It can be argued that if Benjamin Franklin had not gone to Paris in 1776, Americans might still speak with a British accent. By winning the hearts of the French people and the heads of the French court, Franklin parlayed a domestic squabble between Great Britain and one of its wayward colonies into a transatlantic melee among the European powers of the day. The American patriots needed shiploads, literally, of money, military help, and supplies from France to win their independence, and Franklin delivered.
Franklin was almost seventy when he sailed to France in 1776 on the young nation’s rather desperate business. He was already considered an elder statesman in the colonies, having recently signed the Declaration of Independence and presided at the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. During his seven and a half years in Paris, Franklin argued the patriot cause, using his considerable diplomatic talents to secure loans, buy war materiel, and orchestrate shipments. Sometimes he was part of a negotiating team, but more often he worked alone as Minister Plenipotentiary, a title Congress bestowed in 1779.
“French support was due entirely to Franklin,” says Ellen Cohn, editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, a mammoth project sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and Yale University. “In terms of world fame, there is no question that during this time Franklin was the most famous American in the world. The French adored him. There were many images of Franklin circulating at this time; there was hardly a house in France that didn’t have one. Franklin himself had a part in popularizing his image when he arrived. I believe this was part of his plan to win the French over, a bit like an early spin campaign.” Part of that campaign involved exchanging the early image of Franklin in a fur hat with a much more dignified portrait to reflect the gravitas of his mission.
Jonathan Dull, senior associate editor at the project, agrees that Franklin was the major proponent for America in France during this period. “Franklin basically trusted the French, which made him very effective,” Dull explains. “He was treated as a professional diplomat; the other American representatives were considered amateurs.”
“Primarily he was there to get supplies sent to the American army and that consumed an immense amount of time,” Cohn says. “During this period we see him struggling to find merchants to assemble these items--guns, uniforms, shoes--and then finding the ships and convoys to send them to America.” All this required money, of which Congress didn’t have enough, so it looked to the French government for loans. Franklin was frequently pestered to find more funding. “It was complicated and terribly frustrating for Franklin,” adds Cohn. “He kept writing back to Congress telling it not to ask for more money.”
In an exchange with Robert Morris, superintendent of finance for the Continental Congress, Franklin wrote on November 5, 1781:
As . . . it will be useful to you to know what Aids you may expect from Europe, I think it right to give you my Opinion that you cannot rely on such as may be called very considerable. If Europe was in peace, and its Governments therefore under no Necessity of Borrowing, much of the spare Money of private Persons might then be collectible in a Loan to our States. But four of the Principal Nations being already at War [Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands] and a fifth suppos’d to be preparing for it [possibly Russia], all borrowing what they can . . . it is to be suppos’d, that money’d Men will rather risque lending their Cash to their own Governments or to those of their Neighbours, than hazard it over the Atlantick with a new State, which to them hardly appears to be yet firmly established.
Though Franklin was often busy with diplomatic work, he found time to engage in his lifelong loves of science, philosophy, and printing. He even learned French. “He had a really wonderful group of close friends in Passy, the suburb of Paris where he lived,” Cohn explains. “Learning French with them was like a big parlor game--he would write things and they would correct them.” This included love letters and essays, perhaps giving rise to Franklin’s reputation among his detractors that he was quite a ladies’ man.
Franklin’s lively personality worked to his advantage, according to Claude-Anne Lopez, a scholar who has worked on the project since it started in 1954. “He was a very positive man. He didn’t want to appear sad or depressed. I can see why he could charm the French because at that time, in the Enlightenment, laughing was the thing.”
“Franklin was active in almost every aspect of French culture,” Lopez says. “He was interested in papermaking. He got very interested in [hot air] balloons. He was interested in insane asylums, making them a bit better. He was involved in making a better oven for prisoners that could bake better bread. Among his inventions was the foreign service--he was the pioneer. He got along with everybody. He was a Protestant but he gave money to the local church because he felt it was doing good work. He was able to do many unexpected things because he didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to. . . . This was his approach: ‘Make them like you. Make them your ally. We need their ships, we need their troops.’”
Franklin’s approach was a calculated one. “Though he could be frivolous, Franklin was not a frivolous person,” Dull says. “He was a patriot. He was consumed with rage at George III about the way he was conducting the war. Underneath, Franklin was a very serious person and a very angry person. His friendship with France was a means to an end, though he enjoyed his time there.”
Franklin’s accessibility, affability, and clear affinity with the French were not popular in all quarters. John Adams, a fellow negotiator, criticized Franklin’s approach and implied that what he viewed as Franklin’s excessive civility was not necessary on either personal or political levels.
“It was Adams’s opinion that the French needed us more than we needed them,” explains Dull. The future president found the French court insufferable. He believed that the French would reap considerable benefits from an American victory, which they should be eager to assure. France could expect to pick up an important new trading partner in an independent America no longer confined to trading with Britain. And a defeat for Britain would also reduce its power among the premier European nations. The American victory over British forces at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777 was often cited as proof that the patriots could manage without the French.
But the renegade colonies were not quite as self-sufficient as some liked to think, says Dull. “Most of the muskets used at Saratoga by the Americans were French, as were the cannon.” There was little manufacturing capacity in the colonies, and America could not produce the military equipment and supplies it needed. Economic capacity was severely limited as well. By October 1781, American currency was being used as wallpaper, and the Continental Congress was so broke it could not pay for General Washington and his troops to get to Yorktown, Virginia.Once again, the French fronted money and military strength to win the battle, and this time, the war.
The news of the victory at Yorktown arrived at Franklin’s house in Passy about midnight on November 19, 1781, exactly one month after the British surrender. The diary of Elkanah Watson, an American merchant who happened to be visiting, tells the sequence of events. On the evening of November 19, before hearing of the British surrender, Franklin and his visitors discussed what they had heard about “the grand military combination of America and France to subdue the army of Cornwallis, in Virginia. . . . We weighed the probabilities--balanc’d vicissitudes--dissected the best maps. . . . As Franklin’s great influence at the Court of France was the primary cause of producing this bold enterprize; it can be easily conceived how strong must have been his excitements in our alternate views of probable results.
“At times his Philosophy seem’d to abandon him in gloomy despondency--& then viewing the issue in an opposite light, his hopes wou’d flash into a concertion of complete success. Altho’ in his 76th year, yet his whole machinery appeared in a state of elasticity, and in active play--So much was he exhilerated when hope predominated. . . .”
Watson had gone back to Paris late in the evening “in gloomy despondency,” but was awakened early the next morning by a messenger from Franklin bearing a circular with the news of the victory, copied on Franklin’s press. “The same day I waited on his Excellency with many American & French to Offer our congratulations. He appeared in an ecstacy of joy, observing, ‘there is no parallel in history of two entire armies being captured from the same enemy in any one war.’
“The American character now rose to an enviable height--the joy of all classes of people was excessive. Paris was brilliantly illuminated three successive nights on this glorious occasion--which settles our controversy definitively with England. On my return to Nantes I found all the Cities in my rout in a blaze of illumination. . . .”
After the Yorktown victory, it seemed increasingly likely that Britain would negotiate. All that was needed was a way to open the talks. As Franklin notes in his journal about the negotiations, “Great Affairs sometimes take their Rise from small Circumstances.” In this particular case, the small circumstance was a letter in March 1782 from Franklin to the Earl of Shelburne, an old acquaintance in England whose political star was on the rise. Sandwiched between a detailed reference to some gooseberry bushes sent by the earl to Franklin’s neighbor and his congratulations on the favorable change in the British government’s attitude toward American independence, Franklin plays his hand. “I hope it will tend to produce a general Peace, which I am persuaded your Lordship, with all good Men, desires, which I wish to see before I die, & to which I shall with infinite Pleasure contribute every thing in my Power.”
“That was how the peace negotiations got started,” says Dull. “It didn’t need much more than a hint. Franklin knew that Shelburne was an advocate of better relations with America.” Negotiations were under way, though the situation was far from clear. The new British government headed by the Marquess of Rockingham was favorably disposed to American independence, but two ministers claimed jurisdiction over the talks. The Earl of Shelburne was minister for home affairs. Because America was still a colony, he believed that the talks were a domestic issue. Charles James Fox, minister of foreign affairs, assumed that independence negotiations wouldfall under his control.
“There was considerable rivalry,” Dull says. “Franklin was negotiating simultaneously with two representatives of the British government on different issues.” Franklin kept up this subterfuge for weeks, stringing Fox along while talks progressed with Shelburne. When the Marquess of Rockingham died suddenly in the early summer, Shelburne succeeded him as prime minister. Franklin had backed the right horse.
“Franklin started the negotiations on his own,” Cohn explains. “You can see his immense skill in manipulating these situations.” The Europeans admired this talent. The other American peace commissioners, who took up their posts in the late summer of 1782, did not have this degree of skill, and Franklin felt they often bungled their tasks. “Franklin navigates all of this and ultimately is very frustrated at having others threaten to undo all the things he’s been trying to do.” The talks were not undone and concluded in the general peace of January 1783 with very favorable terms for the new nation.
France, however, fared less well from the treaty. Despite Adams’s insistence that an alliance with America was heavily weighted in France’s favor, the expected economic and political benefits never materialized, according to Dull. “France didn’t pick up that much trade from the United States,” he says, “and Britain was not significantly weakened by American independence. These were major disappointments in France. A few years later, France went bankrupt, which precipitated the French Revolution. That bankruptcy happened, in part, because of the earlier French support of America.”
The Franklin charm never wore off in France, though. On news of Franklin’s death in 1790, the National Assembly went into mourning for three days, says Lopez, making it “the first political body in the world to pay homage to a simple citizen from another land.”