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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    Franklin could have begun with those about himself. America's original back-room operator was welcomed in France as a "noble savage," in sense and sensibility a joint production of Voltaire and Rousseau. The French embraced him as a frontier philosopher, which Franklin was not on either count. When consulted for information on farming, he confessed to thorough ignorance, having lived in cities all his life. His pages of political philosophy make for a skimpy offering. He was dismissive when his sister inquired after these: "I could as easily make a collection for you of all the past parings of my nails." The French had spent decades producing theories on liberty and equality, for which they regularly enjoyed stays in the Bastille. Franklin had produced no such theses but put those combustible ideas into practice. He was dimly understood to be an American general; he was so much an anomaly in socially inert France that he was repeatedly addressed as Monsieur de Franklin. This frontier philosopher was dripping in honorary degrees. He wrung a great deal of mileage out of being thought a Quaker, which he was not. Every religion claimed Franklin, groused John Adams, who knew that his colleague had little use for the stuff, at least in any churchgoing sense. This by no means prevented Franklin's becoming a cult figure. He made America his religion, adapting the rituals to suit the Parisian faithful.

    Here Franklin's improvisational genius came into play, as did his restraint. Adams would snarl that Franklin would receive undue credit for having set out "to abolish monarchy, aristocracy, and hierarchy, throughout the world." If he could, he might well have; he had long been allergic to titles and idle elites and dynastic privilege. Fifty-three years before he sailed to France, he noted that Americans do not speak of "Master Adam" or "the Right Honourable Abraham" or "Noah, Esquire." Those observations had not endeared him to the ruling elites of America or Britain any more than his humble origins did. He did not fit into the new American aristocracy and he had never fit into the old British aristocracy, but somehow he was entirely at home with the French aristocracy, which--it paid to be original, noted one of his successors--was entirely at home with him. In France he was cultivated, cosseted, lionized by dukes, counts and princes, for which John Adams could no more forgive him than he could accept Franklin's rampant popularity with footmen and chambermaids. In Philadelphia Franklin trailed behind him the self-made man's dubious scent of social climbing. In France he did not have to climb. He was hoisted up.

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