Benjamin Franklin's Diplomacy
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Benjamin Franklin's Diplomacy


This is the unlikely story of how a colonial printer rose to become a preeminent scientist, patriot and international statesman. His diplomacy to the court of the French King helped secure French military assistance against the British and likely saved the Revolution from disaster.

Franklin's Mission to the French King

American Revolution
American Revolution




Franklin shook the dust of England from his feet, as a subject of King George, when he set sail for America in 1775. When he returned to Europe, it was to watch and to baffle from Passy the clumsy efforts of British ministers to make a solitude where they had failed to maintain peace. He was so far a diplomatist that he had studied human character for seventy years. Yet in England his diplomacy had only exasperated. In France he accomplished as much against England as Washington with all his victories. His knowledge of French was so indifferent that on one occasion, during the sitting of the Academy, he was observed to “applaud the loudest at his own praises.” He did the work, but he never learned the dialect of diplomacy. He was that strange creature — a republican at the court of a pure monarchy. In Paris his defects were virtues. His scientific fame spoke for itself in purest Parisian French. As a politician, to the court he was the dire enemy of England; to the jaded society of Paris he was the representative of a new world of feeling and thought His New England astuteness seemed to Parisian courtiers patriarchal innocence. His naive stories and illustrations, which a thousand admirers were ready to translate and repeat in every circle of the town, were as bracing as quinine. His very costume, “his hair hanging, his spectacles on his nose, his white hose and white hat under his arm,” in the midst of absurd perukes and brocaded suits, came like a revelation of nature to the victims of fashion. He became, to his own amusement, the idol of Paris. “Mr. Franklin,” writes a contemporary Parisian, “is besieged, followed, admired, adored, wherever he shows himself, with a fury, a fanaticism, capable no doubt of flattering him and doing him honor, but which at the same time proves that we shall never be reasonable." He tells his daughter that there have been sold incredible numbers of clay medallions of him, “some to be set in the lids of snuff-boxes, and some so small as to be worn in rings.” “Pictures, busts and prints have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.” Versailles was never perhaps quite certain that the New England philosopher was not of red Indian descent. But love does not reason. Paris had fallen in love with Franklin, and in homage to him even grew enamored of simplicity.

No Englishman was ever so caressed in Paris, for the very reason that Franklin was and was not an Englishman. As the American sage and philosopher, he performed as much for his country as he accomplished by his diplomatic skill. But he was a diplomatist, too, and of high rank in the art. Colleagues and rivals, like his detractor Arthur Lee, or even Jay and Adams, who, as Mr. Fitzherbert wrote, “rather fear than are attached to him,” might be pardoned for inability to understand the source of his influence. They did not venture to deny the fact. In the only serious instance in which, in reference to the disputed fishery and boundary rights, he was accused of neglecting the interests of his countrymen, his colleagues certified that he had defended those interests with his counsels and his authority. On another and more important point, he not merely co-operated, but took the initiative.

A man who had gone through the campaign with Brad-dock, who had shared in the apprehensions and labors of the crisis which followed the defeat of Braddock, and exulted in the triumph of Wolfe, was not likely to depreciate the value of Canada. When the war commenced, he sought to induce France to help the Colonies to wrest Canada and Nova Scotia from England. As soon as the negotiations for peace with England opened, his great efforts were directed to persuade the English commissioner, Richard Oswald, to see the utility of ceding those territories as proofs of a desire for that sweet” thing, a “reconciliation,” and as a safeguard against future causes of strife. Oswald, a prosperous Scotch merchant was, as Franklin says of him, an old man who had “nothing at heart but the good of mankind, and putting a stop to mischief. " But he does not seem to have been fit to cope with a consummate philanthropist like Franklin. He had happened to let fall an opinion that “the giving up of Canada to the English at the last peace had been a politic act in France, for that it had weakened the ties between England and her colonies, and that he himself had predicted from it the late revolution.” Franklin had already developed a scheme on paper which he lent Oswald to read and meditate upon. The plan was that “Britain should voluntarily offer to give up the Province, though on these conditions, that she shall in all times coming have and enjoy the right of free trade thither, unencumbered with any duties whatsoever; that so much of the vacant lands shall be sold as will raise a sum sufficient to pay for the houses burned by the British troops and their Indians, and also to indemnify the royalists for the confiscation of their estates." Oswald, he says, "told me that nothing in his judgment could be clearer, more satisfactory and convincing than the reasonings in that paper; that he would do his utmost to impress Lord Shelburne with them.” Franklin, in reporting by letter this conversation to his brother Peace-Commissioner Adams, describes Oswald’s remarks rather more fully than in the semi-official journal he kept. He tells Adams on April 20, 1782, his proposal about Canada: “ Mr. Oswald liked much the idea, but said

they were too much straitened for money to make any pecuniary reparation; but he should endeavor to persuade their doing it this way.” Oswald went to England to confer with Lord Shelburne, taking Franklin’s paper with him. On his return to Paris, he informed Franklin that “it seemed to have made an impression, and he had reason to believe that it might be settled to our satisfaction toward the end of the treaty; but in his own mind he wished it might not be mentioned at the beginning; that his lordship indeed said he had not imagined reparation would be expected, and he wondered I should not know whether it was intended to demand it”

But it has now been proved by the publication of the French, dispatches, that no one was more bitterly opposed than the French Ministers to the annexation of Canada to the United States. Eager as they were to promote the separation of the British Provinces in America from the mother country, M. de Vergennes was entirely opposed to any extension of the emancipated territory ; and he perhaps still cherished a hope that the French Provinces in America, which had been conquered by England only twenty years before, might one day be brought back to their allegiance to the Court of Versailles.

Franklin, as a diplomatist, was not peremptory in insisting on the rights of his country, still less on his own dignity. But he studied the French men and the French women who ruled France, and he probed to the bottom the instincts of the French governing class, without losing his own. About alliances in general he was not solicitous. Before he started on his own mission to Europe he had in Congress, though in vain, deprecated the sending a “virgin” republic “suitoring” for the friendship of European powers. “It seems to me,” he writes, “that we have in most instances hurt our credit and importance by sending all over Europe, begging alliances, and soliciting declarations of our independence. The nations, perhaps, from thence seemed to think that our independence is something they have to sell, and that we do not offer enough for it.” Writing to Jay, at Madrid, in April, 1782, he exclaims: “ Spain has taken four years to consider whether she should treat with us or not. Give her forty, and let us in the meantime mind our own business.”

In fact, he cared little for other European alliances than the American alliance with France. To cement that he was ready to be all complaisance. His tact alone prevented a rupture with the French ministers through the signature, in December, 1782, behind their backs, of the preliminary treaty between Great Britain and the United States. His brother commissioners, Jay and Adams, suspected that the French Government wished to protract the negotiations for its own objects, however the United States might suffer by the prolongation of the war. Their suspicion was not without

foundation; and Franklin, when he understood the facts, acquiesced in their decision to proceed independently. But he had the wisdom, which his colleagues lacked, to be content with starting peace on its route without breaking down the bridge by which it had crossed before he knew whether it might not be useful for a retreat. To the French minister’s reproaches for the departure from good-fellowship, he replied by the soft answer which turneth away wrath. He defends himself, and Jay and Adams, against the charge of anything worse than “indiscretion” and “neglect of a point of bieneseance." To those two offences he pleads guilty. But he warns M. de Vergennes not to forget the effect of a quarrel upon “ the English, who, I just now learn, flatter themselves they have already divided us.”

The friendly relations of France and the United States had seemed in danger of being completely overclouded when Franklin’s amiable apologies restored peace. Two days after the French ministerial remonstrance, the United States actually received from the French treasury a loan of six million francs, which infused new life into their military operations. Jay and Adams, “who,” alleges M. de Vergennes, “do not pretend to recognize the rules of courtesy in regard to us,” could never have obtained that aid. Franklin’s brother commissioners underrated the gain to the United States from French succor. Without the diversion France created in Europe, and the subsidies she granted, it is almost incredible that the Congress should not have been compelled to make a humiliating peace with King George. Franklin understood that the French alliance was vital to his people, and he spared no pains that he might confirm it. As Jefferson said of him, in extolling his diplomatic dexterity, he, by his reasonableness, moderation and temper, so won the confidence of the French ministers that "it may truly be said they were more under his influence than he under theirs.”

Franklin did not see the instability of that charming Parisian society to which he discoursed in his shrewdly witty parables. We suspect that he only affected not to perceive the selfish motives at the bottom of the invaluable assistance the French nation and government afforded his country.

Chivalrous Frenchmen like Lafayette, in advocating the American cause, were more protesting against court absolutism at home than against the imperial tyranny of Great Britain. Frenchmen generally and their rulers, when they succored the United States, were merely fighting, as they had fought a generation earlier, England in America. They longed to recover Canada. When they had convinced themselves that their American allies would not consent to their return as sovereigns to any part of the North American continent, they liked better to leave their old dominions in the hands of England than struggle for their transfer to the emancipated British colonies. While Great Britain remained still a neighbor, they believed the Republic would not be able to dispense with the shelter of French protection. Franklin, who gauged human motives, especially when not altogether noble, with unerring sagacity, was possibly more desirous to convince Robert Livingston than himself convinced, when he wrote: “The ideas of aggrandizement by conquest are out of fashion. The wise here think France great enough; and its ambition at present seems to be only that of justice and magnanimity toward other nations, fidelity and utility to its allies.”—Edinburgh Review.







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