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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America Paperback – January 10, 2006
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Benjamin Franklin began the "the most taxing assignment of his life" at the age of 70: to secure the aid of the French monarchy in helping the fledgling United States establish their republic. The job required tremendous skill, finesse, and discretion, and as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this brilliant book, Franklin was the ideal American, perhaps the only one, to take on the task, due in large part to his considerable personal prestige. One of the most famous men in the world when he landed in France in December 1776, his arrival caused a sensation--he was celebrated as a man of genius, a successor to Newton and Galileo, and treated as a great dignitary, even though the nation he represented was less than a year old and there were many doubts as to whether it would see its second birthday. Though he had no formal diplomatic training and spoke only rudimentary French, Franklin managed to engineer the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and the peace treaty of 1783, effectively inventing American foreign policy as he went along, in addition to serving as chief diplomat, banker, and director of American naval affairs.
Franklin recognized and accepted the fact that French aid was crucial to American independence, but some Founding Fathers resented him for making America dependent on a foreign power and severely attacked him for securing the very aid that saved the cause. Schiff offers fascinating coverage of this American infighting, along with the complex political intrigue in France, complete with British spies and French double agents, secret negotiations and backroom deals. A Great Improvisation is an entertaining and illuminating portrait of Franklin's seven-year adventure in France that "stands not only as his greatest service to his country but the most revealing of the man." --Shawn Carkonen --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Numerous bestselling volumes have been written recently on the man one biography called "the first American." Pulitzer Prize-winner Schiff (for Véra[Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]) eloquently adds to our understanding of Benjamin Franklin with a graceful, sly and smart look at his seven-year sojourn in France in his quasi-secret quest to secure American independence by procuring an alliance with the French. Drawing on newly available sources, Schiff brilliantly chronicles the international intrigues and the political backbiting that surrounded Franklin during his mission. "A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray," she writes, "Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." She deftly recreates the glittering and gossipy late 18th-century Paris in which Franklin moved, and she brings to life such enigmatic French leaders as Jacques-Donatien Chaumont, Franklin's closest adviser and chief supplier of American aid, and Charles Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, who helped Franklin write the French-American Alliance of 1778. Franklin also negotiated the peace of 1783 that led not only to the independence of the colonies from Britain but also to a bond between France and America that, Schiff says, lasted until WWII. Schiff's sure-handed historical research and her majestic prose offer glimpses into a little-explored chapter of Franklin's life and American history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
Happily, Schiff's breezy, cosmopolitan, but never superficial style is excellently suited to the open-minded satirist and scientist, and a tale that reads like a cruel farce. _A Great Improvisation_ focuses on just eight years of Franklin's 84-year life, starting in 1776 when he was sent to Paris by the Continental Congress at the age of 70 to get France into the war. Fortunately, France regarded Franklin as a celebrity genius, which was more than many of his colleagues back home in Congress thought of him.
Franklin was "honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination." He could "indulge in the ingenious and wholly specious argument, a staple of French conversation." His defense of French admiral d'Estaing was "a shining tribute to benevolent ignorance. (And one that happened accidentally to be accurate.)" Surrounded by spies, he had papers and money stolen. The other Americans in Paris squabbled endlessly with one another, accusing the French of deceit and intrigue even more than the British. Franklin's co-commissioner, Arthur Lee, "was ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid."
Poor trans-Atlantic communications enabled the Paris delegation's enemies to poison Congress against them, especially Franklin, who risked censure several times. He also was beset by psoriasis boils, gout and bladder stones. Schiff does not neglect Franklin's poor relations with much of his family, and his flirtations with French ladies, widowed and married. It's a wonder it all came out so well. Not a little of the credit goes to Franklin's skill as "a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." When he was "rebuffed, he played hard to get"!
France ended up backing the colonies' successful revolution with men, arms, ships, and aid that would be worth $13 billion today. Americans who carp about Gallic "ingratitude" for their 1940s rescue might consider whether we were paying a 160-year-old debt.
With writing this good, it's startling to encounter a false note: more than once, Schiff uses "adverse" when "averse" is the word she wants. The book also shows rare but regrettable signs of sloppy editing. Franklin's grandson Temple is said to be 18 upon their arrival in Paris in mid 1777, but thirty pages and five months later he is 17. The news of Burgoyne's capture as a prisoner after the Battle of Saratoga is reported to hit Paris on Dec. 4, 1778, which is a year late.
Nevertheless, Schiff handles a broad array of characters and events with élan. Her book reads like a spirited production by Merchant-Ivory.
But Stacy Schiff's extremely readable and obviously well-researched book that covers the period of Dr. Franklin's life when he was an envoy of the second Continental Congress to the Court of King Louis XVI of France also covers the controversy that surrounded this amateur ambassador, stirred most particularly by the brothers Arthur Lee and William Lee of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts, later to be the second President of The United States. The former seem to have been motivated by Southern superciliousness and arrogance, 'qualities' battered out of their kind in the later 'War for Southern Independence' by the descendants of the likes of the latter, possessors of their own special sort of sanctimonious superiority complexes.
I can forgive the Lee family for almost anything, for one of my all-time American heroes is General Robert Edward Lee, but it is clear that his older relatives, Arthur and William, disgraced themselves, Virginia and their infant nation by their constant sniping at the one man who was winning over French opinion and, more importantly, attracting French cash and much, much more, for General Washington's army. As to Adams, his distaste for the venerable Dr. Franklin is sufficiently well-documented not to be doubted. The motive for this distaste can reasonably be attributed in part to his narrow and God-fearing New England background, especially when contrasted with Franklin's leading and learned role in enlightening America. The one was old Massachusetts, through and through, whilst the other early 'escaped' to Philadelphia.
I don't suppose it suited some of his critics that Benjamin Franklin was a 'liberal,' not only in his personal and family life but also in his general tolerance of others and his enjoyment of the female attractions of the French Court and of Paris. Of course, they might just have been jealous of the old boy, who, well into his seventies, was getting away with what a twenty-year-old might not have dared to attempt.
Not all were detractors of the good doctor: I was delighted to read - and will remember - the marvellous quote (which I hope is not apocryphal) of the Virginian who was to become the third President of The United States. Mr Jefferson, upon arriving at Versailles in May, 1785, is said to have been asked: "Is it you, Sir, who replaces Dr. Franklin?," to which another of my all-time American heroes replied: "No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor."
But, for me, the most surprising portion of this book is its thorough cataloguing of the ingratitude of America and Americans towards Franklin and towards France, without whose financial sacrifices and physical support in the shape of armies and navies, the War of Independence was more likely to have gone the way of innumerable other local revolts. In the absence of French help and of the efforts of Franklin, King George III and his successors would likely have remained the supreme governors, based in London, of all of the squabbling colonies.
Indeed, it seems that it was not until 1917 that the American Government realised - even if it did then - that a deep debt of gratitude was owed to France. By then, of course, Dr. Franklin and King Louis XVI were long dead, but the damage of unpaid debts had been done. France, her treasury depleted by the equivalent of the many billions of dollars spent in the name of America, was riven asunder by her own dreadful revolution that has coloured the judgements of world statesmen and French politics ever since. I well remember, back in the 1960s, when my wife and I first took our young children to visit the areas of northern France that had been fought over so many times in two great wars. We stopped off in a small and attractive village to buy a newspaper and all that was available was "L'Humanité," the Communist party's organ. Some sections of the left-leaning French peasantry still contrast sharply with my right-facing fellow peasants of rural England, a reflection of our different histories.
By my British lights, perhaps Dr. Franklin should have done that which his contemporary critics claimed he was doing - fail. But succeed he did, and America and Americans, at least, can and should be grateful for that, to him and, of course, to France, as well as to her eminent foreign minister at the time of Franklin's vital assignment, the half-forgotten Comte de Vergennes.
On balance, I believe that Benjamin Franklin deserves his place on the face of the $100 bill, and Stacy Schiff's first-rate and five-star book deserves to be read; and not only read, but marked, learned, and inwardly digested.
(Readers interested in this period, might like Walter Stahr's recent and very good book on John Jay.)