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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    What Franklin did have to do was extend to prerevolutionary France a tolerance that did not come easily to a devout republican and a man who seldom met with anything--from bifocals to popcorn to spelling to the Lord's Prayer--that he did not feel he could improve on. While he might well write off European peerages as "a sort of tar-and-feather honour, a mixture of foulness and folly," he kept this view to himself while consorting with the aristocrats who eased the U.S. into being. A year before his return, Franklin did concede, "There are two opinions prevalent in Europe which have mischievous effects in diminishing national felicity; the one, that useful labour is dishonourable; the other that families may be perpetuated with estates. In America we have neither of these prejudices, which is a great advantage to us"--but he did so in a letter to a Spaniard. The reports that Washington and his officers were forming a hereditary honorary society made him livid. He raged that his countrymen had been seduced by the ribbons and crosses of the Old World; he did not believe honors either could or should be inherited. Were the project to survive (it did, as the Society of the Cincinnati), he proposed the officers follow the Chinese example and hand their decorations up to their parents rather than down to their children. This rant he confined to a letter to his daughter.

    In his discretion Franklin differed from his countrymen, who almost universally found the Paris posting a Calvary and who were vocal on the subject. One swore he would prefer a farm in America to a dukedom in France. Adams wailed that he would rather be a doorman in Congress. Among his torments was Franklin himself, who understood that some American qualities--piety, earnestness, efficiency--did not go far in 18th century France. Franklin remained at all times a pragmatist and an astonishingly flexible thinker. He was realistic about the prospects of conducting business in a land of radically different habits. "It is vexing for men of spirit and honour accustomed to a different mode of conducting business to be trifled with, and as I may say, to be jockied by such a finesse. But we must for a time submit," he advised at one aggravating juncture. In fact, ego massaging and wheel greasing and string pulling--the courtier's repertoire--came easily to him. He was no innocent abroad; he was no more bawdy Poor Richard than he was the self-correcting killjoy of his autobiography. What he was instead was himself, gravitas and raffishness combined, always a winning combination in Paris. The censors approved Poor Richard's Almanack for publication in 1777 but noted that it could have been in better taste. It proved a best seller.

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