A collection of Benjamin Franklin tidbits that relate Philadelphia's revolutionary prelate to his moving around the city, the colonies, and the world.
Adlai Stevenson once observed that every diplomat must make a solemn pledge -- to drink for his country. Ambassadors represent their country to chiefs of state, and everybody involved must participate in constant social masquerades to ease the strain of dealing with people whose interests may conflict with his own. In fact, when some ambassador indelicately blurts out the truth, he can be expected to be declared "persona non grata", and replaced.
There are plenty of reasons to suppose that Franklin disliked the French. On several occasions, he had rallied public opinion, raised troops and even served in the Colonial forces during the French and Indian War. As a leader of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he had to cope with the activities of the French in western Pennsylvania, stirring up Indian massacres of Pennsylvania settlers. He very nearly lost his financial shirt helping General Braddock obtain horses and wagons, and surely had numerous acquaintances in the British Army slaughtered at Fort Duquesne. England was at war with France for years, and right up to 1774, Franklin spent most of his energies trying to bring the Colonies into tighter unity with the British throne. The purpose of such a union was primarily to ensure the protection of the Colonies against the French. The goal was always to ensure the protection of the Colonies against the French.
Having spent seventy years building up defenses against the French bogeymen, Franklin's about-face had been abrupt. Right up to the moment of confrontation with Wedderburn in the cockpit of Whitehall, Franklin had been struggling with the English to make America a full part of Great Britain, searching for an acceptable formula for taxing America for its own defense -- against the French and Spanish. After his public humiliation and a brief interval of contemplation, Franklin went home to join the Second Continental Congress, spending only a few months there to bring Revolution to a tipping point. Having succeeded largely because of his assurance that he could get the French to become allies, he promptly returned to Paris to make good on his assurances. Maybe he was a secret French-lover all that time, and maybe his expedition to Paris was just a ruse to let him enjoy a ten-year Parisian vacation. But the utter implausibility of that suspicion is exposed merely by voicing it. Furthermore, he had spent many years at the British Court on his quest to take Pennsylvania from the Penn family and give it back to the King, therein receiving a full education in the wiles and deceits of diplomatic life. He knew what to do, how to dress, how to talk, and what to disassemble as a negotiator. He had seen many diplomats fail in their missions and had a chance to observe what it took for others to succeed. He was forty years older than almost anyone he met, world famous before most of them were born.
So the late Harvey Sicherman, Philadelphia's local State Department alumnus, was almost surely right when he described Franklin as a spinner. He may have grown to like some particular Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, and he certainly enjoyed himself hugely. But to say he loved France is a stretch, while to say he hated most things which are uniquely French is not totally improbable. More likely, he was indifferent to all that, because he was there to do a job. His job description was to make himself charming, attractive, and persuasive to as many influential Frenchmen as he could find. And to wait for any diplomatic opportunities which George Washington might create on some distant battlefield.
When he first arrived in Paris, the military situation back home was bleak. The British had just defeated Washington on Long Island, the expedition against Canada had been a failure. For ten months, Franklin had to keep the American vision alive in Paris without evidence of military success at home. When Washington finally defeated the British at Trenton and Princeton, and particularly when Burgoyne was routed at Saratoga, Franklin pounced. Those victories were exaggerated suitably and celebrated wildly throughout all the social circles which Franklin had charmed for the previous year. Scientific and intellectual leaders, salon society, and even many members of the royal court were on his Rolodex, so to speak. They were useful levers of gossip and news to spread his reports in a suitable way. Paris was full of spinners, spies, and manipulators, but Franklin the old publisher knew how to dominate the news.
Even his famous love affairs could be viewed as having their purpose. Madam Brillon was forty years younger than Franklin, one of the most beautiful and musically talented women of the age. No doubt it was pleasure itself to charm this charmer, and no doubt his advanced age caused her husband to drop his guard. But Franklin knew very well what a stir it would make for a famous man his age to be linked in speculative gossip to a thirty-two-year-old celebrated beauty. That he could have made this conquest in spite of old age, gout, kidney stones and a very rudimentary knowledge of French, was deliciously worth talking about in naughty circles. And then one never knows. In a time of war, surrounded by spies and assassins, it would always be a good thing to have local friends who might warn him, hide him or help with an escape.Franklin's association with
Madame Helvetius was much the same in many ways, or at least John Adams thought so, but there are some major differences. In fact, if you discount the parts that offended Adams as largely dissembled, the Helvetius episode may have been the most truly significant relationship of Franklin's life. She was widowed, much closer to him in age, much more his equal in wit and attainment, and he actually proposed marriage to her. She refused him, for reasons we are not in a position to assess, but a marriage between an Austrian relative of Marie Antoinette to an elderly frontiersman might well have seemed too far a social stretch. Furthermore, there seems to be an important connection between the intellectual circle of revolutionaries who clustered with her and her former husband, and the impending French Revolution. The mother of LaRochfoucauld also ran a salon for the same group, attended by LaFayette and others who turned up in America during our revolution, and who associated with others whose names would in time seem like a recital of the leaders of the French Revolution. Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were both active with this group of rebels whose history goes back to the reign of Louis XIV. Jefferson was obviously influenced by them, Franklin's intellect was so much more powerful that it is possible that influence ran the other way. The thought has occurred to others that Franklin may have been mainly responsible for two revolutions, not just one. Even two centuries later, feelings run so high that the truth of the matter is not clear. From the point of view of Franklin's diplomatic triumphs, the existence and power of this group of French conspirators do raise a question of just who was using whom. And whose goals were ultimately served.
In any event, Franklin was quick to turn the Battle of Saratoga into a decision by France to become an open ally of the colonists, and the Battle of Yorktown into the Treaty of Paris granting independence to America. During all the years in between, Franklin was wheedling money and munitions secretly from the French, somehow using Haym Salomon to get the money out of France and Holland, around the British navy, and into the hands of the beleaguered Americans. As always happens, the money suffered some shrinkage in transit, for which many fingers were pointed at many reputations, including Franklin's.
Originally published: Friday, December 01, 2006; most-recently modified: Friday, September 20, 2019