A Great Improvisation

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

On October 26, 1776, Benjamin Franklin sailed from Philadelphia charged with representing the United States in Paris, securing formal recognition by the French government, and obtaining increased French aid for the new nation. He would not see the city again until September 14, 1785, nearly nine years later. Seventy-year-old Franklin had no diplomatic experience, his spoken French was hard to understand, and his written French crude and ungrammatical. Yet in A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, author Stacy Schiff claims that he was the best possible choice for the position. No revolutionary leader had more European experience or better French. Schiff cites Thomas Jefferson’s admission that even after five years in Paris, he was never certain he understood what was said to him or whether his spoken and written French conveyed his actual meaning.

Franklin’s tumultuous welcome when he arrived in France in December demonstrated the wisdom of the congressional choice. He was not merely the best-known American but also one of the most widely admired men in the world, acclaimed throughout Europe as the scientist who tamed lightning, the successor to Isaac Newton and Galileo. Intellectuals and aristocrats (in eighteenth century France often one and the same) clamored for his attention. The Parisian public eagerly purchased matchboxes, teacups, candy dishes, fabrics, and canes decorated with likenesses of Franklin. Recognizing the value of public enthusiasm for things American in encouraging the government’s willingness to support the revolution, Franklin deliberately played to the crowd. Schiff notes that when hailed as a frontiersman and backwoods philosopher, Franklin, who had never lived anywhere but in cities during his seventy years, adopted a fur hat and plain suits as his distinctive costume in glittering eighteenth century Paris.

Schiff calls Franklin a natural diplomat. Aspects of Franklin’s personality, his reserve and reluctance to commit himself until absolutely necessary, and his pragmatic willingness to compromiseattitudes that led some of his American colleagues to accuse him of being duplicitous and insufficiently devoted to the American causewere characteristics well attuned to life at the Court of Versailles. Despite getting little guidance from Congress, he improvised an effective foreign policy for the United States, successfully negotiated a treaty of alliance with France, and joined with John Jay and John Adams in securing a very advantageous peace treaty with Great Britain.

Franklin’s task was eased by decisions and actions already taken by Louis XVI and his minister for foreign affairs Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. The French resented the draconian peace treaty Britain had imposed in 1763 and hoped for revenge. When antagonism grew between the American colonies and their mother country, the French eagerly sent agents to Philadelphia to assess the possibility of embarrassing Britain. Even before the colonies declared independence, Vergennes urged sending aid. On May 2, 1776, the king of France provided one million livres (matched by the king of Spain a month later) to pay for military supplies. To permit deniability when the British ambassador, David Murray, Viscount Stormont, protested, Vergennes had Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a playwright famous for his subversive Barber of Seville (1772), claim he had purchased guns and powder from French arsenals and shipped them to America on his own account.

Always interpreting events in Franklin’s favor, Schiff insists that colleagues and friends gave Franklin greater difficulty than official enemies. Using polite evasions, Vergennes easily ignored Lord Stormont’s complaints that welcoming Franklin and providing not-very-secret aid violated French protestations of neutrality. Rivalry and quarrels among French and Americans involved in expediting military aid to America had more to do with slowing movement of supplies to America than British opposition.

Franklin pretended to have no secrets, which was true in a sense he did not intendmany helpers aiding the American mission, including some Franklin considered his best friends, were in fact spies who sent copies of documents and detailed reports of American activity to their British and French employers. Aristocratic Virginians, certain they were better qualified than bourgeois Franklin to conduct diplomacy, bombarded...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 13 (March 1, 2005): 1121.

The Economist 375 (April 30, 2005): 78-79.

Harper’s Magazine 311 (October, 2005): 88-94.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 111.

Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2005, p. E28.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (April 3, 2005): 8.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 6 (February 7, 2005): 50.

The Washington Post, April 3, 2005, p. T4.