- Historic Sites
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
Publicly, however, Franklin remained undaunted. A few days later, a fellow guest at dinner asked with obvious malice, “Well, Doctor, Howe has taken Philadelphia.” “I beg your pardon, sir,” Franklin shot back. “Philadelphia has taken Howe.”
Franklin’s retort contained some truth, as well as wit. He was a chess player, and one glance at the board showed that the city was only a symbolic conquest. The British army was now in a sea of hostile Americans and utterly dependent on the winding Delaware River for supplies. But diplomacy deals in symbols as well as realities; Franklin and his fellow diplomats were more than a little disheartened.
A week later, a rumor drifted into Paris from Nantes that an American ship had arrived bearing important dispatches. The three diplomats and many of their French friends gathered at Franklin’s house in Passy on the day their courier was anticipated, rushing out to greet the 30-year-old Jonathan Loring Austin of Boston as he dismounted from his chaise.
“Sir,” Franklin asked, “is Philadelphia taken?” He and everyone else had been hoping the story was another Stormont. But Austin nodded mournfully. “Yes,” he replied. Letting his head fall, Franklin turned with a sigh of deep dismay. “But sir,” Austin continued, “I have greater news than that. General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!”
Beaumarchais leaped into his carriage and thundered into Paris to spread the news. At Passy, Franklin concentrated on getting it to the court and the Comte de Vergennes. For a
little while, Versailles displayed some diplomatic hesitation, which evaporated when Franklin leaked to French spies that he was talking to the British secret service in France about signing a peace of reconciliation with the mother country.
Franklin never seriously considered such a semisurrender, but neither Vergennes nor any other Frenchman knew that this was a Stormont in reverse. Soon came an offer of the prize that Franklin had never requested: a military alliance and virtually unlimited access to the French treasury.
This could only mean war between France and England, but for aristocratic Parisians it also meant a partnership with the man they had come to love and admire more than any other foreigner. Bon Homme Richard, the sorcerer who had tamed lightning from heaven, would now help them defeat their oldest and most arrogant enemy.
The climax of the drama came on March 20, 1778, when Franklin journeyed to Versailles for an audience with Louis XVI after the treaty had been signed. It was also the ultimate performance of Bon Homme Richard, the imagined Quaker. He wore neither wig nor sword nor any other decoration on his simple brown suit and spotless white stockings and shirt.
When Franklin stepped down from his carriage, a stunned gasp ran through the huge crowd of spectators in the palace courtyard: “He is dressed like a Quaker!” From Vergennes’ apartment in a wing of the palace, Franklin and his fellow envoys were led down seemingly endless corridors to the door of the royal apartments. Noblemen lined the halls, murmuring their amazement at Franklin’s daring. Dress at Versailles was as carefully regulated as at a solemn high mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. The royal chamberlain frequently barred those who violated the rules in the smallest way.
The chamberlain almost went into shock at the sight of Franklin’s outfit but, pulling himself together, led the visitors to the king’s dressing room. Louis met them with a lack of ceremony that suggests Vergennes had prepared him for the visit. In a loose robe with his hair hanging to his shoulders, the young king told Franklin to “firmly assure Congress of my friendship. I hope this will be for the good of the two nations.” He added that he was “exceedingly satisfied with your conduct during your residence in my kingdom.” Franklin replied: “Your Majesty may count on the gratitude of Congress and its faithful observance of the pledge it now takes.”
Back the Americans trudged to the courtyard, still choked with an immense crowd. The sight of Franklin triggered a complete abandonment of palace etiquette, and they burst into a tremendous cheer. Tradition holds that Franklin was so moved that he wept. The affection of these spontaneous people was a tribute to his ability to win hearts as well as to change minds in the service of his country.
The war lasted another five years. Throughout that time, French loans and gifts repeatedly rescued the Americans from financial collapse. In 1780 a 5,000-man French expeditionary force arrived in Rhode Island. The following year they joined Washington’s men in their historic march to Virginia to win the decisive victory at Yorktown. Counting the men in the French fleet that trapped the British army in the little tobacco port, there were some 7,800 French soldiers at Yorktown, and about 9,000 Americans. General Washington would have been the first to admit that no one deserved more credit for the victory than Bon Homme Richard.