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Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance
Adapted from her new book, The Secret War of Independence , Behind the benevolent smile lurked the master of intrigue, skillfully maneuvering the vacillating courts of Europe
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
On the very day the French ministry decided for the alliance, Paul Wentworth was back in Paris. Lord North had instructed him to explore the possibility of a truce on terms short of independence, and William Eden had given him an unsigned letter to show Franklin and Deane (the British too avoided Arthur Lee) which declared that England was ready to make great concessions—short of independence.
He was annoyed to find that Bancroft was in London, making contact with the mission rather difficult. But he had met Deane, and wrote him asking for a rendezvous, hinting that he had come to promote peace. He signed only his initials.
This was interesting; evidently the expected overture from England was at hand. Wentworth’s connection with the secret service was not suspected; Franklin regarded him as a former patriot who had joined the Tory ranks and must be treated with caution. Deane arranged to meet Wentworth at dinner a day or so later, and Franklin took care to tell the minister what was afoot. A little pressure on Vergennes would do no harm.
Vergennes was alarmed. Before Deane and Wentworth met, he sent word to Passy that France would after all not wait for word from Spain but would conclude the alliance independently, on one condition: that no separate peace be made with England.
After this momentous decision of December 17, Deane’s meeting with Wentworth was a decided anticlimax. All George III had to offer his erring children, who would of course return to colonial status, was the repeal of the obnoxious acts since 1763, which had precipitated the war. Wentworth reported to Eden that he had found Deane “vain, desultory and subtle” and indeed the commissioner must have had some difficulty keeping a straight face.
Wentworth did not give up, and in a conference the next day he offered America a few more concessions, purely on his own authority. Then he tried to tempt Deane with the “honours and emoluments” which the King would bestow on him if he brought about a reconciliation. But Deane was not interested; he showed “great American pride,” Wentworth wrote Eden. He added, “Take care that America and the West Indies don’t glide through our fingers.”
It was three weeks before Wentworth managed to get an interview with Franklin, and he spent the interval in terror of imprisonment and even assassination by the French, whose agents were around him in clouds. He refused, when his mission was over, to return to his once beloved Paris.
George III, faced with plain warnings from Bancroft and Wentworth that a French alliance was pending, would not believe them. Wentworth, he wrote North, “is an avowed stock jobber and … I never let that go out of my mind. … Bancroft is entirely an American and … every word he used on the late occasion was to deceive; perhaps they think Mr. Wentworth has been sent from motives of fear and if that is Franklin’s opinion the whole conduct he has shewn, is wise and to me it [unravels] what other ways would appear inexplicable.”
On the last day of the year the bad news arrived from Spain: Charles III was unwilling to enter an alliance with America. Franklin remembered the bitter crisis of the summer when Louis XVI had agreed to armed intervention and then had capitulated to his uncle. This must not happen again. The time had come to invite Wentworth in.
On January 6 Wentworth was closeted for two hours with Franklin and Deane, having stipulated that Arthur Lee was to be excluded. He gave the Doctor the unsigned letter from Eden, which said that Britain was ready to fight for another ten years rather than grant American independence.
“America,” Franklin retorted, “is ready to fight fifty years to win it.”
The conversation continued with this sort of exchange, and Franklin kept it going for two hours. That was its only point; Vergennes would soon learn of this long interview with the British representative, and he might be worried if Franklin neglected to tell him anything about it. Accordingly, the Doctor held his peace.
A few hours later Vergennes warned his royal master that it looked very much as if Britain had at last offered America her independence, opening the way to an alliance with the motherland. Had France lost the race for American friendship? His sense of competition for the favor of America was plain in the letter he immediately wrote the French ambassador at Madrid. “The power which first recognizes the independence of the Americans,” he said, “will be the one to gather all the fruits of this war.”
The next day the Crown Council decided to conclude the alliance, and Vergennes rushed word to Passy that France would carry out her secret agreement of December 17 and fight at America’s side until her independence was won.
Vergennes may never have realized what had happened during that fateful year of 1777. A year ago America had been a counter on the board of Old World rivalries, a piece to be moved here and there as the calculations of the powers dictated. In their eyes she was still colonial, an outlying province of Europe. Now she was acknowledged as a nation in her own right, a nation whose treaties protected her commerce on the seas and her growing space on land, a rising people for whose friendship Britain and France must compete. Franklin knew what he had won for his beloved country.