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 paid the price for his French posture, which he made appear comfortable when it was at times excruciating. By the end of the mission he had reason to complain of Congress, and it of him. After eight years in France, he seemed more the courtier than the father of self-reliance. His flaws had been on full display in Paris, where his detractors--burning with impatience while the wheels of European diplomacy ground at their stately pace--had had plenty of time to dilate upon them. In an uncharacteristically self-indulgent mood, he grumbled that Congress had shown little appreciation for his services: "But I suppose the present members hardly know me or that I have performed any." His greatest task for his country was a thankless one, though he had been instrumental in negotiating treaties of commerce and alliance with France, had adroitly bled the French treasury dry and had represented his country at the negotiating table when the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, concluding the Revolution and ushering the U.S. into its existence as a sovereign power.

    In the end there were two Franklins: the stately philosopher revered by the French and the eccentric, shambling, adage-spouting guy with the kite, about whom America has had mixed feelings. In France the ugly American wears as many faces as he does baseball caps, but the model American wears the placid, loose-jawed countenance of Ben Franklin, Ur-republican. He stands in stark contrast to his sanctimonious and chauvinistic and mercantile countrymen, a model of what the French like most in their Americans: a skeptical, subtle faux naif with a sense of humor and a taste for culture and a deep appreciation for the supremacy of France.

    STACY SCHIFF, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), is writing a book about Franklin's years in Paris

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