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A Theater of War

Benjamin Franklin’s dramatic role in American history.

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On first opening Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, the reader may not pay much attention to the list titled “Cast of Characters” that appears immediately after the table of contents; instead she may turn to Schiff’s inviting introduction to find out how it was that, in the fateful year of 1776, a 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin found himself on a boat to France. The colonies, as Schiff relates, were launched into a very unequal war with England, and the most likely source of help in everything from the giving of funds to the conferring of international legitimacy was France. Franklin, with reasonable French, years of diplomatic experience, and a towering reputation as a scientist, had been dispatched to persuade the young monarch King Louis XVI to aid in the founding of a democratic republic.

With pleasurable celerity, we are soon in France ourselves. Among the first people we meet is “the scene-stealing playwright” Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who has been acting as a French secret agent and, clandestinely, getting ships full of much-needed supplies out of French harbors so that the American army may have guns and boots—the French, it turns out, are already quite interested in the American project. Beaumarchais’ mind is described as a place where “a glorious cross-fertilization of dramaturgy and foreign policy” takes root; in between his harbor maneuvers he has been directing rehearsals of his own play The Barber of Seville.

A distant bell chimes in the mind of the reader, and that muffled sound grows clearer as every few pages brings a sentence on Franklin’s appreciation for “well-choreographed buccaneering” or a line about his being sent to France “in the role of seductive ingénue,” or one concerning how, when he was much younger, he had “staged a dress rehearsal for the slipping of oppressive familial chains.” Paris itself is a grand performance—the ladies are so thrilled by the new envoy that they begin to costume themselves with their hair in the “coiffure à la Franklin,” shaping their tresses to look like a round fur hat. “Why,” the reader thinks to himself or herself, “this biography is very much like a play.” And the style of that play, appropriately for this period of French history, is that of a witty comedy, almost an opéra bouffe.

The avid reader of biographies has of late plunged into so many studies that begin, like certain realist novels, with the subject’s grandparents and their immigration, followed inevitably by chapters on “initial obstacles” and “first successes,” and then by wearying passages on “maturity” and “flaws,” that Schiff’s choice to present her biography not as if it were a novel, but with a sense of theater, comes as a welcome change. Schiff has thought through the form carefully and creatively, deciding on a version of the Aristotelian dramatic principle that there should be a unity of time and place in the unfolding of her story. The setting, then, is Paris in the years between 1776 and 1785, and each chapter of the book traces a year or 18 months of that period.

Franklin during those years was in challenging circumstances: living in houses teeming with French spies and British agents, having no secretary except his own adept grandson, and receiving from Congress new emissaries and contradictory directions—or, more often, no directions at all. Meanwhile, his American colleagues in Paris—some of whom were also supposed to be representing America in France, and some of whom stayed on the congressional payroll but simply never went to their postings in other countries—were full of complaints about Franklin. Several wrote home attempting to get their esteemed colleague censured or revoked for the way he managed his accounts, which was, in truth, rather flighty, and for the way he tried to procure and ship supplies. The diplomat did so poorly in this matter that the American army was hungry and nearly naked through the freezing and muddy winter of 1780-81. Despite all this, though, Franklin persuaded the French government to support the war with its navy, gunpowder, thousands of soldiers, and about 1.3 billion livres, or about 13 billion of today’s dollars, contributions without which the war could not have been won. And, when the English finally admitted defeat, Franklin, along with John Jay and John Adams, negotiated a most beneficent peace.

Schiff argues persuasively that part of what made Franklin’s diplomacy so successful was his singular uncommunicativeness. Letters had a way of falling into the wrong hands, and Franklin, quickly recognizing that talking was the only way to get anything done in France, gave himself over to visiting and being visited by an extraordinary array of people. The paucity of his correspondence was a source of complaint for the American Congress, which hardly appreciated receiving only three letters from its envoy during the entire eventful year of 1780. The reader guesses that the biographer was occasionally frustrated by Franklin’s reticence as well. Schiff’s decision to hold rigorously to her delimited period, a decision with the advantages of drama and immediacy, means that she quotes only a few lines from those writings prior to 1776 that offer something of Franklin’s political thought. As a result, Franklin does not have the soliloquies expected of a central player, reflections that might answer our occasional questions about his motivations or help to fill out our sense of his intellectual influence, particularly when France came to have its own revolution.

Instead, Schiff has diligently pieced through endless private correspondence and diplomatic archives; her Franklin emerges from the varying perceptions of those around him. The people Franklin worked with were none of them simple and all of them interesting. Among the American cast, for example, we have John Adams, whom Schiff, with her graceful sense of quotation, lets speak for himself both in his irascibility and in his self-cognizance: “My talent, if I have one, lies in making war.” Adams can never quite quiet his resentment toward his colleague, a resentment exacerbated every time Franklin’s French admirers have another banquet in his honor or use his portrait in another kind of wallpaper. The infighting among Adams, Jay, Richard Izard, Arthur and William Lee, Silas Deane, and the various other American representatives and hangers-on is a never-ending amazement to their European audience, who cannot fathom how they expect to be taken seriously when they act so little in accord. Franklin is in many ways better understood by his formidable French ally the Comte de Vergennes, “the all-seeing foreign minister,” who is motivated in part by his desire for revenge on the English after the outcome of the French and Indian War and the, to France, humiliating peace of 1763. To outwit the British, Vergennes uses all the diplomatic weapons at his disposal, including his control of the heavily censored French press. Thus, when Lafayette sails to America early on to offer his services—an act that cannot be officially acknowledged until the French have declared war—he is described in the French papers as having, in Schiff’s enjoyable phrase, “succumbed to a sudden and violent desire to master the art of navigation.”

If, at the beginning of A Great Improvisation, unused as we are to the approach, we do not quite realize that we are in fact tracing the stories all around Franklin, by the end of the book we can see that the cast is being used to double, or possibly triple, purpose. As in any good play, the characters reveal one another—John Adams’ cantankerous sense of Franklin is as important as Vergennes’ appreciative one, both for our understanding of Franklin and for how we come to see Franco-American relations. These relations are not here considered in economic terms—matters like the tobacco trade and the effects of currency depreciation are rapidly passed over—but in terms of character. Adams, for example, was galled by the fact that Franklin’s enormous personal prestige was so important to gaining French support, and he disliked still more the fact that the new republic was in a very large measure beholden to an old monarchy; he preferred to get past the whole French venture as quickly as possible. Vergennes was dismayed by the blatant ingratitude of the Americans, who never offered to return a dime of the money they had been “lent,” and who never once, during the entire period of the war, levied taxes. When, to cap all, these brazen new diplomats negotiated a separate peace with England, the foreign minister asked his envoy to remind Congress that “great powers never complained but that they felt and remembered.” The American who seems to remember best was Franklin himself. He gave a complimentary and clearsighted assessment of French motivation when he wrote to America’s first secretary of foreign affairs, Robert Livingston, in 1782, “this is really a generous nation, fond of glory and particularly that of protecting the oppressed.”

We leave A Great Improvisation persuaded that the American Revolution was not, as we so often prefer to think, a novel of a single character, or country, coming of age. Instead the revolution marked the entrance by the United States onto the imperial stage where England, France, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands, and others had already been acting for some while. Franklin knew that he and his compatriots had roles in a much larger drama; as the word improvisation implies, he was ever open to the excitement and inventiveness of live performance. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Stacy Schiff’s book is in the way it makes us feel that we, too, are in chaotic Paris, waiting for a ship with instructions that never arrives, trying to launch a ship of supplies that never departs, thronged with ministers and fine ladies and inventors, and besieged with quarrelsome colleagues. It is our fortunate position to look over Franklin’s shoulder and watch as, from these unlikely materials, he works to forge an alliance of war, and one of peace, “among a people that love me, and whom I love.”