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


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

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    That 13 rebel colonies were willing to throw themselves on the mercy of one foreign power in order to dissolve their political bonds with another stood as the first of many ironies. That the nascent republic sent Franklin--stout, balding and 70--to play the role of seductive ingenue was another. Here was the man who believed that necessity never makes a good bargain, that God helps those who help themselves, sent off to perform a spectacular tin-cup routine. It was all the more spectacular in that Franklin had grave doubts about the proposition. He was firmly of the opinion that America should not flounce about "suitoring for alliances." As it turned out, the maxim-defying years he spent begging in France saw the greatest political feat of his life and one of the greatest political triumphs of American history, yielding the only alliance America forged for 170 years. And Franklin held on to his post as American representative for eight years, despite regular attempts on the part of his enemies to recall him and of his government to undermine him. What a French volunteer in the Continental Army said of George Washington was no less true of Franklin: "Congress expects him to do great things and at the same time refuses him the means of doing them."

    The crucial embrace of the two nations--it is telling that neither side could agree on when, precisely, it was over--is all the more astonishing for having been based on mutual illusion. What was for France a revenge and a romance was for America a solemn matter of principles and practicalities. Effecting and sustaining that marriage of convenience required Franklin to leave many of those famed Franklinian virtues--the aversion to tyranny, the commitment to tolerance--at home. It was his job to court an absolute monarchy on behalf of a country to which civil liberties, freedom of the press and the right to dissent were to be sacred. Nowhere is the majestic suppleness of his character on better display. It was his task as well to offer a gentle crash course on America, correcting French misconceptions.

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