Sunday, February 16, 2020

Episode 136: Franklin in Paris

When we last left France back in Episode 115, Silas Deane was doing his best to procure arms and equipment for the Continental Army, as well as doing his best to convince France to support the American cause and go to war with Britain.

American Commissioners in Paris

Recall that Deane had arrived in France in May 1776 with quite a few obstacles in his way.  He had no diplomatic experience, and had never even been to Europe before.  He did not know anyone in France and did not speak French.  On top of that, he had prominent enemies among fellow patriots, like Arthur Lee attacking him from the outset.  He also managed to hire a British spy, Edward Bancroft, as his personal secretary.

Despite all these setbacks, Deane had managed to establish communications with the French Foreign Minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes.  With the tacit support of Vergennes, Deane had established a relationship with shell company called Roderigue Hortalez and Company run by playwright and international arms dealer Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.  The men had managed to fill shiploads of supplies for America.  However, the British Embassy in France, headed by David Murray, Lord Stormont, managed to get the French government to seize most of those supplies.

Franklin at Court of Versailles (from Ben Franklin History)
France was still not completely on board with backing the patriots, at least not openly.  Even after learning of the Declaration of Independence, France did not want to start another war with Britain.  Open support of the United States would most certainly precipitate such a war.  Support for the American cause, however, was growing in France.  In addition to the possibly worthless paper money Deane was using in France, his other useful currency was his self-appointed power to hand out commissions in the Continental Army.  French officers seeking combat experience could go to America as generals or other ranks higher than they held in the French Army.  Many officers jumped at this opportunity.

By late 1776, Congress had voted to send Deane a little more help.  It appointed Arthur Lee and Benjamin Franklin as co-commissioners.  Both men arrived in Paris near the end of 1776.  As I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes, the new trio did not get along particularly well. Specifically Lee did not like Franklin or Deane and the feeling seemed mutual.

Lee had worked with Franklin when the two men were colonial agents in London before the war.  Lee was extremely dismissive of Franklin’s diplomatic skills and thought he would be a disaster.  Even worse, Lee attacked Deane’s covert aid setup, claiming that the French government was giving assistance to the Americans at no cost.  Deane’s trading company had made arrangements to ship military supplies to America in exchange for tobacco and other raw materials.  Lee indicated that Deane was going to skim those raw materials shipped to France for personal profit, taking advantage of the secretive nature of these transactions.  Lee knew his accusations were false, he had personally helped set up the terms with Beaumarchais and was upset that he had been cut out of getting commissions himself.  His attacks seemed to be a way to get Deane sent home under a cloud.  While Congress held investigations to get to the truth, Lee could take over as the key American in charge of French arms shipments.

Ralph Izard

Ralph Izard
(from Wikimedia)
Joining Deane, Franklin, and Lee, the three commissioners in Paris, was a fourth man, Ralph Izard of South Carolina.  Izard had been living in London for several years before leaving in 1776.  As an outspoken patriot, he no longer felt welcome there.  He moved to Paris, planning to return to South Carolina.

Before he could return, Congress appointed him Commissioner to Tuscany in early 1777.  Tuscany is part of modern day Italy.  The Grand Duke of Florence, however, refused to admit Izard to Tuscany, for fear that it would harm his relationship with Britain.  Izard then spent the next couple of years, living in Paris corresponding from there with Tuscan officials on diplomatic matters.

Izard and Arthur Lee got along, although Lee also convinced Izard that Franklin was not competent. So, Izard and Franklin did not get along at all either.  It seems that Izard thought that Franklin should consult with him and keep him more in the loop than Franklin cared to do.  The two would continue their ongoing feud in Paris until Izard was recalled a few years later in 1779.

Benjamin Franklin Arrives in France

Benjamin Franklin was the rockstar of the delegation.  He had hoped to stay out of the public notice until he had a chance to get a better idea of whether the French court would receive him as a minister. He landed on the French coast at a small coastal village called Auray with his two grandsons, William Temple Franklin and Benjamin Franklin Bache.  Despite landing in an inconspicuous port aboard a local fishing vessel, the French people mobbed Franklin and greeted him with enthusiasm.  By the time he reached Nantes a few days later, the city had arranged a grand ball in his honor.

Franklin’s reputation had preceded him.  He may have been the most well known person in France from North America.  Many of his writings, and accounts of his inventions and scientific experiments has preceded him. Frenchmen and women strained to meet the scientist and philosopher raised in the American wilderness.  Locals began producing images of Franklin for sale.  It became fashionable for people to have portraits on their walls.  His image appeared on coins, signet rings, and snuff boxes.  If bobbleheads had been invented, there definitely would have been a Franklin bobblehead.  Reprints of many of his older books, translated into French of course, flowed into bookstores all over the country.

Franklin dressed frontier style
(from B Franklin History)
Despite speaking almost no French, Franklin had little trouble with inclusion in French society.  He played into his “man of the wilderness” persona by wearing simple homespun clothing in the Quaker style.  In fashion-obsessed Paris where more complex was always better, this was almost shocking.  Franklin also refused to wear a wig when outdoors or when meeting with others.  This was the fashion equivalent  today of not wearing a shirt today.  It wouldn’t exactly get you arrested, but was seen as rather shocking for anyone other than the lowest of classes.  But these distinctions only played into the mythos and made Franklin even more popular.  This was a deliberate strategy.  He knew full well what he was expected to wear. When Franklin had visited Paris in 1767, he had purchased a wig and clothing to fit in with society.  On this trip, dressed as “plain American” Franklin stood out and turned heads with his nonconforming style.

After his stay in Nantes, Franklin made his way on to Paris.  With all the accolades along the way, it took him weeks to get to Paris.  Although he got attention, Franklin did not speak publicly about his purpose in coming to France.  His secretive nature only led to more speculation.  British Ambassador Lord Stormont spread the story that he was fleeing America with his two grandsons before the rebellion collapsed.

Meeting with Vergennes

While French society greeted Franklin warmly, the government was less enthusiastic.  Foreign Minister Vergenes ordered the arrest of anyone who suggested Franklin’s arrival presaged a treaty between France and America.  Vergennes was desperately trying to avoid triggering a war with Britain.  France simply could not afford a war and was not ready for one to begin.

Comte de Vergennes
(from Wikimedia)
Vergennes did hold a discreet meeting with Franklin on December 28, 1776, weeks after his arrival.  Silas Deane introduced Franklin and also attended, as did Arthur Lee.  At that meeting, Franklin outlined his agenda, which included not only more French military aid, but a treaty that would bring France into the war on America’s side.

At this time, it late December, France had received word that the British had attacked and occupied New York and New Jersey, with no effective resistance.  The Continental army seemed to be falling apart and American rebellion might come to an end at any day.  Although Washington’s successful attack on Trenton had just taken place, word of that event would not reach France for at least another month.  In light of all this, Vergennes was noncommittal to anything and urged Franklin to keep a lower profile.

Franklin realized that patience would be required.  However, keeping a low profile was not part of his plan.

Holding Court at Passy

Franklin borrowed an estate in Passy, a few miles outside of Paris.  Actually, today it is a neighborhood in Paris, but in 1776, it was a part of the countryside outside of Paris, between Paris and Versailles.
Le Ray de Chaumont
(from Wikimedia)

The owner of the home, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, was a prominent aristocrat who was a big supporter of the American cause.  He served the King in several important positions, and was one of the wealthiest men in France.  In addition to owning several shipping companies, he built several factories, for making glassware and other products.  Among his products were portrait medallions made for European royalty.  Of course his works pumped out a great many Franklin medallions after his arrival.

Despite his wealth and status, Chaumont was an idealist who supported the patriot cause in America.  His home in the Loire Valley was more of a palace.  You can still visit the Chateau de Chaumont today. He kept the house in Passy as a place to stay near the Court of Versailles.  This was more than just a cottage though.  It was a grand mansion with a main house and two wings.  There were several outbuildings and gardens.  A large domestic staff tended to the estate. Chaumont allowed Franklin use of the Passy estate rent free along with food and use of the staff.  Franklin was living like a French nobleman.  Although he eventually began paying rent, Franklin would live there for nearly a decade.  Franklin continued to wear simple commoner clothing and hairstyle, but there was nothing common about the way he lived in France.

Franklin sent one of his grandsons, Benjamin Bache, age 7, to a nearby boarding school. He would visit his grandfather once a week.  Bache was the son of Franklin’s daughter Sally.  Franklin’s other grandson, William Temple Franklin, was the 16 year old son of Ben Franklin’s only son, William Franklin, former royal governor of New Jersey and at the time a prisoner of the patriots in Connecticut.  Temple, as he was known, would live with his grandfather and assist with his duties as part of the American delegation to the Court of King Louis.

As Franklin settled in, he added one of his lightning rods to the home.  He also quickly established his own wine cellar with more than a thousand bottles.  Franklin entertained all the time.  His fame was enough to draw French elites to his gatherings.  Chaumont’s wife often served as hostess at many of Franklin’s parties.  You might think that Chaumont would be nervous with his wife spending so much time with Franklin, who has a well earned reputation for womanizing.  Instead, he quickly realized that Franklin was going after his daughter, who was in her early twenties at the time.  The family stepped up efforts to marry her off to a marquis so that she would not be a temptation to Mr. Franklin.

Chateau de Chaumont (from Wikimedia)
Chaumont himself continued as a booster of Franklin and the American Revolution. As I said, he made medallions of Franklin and also hired an artist to paint his portrait.  Chaumont would invest part of his personal fortune in the purchase of military supplies to be shipped to America.  He also became an important political advocate for the American cause with the King.

Chaumont supported the ideology of the American Revolution, but he also hoped to profit from the arms trade, and perhaps be rewarded with land in America should the revolution succeed.  Sadly for Chaumont, that would not be the case.  He would lose a fair amount of his fortune, which the Americans never repaid.  During the French Revolution, the government would seize his lands in France.  Although he managed to survive the reign of terror, he would die in relative obscurity in France in 1803.

Just so we don’t end that point on too sad a note, Chaumont’s son, James Le Ray, did move to America after the American Revolution, married a Jersey girl, and settled in upstate New York.

Anyway, after Franklin’s first meeting with Vergennes, he realized he would need to be more patient and not push the Foreign Minister too far too fast.  Franklin held salons with France’s intellectual elite, not for political lobbying but simply to use his celebrity status to develop friendships with important members of the French establishment.

Franklin went beyond social settings to excite the French public.  The former printer and publisher fell into old habits after purchasing a small printing press.  He produced pamphlets for distribution to opinion leaders and newspaper editors.  Some were French translations of important documents, such as the Declaration of Independence or the Pennsylvania Constitution.  He was stoking public opinion about the idea of liberty.

He also revived his old habit of writing articles anonymously, or under a false name to affect public opinion.  One article claimed to be from the King of Prussia.  Britain had agreed to pay for any Hessian mercenaries who were killed in the war, but not for the wounded.  Franklin’s article pretended that the government recommended letting the wounded soldiers die rather than sending home cripples.  This is one example of many examples of Franklin's attempts to turn public opinion against Britain and in favor of the American cause.

This strategy confused the ministry.  Vergennes commented “I really do not know what Franklin has come to do here…. At the beginning we thought he had all sorts of projects, but all of a sudden, he has shut himself up in sanctuary with the philosphes.

Lord Stormont
(from Wikimedia)
Franklin, however, was playing the long game.  He knew that Vergennes was focused on the political realities of trying to weaken Britain while avoiding a direct war.  But Franklin also knew the power of a publicly popular cause with the nation’s elite.  Public support for the cause would help get the ministry on board with helping the cause of liberty in America.  Public relations was every bit a part of Franklin’s strategy along with actual diplomacy.

Franklin also began an ongoing competition with the British Ambassador, Lord Stormont.  The British official in France often had the advantage over Franklin and the American delegation. Among the many British spies in the American delegation, Edward Bancroft was sending weekly reports outlining not only what the Americans were doing, but their strategies for future activities as well.  When it suited his purpose, Stormont would often make these strategies public in an attempt to discredit or prevent them from happening. Some were simply made up stories, like Franklin’s supposed attempt to build some super-weapon using electricity.

Once when asked about one of Stormont’s pronouncements, Franklin retorted it is not a truth, it is only a Stormonter which was a play on the french word mentir meaning to lie.  The word Stormonter soon entered the public lexicon as a term for something that was not true.

More Commissions

Franklin followed Silas Deane’s lead in passing out commissions to European officers who wanted to serve in America.  As I’ve mentioned before it was rather common for officers to serve in the armies of other countries during peacetime.  It gave them experience and sometimes helped to improve relations between the armies of common allies.

I mentioned in earlier episodes that Deane had already provided a major general’s commission to a teen aged captain, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette had not yet left for America and had an opportunity to meet with Franklin.  Lafayette was only one of many.  Over the months, Franklin, like the other American Commissioners, was swamped by men seeking commissions.

Franklin had to reject most office seekers.  For some, he would give a form letter saying they were free to travel to America at their own expense and make their case there, but that he did not know enough to recommend them.  For others, he might make an offer.  One was a down on his luck baron named Von Steuben.  He had served in the Prussian Army during the Seven Years War as a captain.  He served at the headquarters of Frederick the Great, but never came to any prominence, nor could he rise in rank.  At the end of the war, he was discharged for unknown reasons.  Some have speculated it was for homosexual activity, though I’ve never seen any primary evidence to support this.  Whatever the reason, he was not able to get a position with any army in Europe.  As he fell deeper into debt, he got word of opportunities to fight in America and went to see Franklin.

Franklin in Paris (from Accessible Archives)
Whatever he said at the meeting clearly impressed Franklin.  Prussian military strategy and discipline was considered the finest in Europe.  Franklin was convinced that Von Stueben was the man to whip the Continental Army into shape.  It is not clear if Von Stueben puffed up his own resume or whether Franklin did it for him.  But suddenly in Franklin’s letter of recommendation, the former captain who worked in the Prussian Army headquarters became a Lieutenant General who served as Adjutant to Frederick the Great.  Washington and Congress relied on this letter to make Von Steuben the Continental Army’s Adjutant General.

Besides Von Steuben and a bevy of French officers, many others from around Europe came looking for commissions.  Casimir Pulaski was a Polish noble and cavalryman.  In 1772, he participated in the attempted kidnapping of the Polish King, who was planning to sell out the Polish Confederation to Russia.  After the Confederation collapsed and Poland was partitioned among the European powers, Pulaski found himself on the run, dodging charges of attempted regicide.  Something the kings of most countries took rather seriously.  Finding his way to Franklin, Pulaski received a letter of recommendation and boarded a ship for America.

For the next nine or ten months, Franklin made little effort to push the French government into doing much more.  He and the other commissioners spent most of their time winning over the French people, seeing just how much they could get away with in shipping covert military items to America, and waiting for events to unfold in such a way as to make a true alliance between France and America possible.

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Next  Episode 137 Lambert Wickes brings the war to Britain

Previous Episode 135 The Danbury Raid

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Further Reading


Kite, Elizabeth S. “PRELIMINARIES OF FRENCH SECRET AID — 1775-1778.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 46, no. 2, 1935, pp. 58–67. JSTOR:

Fleming, Thomas “Franklin Charms Paris” American Heritage, Vol 60 Issue 1 Spring 2010:

Augur, Helen, “Benjamin Franklin and The French Alliance” American Heritage Vol 7 Issue 3, April 1956:

“Izard of South Carolina.” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 2, no. 3, 1901, pp. 205–240.

Walton, Geri Benjamin Franklin Living in Passy, France, May 27, 2015:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Isham, Charles (ed) The Deane Papers, New York Historical Society, 1887.

Deas, Anne Izard (ed) Correspondence of Mr. Ralph Izard, of South Carolina, from the year 1774 to 1804; with a short memoir, Vol. 1, C. S. Francis, 1844.

Hale, Edward E. Franklin in France, Roberts Brothers, 1883.

Sparks, Jared (ed) The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 1,  Hale, Gray & Brown, 1829.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Desmarais, Norman America's First Ally: France in the Revolutionary War, Casemate, 2019

Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon & Shuster, 2003.

Schaeper, Thomas J. France and America in the Revolutionary Era: The Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, Berghahn Books, 1995.

Schiff, Stacy A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Henry Holt & Co. 2005 (book recommendation of the week).

Schoenbrun, David Triumph in Paris: The exploits of Benjamin Franklin, Harper & Row, 1976.

Steell, Willis Benjamin Franklin of Paris, 1776-1785, Minton, Balch, & Co. 1928.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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