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Franklin Charms Paris
The 70-year-old statesman lived the high life in Paris and pulled off a diplomatic miracle
Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
In Paris a very different drama was taking place. Franklin’s arrival had come at an extremely inopportune time for the Comte de Vergennes, France’s cautious foreign minister. In various ports there lay no less than eight ships loaded with war materiel that he had decided to smuggle to the United States by way of a dummy company set up by one of his secret agents, the playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Vergennes ordered the Paris prefect of police to arrest anyone who announced that Franklin’s arrival signaled a French intent to sign a treaty of alliance with the upstart republic. With the dismal reports of repeated American defeats, he had no intention of signing such a treaty and entering into a war with Britain that could easily bankrupt the French government.
After several days recuperating at Nantes, Franklin and his grandsons set out for Paris, which was now in ferment over his impending arrival. Its prefect of police glumly informed Vergennes that the unforeseen arrival was creating an “extraordinary sensation,” impossible to control. People lined the streets around the Hôtel d’Hambourg on the Rue de l’Université, where Silas Deane had an apartment, hoping to glimpse the most famous living American. Franklin’s closest friend in Paris, the physician Jacques Barbeau-Dubourg, who had translated many of his writings, was so excited by his imminent appearance that he became a one-man publicity machine.
Voltaire, the guiding spirit of the French Enlightenment, lamented to a friend that “Dr. Franklin’s troops” had been defeated in battle after battle. But Franklin had no interest in Voltaire’s military opinions. He did, however, have designs on using Voltaire’s writings to further his cause. The French sage had written eloquently about Pennsylvania—a place he had never visited—describing it as an idyllic place peopled by simple, honest, peace-loving Quakers. Franklin arrived at the Hôtel d’Hambourg ready to play the part, wearing the marten fur hat that had preserved him on the freezing Atlantic.
Paris buzzed with excitement: no distinguished man in memory had dared appear in public without a wig. Even more remarkable, Franklin was attired in the “complete costume” of the Quaker sect, complete with “extremely white linen” and a plain brown suit. “Everything about him announces the simplicity and innocence of primitive morals,” noted one observer.
Those latter words struck a chord with the French, who were steeped in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s call for a return to the uncorrupted morality of the noble savage. The philosopher argued that recapturing this primitive state was France’s only hope of escaping the effete rituals, burdensome finery, and flagrant greed and vanity of its faded civilization.
Meanwhile, in the Hôtel d’Hambourg, Franklin quickly learned of Silas Deane’s involvement in the plans to smuggle weaponry to the States with Beaumarchais’ help. Neither man knew, however, that Vergennes had issued an edict forbidding a single ship to sail. The foreign minister soon met with Deane, Franklin, and a third diplomat, the Virginian Arthur Lee, who had been appointed when Thomas Jefferson declined to serve because of his wife’s fragile health. Vergennes stressed that the Americans should make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, lest they anger the English.
Franklin did not argue, but he had no intention of becoming invisible. By this time he had met Beaumarchais’ colleague, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, an enormously successful operator in the East Indian trade, who had bought the spectacular 15th-century château of Chaumont in the Loire Valley. The diminutive merchant had already advanced Deane a million livres—approximately $12 million today—out of his own pocket.
The two hit it off, and Chaumont took it upon himself to further brighten Franklin’s star in France. He hired a first-rate Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Nini, who created a portrait of Franklin wearing a fur hat. In short order, the ceramics factory on Chaumont’s Loire estate was churning out thousands of Franklin terra-cotta medallions, which were sold throughout the nation.
None too subtly underscoring their partnership, Franklin soon accepted an offer to live at Chaumont’s estate in the suburb of Passy, on the road to Versailles and Vergennes’ offices. In further conferences with the foreign minister, Franklin never said a word about the military alliance that the Americans so desperately needed. All he offered was a commercial treaty that would open American ports to French trade. But in every meeting his remarkable personality worked its magic on the veteran diplomat. In a matter of weeks, Vergennes offered another 2 million livres in secret aid from the French treasury and let the munition ships sail.
Both men knew they were surrounded by spies on the payroll of the British ambassador, Lord Stormont, who assiduously fed the French newspapers vicious
slanders upon Franklin and reports of the collapse of General Washington’s army. When a distressed French friend asked Franklin about the truth of one of these stories, he gravely replied: “Oh no, it is not the truth. It is only a Stormont.” This bon mot swept through Paris, and Stormonter became a synonym for lying.
Two weeks after his arrival, Franklin accepted an invitation from the 80-year-old Marquise du Deffand, whose semiweekly salon was the foremost social destination in Paris. Once more he wore his fur hat and Quaker costume. The marquise was blind and hence immune to the shock.