American History, American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, Comte de Vergennes, Diplomacy, France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Adams, John Paul Jones, Richard Henry Lee, The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers, Thomas Fleming, Voltaire
“In France, seventy-year-old Benjamin Franklin began the third phase of his extraordinary life. His fame as a scientist and philosopher blended with the huge excitement he generated as the spokesman for the embattled new republic, the United States of America. With consummate shrewdness, Franklin wore the simple clothes of an American Quaker, an imaginary character created by savants such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French wanted to believe that in the new world a new kind of man was emerging, free of the corruptions and infirmities of their decadent old world. Franklin was more than ready to encourage this illusion. One excited Parisian wrote: ‘Everything about him announces the simplicity of primitive morals… The people clustered about him as he passed and asked: “Who is this old peasant who has such a noble air?”‘
The old peasant, whose primitive morals had enabled him to maintain wives on both sides of the Atlantic without a hint of scandal, was soon displaying his gift for backstairs diplomacy. He began by charming France’s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes. With the help of several American victories on the battlefield, Franklin persuaded this cautious veteran of twenty-four years service in Europe’s capitals to back the United States, first with secret aid and then with a formal alliance in 1778. This was only the beginning of Franklin’s French accomplishments. He secured over $40 million in loans and gifts from the French treasury — the equivalent of perhaps $600 million today — money that kept the bankrupt American government functioning. He supervised the shipment of tons of supplies and weapons to America. He armed and equipped American sea captains, such as John Paul Jones, who preyed on British shipping in their home waters with spectacular success…
In a cheerful letter to a grandniece in America, Franklin had [an] explanation for his dalliances: ‘Somebody gave it out that I loved ladies; and then every body presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embraced, that is to have their necks kissed. For as to kissing on the lips or cheeks it is not the mode here, the first is reckoned rude, and the other may rub off the paint. The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable; by their various attentions and civilities, & their sensible conversation. ‘Tis a delightful people to live with.’…
Occasionally, one madam or mademoiselle asked him if he cared for her more than the other pursuers. With a smile Franklin would reply in his limping French, ‘Yes, when you are closest to me, because of the power of the attraction.’
The remark combined flirtation and a reminder of his fame as a scientist. He was comparing the lady’s impact on him to the way an electrified piece of metal drew iron filings to it. Behind these amorous games lay the goal Franklin never forgot — persuading the French to back the faltering American Revolution. He knew — and cheerfully approved — the passion for politics among upper-class French women. He hoped their enthusiasm for his amiable American ways would be transmitted to their influential husbands or lovers.”
Pulled from Thomas Fleming’s The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.