Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Great Improvisation

I just finished reading Stacy Schiff's A Great Improvisation. It's the story of Benjamin Franklin's essential diplomatic mission to France to find an ally and financier for the American Revolution. Using his immense scientific reputation in Europe, a lot of guile, and his amazing negotiating skills Franklin was able to weedle support and funding from the government of Louis XVI.

There are so many ironies in this story. Franklin had to fight against the constant backbiting of his other commissioners: the Lee brothers and John Adams. I had previously read David McCollough's biography of Adams. Adams developed a terrible jealousy and dislike of Franklin over the years they worked together. I enjoyed seeing the affair from Franklin's point of view. It helped that Franklin had no personal ambition. He only wanted the fight for Independence to succeed against England.

Franklin had only tepid support from Congress. Over the course of his long mission he was almost fired several times. When he returned to Philadelphia the American government didn't want to acknowledge how much it had relied on France. My impression is that he was never reimbursed for many of his expenses.

Franklin's advanced age and frequent illnesses worked against him. At the end of his time in France he could barely walk from gout and bladder stones. Still he kept on with his mission.

The ultimate irony is that France became nearly bankrupt by helping the Americans. Within a few years the French Revolution swept away the royal regime. And the Americans still were slow to realize what France had done for them.

In light of today's diplomatic issues I was amazed that the American mission would often go six months or more with no word from America. They had their orders, but often had to supplement them as events required. France couldn't understand why the American government wouldn't or couldn't tax its own people to pay for the war. Not much has really changed after all these years.

Thank goodness for Benjamin Franklin.