A Touch of France / Taking Paris by storm: Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father and first ambassador to France

Taking Paris by storm:
Benjamin Franklin, American Founding Father and first ambassador to France
by T. J. Fleming, USA

“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” True to his word, Benjamin Franklin did both, witness the more than 20 000 people who on his death in 1790 in Philadelphia came to pay their last respects to “the harmonious human multitude.” Polymath, as his affectionate moniker suggests, he was a pioneer in the study of electricity and inventor of the lightning rod, applied his insights to medicine, was a musician and deviser of the glass armonica, experimenter, writer and publisher, diplomat, and a Founding Father of the United States of America, while also striving throughout life to cultivate thirteen virtues enumerated in his autobiography, wisely working on but one a week and “leaving all others to their ordinary chance.” These included Silence —“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation” and Industry—“Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful.” By Franklin’s own admission, oftentimes he fell short, but believed—and who would doubt him?—that it made him a better man. And what a man! Selftaught and self-made. The man who by lauding devotion to education and hard work, egalitarianism, thrift, charity, and a spirit of community helped shape his fellow Americans and the nation they were building. The man who took France and Paris by storm as a scientist and an ambassador and who by dint of character as much as words spurred Louis XVI of France and his ministers to aid and abet that emerging nation in its wavering struggle for independence from Britain. The man who rescued the American Revolution. The man who came to be universally seen as the quintessential American.

Medicographia. 2014;36:112-122 (see French abstract on page 122)

Benjamin Franklin by David Martin, 1767 (oil on canvas on panel, 127.2×101.1 cm).
Located in the White House in Washington DC. © Corbis.

In the fall of 1776, Philadelphia, the capital of the new republic of the United States of America, was plunged into gloom. On July the 13, rebellious colonies had declared themselves independent from Great Britain. Now their soldiers were being routed on all fronts. A once promising invasion of Canada had collapsed. Rumors of an imminent invasion of the Southern colonies multiplied. General George Washington and his Continental Army would soon be a dwindling remnant of the hopeful host that had challenged the main British army in the battle for control of New York City.

George Washington’s special envoy to France

America needed help, massive amounts of help. To procure that assistance, they turned to the only man in Philadelphia who could obtain it—Benjamin Franklin.

This balding bullnecked seventy-year-old man was world famous. His discoveries in the science of electricity had astonished the globe from 1748 to 1749. In a daring experiment, he had demonstrated that lightning and electricity were one and the same. Everywhere in cities and towns, lightning rods now protected houses from destruction. Simultaneously, he had won fame as the publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanac, an annual collection of witty aphorisms and predictions under the pen name Richard Saunders. He was also the editor of themost successful newspaper in America, the Pennsylvania Gazette. The British appointed him postmaster general for America, a job that enabled him to meet and fascinate prominent Americans in every colony.

Political cartoon of a snake cut into eight segments created by
Benjamin Franklin for The Pennsylvania Gazette on 9 May 1754. It
was used during the American Revolutionary War to encourage the
thirteen American colonies (represented by their initials) to unite.

© akg-images/Interphoto.

For twenty years before the Revolution, Franklin had lived in London, hobnobbing with men of wealth and power, acting as spokesman for the colonies as their relationship with the Mother Country became more and more unhappy. In 1754, when war with the French colonies in America loomed, he had proposed a solution: a union of all the English colonies, to be supervised by a governor general. He backed the idea with the world’s first political cartoon: a snake chopped in several pieces above the words: JOIN OR DIE… Both Americans and Britons rejected this visionary idea, but it demonstrated Franklin’s ability to think in large and daring political ways.

This son of a Boston soap boiler had risen to hitherto unobtainable heights, thanks to his unique combination of intelligence and talent. When the tension with England exploded into violence in Massachusetts in 1775, he published an open letter to an English friend who was a member of Parliament.

You have begun to burn our towns and murder our people. Look upon your hands. They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends. You are now my enemy and I am yours – B. Franklin.

A full year and a half before the Declaration of Independence, Franklin demonstrated his ability to speak for the American people. It made perfect, if not painful, sense for the members of the Continental Congress to turn to Franklin to seek the help they so desperately needed from the one country who had secretly expressed sympathy for their faltering revolution— France.

The decision filled Franklin’s mind with gloom. It meant a winter voyage across the Atlantic. For a man his age, that ordeal might be a death sentence. The Atlantic also swarmed with British cruisers. If one of these men-of-war captured him, he would face a traitor’s death by public execution in London, but Franklin’s total commitment to the American cause was emphasized when he turned to the man sitting beside him in Congress, a young doctor named Benjamin Rush, and said, “I am old and good for nothing… my country may command my services in any way they choose.”

Rough crossing

Soon Franklin said what he probably thought was his last goodbye to his daughter Sally and his son-in-law, Richard Bache. Climbing into a coach with him were two of his grandsons. Seventeen-year-old William Temple Franklin was the son of Governor William Franklin of New Jersey, who had decided to remain loyal to the king, and was now in a prison in Connecticut. Also with him was Sally’s oldest son, seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin Bache. Franklin had decided to bring both boys with him to protect them from English influence should the British army capture Philadelphia.

Soon the three travelers were boarding Reprisal, the small American sloop of war. With her sixteen guns, they were about to challenge the wintry Atlantic, patrolled by a British fleet that mustered 1200 much larger cannons. Like Franklin, the Americans seemed to have little on which to rest their faith in their destiny beyond an inner conviction that a nation committed to freedom had a special mission in the world. In a letter Franklin wrote the day before he sailed, Franklin put this faith into unforgettable words. “I hope our people will keep up their courage. I have no doubt of their finally succeeding by the blessing of God, nor do I have any doubt that so good a cause will fail of that blessing.”

Reception of Benjamin Franklin in France.
Benjamin Franklin is shown standing with a couple on the quay along, possibly, the Loire river near Nantes. Chromolithograph, printed on stone, by Charles Brothers, NY, in 1882. Located at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC. Universal History Archive/UIG.

© akg-images/Universal Images Group.

Four weeks later, on December 3, 1776, Breton sailors rowed Franklin and his grandsons ashore at the fishing village of Auray. He was so exhausted he could barely stand. The voyage had been a perpetual struggle against mountainous seas. The food had been abominable, nothing but salt beef and ship’s biscuits. The cold had been agonizing; Franklin took to wearing a gray marten fur hat he had bought when he journeyed to Canada the preceding winter to offer diplomatic help to the American invasion.

The fishermen of Auray spoke a strange mixture of French and Gaelic and were utterly baffled by this stranger from the New World. No one in the little town had ever heard of Benjamin Franklin. The would-be ambassador hired a messenger to take a letter to Silas Deane, the Connecticut congressman sent to Paris earlier in the year to hire professional soldiers and buy munitions and weapons from the French government. “I am weak,” he wrote. “But I hope the good air I breathe on land will reestablish me.”

It took twenty-four hours for Franklin to obtain a wreck of a carriage and three decrepit horses to take him and his grandsons to the port of Nantes, where he would have landed but for contrary winds. The presence of the two young men may have suggested to some people that Franklin was combining diplomacy with the rescue of the remnants of his family from imminent capture. The British government was soon describing his voyage as a flight to escape a rebel’s fate on the gallows.

Nantes and Paris abuzz about “the most famous living American”

Franklin’s reception in Nantes was stunningly different from the peasant puzzlement of Auray. His messenger to Deane had reported his arrival and Nantes was in an uproar. Franklin’s name was well known to the merchants and shippers of the prosperous port city. He was world famous for his discovery of electricity and the invention of the lightning rod. Twenty years later, his book of aphorisms and preachments on how to succeed in business, The Way to Wealth, written under the pen name Richard Saunders, had been published in France and read with enthusiasm by the rising bourgeoisie, who dubbed the author Bon Homme Richard. Ignoring Franklin’s murmured pleas that he needed rest;Nantes’s merchants staged a gigantic public dinner for him.

In Paris, a very different drama was taking place. The Comte de Vergennes, France’s cautious Foreign Minister, was in a swivet. Franklin’s arrival could not have been more inopportune. In several ports, no less than eight French ships were loaded with war materiel that Vergennes had decided to smuggle to America using a dummy company created by one of his secret agents, the playwright Caron de Beaumarchais.

Vergennes ordered the police chief of Paris to arrest anyone heard predicting that Franklin’s arrival was a signal that France would sign a treaty of alliance with the upstart American republic. This was the total opposite of what Vergennes would do, if the reports of American armies being routed on all fronts proved true. He was acutely aware that a war with England could bankrupt the French government.

French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) blesses
Franklin’s grandson. Etching. © Bettmann/Corbis.

After several days of recuperating in Nantes, Franklin and his grandsons set out for Paris, which was also in ferment over his arrival. The capital’s police chief glumly informed Foreign Minister Vergennes that the uninvited visitor was creating an impossible to control “extraordinary sensation.” People lined the streets around the Hôtel de Hambourg on the Rue de l’Université, where Silas Deane had an apartment, hoping to catch a glimpse of the most famous living American. Franklin’s closest friend in Paris, the physician Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, who had translated many of his writings, was so excited by his imminent appearance that he was a one-man publicity machine, all but shouting his praise of Franklin and the American Revolution in all directions.

Voltaire, the guiding spirit of the French enlightenment, wrote to a friend lamenting that “Dr. Franklin’s troops” had been defeated in battle after battle. Franklin had no interest in the sage’s military opinions. It was Voltaire’s description of a Pennsylvania he had never visited, an idyllic place peopled by simple honest Quakers that Franklin was planning to put to good use. He arrived at the Hôtel de Hambourg wearing the marten fur hat that had preserved him on the freezing Atlantic.

Paris buzzed with excitement. No distinguished person in memory had dared to appear in public without a wig. They also noted with amazement that Franklin was in the “complete costume” of the Quaker sect, with “extremely white linen” and a plain brown suit. It was only a step to another observer concluding: “Everything about him announces the simplicity and innocence of primitive morals.”

Those latter words resonated enormously with the French. Along with Voltaire’s description of Pennsylvania’s social democracy, everyone had read philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s call for a return to the unspoiled morals of the noble savage. A recapture of this totally imaginative primitive state was France’s only hope of escaping the rituals, finery, and corrupt tions of its civilization.

France faces difficult choices

Meanwhile, in the Hôtel de Hambourg, Franklin rapidly acquired a grasp of Silas Deane’s plans to smuggle weaponry to America with Beaumarchais’s help. Neither man knew that the Comte de Vergennes had already issued an edict, forbidding a single ship to sail. The foreign minister soon met with Deane, Franklin, and a third diplomat, the Virginian born Arthur Lee, who had been appointed when Thomas Jefferson declined to serve because of his wife’s fragile health. Vergennes stressed that the Americans should make themselves as invisible as possible, lest they arouse England’s wrath.

Invisibility was opposite of the course Franklin intended to pursue. By this time, he had met Beaumarchais’s colleague, Jacques Donatien Leray de Chaumont, a tiny man who had made a huge fortune in the East Indian trade and purchased the fifteenth century Chateau of Chaumont. The diminutive merchant had already advanced Deane one million livres— about $250000—out of his own pocket.

Chaumont undertook the job of publicizing Franklin to the French people. He had a ceramics factory on his estate and the services of a first-rate Italian artist, Giovanni-Batista Nini. Working from a sketch Franklin gave him, Nini created a portrait of Franklin wearing another fur hat, one made famous by Rousseau. Soon Chaumont was turning out thousands of terra cotta medallions, which he sold throughout France. None too subtly underscoring their partnership, Franklin soon accepted an offer to live on Chaumont’s estate, which was in the suburb of Passy, on the road to Versailles and Vergennes’s offices. In further conferences with Vergennes, Franklin never said a word about a military alliance, which the Americans desperately needed. All he offered was a commercial treaty that would give France access to America’s trade, but in every meeting Franklin’s remarkable personality worked its magic on the veteran diplomat. In a matter of weeks, Vergennes offered another two million francs in secret aid from the French treasury.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin sporting his signature marten fur
hat. Painting by John Trumbull (1756-1843). Located at Yale University
Art Gallery (Peabody Archaeology, Art, and Ethnology Museum.
© akg/De Agostini Picture Library.

The ladies’ man

Two weeks after Franklin’s arrival, he accepted an invitation from the eighty-year-old Marquise du Deffand whose twice weekly salon was the foremost social destination in Paris. Once more he wore his fur hat and Quaker costume. The Marquise was blind and hence immune to the shock, but the rest of the bewigged silk-clad aristocrats in the packed room were speechless with amazement.

It was by no means the last salon Franklin visited. From previous visits to France, he knew that French women played an extremely important role in forming public opinion and even in influencing political decisions. Franklin found himself delighted by the feminine wit and intelligence that soon surrounded him. Writing to his sister Jane, he said he found the company of French women “extreamly [sic] agreeable.”

France being France, the ladies had no hesitation about kissing Franklin and inviting him to reciprocate, which he did with enthusiasm. “Somebody,” he told a Boston niece, “gave out that I loved ladies; and then everybody presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embrac’d – that is to have their necks kiss’d…The French ladies have a 1000 other ways to render themselves agreeable, by their various attentions and civilities, & their sensible conversations.”

Franklin became a master of dealing with large groups of women. When one of them came close enough to ask whether he liked her more than her nearby competitors, the discoverer of electricity would assure her that she was his choice, as long as she was close to him, “because of the power of the attraction.” Needless to say, the lady was thrilled.

What makes Franklin’s popularity with the ladies doubly amazing was his limited command of the French language. “If you Frenchmen would only talk no more than four at a time, I might understand you and not come out of an interesting party without knowing what you are talking about,” he remarked to a French friend. In large groups, Franklin made it a policy to remain silent—which the voluble French promptly turned into another Franklin virtue.

John Adams, the grumpy puritan

By the time John Adams arrived in early 1778 to replace Silas Deane, there was only one American name on everyone’s lips: Franklin. “His name was familiar to government and people,” the envious Adams groused. “To foreign courtiers, nobility, clergy and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chamber, coachman or footman, a lady’s chamber maid or scullion in a kitchen who did not consider him a friend….When they spoke of him, they seemed to think he was to restore the Golden Age. His plans and his example would abolish monarchy, aristocracy and hierarchy throughout the world.”

John Adams (1735-1826), as Second US President. Portrait by William Winstanley,
1798. Oil on canvas, located in the Stone Library on the grounds of the Old House
at Adams National Historic Park, MA, Adams’ birthplace. © IAM/akg.

Even more intolerable for Adams, Franklin took an enormous pleasure in this fame. For the grumpy Massachusetts puritan, this was egotism and vanity, but Adams’ rants against Franklin give us a superb description of how the man charmed Paris. Franklin invited Adams to join him in his nightly dinners with the rich and famous. In two weeks, Adams met Monsieur de Sartine, the powerful Minister of Marine; Madame de Maurepas, the hugely influential wife of the prime minister; Condorcet, the noted philosopher; and dozens of other people at the summit of French society. Adams utterly failed to grasp that these people combined politics with champagne, wit, and duck à la bigarade. He grumbled in his diary that “these incessant dinners and dissipations were not the objects of my mission to France.”

Similarly, the humorless Adams called Franklin’s daily routine “a scene of continual dissipation.” He usually partied until midnight and seldom arose early enough to discuss the business of the embassy with Adams before breakfast. No sooner was that meal consumed, than “a crowd of carriages” brought a small army of visitors. Adams dourly chronicled them as “philosophers, academicians and economists… but by far the greater part were women and children come to have the honor to see the great Franklin and to have the pleasure of telling stories about his simplicity, his balding head and scattering straight hairs.” Media-minded contemporary Americans can only shake their heads at Adams’ failure to understand that all this was part of Franklin’s stunningly successful publicity campaign.

A French physician friend, Pierre George Cabinis, expressed the delight so many of his countrymen and women felt for Franklin. His “most original trait,” Cabinis said, was his “art of living” which enabled him to combine business with pleasure without the slightest hint of a conflict. “No matter when one asked for him, he was always available. His house in Passy… was always open for all visitors. He always had a half hour for you.”

Franklin, Mozart, and the glass armonica

Another less well-known side of Franklin’s charm offensive was music. Again, the disgruntled Adams fills us in on this amusement in his morose way. He tells us that after a dinner party thronged with VIPs, which usually began about three and ended about six, Franklin would “most commonly” visit women friends. They served him tea in the English fashion. “After tea the evening was spent in hearing the ladies sing and play upon their piano fortes and other instruments of musick.” Many of these women were gifted performers. Franklin’s Passy neighbor and closest woman friend, Madame Brillion de Jouy, was a pianist well enough known to have several of Europe’s leading musicians dedicate compositions to her.

Franklin’s favorite melodies were the traditional songs of Scotland and Ireland. He could also join in musicales on the violin, the harp, or the guitar. Even more important was an instrument he had invented—the armonica, which he had perfected in 1762. It consisted of several glasses of different sizes, in the shape of hemispheres, with an iron spindle passing through holes in the middle of each glass. A player worked the spindle with a treadle while touching the edges of the moving glasses with his fingers. Even before Franklin arrived in France, the armonica’s eerie otherworldly music was very popular. Queen Marie Antoinette learned to play it as a girl in Vienna, and both Mozart and Beethoven composed music for it. Imagine the rapture with which the ladies of Paris listened to the inventor of the instrument playing it in their sitting rooms.

Franklin’s witticisms set Paris roaring with laughter

Franklin found time to indulge in a pastime he had perfected in his days as a newspaper editor: skewering his enemies with deadly wit. Franklin and the French foreign minister Vergennes knew they were surrounded by spies on the payroll of the British ambassador, Lord Stormont, who assiduously fed the newspapers vicious slanders of Franklin and reports of the collapse of George Washington’s army. When a distressed French friend asked Franklin if one of these stories was true, he gravely replied, “Oh no, it is not the truth. It is only a Stormont.” The bon mot swept through Paris and Stormonter became a new synonym for lying.

Glass armonica (no “h” as armonica is
derived from the Italian language) attributed
to Benjamin Franklin, bequeathed to the
Bakken Museum by the descendants of
Madame Brillon, a friend of Franklin.

© Collections of The Bakken Museum, Minneapolis

Around the same time, Franklin dealt with another member of the British establishment, Edward Gibbon, who had been publishing to great acclaim his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Franklin had met the historian during the years he had spent in London trying to prevent the Revolution from erupting. One night, dining at a popular eatery, Franklin saw Gibbon at a nearby table and sent him a note, suggesting they have a drink together. Gibbon pompously replied that a loyal servant of George III could not talk to a rebel. Franklin scribbled his regrets and added that if Mr Gibbon ever wrote a book on the decline and fall of the British Empire, he was ready to supply him with “ample materials.” It was another witticism that became a staple in Paris’ cafes.

When he learned that Washington had captured almost a thousand Hessians in a surprise attack at Trenton, he wrote an essay, supposedly from the Count de Shaumbergh of Hesse- Cassel to Baron Hohendorf, the commander of the Hessian troops in America. “You cannot imagine my joy at being told that of the 1950 Hessians engaged in the fight, but 345 escaped. There were 1605 men killed and I cannot sufficiently commend your prudence in sending an exact list of the dead to my minister in London.” The Count was getting paid per casualty and he looked forward to collecting 643 500 florins from the British exchequer. “I’m about to send you new recruits,” crowed the Count. “Don’t economize them.” The Count’s recent trip to Italy had cost him “enormously” and he had contracted for a “grand Italian opera” which threatened to empty his treasury. He urged the Baron to “encourage as much mortality as possible” by exhorting the newcomers to “seek glory in the midst of dangers.” The essay was read aloud in cafes and salons of Paris, to roars of delighted laughter.

Backside view of the Café Procope, on Cours du Commerce Saint-André, Paris 6th. In the windows, the medallion on the right features Benjamin
Franklin, a frequent patron; the medallion on the left portrays French Revolutionary Robespierre (1758-1794). Café Procope is the oldest Paris restaurant in continuous operation, opened in 1686 by a Sicilian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. It soon became a meeting place for intellectuals and revolutionaries.
Photo courtesy of Frederick Scheffler.

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), English historian
and Member of Parliament, author of the still
widely read History of the Decline and Fall of
Roman Empire. Gibbon, who haughtily
refused a drink with Franklin, had to bear
the brunt of the latter’s witticisms.

© Private Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Franklin takes on the British fleet

Then, there was Franklin’s role as self-appointed admiral, which never made the newspapers, but was also the talk of a British-hating Paris. Using French funds, he ordered the commander of the USS Reprisal, Captain Lambert Wickes, to carry the war into England’s home waters. With a squadron of three ships, Wickes captured eight vessels and destroyed ten others off the Irish coast. Next, Admiral Franklin unleashed another fighting sailor, Gustavus Coyningham, who sailed completely around the British Isles, destroying numerous ships in the North Sea and the Baltic. Insurance rates in London soared and British merchants began using French ships. Franklin was soon telling people there were forty French merchantmen in the Thames, taking on cargo. It was another story that won chortles and applause from Paris to Nantes.

France wavers… and rallies: c’est la guerre!

Meanwhile, the war in America rumbled on, and except for Washington’s small victories at Trenton and Princeton, the news remained bad. The most crushing report, rushed from London by George III’s elated secret agents, was the capture of the American capital—Franklin’s home city of Philadelphia—by the British army’s commander in chief, Sir William Howe. Franklin’s daughter, son-in-law, their younger children, and all the property Franklin owned were now in the enemy’s hands. Publicly, Franklin remained undaunted. A few days later, a guest at a dinner party asked him about it with obvious malice in his voice. “Well Doctor, Howe has taken Philadelphia.” “I beg your pardon, sir,” Franklin shot back. “Philadelphia has taken Howe.”

There was truth as well as wit in his answer. Franklin was a chess player and he saw with a glance at a map that the city was only a symbolic conquest. The British army was in a sea of hostile Americans and dependent on the winding Delaware River for supplies, but diplomats deal in symbols as well as realities. Franklin and his fellow diplomats were more than a little disheartened. A week later, a rumor came drifting into Paris from Nantes. An American ship had arrived with a messenger carrying important dispatches for the American envoys. The three diplomats and many of their French friends gathered at Franklin’s Passy house on the day this courier was likely to arrive. When a chaise rattled into the cobblestone courtyard, they rushed out to greet it.

Benjamin Franklin received at the French Court in Versailles
in 1778 by Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (sitting), by Anton Hohenstein (ca 1823).
Hand-colored lithograph by John Smith.

© De Agostini Picture Library/The Bridgeman Arti Library.

Franco-American “Treaty of Alliance, Eventual and Defensive,” signed in Paris on 6 February 1778.

Montage showing part of the 1st and last pages of the
9-page treaty between “The most Christian King (Louis XVI)
and the (Thirteen) United States of North America” providing
for a military alliance against Great Britain and requiring
that the absolute independence of the United States be
recognized. The dual-language French-English treaty bears
four signatures, with, from left to right: Conrad Alexander
(Secretary of His Majesty’s King Louis XVI’s
Council of State), Benjamin Franklin (Deputy of the General
Congress from the state of Pennsylvania and President of
the Convention of the said State), Silas Deane (Deputy
from the state of Connecticut), and Arthur Lee (Counsellor
at Law). Source: General Records of the United States
Government National Archives.

Thirty-year-old Jonathan Loring Austin of Boston climbed out and introduced himself. “Sir,” Franklin asked, “Is Philadelphia taken?” He and everyone else had been hoping the story was another “Stormont,” but Austin only nodded mournfully. “Yes,” he said.

Franklin’s head drooped. With a sigh, he turned away, deeply dismayed. He had taken about two steps when Austin said: “But sir, I have greater news than that. General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners of war!”

Beaumarchais leaped into his carriage and thundered into Paris to spread the news. At Passy, Franklin concentrated on getting it to Versailles and Foreign Minister Vergennes. For a little while, there was some diplomatic hesitation in Versailles. This vanished when Franklin allowed French spies to learn he was talking to the head of the British secret service in France about the possibility of signing a peace of reconciliation with the Mother Country.

Such a semi-surrender was virtually the last thing in the world he would have done, but neither Vergennes nor any other Frenchman knew what he was thinking. Soon after came the offer of the prize that Franklin had never requested: a military alliance and virtually unlimited access to the French treasury.

It meant war with England, but for Parisians it also meant a partnership with the man they had come to admire and love more than any other foreigner in the civilized world, Bon Homme Richard, the sorcerer who had tamed the lightning from heaven, and would now help them defeat their oldest and most arrogant enemy.

Quaker meets king

The climax of the drama came on March 20, 1778, when Franklin, with the treaty signed, journeyed to Versailles for an audience with Louis XVI. It was also the ultimate performance of Bon Homme Richard, the imaginary Quaker. Franklin wore neither wig nor sword nor any other decoration on his simple brown suit and spotless white stockings and shirt. It is hardfor us to grasp how daring this costume was at Versailles. Dress in the palace was as carefully regulated as the ritual of a solemn high mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The royal chamberlain frequently barred those who violated the rules.

In the palace courtyard, when Franklin debarked from his carriage, a gasp ran through the huge crowd of spectators. “He is dressed like a Quaker,” ran the half-frightened whisper. From Vergennes’s apartment in a wing of the palace, Franklin and his fellow envoys were led down seemingly endless corridors to the door of the royal apartments. Noblemen lined the walls, murmuring their amazement at Franklin’s daring.

The Grand Union Flag. Color woodblock
print. First flag of the colonies to
have any resemblance to the Stars and
Stripes. The example here was possibly
printed by Benjamin Franklin.

© Private Collection/Archives Charmet/The
Bridgeman Art Library.

At the door, the royal chamberlain almost went into shock at the sight of Franklin’s outfit, but he controlled himself and led the visitors to the King’s dressing room. Louis met them with a lack of ceremony that suggests Vergennes had prepared him for the visit. He wore a loose robe and his hair hung down to his shoulders. “Firmly assure Congress of my friendship,” the young king said. “I hope this will be for the good of the two nations.” He added that he was “exceedingly satisfied with your conduct during your residence in my kingdom.”

Franklin replied, “Your Majesty may count on the gratitude of Congress and its faithful observance of the pledge it now takes.” The Americans trudged back down the immense corridors to the courtyard, where the crowd was still immense. The sight of Franklin triggered a total abandonment of palace etiquette. They burst into a tremendous cheer. There is a tradition that Franklin was so moved by it, he wept. The affection of these spontaneous people was a unique tribute to his ability to win hearts as well as change minds in the service of his country. ■