mindset and the swirling rumors that passed for news pending the arrival of dispatches from the far away conflict. “This place contains many politicians - some for, and some against us.“ In further critiquing British ineptness, he added, “It is fortunate for America that the governing powers of this country have had as much folly as wickedness in their conduct.” [v]
In the spring of 1776, Izard took on the task of agitating against the use of German mercenaries. He pointed out to his interlocutors that employment of Hessians would “infallibly prove a bill of divorce between Great Britain and America.” [vi] As fodder for thought he wondered if Germans would actually fight or would they desert and join their countrymen already resident in America?
Following the invasion of Canada, the death of General Montgomery and adoption of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, it became abundantly evident that there was to be no accommodation between the warring parties. Attention in Britain turned to tracking the fortunes of the various British generals in the campaign. Information and misinformation swirled around. During this period Izard and other expatriate Americans and their British friends and sympathizers came under increased scrutiny by authorities. Izard and several of his correspondents, most notably John Lloyd, an American who monitored shipping in France, began to use code names and friends’ addresses. Izard noted that long delayed or missing letters were probably the fault of the postal inspectors.
As the conflict continued, each party adopted measures designed to restrict expatriates. The Continental Congress and South Carolina adopted prohibitions against trading with the enemy, including “any sum of money, or merchandise, whatsoever.” [vii] Zealots also proclaimed that any American who did not return and fight was not a patriot. Izard stung with this criticism as he believed he had done his utmost for the revolution. Even though Izard had tightened his budget considerably, including a move to cheaper lodgings, his family of six, plus three servants required upkeep. Izard had not received remittances from his estate for several years and with the new restrictions - Britain also imposed prohibitions on the receiving end - he knew the Izards had to move on. Ralph wanted to return to America, but British men-of-war ruled the seas and blockaded (often ineffectively) America’s east coast. One way around was via French bottoms to the Caribbean and thence onward to South Carolina, but no ships on that long voyage were suitable for little girls of station -- and Mrs. Izard was pregnant. Izard petitioned the king for a waiver so his family could properly travel, but was summarily denied.[viii] Consequently in the summer of 1777, the family relocated to Paris.
It was in Paris where Izard got the news of his appointment as Commissioner to the Court of Tuscany. This was good news. It provided him with funds so relieved financial pressures, but most importantly it underlined to him and to erstwhile critics that he was indeed a key part of the American effort. Izard associated himself with the American commissioners resident in Paris - Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee - in preparation for his assignment in Florence.
In 1777 Italy was not yet united. It was a hodgepodge of small principalities: the Kingdom of Naples in the south, Papal States centered on Rome, Tuscany around Florence, Genoa and Venice on the coasts, plus smaller entities scattered about the north. Tuscany had flourished under Medici rule since the fourteenth century, but their line expired in 1737. The Hapsburgs, the Austrian imperial family, took over. Leonard was the Grand Duke by the time of the American Revolution. He was a rather forward leaning ruler who instituted social, bureaucratic and judicial reforms including orphanages, a juvenile justice system and abolition of the death penalty. However, despite its past as a center or art and ideas, Tuscany was barely stumbling into the modern era. Its levels of manufacturing and commerce were not competitive with nations north of the Alps. Government revenues were small.
Why then would the colonies desire diplomatic ties? Essentially, America sought recognition for its struggle, for its right to exist. It sought allies in the war effort including the provision of supplies, open ports, and financial backing. Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane were tasked to sway France to the cause. Arthur Lee worked on Spain, the Netherlands, Prussia and even Austria. Clearly those were the leading nations of Europe, but casting a wider net would include Italy, and of those states Tuscany was key. That job was given to Izard.
Great Britain also played the game of alliances within Europe. Although It was the most powerful nation of the region, it was not part of the continent. France was Britain’s chief opponent and the two nations had been sparing since (from the French perspective ) the unsatisfactory resolution of the Seven Years War in 1763. The American rebellion provided the opportunity to intensify competition. Profiting from European rivalries to America’s advantage, i.e. winning French support, was precisely the task allocated to the commissioners in Paris. Should France rally to America’s cause, then it would be easier for other European capitals to join in. Izard assessed this possibility, “The powers of Europe seem to be waiting for the determination of the Court of Versailles, respecting the acknowledgement of the Independence of America. As soon as she sets the example, it will I believe be followed by all those, whose interest makes them wish for a diminution of the power of England.” [ix] For its part, using the clout of commerce and sea power, Britain pressed hard on continental governments in Berlin, the Hague, Madrid, Vienna and Florence to stand aloof from American entreaties.
Izard knew from the beginning that obtaining Tuscan support would be difficult. Indeed, he knew that even being received at the court of the Grand Duke would be problematic. Yet he was optimistic, if rather unsure of specifics. In October 1777 he asked, “Congress will be pleased to honor me with their instructions on this point; and in the mean time, I shall endeavor to procure every information.” He added, “If I should be so fortunate as to succeed in procuring money -- I should be glad to know how it should be disposed of -- whether in the purchase of such articles as are wanted or remitted in specie.”[x] He was instructed to seek a loan of one million pounds at a rate of 6%.
During the next several months Izard assiduously cultivated Niccoli, the Tuscan minister resident in Paris. Perhaps naively he interpreted the minister’s friendliness and courtliness as support. In December 1777 Izard reported to the Committee of Foreign Affairs “He (Niccoli) is a man of honor and, of considerable abilities, and extremely friendly to our country. I proposed to him that I should immediately set out for Italy, and desired his opinion and advice. He dissuaded me from executing my intentions for the present.” Izard reported that Niccoli had gone to Florence to plead America’s case and, “I expect letters very soon from Florence, which will regulate my conduct. Everything in my power has been done to execute the trust that has been reposed in me by Congress.”[xi] Izard got no satisfaction from Niccoli.
In March of 1778 the three Paris commissioners were received in the French court as representatives of a sovereign and independent state. Izard hoped this would lead Tuscany to open its door. Alas, he lamented, “I am sorry to inform you that a little longer delay is become absolute necessary. I am assured from Florence of the favorable dispositions of the grand duke towards us, and I had no doubt but immediately after the acknowledgment of our independence here the example would have been followed in Tuscany.” As an afterword, given the Tuscan stonewall, he suggested that he would be available for a commission to the Kingdom of Naples, if the Congress so desired.[xii]
Later in the summer, Izard assessed his predicament, “the situation of affairs has not allowed me yet to go into Italy. My own inclinations, if they alone had been consulted, would have carried me there long ago.” He went on to place the blame for Tuscan recalcitrance on the court in Vienna and its objective to keep both France and Britain at bay. Izard went on to express hope that his presence in Paris was not “altogether useless; and I hope the papers I have transmitted to you may not be thought unworthy the attention of Congress.” [xiii]
Without doubt, upon his arrival in Paris in September 1777 Izard had plunged into the diplomatic business at hand. However, it was not easy as the three commissioners were already embroiled in internal feuding; matters that would only get worse as Izard entered the scene. “Upon my arrival here I found a great disunion among the commissioners, the two eldest constantly taking part against the youngest...I immediately endeavored to accommodate these differences, but found it impossible.”[xiv] Issues that began as professional disputes quickly became personal, poisoning relationships all around. Before long Izard viewed Franklin as arrogant, duplicitous, conniving, secretive and unethical. Izard told the great man so to his face, but more often - since Franklin refused to see him -- resorted to spelling complaints out in letters. He accused Franklin of aspiring, like the pope, to “infallibility”. Franklin finally wrote back pledging apologies and vaguely promising to be more inclusive, and to do better[xv], but Franklin never changed his practices.
Izard’s bill of particulars included Franklin’s refusal to share his negotiating stance regarding the treaty of alliance and commerce being prepared with the French; particularly clauses regarding the exemption of duties on molasses. Since the treaty was to be the model for similar agreements with other European states, including Tuscany, Izard felt he was entitled to be in the information loop. Izard believed that the clauses in question could be construed to warrant all sorts of unfair exemptions. Secondly, Izard objected to language that Franklin accepted that was much less explicit in renouncing French territorial claims in North America. He judged that in these matters Franklin had little understanding of true American interests. (The Continental Congress ultimately shared Izard’s views as it modified the treaty accordingly.) Having been cut out of the negotiation process, Izard was incensed when Franklin leaked to London cronies details on the signing of the treaty; an allegation that Franklin vehemently denied. Furthermore, Franklin hid from Izard and Lee the travel of French minister Gerard, accompanied by Deane, to America. Franklin did not share communications or intelligence from the Congress with Izard, nor would he advise when dispatches were being sent home. Izard also took issue with Franklin’s nepotism, especially Franklin’s determination to name his nephew, as America’s commercial agent in Europe.
Izard’s concerns, which he relayed to the Committee, piled upon other allegations against Franklin and Deane by Arthur Lee and others accusing them of mismanagement, land speculation, bad judgment and financial shenanigans. Izard summed up his view, “France might long ago have been induced to stand forth in our favor if America had had proper representatives at this court.” [xvi] They were charged with obtaining kick-backs on military supplies, profiting from the sale of British shipping taken by American privateers, and general mismanagement of funds entrusted to them by the Congress. After the fact it was proved that Franklin’s operation was infiltrated by British spies and that he was dilatory in promoting American interests. Deane was subsequently recalled by the Congress, asked to account for his misdeeds, which he never did satisfactorily. He did not return to Paris. Franklin also was asked for his accounts and for explanations of the allegations against him. He never produced his accounts and was able to successfully duck efforts to question him officially about his Parisian sojourn.[xvii]
In 1778 Ralph Izard made several more overtures to the court of the Grand Duke. His Tuscan contact Niccoli was adamant that neither a visit nor a loan from Tuscany were possible, “I see so many difficulties in this design that I dare not flatter myself with hopes.” Instead Niccoli suggested that Genoa might be a possible source for a loan.[xviii] Izard jumped on the advice. With the blessing of Franklin (apparently they were doing business at arms length), Izard approached the Count de Vergennes, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, asking for French support in an effort to garner a loan from Genoa. The count demurred and nothing further transpired. [xix]
In one final communication to Niccoli Izard chastised him for Italy’s inaction. “All Europe appears to me to be interested in the success of our cause, and Italy will certainly receive no inconsiderable share of the benefits resulting from the establishment of the independence of the United States. It is, therefore, not a little to be wondered at that she should refuse to stir a finger towards the accomplishment of that event.”[xx]
In a September 12, 1778 letter to Henry Laurens, President of the Continental Congress, Izard summed up his tenure as commissioner. “I have lamented exceedingly that the situation of affairs has not permitted my going into Italy. Perhaps my having been here (Paris), and the observations that I have sent regarding the treaties may not prove useless. Should my countrymen think so, it will give me great satisfaction. “[xxi]
Finally, accepting the futility of his assignment to Tuscany, in early 1779 Izard petitioned the Congress for permission to return to America. By summer he was granted that relief.
In June 1780 the Continental Congress terminated Izard’s appointment as commissioner and resolved that it “entertain a proper sense of Mr. Izard’s zeal in the service of his country, and return him thanks for his attention to the Public Affairs and willingness to promote the Public good.” [xxii]
Thus ended Ralph Izard’s diplomatic career. He went on to be a delegate to the Third Continental Congress, and served as senator from South Carolina in the first constitutional government. He retired to his plantation, “The Elms” in 1795. He was incapacitated by a stroke shortly thereafter and died in 1804 at the age of 63.
Robert E. Gribbin is Ralph and Alice Izard’s fifth great grandson via their daughter Margaret, Charles Izard Manigault, Louis Manigault, Josephine Jenkins, Emma Gribbin and Emmet Gribbin. Gribbin followed Izard’s footsteps into diplomatic service, where he had a forty year career culminating as U.S. Ambassador to the Central African Republic and to Rwanda.
[i] Letter from Izard to a friend, Paris September 26, 1777. Correspondence of Mr. Ralph Izard, Ann Izard Deas, ed. Charles and Francis Company, New York, 1844
[ii] A photograph of the painting graces the cover of In Pursuit of Refinement, Charlestonians Abroad, Gibbes Museum of Art, University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
[iii] Letter from Izard to Thomas Lynch, Weymouth, September 8, 1775. Correspondence of Mr. Ralph Izard, Ann Izard Deas, ed. Charles and Francis Company, New York 1844.
[iv] Letter from Izard to a friend in Bath, London, October 27, 1775, Ibid.
[v] Letter from Izard to John Watts, Bath, December 13, 1775. Ibid.
[vi] Letter from Izard to John De Lancey, London March 10, 1776. Ibid
[vii] Resolution of the General Assembly of South Carolina 11 October, 1777, quoted in letter to Izard from John Lloyd, Nantes, February 14, 1777. Ibid.
[viii] Letter to Izard from Lord George Germaine, Whitehall, March 28, 1777. Ibid
[ix] Letter from Izard to Robert Morris, Paris, October 6, 1777. Ibid
[x] Letter from Izard to Robert Morris, Paris, October 6, 1777. Ibid
[xi] Letter from Izard to Committee of Foreign Affairs, Paris, December 18, 1777. The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 2. Library of Congress
[xii] Letter from Izard to Henry Laurens, Paris, April 1, 1778. Ibid
[xiii] Letter from Izard to Henry Laurens, Paris, July 25, 1778. Ibid
[xiv] Letter from Izard to Henry Laurens, Paris, February 16, 1778. Ibid
[xv] Letter from Franklin to Izard, Paris, January 29, 1778. Ibid
[xvi] Letter to Henry Laurens, Paris, April 1, 1778. Ibid
[xvii] A detailed account of the various allegations against Franklin and Deane is found in Code Number 72 Ben Franklin: Patriot or Spy, by Cecil B. Currey. Prentice Hall, New York, 1972
[xviii] Letter from Niccoli to Izard, Florence, July 28, 1778. The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 2. Library of Congress
[xix] Letter from Franklin, Lee and Adams to Izard, Paris, August 25, 1778. Ibid
[xx] Letter from Izard to Niccoli, Paris, September 1, 1778. Ibid
[xxi] Letter to Laurens, Paris, September 12, 1778. Ibid
[xxii] Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 12 February 1, 1779 - May 31, 1779, Richard Henry Lee’s Proposed Resolution. Library of Congress