The French American
|In Paris, Franklin was hailed as a hero. French intellectual
circles viewed America as the ideal land. In their opinion, it was
a rustic wilderness in which the inhabitants were seeking liberty
from a tyrannical, imperialist nation. The noble struggle for
independence endeared the French to the Americans. Living in the
Parisian suburbs, Franklin found admiring crowds gathered outside
his residence. Once again, Benjamin was the focus of attention.
Through his charming demeanor, Benjamin Franklin won over the socialites of France. To further gain their admiration, Franklin wore his rustic fur cap, which the French considered to be the quintessential symbol of rugged Americanism. Benjamin took great pleasure in reporting his daily appearance to close friends:
"Figure me in your mind as jolly as formerly and as strong and hearty only a few years older; very plainly dressed, wearing my thin gray straight hair that peeps out under my only coiffure, a fine fur cap which comes down to my forehead almost to my spectacles. Think how this must appear among the powedered heads of Paris."
Benjamin Franklin: The rustic American
Coaxing the French to support the patriot cause proved more difficult than Franklin had imagined. First of all, he had to contend with an extensive British espionage network, which attempted to uncover Benjamin's diplomatic plan and foil its execution. In fact, one of Franklin's own secretaries was covertly employed by the British Crown, informing the English of the American delegation's every move.
Another obstacle was the fact that the French were reluctant to finance the American independence movement, for fear of its failure. The latest news from the colonies was not promising. The patriots suffered one defeat after another. The French could not afford to support a losing cause. In addition, King Louis XVI was hesitant to condone a rebellion against another royal family, regardless of whether it was his worst enemy or not. Louis feared such an action would lend justification to malcontent subjects resisting his own authority. In order to overcome such hesitations, the colonial rebellion had to provide a definitive advantage to the French nation.
For his part, Franklin befriended Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, the nobleman directing foreign policy for the French court. The Comte de Vergennes was sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause, but needed time to convince Louis XVI. Biding his time by charming the French people, Franklin, ever calm and patient, allowed the persistent Monsieur Gravier to carefully overcome the King's inhibitions.
Meanwhile, Franklin aided the Revolutionary Army by enlisting the aid of two foreign soldiers: Marquis de Lafayette and Friedrich Wilhelm, Baron von Steuben. Marquis would serve as a tactical aide to General Washington while Baron von Steuben would drill the hastily trained Continental Army at its winter headquarters in Valley Forge.
During the eight and a half years that he lived near Paris, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed some of the best moments of his life. The prolific inventor participated in the most elite social circles in France. He entertained his neighbors and, despite his age, charmed the ladies, proposing marriage to one fine lady who turned him down. As a member of the Freemasons, he was active in a lodge in France. Still as innovative as ever, he invented the bifocals to overcome his combined myopia and hyperopia.
In the end, his diplomatic mission came to fruition as well. With an American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, both France and Spain pledged monetary and military support for American patriots. Signing the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778, Franklin wore the same suit he had worn on the fateful day of his trial before a full session of Parliament. "To give it a little revenge," Benjamin said.
French military and naval might was instrumental in the success of the Continental Army. With French assistance, the tides of the war turned. By 1781, a combined American-French victory in Yorktown, Virginia, signaled a British surrender and a conclusion to the American Revolution. Americans had triumphed in the name of independence, and they owed a debt of gratitude to the many courageous patriot leaders, including humble Benjamin Franklin.
A truce declared, attention shifted to drafting a peace treaty that would protect American interests. Franklin was chosen to be one of five American representatives at the peace conference. The elderly Benjamin unwaveringly stated American terms and insisted that his country's concerns not be subordinated to those of France and Spain, the two other victorious nations. The final product was the Treaty of Paris of 1783, an agreement that, on the whole, satisfied the American people. While concluding the peace treaty, Benjamin discovered that the American colonies had united themselves under a confederation, much similar to Franklin's original design. At the same time, he was saddened to learn that the bald eagle had been chosen as the emblem for the new American nation. Dismissing the eagle as a coward, Benjamin had preferred the turkey as a symbol. In Franklin's reasoning, the turkey, although "vain and silly," would never hesitate to defend its "farmyard" from lobsterback British soldiers.
An end to the war brought reconciliation to father and son. For nine years, Benjamin and William Franklin had been divided by their personal loyalties. Ultimately, they realized that their true loyalties lay with each other. Grateful that he had the chance to set things right, Benjamin Franklin admitted that "Nothing ever affected me with such keen sensations."