On the same bitter winter of 1776 that Gen. George Washington led his beleaguered troops across the Delaware River to safety, Benjamin Franklin sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris to engage in an equally crucial campaign, this one diplomatic.
A lot depended on the bespectacled and decidedly unfashionable 70-year-old as he entered the world's fashion capital sporting a simple brown suit and a fur cap. With the Continental Congress running low on money, arms, and troops, Franklin's job was to secure aid from abroad. "Without French help, the Revolution would have collapsed, and there would have been no United States," says Jonathan Dull, former associate editor of the Benjamin Franklin Papers at Yale University and author of A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution.
Franklin's miracle was that, armed only with his canny personal charm and assisted by his international reputation as a scientist and philosopher, he was able to cajole a wary French government into lending the fledgling American nation an enormous fortune. Not only did Franklin help seal the French alliance with a formal treaty in 1778 and keep it alive throughout the war; he was instrumental, as well, in negotiating the peace with Britain. By the time Franklin sailed back to Philadelphia in 1785, he had proved himself "the most indispensable leader of the American Revolution next to George Washington," says Dull.
Ladies' man. And yet, Franklin's years in Paris form the least-known chapter of his life and perhaps of the Revolution, says Stacy Schiff, author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. "The whole myth of independence is that we, the little guys, rose up against the ancient society and did it on our own," she says. "Franklin is associated with the dependence of America, the need to seek help. He went begging to a foreign power, moreover a monarchy, and we'd rather think that George Washington did it all on his own."
Instead, the enduring image of Franklin in Paris tends to be that of a flirtatious old man, too busy visiting the city's fashionable salons to pursue affairs of state as rigorously as John Adams. When Adams joined Franklin in Paris in 1779, he was scandalized by the late hours and French lifestyle his colleague had adopted, says Schiff. Adams was clueless that it was through the dropped hints and seemingly offhand remarks at these salons that so much of French diplomacy was conducted. "In France, you did work socially, and that didn't jibe with John Adams," says Schiff. Nor with his wife, Abigail, who was shocked by Franklin's familiar behavior with the French ladies in their overly revealing gowns.
As uncomfortable as he was unfamiliar with French ways, the prickly Adams, along with Arthur Lee of Virginia and Connecticut patriot Silas Deane, could prove more hindrance than help. With the exception of John Jay—ambassador to Spain before helping to negotiate the final treaty with Britain—"they were probably the most undiplomatic and dogmatic negotiators possible," says Schiff.
Unsurprisingly, the French consistently asked the Continental Congress to retain Franklin as America's chief spokesman. And what a presence he was. Like the Beatles arriving in America, he aroused a fervor, says H. W. Brands, author of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. His face appeared on prints, teacups, and chamber pots. "The equivalent today," says Brands, "would be everyone wearing Franklin T-shirts and using Franklin screen savers."