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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
This was by no means the last salon Franklin frequented. From previous visits, he knew that French women played an extremely important role in forming public opinion and even in influencing political decisions. Delighted by the feminine wit and intelligence that soon surrounded him, he wrote to his sister Jane Mecom that such company was “extreamly [sic] agreeable.”
The French ladies had no hesitation about kissing Franklin and inviting him to reciprocate, which he did with enthusiasm. “Somebody,” he told a Boston niece, “gave out that I loved ladies; and then everybody presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embrac’d—that is to have their necks kiss’d. . . . The French ladies have a 1000 other ways to render themselves agreeable, by their various attentions and civilities, & their sensible conversations.” If a woman asked him whether he liked her more than the others, the discoverer of electricity would assure her that she was indeed his choice, as long as she remained close to him, “because of the power of the attraction.” Needless to say, the lady would be thrilled.
What made Franklin’s popularity doubly amazing was his limited command of the French language. “If you Frenchmen would only talk no more than four at a time, I might understand you and not come out of an interesting party without knowing what you are talking about,” he protested amiably. In large groups, Franklin made it a policy to remain silent—which the voluble French promptly acclaimed as another Quaker virtue.
Pierre Jean George Cabanis, a French physician and philosopher who became a friend of Franklin’s, expressed the delight so many of his compatriots felt when they met him. His “most original trait,” wrote Cabanis, was an “art of living,” which enabled him to combine business with pleasure without the slightest hint of conflict. “No matter when one asked for him, he was always available. His house in Passy . . . was always open for all visitors. He always had a half hour for you.”
A less well-known aspect of Franklin’s preternaturally winning ways was music—again inadvertently given substance by Adams’s bitter observations: Franklin’s postdinner activities most commonly involved visiting his women friends, who served him tea in the English fashion. “After tea the evening was spent in hearing the ladies sing and play upon their piano fortes and other instruments of musick.” Many of these women were gifted performers. Franklin’s Passy neighbor and closest woman friend, Madame Brillon de Jouy, was a pianist of such renown that several of Europe’s leading musicians had dedicated compositions to her.
Franklin, who particularly enjoyed the traditional songs of Scotland and Ireland, often joined in musicales and played the violin, harp, or guitar. Perhaps the largest impression he made with music involved the armonica, an instrument he had invented and then perfected in 1762. It consisted of a nest of glass bowls transfixed on an iron spindle, which players worked with a treadle while touching the trembling glasses’ lips with their fingers. Even before Franklin’s arrival, the armonica’s eerily
other worldly sounds had become popular. Queen Marie Antoinette had learned to play it as a girl in Vienna; both Mozart and Beethoven composed for it. It was no small coup to have the instrument’s inventor playing away in one’s drawing room.
Franklin also raised to a new and dazzling level a skill he had developed as a newspaper editor: ridiculing his enemies. When he learned that Washington had captured
almost a thousand Hessians at Trenton, he faked a dispatch from the fictitious Count de Schaumbergh of Hesse-Cassel to the equally spurious Baron Hohendorf, commanding the Hessian troops in America: “You cannot imagine my joy at being told that of the 1,950 Hessians engaged in the fight, but 345 escaped. There were just 1,605 men killed and I cannot sufficiently commend your prudence in sending an exact list of the dead to my minister in London.” The count was getting recompensed for each man lost, and he looked forward to collecting 643,500 florins from the British exchequer. “I’m about to send you new recruits,” crowed the count. “Don’t economize them.” His recent trip to Italy had cost him “enormously,” and he had contracted for a “grand Italian opera” that threatened to empty his treasury. He urged the baron to “encourage as much mortality as possible” by exhorting the newcomers to “seek glory in the midst of dangers.” This malicious spoof met with roars of delight when read aloud in the cafés and salons of Paris.
Nothing appeared in print about one of Franklin’s more directly warlike ventures, a naval offensive using French funds: he ordered Capt. Lambert Wickes, the commander of the USS Reprisal, which had brought him to France, to carry the war into British home waters. Wickes’s squadron of three ships captured eight vessels and destroyed 10 others off the Irish coast.
Next Franklin unleashed another fighting sailor, Gustavus Conyngham, who circumnavigated the British Isles, destroying many vessels in the North Sea and the Baltic. London insurance rates soared, and British merchants began using French ships. Franklin let it be known that 40 French merchantmen were anchored in the Thames taking on cargo, yet another story most agreeable to French ears.
Meanwhile the war in America rumbled on, and except for Washington’s real but not strategic victories at Trenton and Princeton, the news remained bad. British commander in chief Sir William Howe responded to the American victories by taking Philadelphia—the capital city—in September 1777. The members of the Continental Congress fled for their lives.