Franklin in France
THOSE who have never seen the Franklin alcove in the Boston Public Library, nor examined the catalogue of Frankliniana so carefully prepared by Mr. Lindsay Swift, can have no conception of the vast mass of literature of which Benjamin Franklin is the subject. Cooper and Mrs. Stowe alone excepted, our country has produced no writer whose works have been so generally translated and read abroad. For some of his shorter pieces a strange infatuation seems to exist, and one, Father Abraham’s Address, may be read in French, in German, in Spanish, in Italian, in Bohemian, in Gaelic, and in modern Greek. Since the April day, ninetyseven years ago, when he expired at Philadelphia, no period of ten years has passed by without an edition of his autobiography or a new life of him appearing in some of the languages of civilized men. Nor does this stream yet show any signs of diminution. Within the present year Mr. John Bigelow has finished editing a new edition of Franklin’s works, and Mr. Edward Everett Hale and son have issued the first volume of their Franklin in France.
It has always seemed to us that the period of Franklin’s life about which least is generally known is precisely that of which the Messrs. Hale have written. Every schoolboy knows the history of his early years ; of the whistle for which he paid too much ; of the quarrel that drove him from Boston; of the memorable Sunday walk through the streets of Philadelphia. Yet it would trouble men of wide reading to give even a tolerable account of his claims to be considered a statesman, or of his famous mission to France.
The story of that mission goes back to a November day, 1775, when a stranger, lame and speaking but little English, appeared in Philadelphia. He put up at a tavern, and sent word to Congress that he had something of weight to tell. No heed was paid to him. But he persisted, and sent again and again, till John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were dispatched to speak with him. They met him in one of the rooms in the Carpenter’s Hall, were assured of the warm sympathy of Franee, and were told that money, arms, and ammunition should all be theirs. When asked for his name and credentials, the stranger drew a hand across his throat, said he knew how to take care of his head, bowed himself out, and was never seen again.
The committee, however, were much impressed, and Congress, acting on their report, named another to correspond secretly with the friends of America in Great Britain, Ireland, and France. This new committee was active ; letters were written to Dumas and Arthur Lee abroad, and Story, Penet, and Silas Deane were sent out with letters from home. But it was long before any word came back. Three months went by, and lengthened to six months, to eight months, without a line from one of them. Then came the letter of Dubourg to Franklin, full of assurances of the most comforting kind, and straightway Franklin, Deane, and Jefferson were chosen commissioners to France. Jefferson would not go, and, in an evil hour, Arthur Lee was elected in his stead.
The choice was made on the 26th of September, 1776. On the 26th of October Franklin set out alone, for Lee and Deane were already in France. The weather was tempestuous; the sea was boisterous and crowded with English cruisers. More than once the captain was forced to beat to quarters. But the voyage, most happily, was short, and on the 3d of December he landed at Auroy, on the coast of Brittany, and hastened with his two grandsons to Nantes. Then began such an ovation as has never since been given to any citizen of the United States. The writings of Rousseau, of Voltaire, of Montesquieu, had done their work, and the moment the report of “ the shot heard round the world ” reached France, the nation rose as one man, and took sides with liberty. At Versailles, at Paris, in the coffee-rooms, at the watering-places, in the remotest province of France, the struggle in America became the topic of the hour. The Courrier d’Avignon and the Mercure de France gave long accounts of the tea tax, of the fight at Lexington, of the enthusiasm of the women for the cause. The people of Paris drew comparisons between the full accounts of American affairs in the Mercure and the meagre accounts in the official Gazette of France, and abused the ministry for its conduct. Vergennes was called a fool, a dolt, a tool of England, because he did not openly support the “ insurgents.”
That this state of public feeling had all to do with the extraordinary reception given to Franklin does not admit of doubt. Had he come among a people indifferent, or but lukewarm in his cause, his reputation in the world of philosophy and of letters would have profited him nothing. But he came among a people deeply interested in his cause, and he was from the hour of his arrival at Nantes an object of boundless curiosity. “ The arrival of Doctor Franklin at Nantes,” a lieutenant of police wrote to Vergennes, “is creating a great sensation.” Yet it was as nothing to that he created at Paris. Statesmen, churchmen, men of letters, merchants, nobles, and great ladies crowded his rooms, and welcomed him as no foreigner had ever been welcomed before. His name and his cause were on every lip, till Vergennes forbade the crowds in the coffee-houses to discuss “ des insurgens.”
Meanwhile, the commissioners sent a note to Vergennes, asked an audience, and took up their abode at Passy, then a pleasant town on the outskirts of Paris. For a whole year the king could not be persuaded to receive them as commissioners. Franklin did not, in consequence, go to court, and was rarely seen at Paris. But he was far from idle. Day after day he was beset by all manner of suitors. Women of rank, great soldiers, courtiers high in favor, came to him in crowds. Some wanted a trifle for themselves. Some had been teased by others to tease him for a contract, a commission, a letter to Congress. Strangers, on whom he had never before laid eyes, had the effrontery to bring and introduce others as unknown as themselves. So incessant did this become that he never accepted an invitation to dine, never was introduced to a man of note, never heard a carriage roll into his court, nor opened a letter written in a strange hand, without feeling sure he was to be asked for something. One beggar, Dom Bernard Benedictus, sent word to the commissioners that if they would pay his gambling debts he would pray for the success of the American cause. The most persistent of all, however, were the gentlemen of the sword. To these must be added the merchants hungry for American tobacco, and shipowners longing for a chance to fit out privateers. Had their requests for commissions been granted, they would have come to naught, for the French king was not disposed to openly befriend America. Indeed, it was hardly possible for an American armed ship to get leave to stay two days in a French port. Lambert Wickes was twice driven from L’Orient. At St. Malo the authorities attempted to seize his cannon and unhang his rudder. Gustavus Conyngham and his crew were flung into prison. The behavior of Wickes in returning to a port from which he had just been sent was a most impudent act, and a shameful abuse of the patience of France. Mr. Hale says truly that, had not France been hostile to England, had she been really neutral, she would have shut her ports, as Portugal did, and Wickes would never have entered L’Orient a second time.
But the behavior of Conyngham was bolder and more impudent still. One day in March, 1777, William Hodge, a Philadelphia merchant, came to Paris, and struck an acquaintance with Silas Deane. Deane was daft on the subject of privateers, and the two soon had on foot a privateering venture of the boldest kind. A lugger was bought at Dover with government money, was taken to Dunkirk, and there hastily and secretly fitted out by Mr. Hodge. When all was ready, Conyngham, with a Continental commission as captain in his pocket, was put in command, and duly instructed what to do. He was to cruise in the Channel, and spare no pains to capture the Harwich packet-boat that plied between England and Holland. So well did he obey his instructions that he was soon back in Dunkirk harbor, with the Prince of Orange as his prize. The whole of England was in a furor. Insurance rose ; merchants made haste to put their goods on board of French ships, and felt for a time as if the whole coast were in a state of blockade. The English minister complained most vigorously to Vergennes, and Vergennes acted with rigor. The packet-boat was seized and restored, and Conyngham and his crew were flung into prison.
This misadventure did not dishearten Deane and Hodge in the least. It taught them a little wisdom, and while Conyngham languished in jail they bought a swift cutter, armed her with twenty-two swivels and fourteen sixpounders, and applied to Vergennes for his release. The commissioners assured the minister that Conyngham should sail at once for the United States, and Hodge gave bonds for his doing so. But he was scarcely at sea before he began to make prize of everything he met, and even threatened to lay in ashes the thriving town of Lynn. And now Vergennes made another show of harshness, and Hodge was soon in the Bastile.
But the time for such harshness was nearly over. Every day the cause of liberty grew more popular. Indeed, it is impossible to take up any of the Mémoires, Œuvres Choisies, Correspondance, Lettres Inédites, of the time without meeting unmistakable evidence of the popularity of the American rebels. Songs, catches, pamphlets, caricatures, nicknames, and street phrases all betray it. Lafayette enlists, and the whole court is thrown into excitement. The Hessians are taken at Trenton, and the booksellers cannot supply the demand for maps of America. Burgoyne surrenders, and the joy of Paris is as great as if the victory had been won by the French. “ We talk of nothing but America here,” wrote Madame du Deffand to Horace Walpole. “ When shall we arm in favor of the insurgents?” became the question asked all over France. The answer was, “At once.” News of the famous surrender was carried to Vergennes on December 4, 1777. On the 16th, the commissioners were told that the king would recognize the independence of America and make a treaty at once. February 6, 1778, a day longcelebrated in the United States, the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity were duly signed. In March the commissioners were received at Versailles. April 13th, D’Estaing sailed from Toulon.
In the same ship with D’Estaing went Silas Deane ; for he had been recalled by Congress, and John Adams had been sent in his stead. Adams landed at Bordeaux, and met with a welcome that amazed him. The merchants, eager for free trade with America, lit up their city in his honor, and he read in one of the gardens the illuminated inscription, “ God save the Congress, Liberty, and Adams.” At Paris the Courrier d’Avignon told the people that he was the brother “ of the famous Adams, whose eloquence had been as deadly to the English as that of Demosthenes was to Philip,” and ministers, courtiers, and men of letters hastened to pay their respects. At Passy, as he sat at the table of Madame Brillon, there was a fine demonstration in his honor.
But he found at Passy what amazed him still more. He found the little company of Americans torn by senseless disputes and distracted by causeless jealousy. That company had, since the arrival of Franklin, been much increased. To it had been added Ralph Izard, minister to the Duke of Tuscany ; William Lee, envoy to the courts of Vienna and Berlin; and William Carmichael, who, for a time, had served as secretary to Deane. Had Congress searched the country through, it could not have found six men less likely to live at peace than Franklin, Deane, Izard, Carmichael, and the two Lees. When, therefore, Adams arrived, he found that each of the six had fallen out with the others. Deane could not abide Arthur Lee, Franklin had quarreled with Ralph Izard, both of the Lees had quarreled with Franklin, while William Carmichael was at sword’s points with nearly all. Happily these feuds were soon to end. Though the six could agree in little else, they all agreed in urging Congress to abolish the commission, and make one man minister to France. The advice was taken. Izard was recalled, Arthur Lee ceased to be a commissioner to France, Adams was left without an appointment, and Doctor Franklin made sole minister to the court of France.
Nor were the business affairs of the commissioners in a much better state than their private affairs. Carelessness, negligence, disorder, prevailed. Method and order Franklin could not acquire even in his youth. But he was now in his seventy-third year ; had been out of business for more than thirty, and, as a consequence of age and leisure, had grown more careless and unmethodical than ever. Men who came to see him were astonished to behold the weightiest papers scattered in profusion about the room. Some who knew him well ventured to protest, reminded him that the French were eager to know his business, that he might in his own household have many spies, and even went so far as to suggest that his grandson should spend half an hour a day in putting his papers to rights. To these his answer was always the same. He knew that he was in all probability surrounded by spies ; but it was his practice never to be concerned in any business he was not willing to have everybody know, and the disorder went on. All the commercial affairs, all treaty matters, all money matters, all the diplomatic affairs of the United States abroad, were in the hands of the commissioners. They made loans, bought ships, paid salaries, exchanged prisoners. Yet not a note-book, not a letter-book, not an account-book of any kind, had been kept.
Such a shameful disregard of the first principles of business alarmed Adams, who turned himself into a drudge, introduced something like order into the office of the commission, and in a long letter to Samuel Adams drew a pretty just character of Franklin as a man of business : —
“ The other (Franklin) you know personally, and that he loves his ease, hates to offend, and seldom gives any opinion till obliged to do it. I know also, and it is necessary that you should be informed, that he is overwhelmed with a correspondence from all quarters, most of them upon trifling subjects and in a more trifling style, with unmeaning visits from multitudes of people, chiefly from the vanity of having it to say that they have seen him. There is another thing which I am obliged to mention. There are so many private families, ladies and gentlemen, that he visits so often, — and they are so fond of him that he cannot well avoid it, — and so much intercourse with the Academicians, that all these things together keep his mind in a constant state of dissipation. If, indeed, you take out of his hands the public treasury, and the direction of the frigates and Continental vessels that are sent here, and all commercial affairs, and entrust them to persons to be appointed by Congress, at Nantes and Bourdeaux, I should think it would be best to have him here alone with such a secretary as you can confide in. But if he is left here alone even with such a secretary, and all maritime and commercial as well as political affairs are left in his hands, I am persuaded that France and America will both have reason to repent it. He is not only so indolent that business will be neglected, but you know that although he has as determined a soul as any man, yet it is his constant policy never to say ' yes ’ or ‘ no ’ decidedly but when he cannot avoid it.” . . .
The fears of Mr. Adams were as unfounded as his criticism was just. Franklin was indolent, was fond of society, was unable to say yes and no. But he was, at the same time, the most original character produced in America during the eighteenth century, and he accomplished a work in France no other American could possibly have done.
On the March day, 1778, when, in buckleless shoes, wigless, and in the plainest clothes, he made his way through a crowd of painted beauties and powdered fops to the presence of the king, his position in France completely changed. On that day he ceased to be a solicitor of favor. On that day he became the recognized representative of the United States, and more than ever the centre of attraction at Paris. Mr. Lee and Mr. Deane were mere ciphers. What they thought, or did, or said, was, to the French people and the French court, of no consequence whatever. No paper ever mentioned their names. No great man ever darkened their doorways. The ear of Vergennes was never open to them till a letter from Franklin had prepared the way. This position Franklin reached in a way Mr. Adams could not understand. That a man who flung his papers all over the floor, kept no accounts, copied no letters, hated business, dined out six nights a week, and would not send away even a pestering fellow with an angry " no,” could really be serving his country well was to Mr. Adams an absurdity. Mr. Adams would have lived at Paris, ignored the people, deluged the ministers with notes, and have been well snubbed before he had been six months in France. Franklin went to Passy, lived secluded, gave the ministry no trouble whatever, and by his tact, his shrewdness, his worldly wisdom, his wit, his skill in the management of men, made himself the most popular man in France, and by his popularity overcame a reluctant minister and yet more reluctant king. This done, the rest of his work was easy. He had but to keep the good will and love of the French people, and he kept them completely. Hardly was the ink of the treaty dry when canes, hats, snuff-boxes, all became “ à la Franklin.” His face appeared on rings, on snuff-boxes, in the window of every print-shop, and over the mantelpiece of every man of fashion. “ ’T is the fashion nowadays,” sneered one of his haters, “ to have an engraving of Franklin over one’s mantelpiece, as it was formerly to have a jumping-jack.” Of such portraits more than two hundred are believed to be in existence. A bust of him was set up in the Royal Library. Medallions of him were plentiful at Versailles. Mr. Hale assures us that a “large store” of such terra-cotta medallions, “ as fresh as on the day when they were first baked,” was found in an old warehouse at Bordeaux in 1885.
It was rare that Franklin came to Paris, yet when he did he was instantly recognized by the people. His brown suit, his fur cap, his powderless hair, his spectacles, and his walking-stick betrayed him at once to men who had never laid eyes on him before. Crowds followed him in his walks, and gathered about him in the public places. When he entered the theatre, the courts of justice, the popular resorts, he was greeted with shouts of applause. His good sayings were spread all over France, with countless other anecdotes américaines. Poets wrote him sonnets. Noble dames addressed him in verse. Women of fashion crowned his head with flowers. Grave Academicians shouted with delight to see him hug Voltaire. His friend, the Abbé Morellet, well described him in the lines, —
En politique il est grand,
A table est joyeaux et franc.”
The absurdity of the famous kissing scene at the Academy of Science is outdone by the absurdity of another scene, some months later, at a meeting of the masonic lodge of the Nine Sisters. Voltaire was then dead, and the business of the meeting was a eulogy of the old philosopher. In the hall of the lodge sat Madame Denis, niece to Voltaire ; the Madame de Villette, at whose house he died ; Greuze, who painted the beauties and gallants of the court of Louis; Franklin, and a host of famous men. That nothing might be wanting to give solemnity to the occasion, a deep gloom pervaded the hall, and a huge sepulchral pyramid reminded the audience for what purpose they were gathered. The astronomer Lalande addressed Madame Denis. La Dixmerie read a long eulogy, and, as he stopped from time to time to take breath, the audience were kept awake by selections from the operas of Castor and Roland, played by an orchestra, which Piccini led.
The eulogy ended, soft music, a blaze of light, and claps of stage thunder followed ; the pyramid vanished, and in its place stood a huge picture of the apotheosis of Voltaire. The painter represented him as rising from the tomb. Envy, tugging at his shroud, strove to hold him back, but was driven off by Minerva, while Benevolence and Truth introduced him to Corneille, Racine, Molière, who hovered near. As the beholders sit in dumb admiration, Lalande, Greuze, and Madame de Villette seize each a crown, and place them on the heads of Franklin, La Dixmerie, and Gauget, who in turn hasten to lay them at the feet of the picture of Voltaire.
Popularity so extraordinary was not, however, unmingled with contempt. One writer of memoirs describes him as “one of the great charlatans of the eighteenth century.” Another cannot abide his table manners, and despises him for putting butter in his eggs and eating them from a glass. A third denounces him in a long poem. The author of a History of a French Louse exhausts the French language in a disgusting description of him.
Of all this Franklin knew nothing, and went on with the business of his office, which was, in his opinion, to keep the cause of his country before the eyes of the people of France. His homely sayings, his bon mots, his republican simplicity of dress and manner, did much to accomplish this end. But he left no expedient whatever untried, and often had recourse to his pen: wrote a dialogue between Great Britain, France, Spain, Holland, Saxony, and America; a catechism relative to the English national debt; and persuaded Dubourg to make a translation of the constitutions of America. Vergennes objected to their publication. The government would not give a license. But the book came out, and the cause of America was more popular than ever. The constitutions were described as a code that marked an epoch in the history of philosophy ; as a code that richly deserved to be well known ; and the men who framed them were pronounced superior to Solon and Lycurgus.
In the midst of this discussion Lafayette returned, and the enthusiasm for America flamed higher still. Crowds beset him wherever he went. Magistrates overwhelmed him with honors. Great ladies insisted on kissing him. The king honored him with a reception at court, and the queen bestowed on him a regiment of dragoons. The ministers even consulted him on American affairs ; and soon learned with pleasure that he had brought a commission creating Franklin sole minister of the United States to the court of France. With it came such an injunction as a mother, when going out for an afternoon, might lay on a family of unruly boys. The American agents in Europe were bidden to behave themselves and quarrel no more ; but the injunction was not obeyed, and in a little while the feud between the two Lees, Ralph Izard, and Franklin was hotter than ever before.
As for Arthur Lee, to the last hour of his stay in France he spared no pains to insult Franklin, thwart him, embarrass his affairs, and invariably met with success. But no success was more complete than that which attended the quarrel of John Paul Jones and Landais. Jones had come over from the United States in the little ship Ranger, and had set his heart on having command of a fine vessel which the commissioners were building at Amsterdam. But the commissioners put him off, and sent him on his ever memorable cruise. First he appeared before Whitehaven, and threatened to burn the shipping. Then he stood over to the Scotch shore, harried the lands of the Earl of Selkirk, and carried away his plate. The next day he fell in with the Drake, an English ship of twenty guns, engaged and took her, and came back with his prize to Brest. Emboldened by victory, Jones again besought the commissioners, who now began in earnest to intercede with the French court. In June he was promised the ship. But it was one thing to promise and another thing to do, and in place of the ship came excuses, delay, and new promises. To keep up the semblance of good faith, the French minister of marine requested Jones to give up the command of the Ranger, and wait in France for something better. This he did, and at once the gossips fell upon him, and declared that he had been driven from the American service. Thereupon the commissioners came to his relief with a certificate stating that he had not. In the midst of his troubles, a copy of Father Abraham’s address, which in France bears the title La Science du Bonhomme Richard, fell in his way, and he read that piece of homely wisdom, “ If you would have your business done, go; if not, send.” So well did this seem to apply to him that he determined to act on it, and, utterly ignoring the minister of marine, he wrote direct to the king, and soon had command of the Duc de Duras. That the letter ever reached the king is very uncertain ; but Jones firmly believed it did, and, in honor of the source whence he got his advice, he changed the name of the Duc de Duras to Le Bonhomme Richard.
Jones now set sail with all the speed he could, and with him went the Alliance, commanded by the crazy Pierre Landais, the Pallas, the Vengeance, and the Cerf. Scarcely was he out of sight of land when new troubles began. The Cerf and the Vengeance left him, and Landais showed signs of insubordination. But Jones cruised along, threatened Leith, and, when off Scarborough, fell in with the Baltic fleet of merchantmen convoyed by the Countess of Scarborough and the Serapis. While the Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis, the Pallas engaged the Countess. But Landais, made more crazy than ever by excitement, suffered the fleet to escape, while he sailed round and round the fighters, firing alike on friend and foe. Out of this grew a bitter quarrel between Jones and Landais. For a time it seemed that the scandal of the affair would be further increased by a duel. But they appealed to Franklin, who removed Landais from the Alliance, and put Jones in command. It was a sorry day for him when he did, for the Frenchman now turned upon him, and enjoys the distinction of being one of the few men who ever got decidedly the better of Franklin in a dispute. Again and again Landais entreated to be restored to command. Franklin as often refused. Then, storming with rage, the Frenchman hurried to L’Orient, where he met that black-hearted traitor Arthur Lee, whom the Alliance was to carry home. What Landais could not think of to embarrass Franklin, Lee did, and between the two a most shameful piece of business was concocted. They stirred up a mutiny of the crew. They persuaded one hundred and fifty of them to sign a paper that they would not lift the anchor till their prize money was paid, and their lawful captain, Pierre Landais, restored ; and one day, while Jones was ashore, Landais boarded the Alliance and took command. Franklin now applied to the French government, and orders went down to L’Orient to blow the Alliance out of the water, if she made an attempt to sail. But she did sail, and with Landais in command.
This was in July, 1780, and from that time on, the story of Franklin’s mission has but little interest till negotiations were begun for a peace. Concerning the signing of that famous document an idle story has long been current, and is still believed. Narrators of this tale declare that when the commissioners were all assembled, and were about to affix their names to the treaty, Franklin excused himself and left the room, and that, when he came back, he was dressed in an old and almost threadbare suit of brown. Nothing was said by the commissioners. But their looks betrayed astonishment, and Franklin told them that the clothes he then had on were those he wore when Wedderburne so shamefully abused him before the Privy Council. The story is pure fable. It has not a scrap of truth to rest on. The incident never occurred. Franklin never asserted it, and it was during his lifetime denied, and flatly denied, by one of the officials who was present at the signing.
Another incident in his life that is commonly misunderstood is the famous Strahan letter ; the letter, we mean, ending, " You are now my enemy, and I am yours.” We know of no collection of his works and letters in which this document is not treated as a piece of spirited and sober writing. Yet it certainly was no more than a jest. Had this not been so, all friendship, all correspondence, between the two would have ended the day the letter was received. But no such falling out took place, and they went on exchanging letters long after the war had seriously begun.
With the signing of the treaty the labors of Franklin in France may be said to have ended. He continued, indeed, to act as minister till the summer of 1785, when Jefferson succeeded him. But old age was upon him, his infirmities were many, and his time was chiefly given to his friends and his pen. The work which he did in France is, we believe, generally unknown, because it has never yet been fairly set forth. Borrowing money, fitting out ships, buying clothing, powder, and guns, settling disputes, writing dispatches, was the least important and the least creditable part of what he accomplished. When he landed in France, in 1776, neither the king, nor the ministers, nor the mass of the nobility had any heart in the American cause. His sole support was public opinion, the most fickle and treacherous of all support. Yet he never for a moment lost it. By his tact, his knowledge of men and the ways of men, he turned it from the wild enthusiasm of a day into downright admiration for the American people.
John Bach McMaster.