A Great Improvisation

by Stacy Schiff

Start Free Trial

A Great Improvisation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1822

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 Congress with vicious letters accusing him of various misdemeanors and dereliction of duty. Although Adams worked effectively with Franklin in negotiating the peace treaty with Britain, he developed a visceral dislike of Franklin that spilled over into open criticism, accusing him of being too subservient to Vergennes in politely requesting loans. Adams claimed American success was so clearly in the French interest that Vergennes should immediately provide more money and arrange more effective naval aid. His remarks irritated Vergennes, who had Franklin forward to Congress his denunciation of Adams.

Constant backbiting from his colleagues poisoned Franklin’s relations with Congress, which often ignored his requests and never praised his successes. Many members were unimpressed with Franklin’s French celebrity and suspicious that it proved assertions by his enemies that he was overly pro-French. Early in his tenure in Paris, Franklin requested appointment of a consul to relieve him of the burden of managing maritime affairs and helping Americans engaged in commerce. Congress failed to do so until 1782, when Franklin expected to soon be relieved of his post.

Franklin wanted Congress formally to select his grandson, William Temple Franklin, as mission secretary, a position he had effectively filled from 1776. Fluent in French, Temple, as he was called, performed many vital functions for the diplomats, including correcting his grandfather’s formal correspondence. When Franklin put Temple on the payroll, critics called it nepotism. Congress did not provide a secretary until Jefferson replaced Franklin in 1785, and then it ignored Franklin’s plea to choose Temple in favor of someone with better political connections but no knowledge of French.

Schiff describes how Franklin’s inadequacies as an administrator were exacerbated by his need to fulfill personally so many roles. Despite his later reputation as a penny-pinching businessman, Franklin had little interest in bookkeeping, or the patience to keep accurate account books. Adams complained bitterly when he undertook the almost impossible task of straightening out the mission’s financial records. When called upon to adjudicate naval matters, Franklin’s decisions earned him the enmity of American privateers operating in European waters. He had difficult dealing with the flood of aristocrats volunteering to serve as generals in the American army, most of whom discovered on arrival in America that their services were neither desired nor rewarded.

One of the few successes was Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roche-Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who sailed for America in 1777 in a ship carrying arms and ammunition for which he paid himself. Lafayette soon won the friendship of General George Washington and a general’s commission commanding American troops. Returning to France several times during the war, Lafayette usefully supported Franklin’s requests by providing the French government with firsthand accounts of the desperate American need for war supplies.

Franklin’s handling of Vergennes when achieving an overt French alliance and in soothing the foreign minister’s irritation at the way the American delegation conducted peace negotiations with Great Britain, demonstrated how well he had mastered the art of diplomacy. Schiff terms these his supreme triumphs as a diplomat. News that the Americans had captured an entire British army on October 17, 1777, at the Battle of Saratoga did not reach Paris until December 4. Franklin immediately used the success to advance his drive for formal recognition of the United States, trumpeting the American success to everyone and suggesting that a similar fate would soon overtake all British forces in the New World.

When the British government sent unofficial emissaries to sound out Franklin on whether the Americans would settle for something short of complete independence, Franklin played off the British against the French, stimulating Vergennes’s fear that the United States would abandon the war and render French aid a waste of money. Franklin kept Vergennes voluminously informed of the barrage of peace feelers from London, leading Vergennes to overcome his reluctance to risk war with Britain and offer formal recognition of the new nation. On February 6, 1778, Franklin and Vergennes signed two documents. An open treaty of amity and commerce recognized the United States and granted its exports most-favored-nation status. A secret pact established a military alliance which would go into effect in the event of war between France and Britain and guaranteed that neither country would abandon the war before American independence was established.

The surrender of the British army at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, marked the high point of Franco-American military cooperation arranged by Vergennes and Franklin. The land forces, half French and half American soldiers, were all armed, clothed, and fed by France, the artillery and ammunition came from France, and a French fleet successfully held off the British navy. The victory provided the occasion for America’s greatest diplomatic success.

On July 20, 1782, Franklin gave the British his ideas on a peace treaty. Necessary articles were complete independence, evacuation of all British troops, access to Newfoundland fisheries, and a Great Lakes and Mississippi boundary which doubled the size of the thirteen colonies. Among possible conditions, Franklin suggested that Britain cede Canada to the United States as a gesture of goodwill. When Franklin was incapacitated by painful kidney stones, actual negotiations fell to John Jay, who successfully insisted that Britain formally acknowledge American independence before discussing other terms and got Franklin to agree to ignore Congressional instructions to consult the French at every step. With a last-minute assist from Adams, who had been held up in Holland negotiating a Dutch loan, the three peace commissioners signed a preliminary peace treaty (including Franklin’s entire list of necessary articles) on November 30, 1782.

Franklin had the task of informing Vergennes of the agreement. Vergennes censured the Americans for ignoring him during the negotiations, but he could hardly have been surprised at the news, given how thoroughly the American mission was infested with spies. Franklin demonstrated his diplomatic skill with an inspired response: “The English, I just now learn, flatter themselves that they have already divided us. I hope this little misunderstanding will therefore be kept a perfect secret; and that they will find themselves totally mistaken.”

Schiff is a gifted storyteller and literary stylist. Her colorful narrative of Franklin’s Paris years, based on extensive use of archival and documentary primary sources, is fascinating reading. At times she provides too much detail, as in repetitious descriptions of the endless infighting between Americans assigned, or who attached themselves, to the Paris mission. The same accusations repeat as various self-important political figures discover that Franklin ignored their advice. Schiff is stronger on narrative than on analysis and could have used more explanation of why the French were so willing to give Franklin what he asked, why monarchists chose to support a rebellious republic to the point of bankrupting their own government.

The strongest part of the book is Schiff’s demonstration of how much the American Revolution owed to French support. She convincingly shows that Washington’s military victory over the British would not have been possible without the aid of French arms and ammunition, soldiers, and navy.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39

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.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access