Benjamin Franklin in France



CONGRESS, in 1776, appointed three commissioners, Dr. Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, "to transact the business of the United States at the court of France." They were furnished with the draft of a treaty, credentials, and instructions. The members enjoined secrecy on themselves in regard to these proceedings. Silas Deane was already in France, having been sent thither as a commercial and political agent instructed to procure munitions of war and forward them to the United States, and to ascertain, as far as he could, the views and disposition of the French court. Arthur Lee was in England. Franklin made immediate preparations for his voyage. He left Philadelphia on the 26th of October, accompanied by two of his grandsons, William Temple Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Bache. They passed the night at Chester, and the next day embarked on board the Continental sloop-of-war Reprisal, carrying sixteen guns, and commanded by Captain Wickes.

As a proof of Franklin's zeal in the cause of his country, and of his confidence in the result, it may be stated that before he left Philadelphia he raised all the money he could command, being between three and four thousand pounds, and placed it as a loan at the disposal of Congress.

After a boisterous passage of thirty days from the Capes of Delaware the Reprisal came to anchor in Quiberon Bay, near the mouth of the Loire. . The sloop was sometimes chased by British cruisers, and Captain Wickes prepared for action; but he had been instructed to avoid an engagement if possible, and to proceed directly to the coast of France. By good management he escaped his pursuers, and no action occurred during the voyage. Two days before he came in sight of land he took two prizes, brigantines, one belonging to Cork, the other to Hull, laden with cargoes obtained in French ports.

Franklin landed at the town of Auray, and reached Nantes on the 7th of December.

His arrival in France was entirely unexpected. The news of his appointment had not preceded him, this having been kept secret in Congress. It was easily conjectured, however, that he would not come so far without being invested with some important public mission; and the friends of America greeted him with cordiality and lively expressions of joy. .

He stayed eight days at Nantes, and then set off for Paris, and reached that city on the 21st of December. He found Mr. Deane there, and Mr. Lee joined them the next day, so that the commissioners were prepared to enter immediately upon their official duties. Shortly afterwards Dr. Franklin removed to Passy, a pleasant village near Paris. . He remained at this place during the whole of his residence in France.

The intelligence of Franklin's arrival was immediately published and circulated throughout Europe. His brilliant discoveries in electricity, thirty years before, had made him known as a philosopher wherever science was studied or genius respected. His writings on this subject had already been translated into many languages; and also his "Poor Richard," and some other miscellaneous pieces, clothed in a style of surpassing simplicity and precision, and abounding in sagacious maxims relating to human affairs and the springs of human action, which are almost without a parallel in any other writer. The history of his recent transactions in England, his bold and uncompromising defence of his country's rights, his examination before Parliament, and the abuse he had received from the ministers, were known everywhere, and had added to the fame of a philosopher and philanthropist that of a statesman and patriot. A French historian of the first celebrity speaks of him as follows:

"By the effect which Franklin produced in France, one might say that he fulfilled his mission, not with a court, but with a free people. Diplomatic etiquette did not permit him often to hold interviews with the ministers, but he associated with all the distinguished personages who directed public opinion. Men imagined they saw in him a sage of antiquity, come back to give austere lessons and generous examples to the moderns. They personified in him the republic of which he was the representative and the legislator. They regarded his virtues as those of his countrymen, and even judged of their physiognomy by the imposing and serene traits of his own. Happy was he who could gain admittance to see him in the house which he occupied at Passy. This venerable old man, it was said, joined to the demeanor of Phocion the spirit of Socrates. . Courtiers were struck with his native dignity, and discovered in him the profound statesman. . After this picture, it would be useless to trace the history of Franklin's negotiations with the court of France. His virtues and his renown negotiated for him; and, before the second year of his mission had expired, no one conceived it possible to refuse fleets and an army to the compatriots of Franklin."

The commissioners were furnished by Congress, in the first place, with the plan of a treaty of commerce which they were to propose to the French government. They were likewise instructed to procure from that court, at the expense of the United States, eight line-of-battle ships, well manned and fitted for service; to borrow money; to procure and forward military supplies; and to fit out armed vessels under the flag of the United States, provided the French court should not disapprove this measure. They were, moreover, authorized to ascertain the views of other European powers, through their ambassadors in France, and to endeavor to obtain from them a recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the United States; and to enter into treaties of amity and commerce with such powers, if opportunities should present themselves. It was expected that remittances would be made to them from time to time, in American produce, to meet their expenses and pecuniary engagements.

Their advances were received cautiously by the Count de Vergennes, minister for foreign affairs in the French cabinet, as the court desired to avoid giving open offence to England.

Notwithstanding this reserve, the court of France had resolved to assist the Americans. A million of livres had already been secretly advanced to Beaumarchais for this purpose. Munitions of war to a large amount were purchased by him, in part with this money, and in part with such other means as he could command. By an arrangement with Mr. Deane, he shipped these articles to the United States, and Congress was to pay for them by remitting tobacco and other American produce. Before the commissioners arrived, Mr. Deane had procured, on these conditions, thirty thousand fusils, two hundred pieces of brass cannon, thirty mortars, four thousand tents, clothing for thirty thousand men, and two hundred tons of gunpowder. They were shipped in different vessels, the most of which arrived safely in the United States.

In addition there were secretly granted two millions of livres, under the guise of a loan from friends of America, but really from the royal treasury. This money was to be repaid after the war. The commissioners also agreed to furnish five thousand hogsheads of to bacco, on which contract one million livres were advanced. With the money thus received, arms, clothing, etc., were bought and sent to America, while two frigates were built. These secretly-conducted operations were greatly interfered with by the British ambassador, who had spies in every port. Yet the commissioners managed to get all their goods shipped. The sale of prizes by privateers also brought remonstrances from the British ambassador. Efforts were made to obtain aid in the other countries of Europe, but with little success. The commissioners had more success in obtaining an alleviation of the harsh treatment in England of American prisoners. The American cruisers had now taken enough prisoners to threaten reprisals and to enforce the policy of exchange.

The multitude of foreign officers applying for letters of recommendation to Congress, or to General Washington, was so great as to be a source of unceasing trouble and embarrassment. Scarcely had Dr. Franklin landed in France when applications began to throng upon him for employment in the American army. They continued to the end of the war, coming from every country, and written in almost every language, of Europe. Some of the writers told only the story of their own exploits; others endorsed the certificates of friends, or of generals under whom they had served; while others were backed by the interest of persons of high rank and influence, whom it was impossible to gratify and disagreeable to refuse. It was in vain that he assured them that he had no power to engage officers, that the army was already full, that his recommendation could not create vacancies, and that they would inevitably be disappointed when they arrived in America.

Many such officers came to America, some of them of the highest repute, among whom we have already mentioned Kosciusko, Pulaski, Steuben, and Lafayette. To the latter Franklin willingly gave his recommendation, and wrote somewhat enthusiastically to Congress concerning him. His judgment, as we know, was fully sustained by the good conduct of the young French nobleman.

Dr. Franklin had been ten months in France before the court of Versailles manifested any disposition to engage openly in the American contest. The opinion of the ministers was divided on this subject. Count de Vergennes and Count Maurepas, the two principal ministers, were decidedly in favor of a war with England, and of bringing it on by uniting with the Americans. Some of the others, among whom was Turgot while he was in the cabinet, disapproved this policy, and the king himself came into it with reluctance. Moreover, the events of the campaign of 1776 afforded little encouragement to such a step. The evacuation of Canada by the American troops, the defeat on Long Island, the loss of Fort Washington, the retreat of Washington's army through New Jersey, and the flight of Congress from Philadelphia to Baltimore, were looked upon in Europe as a prelude to a speedy termination of the struggle. This was not a time to expect alliances. .

But the tide of affairs soon began to turn in another direction. In the campaign of 1777 the losses of the preceding year were more than retrieved. The capture of Burgoyne's army, and the good conduct of the forces under General Washington in Pennsylvania, gave sufficient evidence that the Americans were in earnest, and that they wanted neither physical strength nor firmness of purpose. On the 4th of December an express arrived in Paris from the United States, bringing the news of the capture of Burgoyne and the battle of Germantown. The commissioners immediately communicated this intelligence to the French court. Two days afterwards, M. Gerard, the secretary of the King's Council, called on Dr. Franklin at Passy, and said he had come, by order of the Count de Vergennes and Count Maurepas, to congratulate the commissioners on the success of their countrymen, and to assure them that it gave great pleasure at Versailles. After some conversation, he advised them to renew their proposition for a treaty.

They accordingly called on the Count de Vergennes and submitted to him the draft of the proposed treaty of commerce. He requested, before deciding, a delay of three weeks, that the King of Spain might be consulted and invited to join in the treaty.

Before this time expired, M. Gerard again called on the commissioners, and told them that the king, by the advice of his Council, had determined to acknowledge the independence of the United States, and to enter into a treaty of amity and commerce with them; that it was the desire and intention of his majesty to form such a treaty as would be durable, and this could be done only by establishing it on principles of exact reciprocity, so that its continuance should be for the interest of both parties; that no advantage would be taken of the present situation of the United States to obtain terms which they would not willingly agree to under any other circumstances; and that it was his fixed determination to support their independence by all the means in his power. This would probably lead to a war with England; yet the king would not ask, or expect, any compensation for the expense or damage he might sustain on that account. The only condition required by him would be that the United States should not give up their independence in any treaty of peace they might make with England, nor return to their subjection to the British government.

The treaty was accordingly drawn up and signed, after which the French minister proposed a supplementary Treaty of Alliance, to come into effect in case of war between France and England. This stipulated that the allies should make their cause a common one, this being to maintain the independence of the United States. If the Americans gained any territory in Canada they were to retain it, while the French were to have the same privilege in regard to the British West Indies. Each guaranteed to the other all its possessions in America. Trade was to become exactly reciprocal. France disclaimed any idea of gaining territory on the American continent.

The two treaties were signed at Paris on the 6th of February, 1778. They were sent to America by a special messenger, and were immediately ratified by Congress. The event diffused joy throughout the country. Washington set apart a day for the rejoicings of the army on the occasion at Valley Forge. All saw, or believed they saw, that, whatever might be the hazards of the war, independence in the end was certain. France was too powerful a nation to be conquered, and she had promised her support to the last. Her interest and safety were deeply involved in the contest, and her honor was pledged. In the enthusiasm of the moment, every heart was filled with gratitude to the French king, and every tongue spoke his praise. His generosity in agreeing to treaties so favorable in their conditions and so equitable in their principles was lauded to the skies; and we behold the spectacle of two millions of republicans becoming all at once the cordial friends and warm admirers of a monarch who sat on a throne erected by acts, sustained by a policy, and surrounded by institutions, which all true republicans regarded as so many encroachments upon the natural and inalienable rights of mankind. In this instance, however, they had no just occasion afterwards to regret that their confidence had been misplaced, or their gratitude improperly bestowed. Every promise was fulfilled, and every pledge was redeemed.

On the 20th of March the American commissioners were introduced to the king at Versailles, and they took their place at court as the representatives of an independent power. A French historian, describing this ceremony, says of Franklin, "He was accompanied and followed by a great number of Americans and individuals from various countries, whom curiosity had drawn together. His age, his venerable aspect, the simplicity of his dress, everything fortunate and remarkable in the life of this American, contributed to excite public attention. The clapping of hands and other expressions of joy indicated that warmth of enthusiasm which the French are more susceptible of than any other people, and the charm of which is enhanced to the object of it by their politeness and agreeable manners. After this audience he crossed the court on his way to the office of the minister of foreign affairs. The multitude waited for him in the passage, and greeted him with their acclamations. He met with a similar reception wherever he appeared in Paris."

From that time both Franklin and the other American commissioners attended the court at Versailles on the same footing as the ambassadors of the European powers. Madame Campan says that on these occasions Franklin appeared in the dress of an American farmer. "His straight, unpowdered hair, his round hat, his brown cloth coat, formed a singular contrast with the laced and embroidered coats, and powdered and perfumed heads, of the courtiers of Versailles."

The treaties thus entered into were considered equivalent to a declaration of war, and both parties prepared for hostilities, though the actual declaration was not made till later. Meanwhile, Franklin was approached by agents from England, with the ostensible object of arranging some terms of accommodation between America and England, but probably, to some extent, with the real object of entrapping the shrewd American and embroiling him with the French government. Whatever their object, he was too wise to be deceived, and too patriotic to listen to any terms short of a complete independence. Commissioners were also sent to America, to treat with Congress and with the leading Americans. The ill success of this effort has been already mentioned. Franklin continued in Paris, as the American representative, till 1785, taking an active part in diplomatic labors, and assisting in the final treaty of peace.





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