Franklin Charms Paris

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By the time John Adams arrived in Paris in early 1778 to replace American diplomat Silas Deane, there was only one American name on everyone’s lips: Ambassador Benjamin Franklin. “His name was familiar to government and people,” groused the envious Adams. “To foreign courtiers, nobility, clergy and philosophers, as well as plebians, to such a degree there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chamber maid or a scullion in a kitchen . . . who did not consider him as a friend. . . . When they spoke of him, they seemed to think he was to restore the golden age. . . . His plans and his example were to abolish monarchy, aristocracy, and hierarchy throughout the world.”

Even more intolerable for a self-respecting New Englander, Franklin took an enormous pleasure in this fame, indistinguishable to Adams from egotism and vanity; and his jeremiad against Franklin gives posterity a superb description of how the Quaker diplomat charmed Paris. Franklin invited Adams to join him in his nightly dinners with the rich and famous. In two weeks, Adams met Antoine de Sartine, the powerful minister of the navy; the Comtesse de Maurepas, the hugely influential wife of the prime minister; the noted philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet; and dozens of other people at the summit of French society. Adams utterly failed to grasp that these people combined high politics with champagne, wit, and canard à la bigarade: “these incessant dinners and dissipations were not the objects of my mission to France.”

To the humorless Adams, Franklin’s daily routine was “a scene of continual dissipation.” Having usually partied until midnight, Franklin seldom rose early enough to discuss embassy business with Adams before breakfast. No sooner was that meal consumed than there descended “a crowd of carriages” bearing a small army of visitors, whom Adams dourly chronicled as “philosophers, academicians and economists . . . but by far the greater part were women and children come to have the honor to see the great Franklin and to have the pleasure of telling stories about his simplicity, his balding head and scattering straight hairs.”

Even worse were the rumors of Franklin’s licentiousness. Adams and others were appalled by the way the ladies of France swarmed to exchange kisses with the ambassador, visible proof that he was a libertine with sexual appetites of gargantuan proportions. Franklin’s fellow diplomat, Arthur Lee of Virginia, told his brother, Congressman Richard Henry Lee, that Franklin was “a wicked old man” who had made his headquarters in France “a corrupt hotbed of vice.”

Adams and the others failed to see that Franklin’s behavior was part of a stunningly successful—and critical—publicity offensive. The 70-year-old Franklin had arrived two years earlier as an envoy of the United States of America, a country invented just five months before that when its grandly named Continental Congress approved a Declaration of Independence from the British Crown. Whether the United States would survive another six months remained an open question. British commanders and their well-trained battalions had battered American armies into retreat on every front. The young Congress was close to abandoning its putative capital, Philadelphia, for the muddy backwater of Baltimore. Support from France could prove critical in helping the cash-strapped Americans succeed in their Revolution—and Franklin, a consummate and experienced backstairs diplomat, represented America’s best chance for appealing to the French. It was a daunting task: a little more than a decade earlier, France had faced Britain in a bloody and coffers-draining war fought in North America, Europe, Asia, and on the high seas. France had lost badly in North America and had been forced to renounce its colonial aspirations in that continent. While it nursed a bloody nose and wounded pride, France would think twice before engaging in another potentially debilitating conflict with Britain.

Over the course of a few short years, however, Franklin would create a diplomatic miracle by securing more than $40 million in loans and gifts from the French treasury—the equivalent of perhaps $600 million today—that would keep the bankrupt American government functioning. He would supervise the shipment of tons of supplies and weapons to the United States and would arm and equip American sea captains, such as John Paul Jones, who preyed on British shipping in their home waters with spectacular success. He would raise money and arouse sympathy for American captives in British jails. He wrote letters and gave interviews that encouraged opposition in Parliament to George III’s determination to smash the rebellion.

These accomplishments were only a glimmer in his eyes when he and his two grandsons arrived in the port city of Nantes after their long transatlantic voyage. The presence of these young men may have suggested to some that Franklin was combining diplomacy with preserving the remnants of his family from imminent capture. Sixteen-year-old William Temple Franklin was the illegitimate son of Ben’s Loyalist son William Franklin, the erstwhile royal governor of New Jersey and now under house arrest in Connecticut. Benjamin Franklin Bache was the seven-year-old son of Franklin’s daughter, Sally. It didn’t take long for the British government to describe Franklin’s voyage as a flight to escape a rebel’s fate on the gallows.

But Franklin’s reception in Nantes caused an uproar. Ignoring his murmured pleas for rest from his voyage, Nantes’s merchant community staged a gigantic public dinner to honor the man world famous for discoverering electricity and inventing the lightning rod.