Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance

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“Our want of powder is inconceivable,” wrote Washington in the bitter early days of the Revolution. So too was our want of guns, supplies, and everything needed in a war against one of the major powers of the earth. Above all we needed an ally. And so the man who believed that there never was a good war or a bad peace, old Dr. Benjamin Franklin, a man laden with the world’s honors who might easily have pleaded age and weariness, set out for France in his seventy-first year to secure these necessities for his country.

The story of his amazing accomplishments, of his diplomatic feats, of his wizardry in supplying the Continental armies, of his struggles with envious fellow commissioners, scheming enemies, and vacillating friends—this is the burden of Helen Augur’s new book, The Secret War of Independence (Duell, Sloan and Pearce—Little, Brown). Miss Augur, one of many writers who have honored the great old man on his 250th anniversary this year, is the author of several other books, including Tall Ships to Cathay and biographies of Anne Hutchinson and John Ledyard. In making this special adaptation of her book for AMERICAN HERITAGE, she has re-created that less familiar but vital struggle behind the scenes which was necessary at Versailles before Cornwallis could march out, in defeat, at Yorktown while the drums beat for the birth of a new nation.

Late in October, 1776, Benjamin Franklin sailed for France to direct the foreign sector of the extraordinary war into which his young country had been plunged. It was an entirely new sort of war because the United States was a new sort of country, whose survival depended less on land fighting than on a complex of factors in which Franklin was deeply involved.

He had spent eighteen years in England as colonial agent and the last eighteen months at home in the Continental Congress. In that short interval he had seen his people take up arms for a desperate war, declare themselves a nation, and make the first cautious moves in foreign relations. As the American who best understood both sides of the Atlantic, Franklin had carried much of that burden, and for a long time to come would carry all the responsibility for getting maximum aid from the neutral powers without compromising the future of the new republic.

Franklin was now seventy, afflicted with gout, and wretchedly tired from his labors in Congress and its candle-burning committees. With British warships on the prowl the voyage was dangerous, but Franklin had brought his grandsons along. Little Benny Bache would be put in school to learn French, and Temple Franklin would act as his grandfather’s unpaid secretary. They were in the best possible hands; Captain Lambert Wickes was one of the few masters seasoned in the merchant fleet who had joined the Continental Navy. His Reprisal , a full-rigged ship in an age of sloops and brigs, flew under the strong westerlies and completed the voyage in five weeks.

Short as it was, the crossing was a godsend. With a fur cap on his unwigged gray head, Franklin took up his studies of the Gulf Stream where he had dropped them on his voyage home from England. He was free for a time to be the scientist, finding in nature a fidelity to laws beyond the reach of human meddling. Yet Franklin had a high opinion of the human race and lofty hopes for his particular segment of it.

A new nation had emerged, and in time each individual would realize his new identity. Early in 1774 Franklin had written from London to a friend at home that he wished Americans “might know what we are and what we have.” After much private groping and anguish he had discovered what he was: not a colonial American, but that new man, an American. Because the future could somehow work in him he had become the sort of man coming generations would repeat. He was the mutant of a new species.

A riving home just after Lexington, Franklin had found the leaders in Congress still struggling against their enforced propulsion towards independence. Congress had sent the King the Olive Branch Petition, which paralyzed war efforts for many months. It curtailed foreign trade at the moment when the country, which produced almost nothing useful in war, most needed to increase imports. Congress would not even sanction commerce with friendly powers because that was tantamount to declaring independence.

Franklin dealt with these suicidal moves in his usual oblique fashion. Instead of using direct pressure he used leverage. This kept him out of personal debates and increased his potential. With economic law as a lever he got Congress to open trade with the whole world, Great Britain excepted, three months before independence was ratified. The Declaration was passed with independence a hope on the far side of a hopeless-seeming war. But once these two great steps in the right direction were made, it was easy to push through resolutions for negotiating foreign alliances.

These three phases reveal an orderly progression in Franklin’s mind. His private period of turmoil and decision lay behind him, and he could think calmly of what must be done to make Jefferson’s great charter a reality. He was the unifying force of the Revolution, the one man who could understand and use effectively the complex elements which composed it. (One factor, the actual fighting on land, would make up the bulk of future histories. Thus torn from its context, the military side of the Revolution is implausible.)