Spring 2010 | Volume 60, Issue 1
The 70-year-old statesman lived the high life in Paris and pulled off a diplomatic miracle
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. His reputation with France’s rising bourgeoisie had soared to new heights when his book of aphorisms and preachments on how to succeed in business, The Way to Wealth, which he had written under the pen name of Richard Saunders, was published in France seven years earlier. The French had fondly dubbed the witty American Bon Homme Richard.
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. But the rest of the bewigged, silk-clad aristocrats who packed the room were speechless with amazement.
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. Franklin’s daughter, son-in-law, and their younger children, along with all of Franklin’s property, now lay in enemy hands.
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.