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

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

Stacy Schiff

Language: English

Pages: 528

ISBN: 0805080090

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In this dazzling work of history, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author follows Benjamin Franklin to France for the crowning achievement of his career

"In December of 1776 a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins an enthralling narrative account of how Benjamin Franklin--seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French--convinced France, an absolute monarchy, to underwrite America's experiment in democracy.

When Franklin stepped onto French soil, he well understood he was embarking on the greatest gamble of his career. By virtue of fame, charisma, and ingenuity, Franklin outmaneuvered British spies, French informers, and hostile colleagues; engineered the Franco-American alliance of 1778; and helped to negotiate the peace of 1783. The eight-year French mission stands not only as Franklin's most vital service to his country but as the most revealing of the man.

In A Great Improvisation, Stacy Schiff draws from new and little-known sources to illuminate the least-explored part of Franklin's life. Here is an unfamiliar, unforgettable chapter of the Revolution, a rousing tale of American infighting, and the treacherous backroom dealings at Versailles that would propel George Washington from near decimation at Valley Forge to victory at Yorktown. From these pages emerges a particularly human and yet fiercely determined Founding Father, as well as a profound sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.

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appointment, one that he, as the first peace commissioner to have been appointed, was entitled to fill. (He had his own candidate in mind, a cousin of his wife’s.) He resented Franklin’s unilateral decision but vowed to make no trouble and—having expressed his disapproval—never to mention the matter again.124 By the time Temple landed on his doorstep in January 1783, to request that Adams sign off retroactively on his commission, Adams was hysterical. Temple took every pain to be deferential—he

wartime aid, he chased off a new breed of beggars. In turn Dartmouth, Dickinson, Princeton, Columbia came calling for European funds. Franklin shuddered at their appeals. Massively in debt as she was to Europe, America should think only of bolstering her credit. She could provide for herself; it was imperative she let Europe know as much. As for Congress, Franklin was a fount of loyalty. When a British friend cracked a joke about that assembly’s wanderings—in the previous three years it had had

infallible barometer. “The manners of women are the surest criterion by which to determine whether a republican government is practicable in a nation or not. The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swiss, the Dutch, all lost their public spirit, their republican principles and habits, and their republican forms of government, when they lost the modesty and domestic virtues of their women,” Adams concluded, after his years in France. 81 He had spent all of three months at home, in which time he

March. In the estimation of its commanding officer, that army was wasting away. Given the lack of munitions, the desertions, the discontent, and the disease, it barely constituted an army at all. As the year dragged on, wise and benevolent France emerged in America as specious, unreliable, and slow-moving France. Even as Morris sat down to commit his despair to paper relief was in sight, however: The first of Beaumarchais’s provisions were unloaded the following morning on a New Hampshire pier.

insulated from all British advances, French troops should be massed along the coasts of France, and the navy deployed. Portugal was to be detached from England and incorporated into the Bourbon pact; the Turks were to be incited to declare war with Russia, so as to force the Russians to redeploy their armies from the north to the south. As Russia’s ally, England would be forced to send troops to defend the north, to hold Austria at bay.37 Meanwhile the Americans grappled with the treaties and

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