Ben Franklin Diplomat

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Stacy Schiff

Stacy Schiff


Ben Franklin Took On France With Insouciant Diplomacy
Franklin, France, and the Birth of America.
By Stacy Schiff.
Illustrated. 489 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $30.

For the seven years between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris, the harried members of the Continental Congress found themselves, again and again, facing the same question. What on earth was Ben Franklin up to in Paris?

In "A Great Improvisation," Stacy Schiff gives the answer. She provides an impressively researched, fine-grained account of Franklin’s Paris years, and his critically important mission to secure French support and French money for the rebellious colonies, a high-risk proposition if ever there was one. In the early years of the war, the Continental Army needed uniforms, ammunition, ships, trained officers – everything. Franklin was expected to deliver. Later, after the tide had turned in America’s favor, he was responsible, along with John Jay and John Adams, for negotiating the treaty with Britain that would turn the American experiment into an established international fact.

This was a tall order for a man, already in his 70’s, with only a rudimentary command of French, no legal training and no financial expertise. Yet Franklin muddled through, despite malicious attacks on two fronts, from his colleagues in Paris and from critics in the Continental Congress.

As Ms. Schiff’s title suggests, Franklin made things up as he went along. A diplomat without a recognized country, he relied on his vast reserves of charm, wit, equanimity and native shrewdness to make up for lack of experience and the unfortunate fact that, most of the time, he had no cards to play.

As Ms. Schiff points out, Franklin was in a very odd position, "charged with appealing to a monarchy for assistance in establishing a republic." Fortunately, France had its own reasons for supporting the Americans, although the Count de Vergennes, its wily foreign minister, eked out the money and the supplies according to his own complex formulas. Franklin spent a good deal of his time taking the temperature at Versailles and trying to unwrap the multiple layers of meaning encasing every word from Vergennes.

Franklin turned out to be quite good at the French diplomatic dance. His preferred game was chess, but, like a good poker player, he knew when to hold and when to fold, an invaluable skill when bluffing, and there was a lot of bluffing early on, when Washington and his troops were being trounced by the British. Franklin, in no way dismayed, sunnily predicted victory and continued to request funds. His gentle, ingratiating style infuriated Adams, who, taking the direct approach when sent to Paris as a commissioner, demanded French military aid immediately. He succeeded only in alienating Vergennes.

Back in Philadelphia, it looked as if Franklin had crawled in bed with the French. No so. "A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray," Franklin was, Ms. Schiff writes, "genial and ruthless." When the Battle of Saratoga gave America the momentum, he pressed his advantage, tormenting Vergennes with the possibility that America might find it advantageous to strike a deal with Britain. Later, with independence won, Franklin and his colleagues coldly and duplicitously worked out a peace agreement with Britain, cutting their erstwhile ally and benefactor out of the negotiations entirely. At this critical juncture, Franklin played Vergennes like a violin.

Ms. Schiff, the author of "Saint-Exupéry" and "Véra," a biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, adopts a preening style in "A Great Improvisation." Each phrase is polished to a high gloss. Nearly every other sentence delivers a bon mot or epigram. Some hit the mark. Others are obscure ("France loves ingénues, and France loves underdogs, and there is no better kind of ingénue underdog than a 70-year-old winner"). The highly wrought prose grows tiresome over the course of 400 pages and makes the complicated diplomatic maneuverings Ms. Schiff describes even harder to follow.

She is just as determined to find delicious comedy in every French-American culture clash, and in the spy-versus-spy machinations of the British and French governments, each staffed to the hilt with double and triple agents. The comedy, especially in the early chapters, helps disguise a lack of action. It’s hard to dramatize notes passed, meetings attended, proposals considered. But so eager is Ms. Schiff to keep her characters moving at top speed that she turns Beaumarchais, frantically arranging aid shipments to the colonies, into a Gallic Daffy Duck.

The calm center in this Parisian storm was Franklin, and Ms. Schiff paints a beguiling picture of the man whom France embraced with such ardor and generosity. Franklin may have struggled to master the language, but he took to the culture instantly. His sparkling intellect, easy manners and keen eye for an attractive woman, regardless of age (his or hers), made him welcome everywhere. Even his silences, baffling to a nation of marathon conversationalists, became a mark of distinction, his "sublime reticence."

At home, the reviews were mixed. Franklin rarely bothered to write, leaving members of Congress in the dark on his progress or lack of it. He was hopeless at organizing supply shipments. He kept chaotic accounts. He loathed conflict and hated giving offense, qualities that made him pleasant company but a maddening negotiating partner, evasive and slow to move. Even Vergennes admitted that "his age and his love of tranquility leave him with an apathy incompatible with his responsibilities." More than a few Americans thought that he had gone native, seduced by the illicit pleasures of France. Arthur Lee, a member of the American mission, once called him "that old, corrupt serpent."

Franklin returned home in 1785, ailing but serene, to tepid applause. "There would be no reward, no settling of accounts, nor – most stunning – a syllable of gratitude for the French mission," Ms. Schiff writes. It’s a sad note to end on. The French adventure, as Ms. Schiff convincingly argues, should be remembered as Franklin’s finest hour.

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