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timeline: 1779
world of influence
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painting: Franklin's arrival in France
The Reception of Benjamin Franklin in France
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When Franklin went to France as America's first ambassador, there were two superpowers in Europe: England and France, and the countries were very different. Like the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, England and France were diametrically opposed in their forms of government and their general beliefs. While both countries had kings, England maintained a parliamentary form of government with some representatives elected by commoners. France, on the other hand, was governed as a total monarchy with absolute power in the hands of the king. England was a protestant country that had broken ties with the Roman Catholic church in a previous century, while Catholic France still maintained religious ties with Rome.

On some levels, it seemed odd that the Americans would approach the French with the idea of an alliance. After all, British colonists had fought alongside England against France a little more than a decade earlier. In language, religion, and temperament, the Americans were much more like the English, so France looked like an unlikely ally for the new country. However, France was humiliated after its defeat in the French and Indian Wars, and England was their enemy. It was in France's self-interest to help the Americans; it was a way of getting back at the British. As for the Americans, with France, they gained a powerful ally with one of the strongest military forces in the world.

When Franklin arrived in Paris in December, 1776, it was not the "city of light" of later years with wide open boulevards and stunning architecture. The average Parisian lived in abject poverty, in narrow, crooked streets with open sewers running down the middle. Starving beggars and homeless families were everywhere.

In the elegant mansions near the Tuileries Gardens, where the poor were forbidden to go, the upper classes prepared for their soirées. They dressed in elegant silk and satin fashions and wore elaborate wigs on their bald heads, which were shaved to discourage lice. At the palace of Versailles, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, presided over a world of idle luxury.

Franklin, who embodied the democratic beliefs of the Americans, could have been a threat to the French court, but instead, his humble style of clothing and his amazing intellect were embraced by the aristocracy. Biographer Claude-Anne Lopez writes that Franklin "was temperamentally suited for France. The streak of irreverence that ran through his entire life found a congenial reception in Paris, as did his love of laughter and desire to amuse. He did not shock the French, nor did his interest in women, which was considered perfectly normal."

Franklin spent virtually all of his time with the intellectuals and upper classes. In some ways, it seems odd that Franklin appeared to care little about the plight of the French peasants, as he was such an advocate for the common good. However, it doesn't seem strange when viewed from Franklin's perspective: His primary goal was to obtain French aid for the United States. It would not have been in Franklin's interest to champion the cause of the poor against the French court from whom he was seeking assistance. Ultimately, the political ideals that Franklin and the American Revolution represented, along with French financial support for the war that would bankrupt France, helped pave the way for the French Revolution in 1789.

In France, the adaptable Franklin learned the language and displayed an uncanny knack at politics and persuasion, which led scholar Leo Lemay to call Franklin "the most essential and successful American diplomat of all time." There is no doubt that America would not have won the Revolutionary War without France's financial and military aid and that Franklin was almost entirely responsible for obtaining that aid.

Franklin lived in France for nine years and became a beloved resident of Passy, a town just outside of Paris. When Franklin went home to America in 1785, America's new ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, wrote, "When he left Passy, it seemed as if the village had lost its patriarch." Five years later Franklin died, and it was France, not the United States, that mourned Franklin with the pomp and ceremony befitting a hero. To the French, Franklin is still a major figure and, according to Claude-Anne Lopez: "Many French think he was president of the United States. They say, 'he was the best president you ever had!'"


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