Winning a Wartime Ally: Making France Our Best Friend

If not for a superstar diplomat who charmed all of Paris, America might have lost its war for independence

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ARCHITECT OF THE CAPITOL

VICTORY: The French, at left, and the Americans, right, accept the surrender of the British redcoats at Yorktown

Ben Franklin arrived in Paris in December 1776 to a public frenzy that would not be matched by another American landing until Charles Lindbergh set down there more than 150 years later. Instantly Franklin was surrounded, celebrated, applauded in the streets and theaters. He spoke, and Paris purred. His likeness blossomed everywhere, on clocks and rings and walking sticks. Terra-cotta Franklin medallions were served up by the thousand but could not satisfy the demand. The portraitists wore him out. He could be held responsible for a riotous explosion of bad poetry.

He did not travel to France for the reasons that have impelled Americans since 1776: for a sentimental education, a cultural polish, for sexual or artistic or racial freedom, to perfect the language of Moliere, Flaubert and Proust. He went because there was as yet no independent America and because it was painfully clear to the Continental Congress that without the assistance of a European power, there would not be. The colonies had no munitions, no money and no credit but had resolved all the same to battle the mother country. There was something of a difference between declaring independence and achieving it.

France was the logical accomplice, given its historic rivalry with England, to which America owed its birth. Rarely has it been so baldly true that the enemy of one's enemy is one's friend. In the name of expediency, the colonies were willing to put aside their traditional aversion to Papist France. And in the name of expediency, the French monarchy--which saw in America some delicious trade advantages and an equally appealing chance to humble England--was willing to underwrite a republic. Its doing so was in large part Franklin's work. Ninety percent of the gunpowder used in the first years of the Revolution came from France, as did tens of millions of dollars in aid. In 1781 British commanding General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown to a greater number of French than American troops. For the better part of his years in France, Franklin heard little from Congress aside from variations on a single refrain: the war hung by French assistance alone. As Robert Morris wrote, "In a word, Sir, we must have it, or we are undone."

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