A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, by Stacy Schiff. Henry Holt, $30, 490 pages.
When George Bush launched his recent European charm offensive, he began his biggest speech with an attempt at levity. “I follow in some large footsteps,” he reminded the solons of Brussels, describing the extraordinary impact of Benjamin Franklin’s arrival in France during the American Revolution. With a reputation “more universal than Leibniz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire,” and a character “more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them,” Franklin charmed everyone he met, provoking an observer to write “there was scarcely a peasant or citizen who did not consider him as a friend to human kind.” To guffaws, Mr. Bush said, “I’ve been hoping for a similar reception, but Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist.” You have to give him points for audacity.
The key to any joke is its implausibility, and this was no exception. It is manifest that George Bush is no Ben Franklin, and probably just as true that Franklin is not Mr. Bush’s kind of founder. Self-reliant, improvisatory, intellectually at ease, he was the President’s polar opposite in most ways we can measure. He preferred knowledge to zeal, and people to dogmas, and women to men, and for all of those reasons he was the most successful diplomat in American history-a late chapter in his storied career that most Americans know little about.
It could be argued that we don’t need a new Franklin biography-for the last few years, they’ve been dropping from the skies with alarming frequency. Since the 21st century started, H.W. Brands, Edmund Morgan, Walter Isaacson and Gordon Wood have all written serious books about him. Each was quite good in its way, but how much more can the market bear?
Stacy Schiff has provided a saucy answer to that question. Her new study insists that Franklin’s embassy to Paris from 1776 to 1785 was more than important-it was essential to American history, for without it, the United States would never have come into existence. The unlikeliness of this book-which celebrates a triumph of Euro-American relations at a moment of profound mutual incomprehension-is exactly why it’s welcome. Franklin once sketched a skeletal outline for his incomplete autobiography that included the ludicrously short statement “To France. Treaty, etc.” Thanks to Ms. Schiff, those bones now have some meat on them.
She begins her account in the same place Mr. Bush did, with Franklin’s arrival in France-though, as she points out, he was hardly triumphant on the day in December 1776, when he washed up on the shores of Brittany, more dead than alive. It’s an odd place to begin a biography, and skips everything Franklin had done to that point, but allows her to cut to the chase. The plot is fairly straightforward: Franklin needs to win French support for the desperately underfunded Revolution and will resort to any means necessary. He flirts, he flatters, he writes little bagatelles, he grovels and growls according to the audience, and over the course of his French decade, he succeeds beyond the wildest dreams of the revolutionaries who sent him on this fool’s errand. France recognized the United States, sent armaments and men to complete the effort, and made an implausible local rebellion into an international cause célèbre. Louis XVI eventually spent 1.3 billion livres backing the American Revolution, giving it life and unwittingly setting in motion a chain of events that would kill him and his family. Franklin may have been charming, but part of the lightning tamer’s appeal was that he always seemed to be playing with fire-as Louis learned the hard way.
Franklin’s success was even more remarkable given the obstacles he faced-a shiftless Congress that wouldn’t pay its bills, an ocean separating him from news for months at a time, the threat of assassins lurking around every doorway, and spies who reported regularly on his actions to their English masters (an unexpected boon for historians). His biggest problem, in fact, may have been the Americans who were sent to help him, all of whom begrudged Franklin his celebrity (John Adams will come down a notch after this treatment), and some of whom actively worked against him, coming close to treason in the process.
But Franklin always had better friends than enemies. There were the brilliant Parisian women who formed an unlikely attachment to the aging, Strangelovian sex symbol, whose mangy marten-fur hat (to cover the boils on his head) sent the fashion world into such raptures that people starting cutting their hair to resemble it. Everything Franklin did was gossiped about-and gossip was a most important tool at a time when “all of Paris freely discussed the queen’s menstruation, the king’s erections, and Voltaire’s urination.” The great thinkers of the Enlightenment embraced him and his cause, and Louis’ foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, seeing a chance to beard the British lion, steered countless favors toward the ill-clad courtier.
If Franklin was a most unrepresentative American-comfortable in Old World salons, multilingual, tolerant of moral lapses-then Vergennes was equally atypical of the ancien régime, working strenuously for his king night after night, humorless, disdainful of aristocratic follies. In their understanding-not quite a friendship-the steel of the alliance was forged. Franklin’s genius consisted in keeping the American cause alive before the French public, even during the long spells between victories, through artful cultivation of his own celebrity. No other American diplomat approached either his fame or his tactical use of his fame-and none has come close since (though Condi Rice’s recently revealed taste for dominatrix outfits is a creative step in that direction that Franklin would surely have savored).
Of course, the simple fact that the alliance succeeded and the U.S. came into existence should not be taken as evidence that the French and Americans truly understood each other. Ms. Schiff reminds us throughout the book how much ignorance lay at the core of the relationship. Versailles never quite grasped that this was, at bottom, a revolution against kings. French scientists, unaware of two centuries of English settlement, continued to describe Americans as “degenerate, feeble-minded iguana eaters” with tiny testicles. Some of Franklin’s arguments will also strike modern readers as odd, including his sexually charged suggestion that America would make a most loving “wife” for her French “husband.” But alliances, like all relationships, can survive utter incomprehension, and Franklin succeeded brilliantly in representing the idea of his country while concealing the inconvenient facts.
If there was a city on earth where ideas held more currency than facts, it was Paris in the 1770’s. Though there was a great deal of frippery in the air (the dubious Mesmer was at peak popularity during Franklin’s stay), the Enlightenment was still in full flower, and France was predisposed to find the newness of the American experiment exciting. Despite recent attempts to locate the birth of modern thought in Edinburgh and London, neither held a candle to Paris, which was the capital of something far bigger than France. Ms. Schiff succeeds nicely in vivifying this enormous, complicated place, pointing out its snares along with its lures (its more than 14,000 registered prostitutes would at times outnumber George Washington’s puny army) and recapturing the intellectual excitement that was literally in the air. Near the end of his sojourn, Franklin was an eyewitness to the first human flight, the balloon ascent of the Montgolfiers in 1783. It seemed to fit perfectly with the unprecedented republic that he’d just ushered weightlessly into existence-and perhaps also to signal that everything ultimately has to come back down to earth.
Franklin was finally recalled to the newly independent United States, but an ingrate Congress infuriated him with its stingy rejection of the small personal favors he asked, and one wonders a little about his innermost feelings as he watched over the creation of the Constitution in 1787 and its subtle encouragement of slavery (which he began to denounce). When Franklin died in 1790, the ancien régime still existed, but its days were numbered, and the world would soon learn a fact that it continues to relearn on a daily basis: It’s no simple matter to change the way a people are governed. To those who persist in believing that America sprang into existence unfettered, floating upwards on the basis of virtuous aspirations and billowy pronouncements about freedom, this story will offer a healthy corrective.
Like all books, this one has flaws, and the pace slows noticeably after the exciting developments of Franklin’s first years in Paris, when the war really was up for grabs. It will be a hard slog for those who do not traffic in 18th-century history or who consider diplomacy somehow un-American. But uncomfortable truths are usually important, and it’s bracing to learn not only that the U.S. depended on France, but that France delivered on her promises, and that a founder had the effrontery to fall in love with France while negotiating the first steps of our oldest, most complicated alliance.
A Great Improvisation will give Tom DeLay apoplexy, but it reminds us that the American Revolution was co-produced by the very country whose name our leaders can barely bring themselves to pronounce. It gives pause to realize that the U.S.A. sprang from a world of lapdogs, mincing courtiers and pet monkeys. But Franklin, with his taste for trenchant witticisms, would find that a perfectly logical beginning for the ongoing comedy of Franco-American relations.
Ted Widmer is the director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.