what extent was Benjamin Franklin responsible for the first two
treaties between France and America? Although an American victory at
the battle of Saratoga and other factors contributed to the signing
of the first two Franco-American treaties, a preponderance of the
evidence points to Benjamin Franklin as the linchpin for the meld of
It began on 3 December 1776 when Franklin landed at Auray in Brittany on the coast of France.1 He had been appointed as one of three commissioners only two months before.2 Franklin, a widower, had taken ship on the sloop Reprisal.3 He was called a “dangerous engine.”4 The word “engine,”5 something used to effect a purpose or an instrument or machine of war, proved an appropriate synonym for Franklin’s leadership of the mission.
Events Leading Up to Franklin’s
First Meeting with Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, Foreign Minister,
on 28 December 1776
Franklin had passed his seventieth birthday before he landed in
He brought his two grandsons. Little Benny Bache was destined for
school in order to learn French, and Temple Franklin would serve as
his grandfather’s unpaid secretary.7
Helen Augur wrote, “The man who believed there was never a good
war or a bad peace was about to sweep the Bourbon nations into the
War of Independence.”8
He made a bone-racking journey overland by post chaise.9 On his journey to Paris from Nantes he stayed at an inn where Edward Gibbon was staying. Franklin requested the honor of spending the evening with the eminent historian. The Tory-minded Gibbon could not reconcile it with his duty to the king. He rebuffed any conversation with in his opinion a rebellious subject. Franklin with his flair for preemptive wit replied to Gibbon’s note of rejection with his second note. He explained that he had materials in his possession that he would be happy to furnish for the course of Gibbon’s writing a history of the decline and fall of the British Empire.10
Besides writing Silas Deane on 4 December 1776, he also wrote Thomas Morris. He told Morris about the courage of the American forces. Additionally, he revealed how during his passage his vessel had made two captures of enemy ships.11 He wrote M. Barbeu Dubourg on 04 December 1776 and John Hancock, President of Congress, on 08 December 1776.
He gave Hancock a thorough update of his activities. He explained the delicate issue of bringing British ships into French harbors for the sale of the bounty. Franklin commented on Britain’s treaties with France disallowing such actions. He went on and explained his work in lifting French spirits for the American cause.
Thomas Jefferson had turned down his appointment, leaving the door open for the appointment of Arthur Lee, who was in Britain at this time. The long letter to Hancock showed not only did Franklin accept the appointment, but also he immediately undertook his assignment with vim, vigor, and vitality.12
The three commissioners were meeting in Paris. “Most hope was based on Franklin.”13 Franklin had spent ten years in Britain, serving the colonies.14 He had visited France while an American agent in Britain. His publication of “Poor Richard’s Almanak” was disseminated into France. Therefore, Franklin was not unknown in France.15 He arrived in Paris on 20 December 1776, where he found Deane. Lee joined them the next day.16
One writer concluded that no other founder came close to Franklin’s direct level of familiarity with the cultures, beliefs and byways of the diverse and contradictory land and people that would become the United States of America.17 Through private study he had learned to read and write the French language.18 Thomas Jefferson called Franklin “the greatest man and ornament of the age and country in which he lived.”19 Jefferson’s motto was borrowed from Franklin - “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”20
He was America’s elder statesman even before the Revolution.21 After the Declaration of Independence, he was the best asset of the colonies in their quest for French friendship.22 He was not a colonial American but a new man, an American.23 He would transmute nebulous personal acclaim into guns and butter for the American war.24
So what background did Benjamin Franklin come from?25 He was a Boston-born descendant of Puritan artisans.26 The tenth of seventeen children of a candle maker, Franklin became a highly successful printer.27 He was also a publisher, author, inventor, and diplomat.28 His coming over in the aftermath of the Declaration of Independence was appropriate since Franklin believed he and his countrymen had to first make a formal declaration of America’s independence.29
Franklin was selected as one of three emissaries to meet with Britain’s Lord Howe in hopes of negotiating a peace treaty. The Americans were steadfast for their country’s independence. After the negotiations concluded, they were led down to the river for fording across to their lines. As the British sailors assisted and made ready for the crossing, Franklin reached into his pockets for gold and silver coins for tipping the sailors. He suggested America’s independent wealth30
He was well known in European intellectual circles. Many considered him America’s foremost creative genius. In 1772, he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences, primarily for his work on electricity.31 When he attended a meeting of the Academy, at which Voltaire was present, a cry went up that the two philosophers must be introduced, and Gallic enthusiasm was not satisfied until they embraced and kissed each other in French fashion.32 Two noted historians pronounced, “Franklin embodied uncorrupted, simple republicanism.”33
The man he wrote the day after his landing, Mr. Dubourg, was the journalist who had published The Way to Wealth in 1773 as part of Franklin’s complete works. A new translation arrived four years later bringing widespread attention and praise.34
The Philadelphian thrived in his role. He made friends for America wherever he went. The urbane and witty diplomat enjoyed celebrity status. His republican-looking countenance was reproduced on such objects as snuffboxes, handkerchiefs, rings, and watches. Franklin did question whether it was a compliment for his likeness to be portrayed on porcelain chamber pots! This public adoration helped strengthen Franco-American relations in the months preceding the alliance.35
This assignment called for the skills of a provincial politician and the wisdom of a worldly philosopher.36 David Hackett Fischer stated it well.
Benjamin Franklin was the ideal choice. His interest in natural science impressed many members of Parisian beau monde who were likely to sympathize with opinions he was to disseminate in France. His openness and charm of manner calculated to leave a lasting impression on all who met him. His heavily accented and ungrammatical French, his plain clothes, cheap-looking spectacles, and rough fur cap, his amusing remarks, and evidence of fondness for female company caused him to become extremely well-liked as well as a respected figure in Parisian society.37
sagacity, intellectual force, versatility, originality, firmness,
period of service, and longevity combined to make him a great
leader of his people.”38 The commissioners went to Paris to represent a four-month-old republic unrecognized by any European nation.39 Knowing England as he did, Franklin realized the importance of insulting her.40
The bourgeoisie was highly favored in those days before the bourgeois revolution.41 Franklin represented the perfect type of middle-class virtue of the arch-bourgeois.42 The French government represented resistance to hereditary rights and the enemy of all those dreaming of liberty, for the French people revered him as a signer of the Declaration of Independence.43
He dressed the part by going to court without wig or sword, with hair hanging loose, his spectacles on his nose, and his hat under his arm.44 He was so beloved that everyone wanted an engraving of him over his mantelpiece.45 In his almanac for 1757, he printed a collection of his proverbs. Two translations of it were made in French. The clergy and gentry distributed the almanac to poor French parishioners and tenants bought the almanac in great numbers.46
Later on but before the treaties, Franklin was lionized in January-February 1777 when he attended the meeting of the French Academy of Science.47 During the next year Jean Antoine Houdon executes his famous bust of Franklin. A widely circulated epigram, attributed to Turgot, declared: Eripuit caelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis (“he seized the lightning from Heaven and the scepter from tyrants”).48
All of this attention upon Franklin not only consumed a lot of his time, but also somewhat embarrassed French public relations with Britain. So Vergennes was pleased when Franklin moved to Passy to live in the Hotel de Valentinois, owned by tycoon Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont.49 At first he lived in an outbuilding, but interestingly, once France recognized the United States, he moved into a wing of the main house.50 Late eighteenth century Passy was probably the most luxurious suburb of Paris.51 “You wish to know how I live. It is a fine house situated in a neat village, on a high cliff, half a mile from Paris, with a large garden to walk in…”52 Franklin surely had a wonderful vantage point.
“The French do not open their homes and hearts easily to strangers, but once friendship is won from a Frenchman it is deep and almost unbreakable.”53 He wrote his sister, Jane Mecom, about how well the French accept him.54 The people clustered around as he passed and asked, “Who is this old peasant who has such a noble air?”55 “Franklin’s arrival in Paris set off an extraordinary wave of public excitement and bordered on hysteria.”56 All this attention would give little real joy if his mission were not successful. The French people were moved by enthusiasm and impulse. The Court would be moved by cooler and more selfish purposes.57
John Paul Jones was also in France at this time. The French government had turned over to him an old merchant hulk. Jones named this 42-gun man-of-war the Bon Homme Richard in honor of Franklin’s almanac character called “Poor Richard.”58 Due to his familiarity with European courts, Franklin had the craftiness to use naval action as an instrument of diplomacy.59
Although Franklin had little formal education, he was a “natural” as reflected in the astounding success of his almanac.60 He explained in his Autobiography about his arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. He constructed a chart of thirteen virtues. He did place a dot beside each virtue daily in order to chronicle his progress. He abandoned this project, maybe because he was really stumbling on the virtue “Chastity.” Nevertheless, this endeavor bore fruit for it gave way to witty, entertaining, and wise proverbs and maxims in his almanac.61
Franklin told John Paul Jones62 that the best way to learn French was found in a “sleeping dictionary” (that is, a French mistress).63 A widow had captivated him. She set a place for him at every meal. He proposed marriage to her. She refused true to her vow to stay single. Anne-Catherine Helvetius wrote a friend telling her that Franklin made her feel a little worthier after each visit.64
Another close friend was Madame Brillon. Madame Brillon complained when he turned his attention elsewhere. “My heart, while capable of great love, has chosen few objects on which to bestow it. It has chosen them well; you are at the head of the list.”65
The historian Claude-Anne Lopez, one of an eminent group at Yale University, having studied Benjamin Franklin’s relationships with women in detail, explained, “In the age of the salon, with its delicate network of influence, intrigue, and innuendo, the importance is crucial.”66 At Versailles, Queen Antoinette called him “l’ambassadeur electrique.”67
Philadelphians had seen their most famous townsman accomplish great mental feats.68 One historian argued that Franklin was a wizard at intrigue. His genius in multiple areas would inspire alarm and jealousy in others. She advanced that he adopted the art of using screens and disguises. She wrote, “He masked his powerful and subtle mind behind the benevolent simplicity which was also part of his nature. He radiated reassurance like one of his own stoves; the warmth and charm of his personality masked his Merlin powers.”69
As a diplomat Franklin would be an adjuster, rather than a stubborn claimant.70 One writer believed sending Franklin was a masterstroke for he had a great reputation as a man of science and as “Bonhomme Richard.”71
He believed at this time that America was at a crossroads with Britain. The seeds of liberty had been planted and could not be eradicated. Franklin opined that the British parliament was not in touch with the heart and soul of the American people. He lamented a political system without American representation in the House of Commons. Franklin wrote, “This unhappy new system of politics tends to dissolve those bands of union and to sever us for ever.”72
Franklin applied political pressure. His Whig friends warned about France coming into the war on the side of America. George III was against a war with Spain and France (Bourbons). The king still continued bullying the colonies into obedience.73
One writer proclaimed that the French king was deeply impressed. He wondered if any other American could have negotiated the treaty of alliance.74 Franklin was not just working on the alliance. He was trying to get whatever else he could: more supplies, more gifts, more trade, some highly skilled officers, and a formal recognition.75 He accepted his role as matchmaker. He was determined to “suitor” France with every resource at his disposal.76 Franklin never lost sight of the importance of French public opinion.77 The great goal was the alliance with Louis’s regime. Franklin had to use his best efforts to keep his country afloat until the Bourbon monarch came around.78
Franklin wrote a revealing letter to John Ingenhousz from Paris (date uncertain) about his mission. He reviewed his time in Britain; current tyranny against his countrymen, the need for an alliance, and what trade would be like once America was unshackled. After being publicly chastised in Britain, Franklin was determined to defeat them as one can see from his words, “when Britain shall make no more a formidable figure among the powers of Europe.”79 He was not particularly concerned about the affronts to his private life. He was galled at Britain’s treatment of his country. He conveyed to John Ingenhousz that America would prevail. He prayed he would live long enough to see it.80
France was assisting by arranging for arms and cannon to be sent.81 Vergennes kept enough cash flowing, and hinted the French would take care of the construction costs on the frigates. Franklin wrote Congress in November 1777. He declared the lack of an open alliance. The military goods came as if from private benevolence and generosity.82 Franklin used this benevolence for outfitting privateers to prey on British ships, including the highly successful and good friend, John Paul Jones. He was partly responsible for acquiring the services of the young French nobleman, Marquis de Lafayette.83
Franklin was clever in his use of diplomatic tactics and brilliant at the negotiating table. He would say as little as possible, hint of parleying with enemy agents, publish propaganda, change carriages en route to meetings with Vergennes, have his friends serve as unpaid agents when traveling so they could record ship movements and report on public opinion.84 “Champion of charm, Franklin was hard-nosed at the conference table. Shrewdly, he implied that America would come to terms with the British if the French did not soon commit support against their longtime foe.”85 Everyone understood the value of a general, a president, but how many people find heroism in the tortuous tasks of politics and diplomacy?86
The British ambassador to France had written Vergennes saying he would leave France if Franklin were allowed into Paris.87 John Adams, who was often at odds with Franklin, especially after 1778, testified as follows:
His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chamber, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid, or a scullion in the kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him a friend of human kind.88
The three commissioners were waiting for an audience with Vergennes.
Arthur Lee was the uncle of Robert E. Lee. His temperament was much
different than his famous nephew’s. Arthur Lee’s hostility
against Franklin was of long standing. Being a jealous man, Lee had
coveted Franklin’s tenure in London as agent for Massachusetts.
Lee was eclipsed by Silas Deane who was engaged in the spectacular enterprise of obtaining supplies through the offices of playwright Caron de Beaumarchais.89 The playwright acted as a secret agent supplying the support. He created a front firm, Roderigue Hortalez & Co.; to disguise the government’s role for Louis had approved the operations. “A substantial amount of French (and Spanish) money flowed through Beaumarchais’s hands, winding up as weapons and other material in America.”90
Franklin wrote his friend in England, David Hartley, about American prisoners in British prisons, on October 14, 1777.91 He wrote, “You in England, if you wish for peace, have at present the opportunity of trying this means with regards to the prisoners now in your gaols.”92 He set up through Hartley and other friends in England, a committee to distribute money and clothing and other comforts to the prisoners, and get better living conditions for them.93
When Captain Wickes brought in a hundred prisoners, Franklin wrote Stormont proposing an exchange. To the second or third such letter Stormont replied, “The King’s Ambassador receives no applications from rebels, unless they come to implore His Majesty’s mercy.”94 Franklin ran an underground railway for the escape of American prisoners from Passy to the gates of the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth.95
Brands in his recent biography summed up the challenge facing the
three commissioners, “Americans were caught in a cruel trap. They
could not win without French backing, but they could not gain French
backing without showing they could win.96
The Comte de Vergennes welcomed them to the whimsical world of
European diplomacy. Vergennes was a skillful diplomat. One of his
highest policy goals was reducing Britain’s imperial might.97
The second day following Franklin’s arrival in Paris, the commissioners requested an interview with Vergennes for the purpose of negotiating a treaty of amity and commerce.98 Within a week, they met secretly with Vergennes, the single Frenchmen most able to shape Franco-American relations.99 “The first diplomatic exchange between the United States and a foreign power was highly personal: Franklin and Vergennes sizing up each other.”100
At the appointed time, the commissioners handed him a draft of a treaty made by congress. They later asked for the immediate gift of eight ships of line, troops, arms, and ammunition. They were assured they would be given protection while in France. Since the Bourbon alliance demanded joint consideration, France would have to wait on a reply from Spain.101
Franklin spent the last days of 1776 drafting memorandums, which he delivered to Vergennes at Versailles in January 1777. He pointed out how combined forces of France, Spain, and America could overwhelm British forces, and seize their valuable West Indian lands. On the other hand, without French assistance, especially at sea, America might be forced to terminate the war. He predicted the economic result, “The opportunity of cementing them, and of securing all the advantages of that commerce, which in time will be immense, now presents itself.”102
Louis XVI had only succeeded to the throne in 1774. His policy, coordinated and orchestrated by Vergennes, was careful handling of foreign affairs with Britain. Britain had defeated France in the Seven Years War. So, France strove to maintain peace in Europe, keeping Britain isolated. France would pounce on Britain at the first favorable opportunity.103 The king hesitated to aid a cause that might fail. Franklin found an ally in Vergennes. “The Comte de Vergennes savored the prospect of humiliating England and at the same time trading freely with the independent America.”104
On May 2, 1776, not waiting until July 4th, Louis XVI signed documents committing France into action as America’s secret ally, in violation of her treaties with Britain. He contributed one million livres to the colonies’ war chest, and his uncle, Charles III of Spain, contributed a like amount.105 The commissioners reminded the Bourbon governments what they had to gain by an American victory. France and Spain would secure access to the American market, which would strengthen them. Britain would lose its monopoly and weaken her to the additional advantage of France and Spain.106
“If France did not come into the war soon, then America would once again be joined to Britain, either as subject or ally, and France could do nothing to prevent this.”107 The French government was fearful that the Americans and British would make peace and leave no fruits of the war for her. In order to alleviate these fears, the commissioners drew up a personal pledge. Basically, it pledged that if war with Great Britain resulted to either France or Spain as a sequence of giving aid to or of making a treaty with America, then it would be right and proper for America not to make peace as long the war continued with respect to France or Spain. France and Spain were to give the same pledge to the United States.108 What is the background of the other two commissioners?
Silas Deane had been in France for six months on a dual mission for the two secret committees. Deane represented Connecticut in Congress. He had a good grasp of international commerce and economics, and yearned to be a great statesman like Franklin, to whom he was devoted.109
He organized after a while a steady stream of war supplies through Hortalez and Company. Deane like Franklin came from humble origins: he was the son of a blacksmith. He graduated from Yale University, became a lawyer, married into a prominent merchant family, and was successful in business. However, his zeal to be accepted as a gentleman by dressing in expensive clothing and currying favor with the aristocracy was his “Achilles heel.” For example, he sent young French noblemen, who were incompetent as soldiers, for service under George Washington.110
John and Samuel Adams had aligned themselves with the Virginia brothers, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee. When Jefferson declined, this bloc spearheaded the appointment of Arthur Lee. The Lee brothers disliked Franklin.111 Arthur Lee suffered from paranoia, and was jealous of Franklin. He had become the American agent in London after Franklin’s departure.112 Although Franklin and Deane dreaded the arrival of Lee, they knew the three of them must work together, so the duties were divided.113
Franklin knew Vergennes’s purpose was the weakening of Britain rather than the emancipation of the United States.114 By a subtle grip on the negotiations, Franklin cast his country in the role of a beggar, needing French aid of every sort. Accordingly, the Americans were advancing Bourbon interests and fighting their war. Franklin and Vergennes were on guard for detecting the point at which French and American interests diverged. Franklin sent a letter of January 5th to Vergennes. The letter was a paradigm of French goals with respect to Britain.115
Communications between the commissioners and Congress were precarious. The dispatches were often captured on the high seas. From May 1777 to May 1778, Congress would receive no direct word from the commissioners. However, before the hiatus occurred, Congress had gotten through dispatches to Franklin for him to manage his side of the desperate crisis as he saw fit.116
The commissioners laid their case at the feet of Louis XVI. The king was an absolute monarch so talk of revolution and liberties by American intellectuals was tedious.117 They proclaimed the hopes and despairs of their cause. They provided these documents in order to convince him of America’s capability for self-government: translations of the constitutions of several states as they transformed from colonies into states and translations of the Articles of Confederation which had been drawn up by the Continental Congress as a frame of national government.118
Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter from Paris to Juliana Ritchie dated 19 January 1777. He wrote about spies, “When a man’s actions are just and honorable, the more they are known, the more his reputation is increased and established. If I was sure, therefore, that my valet de place was a spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other respects I liked him.”119 A master spy came to Paris to weave his web around Franklin.120
Franklin knew Dr. Edward Bancroft from his days in London. Bancroft with a letter of introduction from Franklin secured a job with Silas Deane in Paris. Paul Wentworth working as a British spy for William Eden, an ambitious undersecretary, hired Bancroft.121 Franklin did plant information, yet information was picked up and transmitted to Stormont. Ships headed for America met with disaster, and may have been intercepted because of Franklin’s refusal to take spies seriously.122
Bancroft as secretary to the mission copied countless documents in invisible ink, stuffed the papers in bottles, and left them in a tree on the south terrace of the Tuileries for his British contact.123 George III was personally involved with Eden. The King poured over the information. He had trouble believing information either critical or inflammatory with respect to Britain. Wentworth made frequent trips to Paris so he could meet personally with Bancroft. Bancroft was not fully trusted by his superiors.124
Privateers preyed on the maritime trade of Britain.125 The captains had to take the prizes into open foreign ports. Lambert Wickes, the captain of the Reprisal, had sold his prizes to French purchasers. Upon pressure from Britain’s Lord Stormont, Vergennes issued a cease-and-desist order.126 The privateers saw their activities as more of a moneymaking venture than one of patriotism.127
Franklin wrote to the Committee of Secret Correspondence on 04 January 1777 about the success of the sea raids. He informed that “the cry of the nation is for us,” but the court [Louis XVI] is reluctance, “the press continues in England.”128 He told the Committee how American privateers had damaged Britain’s West India trade.
Franklin and Deane were busy pushing their side of the maritime war. Soon they had a group of young men helping merchantmen and privateers speed on their way, informing them of shifts in French regulations, helping them recruit French seamen, finding masters for ships and ships for masters.129 On 14 January 1777 the commissioners were assured of support.130
The gigantic Farmers-General collected taxes for the realm. For the advance of a million livres (about $200,000), the commissioners promised to send over tobacco the following year. Vergennes also promised a loan of three million livres from the royal treasury. After annoying delays from the French government, hoping to blind the British, three vessels loaded with military stores finally sailed for America.131 Congress’s letters requested items like “40,000 compleat Suits of Soldiers Cloaths,…” a request that might faze even a modern quartermaster, especially if he were ordered to obtain them on credit.132 Besides supplies, General Washington also needed volunteers for America.
Franklin wrote a letter to Washington recommending Lafayette.133 Frenchmen wanting to go besieged Franklin. He wrote to Dubourg in the autumn of 1777, “These applications are my perpetual torment.”134 Most applicants were unacceptable. Franklin wrote a satirical and witty model letter of recommendation for all occasions.135 On 04 September 1777 a letter went from Passy to General Washington on Baron de Steuben. It thoroughly recommended the services of Steuben, who was also commended by Vergennes and St. Germain.136 Franklin also recommended Count Pulaski of Poland who ended up organizing the American cavalry.137 “What America needed was not men but money.”138
Franklin was told in Paris that Howe had taken Philadelphia, Franklin
reportedly replied, “I beg your pardon, Philadelphia has taken
The young messenger then exclaimed, “But, sir, I have greater news
than that, General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of
The commissioners had heard rumors about Philadelphia and Saratoga.
Jonathan Loring Austin arrived at Passy with the astounding news on
04 December 1777.141
Alfred Owen Aldridge remarked, “By the end of the year, news of
Burgoyne’s defeat had given America a new prestige in France, and
Franklin was now free to make public appearances.”142
By January 1778 France was prepared to recognize the United States and ally with the new nation. France had achieved a near naval parity with Britain by this time. This made Louis XVI’s decision easier.143
Franklin had previously, on 07 April 1777, written Count D’Aranda, Spanish Ambassador to the Court of France. Franklin broached the subjects of joining the Americans in the war, the Americans declaring war on Portugal, assisting Spain and France for their conquest of the English sugar islands, and granting Spain possession of the town and harbor of Pensacola.144 How real was the prospect of their reconciliation with Britain, or their defeat? Vergennes needed to know.145
Franklin finally had to play his trump card, the possibility that America might be forced back into the British Empire. He knew that the Bourbon nightmare was the picture of Britain, sweeping Spain from the lower Mississippi and both countries from the Caribbean.146 The Americans had shown their power at Saratoga.147
Vergennes sent his first secretary, Gerard de Rayvenal, to Passy with his congratulations and the suggestion that Franklin might now press the treaty negotiation, which France had avoided for nearly a year.148 Vergennes was getting worried and alarmed. He sent word to Passy that France would after all not wait for word from Spain, but would conclude the alliance independently, on the one condition that no separate peace be made with England.149
On 06 January 1778 Wentworth gave Franklin and Deane an unsigned letter from Eden, which said that Britain was ready to fight for another ten years rather than grant American independence. “America,” Franklin retorted, “is ready to fight fifty years to win it.”150 The British were alarmed at the determination of the Americans. They began scurrying around to prevent an alliance with France.151
The British sent envoys informal and official to meet with Franklin and determine whether the Americans might settle their dispute with Britain without involving the French. Britain’s mood had changed, but so had America’s. Franklin told the British they could make an offer, but he would communicate it to the French. He said America as a new government was new at treaty-making and wished to employ the experience of their French friends.152
On January 7, Franklin heard that the King’s Council had met and voted to recommend both a treaty of commerce and an alliance. The next day Gerard came to meet with the commissioners. Gerard asked the Americans if they needed some satisfaction so as to engage them not to listen to any proposition from England.
Franklin wrote out an answer about how they had proposed a treaty of amity and commerce, but it had not been accepted. Gerard had impatiently walked back in. They showed him their answer as Franklin had crafted it. This is what Vergennes wanted to know. Gerard took Franklin’s hand and said: “I am at liberty to tell you that the treaty will be concluded.”153
David Schoenbrun reported the event:
There were two treaties to be signed: a treaty of amity and commerce and a treaty of defensive alliance. On the evening of February 6, 1778, in the offices of the French Foreign Ministry, at the Hotel de Lautrec in Paris, the French Plenipotentiary, Gerard, and the three American commissioners signed this historic document, which would then be taken to Versailles for Vergennes to present to the King.154
Continental Congress on 04 May 1778 considered the two treaties and
“Resolved unanimously, That the same be and is hereby ratified,.”155
On the next day, the Continental Congress approved the following
minutes: “and further authorize and direct our commissioners at the
court of France, or any of them, to deliver this our act of
ratification in exchange for the ratification of the said treaty on
the part of his most Christian majesty the king of France and
The treaty of amity and commerce granted each country the unfettered access to the markets of the other. The treaty of alliance pledged French support for American independence and American support to France in the event of an Anglo-French war.157 The treaties were presented to Louis XVI on 20 March 1778.158
Helen Augur emphasized that Franklin had provided much of the language contained in the two treaties. She declared their significance: “In a word, Franklin laid the cornerstone of American foreign relations, and for a long time to come American treaties would be modeled on these first ones with France.159
Edwin Erle Sparks in his informative article believed the most innovative feature from the American standpoint was the abolition of the odious practice known as the droit d’aubraine (law of aliens). Sparks explained, “In feudal France it was felt that the possession of property of the realm by an alien would be detrimental to the allegiance which each property owner was supposed to owe to the sovereign. From this it was easy to declare that the property of a deceased foreigner should be confiscated by the state. It was also easy to decree that a tax should be levied on inherited property removed from the country.”160
Ever since the Revolution, American diplomacy has concerned itself with opening markets. The first treaty was not about a military alliance but about trade. France and the United States granted each other “most favored nation” status, and American goods were to be admitted to French markets with as few obstacles as possible.161
Franklin wrote to Thomas Cushing about the treaties on 21 February 1778.162 He said the treaty of amity and commerce was on the plan proposed by Congress, with some good additions. Franklin emphasized this, “The great principle in both treaties is a perfect equality and reciprocity; no advantage to be demanded by France, or privileges in commerce, which the States may not grant to any and every other nation.”163 It has been reported that Thomas Jefferson once espoused the greatness of Washington and Franklin by saying, “… that mankind had drawn a line between them and the rest of the human race.”164
An article was published in the London Chronicle on 01 October 1778. The brief article was entitled “Authentic Memoir of Dr. Franklyn.” It was a glorification at the height of the American “rebellion” of the arch-rebel who had recently concluded a treaty of alliance with England’s traditional enemy France.165 The harangue of Benjamin Franklin in the Cockpit a little over four years before had destroyed Franklin’s feelings of kinship with Britain.166 Now in the fall of 1778, through Franklin’s magnificent leadership, America was recognized as a country in her own right. Britain had made him a “dangerous engine.”
The United States now had treaties that protected her commerce on the seas and her growing space on land. She was a rising people for whose friendship Britain and France must compete.167 The recognition would mean the interchange of accredited representatives. This gave rise to a complete diplomatic system.168 Professor Brands summed up Franklin’s achievement, “Of those patriots who made independence possible, none mattered more than Franklin, and only Washington mattered as much. Washington won the battle of Yorktown, but Franklin won the European support that allowed Washington his victory.”169
Edwin Erle Sparks, “Formative Incidents in American
Diplomacy,”Chautauquan 34 (November 1901): 139. On the day
after his arduous ocean voyage, Franklin wrote a letter to Silas
Deane, a fellow commissioner along with Arthur Lee from Virginia.
He said he would remain incognito until he ascertained
whether the court [French] would receive ministers from the United
States. Ibid. The three men served on the Committee of Secret
Correspondence. See David Hatchett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride
(New York, Oxford University Press, 1994), 207. Before his
departure, he outlined the terms upon which he supposed a peace
might be made with Great Britain, in case an opportunity for a
negotiation should offer. His suggestions were submitted to the
secret committee. See John Bigelow, ed., The Works of Benjamin
Franklin in Twelve Volumes (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1904)
fed. ed., 7, 128.
2 His official appointment was on Thursday, September 26, 1776. See Journals of the Continental
Congress, 1774-1789. Franklin on his appointment turned to Benjamin Rush who was sitting right beside him and said: “I am old and good of nothing; but, as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, ‘I am but a fag end, and you may have me for what you please,’ just so my country may command my services in any way they choose.” See Catherine Drinker Bowen, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes From the Life of Benjamin Franklin (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company, 1974), 247.
3 C. P. Reynolds, “Benjamin Franklin: Poor Richard in Paris,” Gourmet (April 1990): 132.
Bowen reported on the British viewpoint with respect to Franklin,
“In a word, my lord, I look upon him as a dangerous engine, and am
very sorry that some English frigate did not meet with him by the
way.” See Bowen, 252.
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “engine.”
“Franklin Papers IV: B. Franklin, the American diplomat: a
spokesman for freedom, he won our first ally,” Life 49, no.
5 (01 August 1960): 50. From the moment of his arrival, he knew he
was on stage, casting himself as Bonhomme Richard, as the
French knew Poor Richard. He styled himself a Quaker by his dress,
identifying with the myth of the Good Quaker extolled in Voltaire’s
Lettres anglaises ou philosophiques. See Reynolds, 132.
Young French dandies exchanged their swords for a walking stick, the
only defense of a Quaker, as they called Franklin. See Sparks,
142. The cause of les insurgens, as they called the
Americans, appealed to the sympathetic nature of the French. Ibid.
Helen Augur, “Benjamin Franklin and the French Alliance,”
American Heritage 7, no. 3 (April 1956): 66. British
warships had been on the prowl trying to capture the famous American
rebel. Franklin also suffered from gout and was exhausted from his
labors in Congress. Ibid.
Richard B. Morris, “Meet Dr. Franklin,” American Heritage
23, no.1 (December 1971): 91. On arriving in Paris, he first stayed
at the Hotel d’Entragues on December 21, 1776, and moved less than
two weeks later to the nearby Hotel d’Hambourg. See Reynolds,
Ibid., 151, 153-56.
On 29 January 1774 Benjamin Franklin stood silently in the Cockpit
while Alexander Wedderburn, the solicitor general in London,
vilified him for allowing some private papers respecting Thomas
Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts, to be published.
Professor Brands in his recent biography summarized what happened
that fateful day. Brands concluded, “Franklin left the Cockpit
seething-yet enlightened. Wedderburn had answered the question that
Franklin had been asking all his life, and that his fellow Americans
had been asking of late. Who were they? They must be Americans, for
they could not be Britons.” Found in H. W. Brands, The First
American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York:
Anchor Books, 2002), 4, 7.
Stephan A. Schwartz, “Dr. Franklin’s Plan,” Smithsonian
33, issue 3 (June 2001): 114.
“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” Condensed from
“Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiographical Writings,” Reader’s
Digest 48, no. 288 (April 1946): 144.
Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the
American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998): 66.
David Jayne Hill, “A Missing Chapter of Franco-American History,”
The American Historical Review 21 (October 1915 to July
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin and the French Alliance,” 67.
Alice J. Hall, “Philosopher of Dissent Benj. Franklin,” National Geographic 148, no. 1 (July 1975): 112.
Franklin was not afraid of fighting. In the French and Indian War
he accepted the task of rounding up wagons and packhorses for the
expedition Braddock lead against Fort Duquesne. See Bobrick, 21.
Benson Bobrick in his highly readable book on the American
Revolution entitled Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the
American Revolution noted the following achievements: in 1754 he
wanted the colonies to unite and defend themselves so England would
not have to do it for he knew this defense would entail taxes from
the mother country; his Albany Plan of 1754 had been a precursor of
his own more ambitious Articles of Confederation and Perpetual
Union; his ballad written in 1765 expressed a conditionally defiant
but still loyal attitude to England, with a clear warning to the
French; served on the committee for drafting a declaration of
independence, steadying Thomas Jefferson when other members wanted
to change or modify his language; made his famous remark, “we must
all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately;
and on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, he was
appointed to the committee to devise the great seal for the new
confederated states. Ibid., 35, 205, 30-1, 190, 202, 493. He was
appointed to the Committee of Secret Correspondence along with John
Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison, John Jay, and Thomas Jefferson. Their
job was to seek foreign support for the war. See Brands, 521.
26 David Hackett Fischer, 16.
Ibid., 22. Franklin’s wide ranging interests included founding
the first library in America. He traveled from Boston to
Philadelphia in a chaise. At every mile, he unloaded a milestone
from his cart. He was establishing the penny post for Philadelphia.
Bobrick, 48-9. He retired from business at the age of forty-two. He
devoted another forty-two years wholly to the service of the public,
as a scientist, philanthropist and statesman: “The Autobiography
of Benjamin Franklin,” 144.
James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army:
The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789 (Wheeling, IL:
Harlan Davidson, 1982), 116.
Sparks, 143. Nantes was an active place for commerce. The
French citizens there exchanged information, including Masonic
literature, with their American counterparts. “The new
physiocratic school has its followers on both sides of the Atlantic.
And Franklin, Voltaire, and Rousseau were linked together as the
presiding geniuses of the century. At the moment, Nantes was all
Frankliniste.” See, Augur, “Benjamin Franklin and the
French Alliance,” 72. Alice J. Hall in her article argued
that Paris remembers him still. She quoted, “More important,
Franklin’s simplicity evokes Rousseau: his wit matches Voltaire’s.
This along with his scientific achievements places him among our
beloved philosophes.” Hall, 112.
Martin and Lender, 116.
Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries
(Washington Square: New York University Press, 1959), 41.
Martin and Lender, 117. Franklin’s wit was marvelous. See for
example, a quip of Franklin’s reported by Sparks as follows:
“Figure me in your mind as jolly as formerly, and as strong and
hearty, only a few years older; very plainly dressed, wearing my
thin gray hair, that peeps out under my coiffure, a fine fur
cap, which comes down my forehead almost to my spectacles. Think how
this must appear among the powdered heads of Paris.” The author
continued, “He wishes that his fashion could become universal in
France and that the ladies would dismiss their one hundred thousand
hair-dressers, and pay to him half the money they pay to them. He
would send the money to his needy countrymen, and would enlist the
hair-dressers as soldiers for America.” Sparks, 142.
.36 Alice J. Hall, 112.
David Hackett Fischer, 208.
Charles W. Eliot, Four American Leaders (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1906), 79-80.
C. P. Reynolds, 132.
Helen Augur, Secret War of Independence, 163. With hardly any
staff, consular functions fell to the commissioners. All this
business had to be conducted with poor intelligence. Often the
information came via London after having been manipulated by British
propaganda. See Reynolds, 134.
Malcolm Cowley, review of Benjamin Franklin, by Carl Van
Doren, The New Republic 86, no. 1245 (19 October 1938):
Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin,”
Saturday Evening Post 262, no. 4 (May/June 1990): 39.
Leonard W. Labaree, et al., eds. The Autobiography of Benjamin
Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964),
316. He was often called Doctor Franklin. The University of St.
Andrews had awarded him an honorary degree for his inventions and
experiments. See Alice J. Hill, 112.
C. P. Reynolds, 134. He was established at Passy by March 2, 1777.
Deane lived there, but Lee resided elsewhere. See Labaree, 316.
David Schoenbrun argued, “The Passy hideout changed Franklin’s
mode of life in France from the early hectic concentration on
politics and aid to a much broader social and intellectual activity
which played its part in his campaign. Schoenbrun, 99. He
later wrote portions of his Autobiography here: Labaree, 26.
Chaumont was one of a handful of well-connected financiers who
supported the colonies-bid for independence and promised substantial
financial aid. Two of the king’s most powerful ministers were
close friends, Gabriel de Sartines, secretary of the navy, and
Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, foreign minister. See Meredith
Martindale, “Benjamin Franklin’s residence in France,” The
Magazine Antiques, 112, no. 2, (August 1979): 269-70.
Ibid. From the journal of George Forster, the German author and
scientist, Robert L. Kahn in his article related portions having to
do with a dinner party attended by Forster at Passy. Kahn reported,
“The venerable Philosopher of the Western World dined
there. His silver hair and his large front ensured him reverence and
Esteem, Persuasion and Goodness sat on his lips, and the benignity
of the whole Aspect was admirable. He spoke little and chiefly on
philosophical subjects, and dressed in a plain suit of grey and
white silk stockings: joked with Mad. Le Roy, and told a number of
humorous stories at the table. Robert L. Kahn, “An Account of a
Meeting with Benjamin Franklin at Passy on October 9, 1777: From
George Forster’s English Journal,” William and Mary Quarterly
12, no. 3 (July 1955): 473.
Benjamin Franklin to Margaret Stevenson, Passy, January 25, 1779,
quoted in John Bigelow, ed., The Complete Works of Benjamin
Franklin (New York, 1888) 6, 300.
Carl Van Doren, Jane Mecom (New York: Viking Press, 1950),
131-2. He said in a postscript, “of the respect with which I am
received and treated here by the first people, in my private
character; for as yet I have assumed no public one.” After his
service in France has concluded, Franklin reminiscenced about Paris,
“All my pleasant dreams are laid in that city.” See Hall,
Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries, 43.
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin and the French Alliance,” 72.
David Hackett Fischer, 145.
Augur, The Secret War of Independence, 164. “Like a
protective father, he worried about American sailors held in English
prisons and sought their exchange for captured British seamen.”
Benson Bobrick, 42. He received his second honorary doctorate from
Oxford University in 1762. See Schwartz, 115.
Ibid., 43-4. Franklin saw churches as one institution in the new
world, and one of the few, which could support virtue, which he saw
as critical to a citizen’s inner growth and the creation of a
civil society. Schwartz, 116. Perhaps, Franklin reflected his
rearing by Puritan parents.
John Paul Jones in writing to Robert Morris paid Franklin a great
compliment: "... and if my testimony could add anything to
Franklin’s reputation I would witness the universal veneration and
esteem with which his name inspires all ranks, not only at
Versailles and all over this kingdom, but also in Spain and
Holland.” See, Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Wisdom of Benjamin
Franklin,” Saturday Evening Post 262, no. 4 (May/June
Ibid., 388. In his youth, Franklin visited Philadelphia’s
brothels. He recognized an illegitimate son, William. This son
later became the last royal governor of New Jersey. Ibid., 44.
Hall, 116. A Franklin scholar at Yale University, Ms. Claude-Anne
Lopez, did not believe the gossip about him having thirteen
illegitimate children. She corrected the myth, “Franklin always
admired and respected lively intelligent women. He paid attention
to them as people.” Compare Claude-Anne Lopez, Mon Cher Papa:
Franklin and the Ladies of Paris, new ed. (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 1990), 3. Madame Brillon flirted with him
constantly. She turned to Franklin as her father when her husband
was unfaithful. She addressed him as “mon cher Papa.” She
summarized his allure as being full of gaiety and gallantry that
causes all women to love you, because you love them all. See, Hall,
118. Richard B. Morris in his article for American Heritage on
page 86 described his belief that Franklin relished the role of
“papa.” Professor Brands, the recent biographer, recorded how
Franklin called Madame Helvetius the “Notre Dame d’Auteuil.”
“If Notre Dame is pleased to spend her days with Franklin, he
would be just as pleased to spend his nights with her,” he wrote.
“And since he has already given her so many of his days, although
he has so few left to give, she seems very ungrateful in never
giving him one of her nights, which keep passing as a pure loss,
without making any one happy except Poupon [her cat].” Brands,
Lopez, 20. In a letter to Emma Thompson, a single woman,
from Paris on 08 February 1777, he said, “And methinks you, with
all other Women who smart or have smarted under the Tyranny of a bad
husband, ought to be fix’d in Revolution Principles, and
act accordingly.” See Lemay, 994-97.
Hall, 116. Franklin said of the queen, with regard to her
eyes, “do more mischief in a week than I have done in all my
Edward Countryman, The American Revolution, American Century
Series (New York: Hill and Wany, 1985), 216.
Augur, Benjamin Franklin and the French Alliance, 69.
Franklin was famously many sided. There are few sides from which
he, and his memoirs, have not been approached: Stacy Schiff, “Never
Trust a Memoirist: Ben Franklin and the Autobiography,” The
American Scholar 70, no.2 (Spring 2001): 68. Malcolm Cowley
commented about the use of the mask. He related how William Butler
Yeats expressed how a great man may overcome his weaknesses and
redouble his influence by creating a false character for himself,
based on exactly those qualities in which he is lacking: Cowley,
Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin,”
Saturday Evening Post, 262, no. 4, (May/June, 1990): 39.
Bobrick, 84. “All Europe is on our side of the question-as far as
applause and good wishes can carry them.” (Letter to Samuel
Cooper, Paris, May 1, 1777.) This was quoted in Augur,” Benjamin
Franklin and the French Alliance,” 67.
Ibid., 68. Helen Augur continued on page 85, “Only a great heart
and a great faith could survive.” The American army was encamped
at this time at Valley Forge.
The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 178.
By early 1775 the British embassy in France estimated that war
supplies worth 32,000,000 livres (about $6,000,000) had been shipped
from the kingdom to the colonies. See Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,”
70. The traffic, which started in about 1770, was large. American
merchantmen picked up contraband all over Europe: the British,
Dutch, and French sent cargoes direct to the colonies, but greater
amounts went to their islands in the Caribbean, to be picked up by
American traders. Ibid. Augur argued, “It is hard to see how the
patriots could have started their war, or kept it going, without the
help of the islanders.” Ibid., 71.
Brands, 539. Franklin wrote about the poor quality of the arms sent
through France’s indirect channels. He commented about how
America needed good fighting men from France, but they sent the
dregs of society. See, Aldridge, Franklin and his French
Contemporaries, 63. The American merchants were concentrated
where Franklin came into France at Nantes. Franklin considered that
similar activities, on a smaller scale, were taking place at
Bordeaux, Lorient, Le Havre, and Dunkirk. See Augur, “Benjamin
Franklin and the French Alliance,” 72.
Franklin Papers IV, 50.
Hall, 118. Franklin achieved his first successes and the base of
his fortune through his expertise as a writer and printer. H. W.
Brands in his book recorded how sometime during the first year at
Passy, Franklin set up a printing press. He hired help and before
long he was back in the printing business. See Brands, 566. He
joined the “Nine Sisters.” This was the first school of
Constitutionalism that ever existed in Europe. Franklin was the
master. Their group examined the foundations of government. The
work was under way by 1778. After the war in America was over,
leaders and soldiers like Lafayette returned home, inspired by the
American example. Writers were inspired also, and mindful of the
groundwork of the “Nine Sisters.” Therefore, the combination of
events gave shape and substance to the early period of the French
Revolution. See Hill, 714,718. Also, the Masonic Lodge of
the Nine Sisters helped to mobilize public opinion in favor of
French intervention in the War of Independence. See Samuel Eliot
Morison, “The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin,” Saturday Evening
Post 262, no. 4 (May/June 1990): 40.
There have been negatives reported on Franklin’s diplomacy,
especially after John Adams arrived on the scene after the alliance
was signed. He was criticized for not taking adequate precautions
against spies. He was said to be apathetic in the conduct of his
duties and servile to the French court. It was reported that the
other Americans with whom he served were critical of his efforts.
Writers have reported that Vergennes complained about him. Maybe
all these complainers had hidden agendas. History shows that
Franklin was never recalled from Britain or France. For a
discussion of his shortcomings as a diplomat, see John Ferling,
“John Adams, Diplomat,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d
ser., 51, no. 2 (April 1994): 249-50. Richard B. Morris maintained,
“the statesman entourage included a spy in British pay, a maitre
d’ hotel who was a thief, and a grandson who was a playboy.”
See, Morris, 89. Morris was referring to William’s son,
Temple, who was serving as his grandfather’s private secretary. It
is interesting that Franklin brought both of his grandsons. But who
would not want to go with a grandfather like this one.
Richard D. Miles, “The American Image of Benjamin Franklin,”
American Quarterly, 9, no.2, part1 (Summer 1957): 118.
“Benjamin Franklin’s reputation as an anchor of American
Revolutionary diplomacy is doubtless established, and deservedly
so.” See James H. Henderson, “Congressional Factionalism and the
Attempt to Recall Benjamin Franklin,” William and Mary
Quarterly, 3rd ser., 27, no.2, (April 1970): 246.
The writer continued, “Neither the ambivalence of his earlier
politics as anti-proprietary agent during the resistance nor the
opportunism of his business dealings in land and stocks during the
Revolution have diminished the historian’s recognition of Franklin
in Paris during the eight years from 1776 to 1783 which steadied
American relations with France.” Ibid. One recognizes a
difference of opinion as to whether or not Franklin engaged in
private business dealings during the Revolution. His letter to his
sister, Jane Mecom, partially quoted supra, indicated his separation
of his private life from his public life.
Sparks, 141. Vergennes, the wily politician that he was, replied,
“that he would send a courier to stop Franklin. However, if he
should slip into the country, then it would be scandalous and
against the laws of hospitality to drive him out of Paris.” Ibid.
The French court was worried by the British ambassador’s protests,
so they kept him uneasily at arm’s length. Lopez, 5.
Lopez, 5. Lee accused Franklin of engaging in commerce for his
personal enrichment at the expense of the nation. Lee even wrote a
note about a “scheme of commerce” to Gerard, Vergennes’s chief
assistant, to such effect. Schoenbrun, 131-2. Augur in The
Secret War of Independence on page 178 pronounced, “Franklin
was one of the very few leaders of the Revolution who carried on no
private business during the war.”
The Works of Benjamin Franklin, 225-30. Hartley began
a campaign to ease the conditions of American prisoners and to work
for their release: Schoenbrun, 164.
Augur, The Secret War of Independence, 244.
Ibid. Franklin gave the British an opportunity, Schoenbrun reported
Franklin’s words, “Between nations long exasperated against each
other in War, some Act of generosity and kindness towards Prisoners
on one side has softened Resentment and abated Animosity on the
other, so as to bring on an Accommodation.” Schoenbrun, 163.
Ibid., 236. He refused to sign the final peace treaty with England
until all American prisoners were released. Augur, “Benjamin
Franklin and the French Alliance,” 85.
Brands, 523. See also, Labaree, 315. The purposes of
the mission were as follows: “initially, to secure treaties of
commerce and alliance with France and French aid in money and
supplies; later, to negotiate treaty of peace with Great Britain;
thereafter to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with other
powers. Other responsibilities: procurement and shipment of supplies
for American army, assistance to American naval vessels in French
waters, commissioning of privateers, adjudication of prizes,
promoting the exchange and repatriation of American prisoners of
war, and continuously, fostering the sympathy and support of the
French people for American cause.” Helen Augur argued that an
eventual American victory depended on military supplies and a
powerful navy. See, Augur, “Benjamin Franklin and the French
Martin and Lender, 115.
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 75.
Sparks, 143. Franklin saw the American war in a large
context. In a letter to Dr. Cooper on May 1, 1777 from Paris, he
opined, in part, “Hence ‘tis a common Observation here that our
Cause is the Cause of all Mankind; and that we are fighting
for their Liberty in defending our own…” See “Franklin Papers
IV,” 57. He had previously written the Committee of Secret
Correspondence on 04 January 1777. In referencing Vergennes’s
advice, Franklin wrote, “By his advice, we have had an interview
with the Spanish Ambassador, Count d’Aranda, who seems well
disposed towards us, …” See Bigelow, 168.
Brands, 530. He was certainly prophetic as to the commercial
empire his country would one day become. His messages mixed
promises with threats. Franklin explained to the Committee of Secret
Correspondence, “clearly the government is not ready to embrace
the American cause openly for fear of giving umbrage to England.”
John Ferling, ed., The World Turned Upside Down: The American
Victory in the War of Independence (New York, Westport, CN, and
London: Greenwood Press, 1988), 149.
Hall, 112. Edwin Erle Sparks quoted Vergennes’s remarks to his
cabinet about a year before as follows: “The continuation of the
war would be advantageous to the two crowns [of France and Spain].
The best mode of securing this result would be on the one hand to
keep up the persuasion in the minds of the English ministries that
the intentions of France and Spain were pacific, so that they might
not hesitate undertaking an active and costly campaign; and on the
other hand to sustain the courage of the Americans, by countenancing
them secretly, and by giving them vague hopes which would obstruct
any attempts England might make to bring about an amicable
accommodation.” See Sparks, 144.
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 73.
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 72-3.
Ibid., 73-4. By October 1776 Beaumarchais had spent the original
2,000,000 livres, plus another million from France, and 2,600,000
livres in the form of credit from French merchants. Two ships
finally got away in time to reach Portsmouth by April 1777, with
supplies that helped turn the battle of Saratoga. Ibid., 74-5.
Another brother, William Lee, was in France serving as joint
commercial agent. William and Arthur wanted to move Deane and
Franklin out so they would have control of American interests in
France, the fulcrum of European support. They opened a letter
writing campaign with the Adams-Lee bloc. Ibid., 84.
Eventually, Congress recalled Deane for questioning about the commercial transactions. Ibid., 86.
Franklin and Vergennes kept Lee away from the treaty negotiations, knowing he was dangerous and disagreeable. Ibid., 87.
Franklin took charge of diplomatic duties, Arthur Lee undertook
missions to Spain and Prussia, which kept him out of Paris at a
crucial period, and Deane continued his commercial activities.
Ibid., 77. Lee angered the Spanish and Prussian governments by his
arrogance. It was a shame because Frederick of Prussia hated the
British. A British agent stole Lee’s private journal while he was
in Prussia. It contained the details of every move made by the Paris
mission up to that date. Ibid., 84. After Lee’s visit to Spain,
Charles III refused to send any more aid. He listened to his new
foreign minister, Floridablanca, who disfavored an American
The French king had to be convinced to support the American rebels.
David Schoenbrun pinpointed the critical role played by Franklin,
“Franklin knew he could help Vergennes and the common cause most
by rallying the leaders of French society, the great families and
savants of France, to his side. If the noblest families declared
themselves for America, along with France’s leading writers and
scientists, this would go far toward calming the King’s
anxieties.” See Schoenbrun, 78-9. Franklin parlayed his wonderful
sense of just what to say, and how to say it, with the best smiles,
and body language, for drawing French interests into an alliance.
Surely, Britain had called him the chief rebel, and was eager to
apprehend him on the high seas, and hang him from the nearest
yardarm. Vergennes and his lieutenant, Gerard, soon realized they
were negotiating with a maestro. “His flexibility, his real desire
to do everything the French wanted, endeared him to Vergennes and
the court.” Ibid., 84.
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 75-6. A few months later, on 17
March 1777 the commissioners sent memorials to the French and
Spanish ministries urging a triple war against Britain and her ally
Portugal. The joint conquest of Canada, Florida, and the West
Indies was proposed. If successful, France would get as her share
half of the Newfoundland fishery and all the sugar islands; Spain
would claim Portugal and the Florida region, and the United States
would gain Canada, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. No peace would be made
except by mutual consent. Ibid., 77. The memorial to Vergennes had
asked for ₤ 2,000,000, but nothing came of this request. Ibid.
Franklin addressed Vergennes in his letter from Versailles dated
05 January 1777 as follows: “To his Excellency the Count de
Vergennes, one of his most Christian Majesty’s principal
Secretaries of State, and Minister for foreign Affairs.” See
William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983) 23, 122-3. Now this
is a great salutation! He boldly declared, “North America now
offers to France and Spain her Amity and Commerce.” Ibid., 123.
Vergennes had been caught off guard somewhat, because he thought the
Americans would proceed slowly with only a request for a treaty of
commerce. See Schoenbrun, 82-3. Franklin as a great negotiator
asked for all his beloved country needed.
Ibid., 91-2. Bancroft and Wentworth were both Americans. Dr.
Bancroft was an esteemed scientist. Sixty years after his death,
the truth came out about Bancroft. He was the “Edward Edwards”
of the secret service, the master spy of the century. See Augur,
“Benjamin Franklin,” 78-9.
Hall, 118. With Gallic flair, the French gave Franklin the code
name, Promethee, after the Greek god who brought fire from the
heavens. In British cipher Franklin was a prosaic number, “72.”
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 77-9.
American privateers could accomplish wonders, but they could not
prey on the huge British ships of the line. The British patrol of
the seaboard made it difficult to maintain a supply line of military
and civilian goods. Franklin’s most pressing assignment was to
buy or borrow eight battleships from France and urge the Bourbon
powers to commit their fleets in concert with these ships. See
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 68-9. Privateers were active before
Lexington and Concord. Ibid., 69. The privateers attracted most of
the able seamen so American naval affairs floundered. Ibid., 76.
Brands, 533. See “Franklin Papers IV” on page 57 for a
description of how John Paul Jones in planning and executing his
naval raids relayed military information collected in England.
Ibid. In March 1777 ships began arriving in New Hampshire ports
bearing some 22,000 muskets, tons of gunpowder, military equipment,
clothing, boots, blankets, tents, cannon, and everything needed to
keep an army in the field. See Ferling, World Turned Upside
Bigelow, 168. Helen Augur described how Captain Gustavus Conyngham
sailed around England, and then sailed around Ireland, taking prizes
as he went. Stormont railed Vergennes for Conyngham’s continuous
raids, and his terrorizing of the east coast of England and
Scotland. Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 82-3.
Augur, Secret War, 168. By early 1777, the French and
British had a tacit agreement that their war might be postponed
indefinitely. As British patrols blockaded the American coastline,
physical danger increased for American land forces, and the
sickening of hope was paralyzing America. Ibid., 79.
Reynolds, 134. According to Doniol, a French historian who searched
through the archives, Franklin dealt through Montaudoin of Nantes, a
great shipping merchant. See Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 69.
Brands, 537. Franklin wrote: “If, therefore, you have the least
remaining kindness for me, if you would not help to drive me out of
France, for God’s sake, my dear friend, let this your twenty-third
application by your last.” See Sparks, 144.
Lemay, 919. The first sentence was, “The Bearer of this who is
going to America, presses me to give him a Letter of Recommendation,
tho’ I know nothing of him, not even his Name.” Ibid.
Continental Congress 1777, 7: 224.
This was an inference from Franklin as to the problem of maintaining
garrisoned towns. See Bobrick, 307.
Brands, 342. Today the United States is a world power. The battle
of Saratoga on 17 October 1777 must be one of the “turning point”
battles of all time.
Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries, 65. This
military victory turned the tide. Louis XVI could back a winner.
On March 20, 1778, after the two treaties had been signed, the king
received the Americans at Versailles. See Hall, 114.
Ferling, The World Turned Upside Down, 152. Compare
Reynolds, “Louis XVI was persuaded to risk a navy far from its own
shores and to ransack French arsenals for arms and ammunition. All
of this was largely because one man manipulated the French view of
their interests masterfully. Withal, most Frenchmen loved Franklin
for it, and he returned the compliment.” Reynolds, 138. Alfred
Owen Aldridge believed, “Franklin’s features during the
eighteenth century were as familiar as Voltaire’s.” This was
quoted by Winterich on page 19.
144 Continental Congress 1777, 7: 205. The king of France wrote his uncle, the king of Spain, “The destruction of the army of Burgoyne and the straitened conditions of Howe has totally changed the fate of things. America is triumphant, and England cast down. I have thought …that it was just and necessary to begin to treat with them to prevent their reunion with the mother country.” See Sparks, 145.
145 Brands, 529. The author on page 563 reasoned, “Louis may have understood-or only sensed-the full threat Franklin represented to the ancien regime.”
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 76.
148 Ibid., 87.
Ibid., 88. France hesitated for nearly two months, waiting to hear
from Spain. See Sparks, 145.
Ibid. Being an American, I just love this man. He is my hero!
Ibid., 179. Vergennes said France would fight at America’s side
until her independence was won. See Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,”
88. The Masonic Lodge of the Nine Sisters inducted Franklin during
the spring of 1778, after the treaty was signed, as their 106th
member. See Brands, 563.
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, May 4, 1778.
Ibid., May 5, 1778.
Brands, 544. “The treaty of commerce provided for free entrance
of goods from the ports of each country to the other; protection on
land and sea; joint suppression of pirates; confining fishing to
limits of respective territories; the abolition of droit d’
aubaine; arrangements for defining contraband goods; for
carrying prizes into each other’s ports; and for granting an
asylum when pursued by an enemy.” See Sparks, 145-6. “The
treaty of close alliance guaranteed the independence of the United
States; renounced the claims of France to all parts of northern
America or the Bermuda Islands if conquered by the United States;
and yielded any claims of the United States to islands in the Gulf
of Mexico or near the gulf which might be conquered by France. It
also renewed the pledge given by the commissioners that neither
party should make peace with Great Britain without the consent of
the other being first obtained. A third act, separate and secret,
was added to the foregoing treaties, granting Spain the right to
come in at any time she might choose upon the terms already
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 87. “It became a pattern which
was followed for over a century in the isolated condition of
America.” See Sparks, 146. “Among the features included in
succeeding treaties were mutual defense against pirates; abolishing
the droit d’aubaine; no contraband goods to be removed from
a vessel except under a court of admiralty; requiring property
captured by pirates to be restored; prizes may be brought into a
port but not remain there; giving aid to shipwrecked vessels; six
months allowed after declaration of war for removal of property;
prohibiting either party issuing letters of marque-practically
licensing a freebooter; forbidding vessels of any nation with whom
either may be at war from fitting out in ports of the other;
allowing either to trade with the enemy except in contraband goods;
confining contraband goods purely to articles intended for war and
excluding food, clothing, raw goods, and ship material; requiring
neutral vessels to carry proof papers in time of war; and regulating
methods for carrying on the search of a suspected vessel in war
time.” Ibid., 147.
Walter Russell Mend, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy
and How It Changed the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001),
Miles, 117. After the signing, Franklin attended a dinner where
Louis XVI and George III were elegantly toasted. Of course, the
great American would not be outdone. Franklin said, “I can not
give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington,
General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old,
commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both
obeyed.” See Bobrick, 466. The Briton had compared his king to
the sun and the Frenchman had compared his king to the moon.
Alfred Owen Aldridge, “The First Published Memoir of Franklin,”
William and Mary Quarterly 24, 3d ser., no. 4 (October 1967):
See footnote 14 supra for Britain’s public vilification of who
Dr. Brands called “The First American.”
Augur, “Benjamin Franklin,” 88.
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