America’s first rock star: Benjamin Franklin in France

Long before the Beatles invaded America, a rock star took Europe by storm as part of the Revolutionary War: Benjamin Franklin.

This week marks the anniversary of French recognition of the United States in the Revolutionary War, an act that was engineered in great part by Franklin.

When Franklin arrived in France in late 1776, he had established quite a reputation as an inventor, scientist, and writer. He popped up unexpectedly in Nantes on December 7 and arrived in Paris on December 21.

In a 2009 edition of The American Scholar, Pultizer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff describes the scene in December 1776 when the world’s most prominent American turned up in France.

“Franklin met with an electrifying welcome—he was the best-known American in the world, largely on account of his scientific work—but no one could say with any authority what exactly he was doing in France,” Schiff says.

What was known was that if the British had intercepted Franklin on his voyage to France, the American would have been executed as a traitor.

Instead, Franklin stayed in France until 1785 in a critical role as one of America’s first significant diplomats.

The French opened Franklin with open arms, and he became a pop culture icon. Images of Franklin, wearing a fur cap instead of a wig, were commonplace.

Images of Franklin were seen in paintings, engravings, medallions, rings, snuffboxes and hats.

Franklin made himself part of the upper society in France using his charm, wit, and learning, despite his struggles with the native language.

And on December 17, 1777, after nearly a year in France without making much visible progress, Franklin engineered a gigantic diplomatic victory for the United States.

The French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, the Count of Vergennes, officially acknowledged the United States as an independent country.

Franklin had learned several weeks earlier that the Continental forces had defeated the British handily at the Battle of Saratoga.

The cagey diplomat used that factor, combined with news of the British occupation of Philadelphia, to convince the French to provide financial and eventually military support to the revolutionary effort in America.

A formal treaty with France followed a year later.

In his subsequent years in France, Franklin helped to keep supplies flowing to the United States. He also had to contend with a rival American diplomat, John Adams.

Franklin and Adams were able to work together to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, which  ended the war.

But in his lifetime, Franklin apparently didn’t get much public recognition from Congress for his efforts in France.

“For having extracted the equivalent of $13 billion dollars today and the bulk of the gunpowder used in the Revolution, Franklin went to his grave without any thanks whatever from Congress. In the end his greatest mission proved very costly to him,” says Schiff.

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