Sent by Congress to negotiate the alliance between the young American republic with France, Benjamin Franklin and his colleagues also made themselves ambassadors of a political culture which was hard to reconcile with the institutional and ideological basis of the French monarchy.
Versailles confronted by the revolt of the Thirteen Colonies
With British forces facing off against colonists rising up against their motherland, war had been raging across the Atlantic since spring 1775. Step by step, North America was breaking away. The intransigent policy of George III and his prime minister Lord North reinforced the process leading to a revolt, a revolution and then a final split.
Still suffering from the trauma of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), which had witnessed the loss of a great part of its first colonial empire, France was following attentively the vagaries of the war in America. Was it now time for revenge? While the young king Louis XVI was inclined to pacifism, the same did not apply to his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, who was burning with a desire to wipe out the humiliation of the 1763 peace treaty by putting a permanent stop to Britain’s rise in power. On 2nd May 1776, Vergennes successfully advanced his first pawn: Louis XVI accepted the sending of munitions to the insurgents via the playwright and adventurer Caron de Beaumarchais.
Three Americans in Paris
The discreet support of Louis XVI was aided by the arrival of Silas Deane, America’s first emissary. He immediately formed a close bond with Beaumarchais. Deane also set about recruiting men to fight alongside the insurgents. There was indeed an urgent need to find reinforcements. In September 1776, British troops had occupied New York; a year later, it was the turn of Philadelphia to fall into the hands of the “Redcoats”. As John Adams had foreseen, defeating George III’s army without external help was a vain hope. In the autumn of 1776, with a desire to hasten a rapprochement with France, Congress sent over two more ambassadors: Arthur Lee from Virginia, and Benjamin Franklin.
So it was that a worldwide celebrity set foot on French soil in December 1776. Aware of the renown he had gained thanks to his scientific and popular works, Franklin played to public opinion by presenting to the French a public image that fitted perfectly with the American people’s reputation for virtue and frugality. The king’s portraitist, Joseph-Siffred Duplessis
, made a painting that conveyed this narrative about Franklin.
While Franklin’s conquest of the public space went quite smoothly, his discussions at Versailles turned out to be thornier. Worried by the recent defeats of Washington’s army, Vergennes hesitated before making anything more than an unofficial commitment. Meanwhile, harmony among the three American diplomats was dwindling. Accused by Lee of wrongdoing and indiscretion, Deane was called back by Congress at the end of 1777.
By the time Franklin received his recall letter in March the next year, he could nonetheless pride himself on having taken part in saving his young nation. When news of the British defeat at Saratoga on 17th October 1777 reached France in late 1777, it changed the state of play. Seeing that Britain was in a bad position, Vergennes and Louis XVI let themselves be tempted by this American adventure. On 6th February 1778, two treaties, the first covering friendship and trade, and the second an alliance, opened up a new era. The conflict became international. Five years later, the United States of America acquired its independence. Franklin, Louis XVI and Vergennes had been decisive players in this event.
Emissaries of the idea of democracy
Deane, Lee and Franklin represented a people who had struggled to justify their actions with a fundamentally radical body of ideology. Invoking breach of contract, the right to insurrection, the sovereignty of the people, and the right to abolish the most venerable institutions in order to build new ones,the Founding Fathers laid the ideological and institutional foundations of modern democracy. When they came to France to negotiate an alliance, the North American diplomats helped to disseminate these ideas, in particular via a governmental gazette, the Affaires de l’Angleterre et de l’Amérique, aimed at populariszng the insurgents’ cause by publishing long extracts of political pamphlets and official North American texts. By submitting these highly unorthodox texts for translation and publication to the French ministry within the framework of an absolute monarchy, Franklin and his colleagues played a decisive part in the political acculturation of France and its Ancien régime.
Published in may 2021