Monday, October 03, 2005

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

What do you remember from what you were taught in school about the American Revolution (this question is directed at everyone -- while I would like to hear if fellow Americans recall as I do, I'm very interested in hearing how Canadians and other foreigners remember being taught, as they presumably have a very different understanding than we do)? And what did you learn about Ben Franklin and his role, if any, in the Revolution?

I remember learning about the Declaration of Independence, and about George Washington and the battles the armies fought. I remember that Lafayette and a few Frenchmen came over to assist. I know that there was a Congress that was working under the Articles of Confederation. I don't remember hearing of any role for Franklin, and had no idea that he'd been sent to France to work out a treaty with that nation. Thus, I found it provident that the absence of any interesting new fiction at my library branch sent me over to the non-fiction, where I discovered this interesting book by Stacy Schiff.

The setting is quite interesting: 70-year old Benjamin Franklin has to sneak across the ocean, past the strongest fleet in the world, to come to Paris in order to seek French assistance for the American Revolution. Add to that the fact that Franklin had to represent a country from which contact takes months, not to mention that such contact is also subject to interception from the British fleet. Franklin, at times aided by fellow negotiators (and at times at odds with them, most notably John Adams), was able to secure financial support from Versailles, repeatedly, as well as a treaty that essentially drew France into war against England.

There were additional layers of complexity in the whole affair. Perhaps most significantly, the Americans didn't really want to go to the French. They were of a different religion, spoke a different language, and were perceived to have different morals than the Puritanical colonists. In addition, there were concerns that France would want to serve its own colonial interest, rather than aid the new country in establishing its freedom. The lack of a central leader, e.g., president, during this time also meant that the regionalism reigned supreme in Congress, no surprise given that the colonies were in many ways independent governments who placed their own interests ahead of the new country's interests.

At the time, as the man who harnessed electricity, Franklin was the American best known outside the country. Indeed, Schiff's book contends that were it not for his reputation, the United States would not have gotten French support. The French adored Franklin, and Franklin was able to work with them in a way that his predecessor, and fellow commissioners, could not. This fact created tensions with his fellow commissioners. Speaking of which, Schiff does not deify Franklin; rather, she takes the time to point out his weaknesses. Still, she draws a line -- Schiff argues against many of Adams's contentions, e.g., that Franklin was conniving or self-serving, even referring to some of Adams's assertions against Franklin as suggesting mental imbalance. After reading such extreme claims, I am now quite interested in reading the recent McCullough biography of Adams for additional perspective.

A final question is what you remember about the cause of the French revolution, which took place only a few years after the American Revolutionary War was completed. I remember that class inequality and royal extravagance were the largest causes. It seems somewhat ironic, then, to learn that one of the extravagances that bankrupted Louis XVI's court (though certainly not the only one) was its financial support of the American Revolution, which in certain years equaled 10 percent of its expenditures. I wonder if such things were taught in my history class, but that time has dimmed such details. Sadly, I am skeptical, as it does not comport with this country's sense that it defeated the British almost wholly on its own.

As you can see, this book made me think a great deal about events I'd hardly considered over the last 20 years of my life. The book was engaging, and not simply because of the subject -- Schiff brings to life the era, pointing out the conflicts, acknowledging the humor, and taking pains to explore the many sides of the issues at play. I highly recommend it.
Rating: 8/10