A GREAT IMPROVISATION: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
By Stacy Schiff. Henry Holt. 489 pp. $30
At the beginning of his February trip to Europe, President Bush quipped that he hoped for a reception similar to the one Benjamin Franklin received two centuries earlier, when he "arrived on this continent to great acclaim." (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told him he "should be a realist.") This was tongue in cheek, of course -- an attempt to smooth over the "Punish France!" pronouncements from the heated debate over Iraq and subsequent Francophobic actions such as renaming fries and dumping Beaujolais. But Bush probably did not realize what price Franklin had actually paid for retaining his extraordinary popularity in France and for surmounting political and personal obstacles on both sides of the Atlantic. The story of the eight and a half years he spent in Paris, persuading the French to support the fledgling American army in concrete as well as symbolic ways, is the subject of Stacy Schiff's engaging new book.
A Great Improvisation has many levels. It is a factual, historical and meticulously detailed recounting of the travails, vexations, negotiations, complexities and setbacks of the political and diplomatic maneuvers that ultimately led France to support the young American cause. It is also an enlightening discussion of the vexed and complex beginnings of the transatlantic alliance. Finally, it is an entertaining story, bringing alive a cast of colorful characters, strange plot twists and bizarre anecdotes, which sometimes reads like a movie script replete with intrigues, ultimatums, cabals, swindles and vendettas.
In 1776, the 70-year-old Franklin landed in France, sent by a Congress that had declared independence without the means to achieve it. The very idea of foreign help was unpalatable to some in Congress and considered suspect by many even after the court of young Louis XVI had come through. But these widely diverging opinions did not deter Franklin from his unwavering faith in the American Revolution and his steady conviction that every measure should be taken to sustain the new republic and win the war against the British. Franklin had the daunting task of advertising rebellion in an absolute monarchy; he did so doggedly, all the while underplaying what was often a desperate military situation.
When he arrived in France, he was already well known and widely respected as a statesman, philosopher and scientist. But what allowed him to succeed when all other emissaries charged with the same task had fallen into the deep Franco-American political and cultural divide? Schiff attributes it in large part to his ability to marshal "a great improvisation." She points to Franklin's laissez-faire attitude, his ability to be logical without being encumbered by exaggerated honesty, his voluble, genial and ruthless approach, and his calculated innocence. He was also a hit with the French because he knew how to adapt to the codes of the European nobility -- not to mention possessing a heroic and seemingly unlimited patience for people's exasperating foibles, French, British and Americans alike. Indeed, as thorny as Franklin's encounters with various French characters may have been, they seem tame next to his relations with members of his own mission and with his compatriots -- from the early tension between the original U.S. emissaries to France, William Lee and Silas Deane (who fought not only over strategy but over the colors of the American army uniforms), all the way to the uncompromising John Adams (who considered every laurel bestowed upon Franklin a personal affront).
Marshaling so much original information -- drawn from diplomatic archives, family papers, spy reports and the archives of the French foreign service -- could have made for a tedious read were it not for Schiff's storytelling skills. The author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Vera Nabokov, Schiff introduces us to a cast of unique characters, whom she captures in a few vivid and incisive traits. They range from Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the flamboyant, irrepressible, swashbuckling secret agent and playwright who became an important early arms dealer; to the recipient of those weapons, the dashing young marquis de Lafayette, who sailed to America against the king's order, wracked with violent seasickness, speaking not a word of English and leaving behind a pregnant wife; to the excitable, stubborn Viscount Stormont, the British ambassador to Versailles; and to the chevalier d'Eon, a cross-dressing dragoon officer who became a notable supporter of the young republic's cause.
Schiff does not forget the ladies with whom Franklin flirted so copiously, in person and by correspondence: for instance, the thirtysomething, married Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, who had frail nerves, called him Papa and eventually promised to become his wife, but only in the afterlife, or Anne-Catherine Helvétius, the philosopher's widow, a hostess with a powerful salon who was at the "center of Franklin's social life" in France. They figure prominently in Schiff's narrative, not simply because of Franklin's fraught infatuations with several of them but also because, in 18th-century French society, their salons were the places where important people could meet and network. Completing this tableau are members of the somewhat dysfunctional Franklin family: his illegitimate son William, a Loyalist leader in London with whom he was on terrible terms, and William's own illegitimate son, Temple, who worked for his grandfather in Paris and whose taste for Europe left him incapable of readapting to America. "For his service abroad," Schiff wryly notes, Franklin "wound up with an English son and a French grandson."
Schiff's allusions to the French-American misunderstandings and mutual suspicion will regale readers. Some of these lead to hilarious anecdotes; for example, Bostonians welcomed the French squadron in 1778 with a dinner of cooked green Massachusetts frogs. The French militiamen found American coffee undrinkable, the food inedible, the people "overly familiar and bizarrely peripatetic" and the women graceless and unshapely; the Americans felt that the French talked too fast and all at the same time without really saying much, opined on subjects they knew nothing about and considered that business consisted primarily of ceremony and pleasure. Despite the undeniable impact on U.S.-French relations of two tumultuous centuries, A Great Improvisation reminds us that profound cultural differences between the two societies have not changed all that much -- and thus remain at the root of their conflicting visions of the world. Plus ça change . . .
Isabelle de Courtivron is Friedlaender Professor of the Humanities at MIT and the editor of "Lives in Translation: Bilingual Writers on Identity and Creativity."