An American in Paris
July 4, 1779, fell on a Sunday. On that date, our country had been “free” for just three years. Only know did it look as if the founder’s daring gamble might pay off. So, an ocean away from the fighting, America’s most worldly citizen spent the day preparing a most consequential celebration of July 4th.
Ben Franklin was never a warrior. Among his many quotes, Franklin penned this as the revolution drew to a close: “There has never been a good war or a bad peace”. Nor was he a firebrand. Oratory came to him slowly and he was keenly aware of the glass house principle. Unlike most of his founding brethren Ben never held elected federal office. Yet, every Fourth of July could well be “Ben Franklin Day”. Today, the country Franklin helped birth wants to define itself by differences. It might help us to remember how Ben Franklin came to be drafting toasts 243 years ago.
The Unlikely Revolutionary
Franklin was by far the oldest of the key revolutionaries. Age 70 when the Second Continental Congress began in 1775, gout racked his body. If war came, clearly his contributions would not be on the field of battle. Given life expectancies of the day, Franklin seeing the end of any conflict was a bad bet. More than that, there was plenty of doubt as to exactly where Franklin’s allegiances aligned.
Franklin arrived in Philadelphia shortly before the Congress convened. He had spent much of the previous 18 years in London. Franklin had earned renown as a spokesman for the colonies through his efforts to repeal the Stamp Act. But colonialists did not always understand his positions; a group of misguided Pennsylvanians had threatened to burn his house believing he had acquiesced to the same legislation. More recently Franklin’s son William revealed his loyalist sentiments as the New Jersey governor. On his arrival from London, Franklin played his cards close to the vest.
Most of all, while Ben had pushed the colonists interests in London for decades, he had always done so in the framework of the status quo. For most of his life, Franklin believed in an American exceptionalism that entitled the colonies to equal partnership with English citizens. Like many, Franklin did not dream of independence. Instead he saw a world where American abundance, ingenuity and work ethic propelled the empire to even greater heights. And the empire reciprocated in kind. In a territory where temperatures were rising, the firebrands on both sides saw Franklin as a potentially dangerous moderate.
Franklin’s moderation always remained; he had far too many friends in England to see the country or its citizens as evil. Ben’s politics on the issues of the day, however, soon became clear. British aggression at Lexington and Concord ended the discussion in Ben’s formidable mind. He saw that George III, by combination of poor advice and personal defect, remained intent on subjugation. The King’s repeated use of deadly force to achieve an unjust goal was more than the colonists would bear. As the colonial leaders reconvened in his home city, Franklin saw the bonds as severed.
Before he could say the quiet part out loud, however, Franklin had to address the complicated politics in his own family. So he arranged a meeting with his loyalist son at a friend’s estate outside the city. It must have been an awkward meeting.
Franklin’s son William was illegitimate but Ben had acknowledged and raised him, mostly in London. Indeed, it was Ben’s London connections that gained William the New Jersey governorship. William, apparently fond of family traditions, then fathered William “Temple” Franklin outside of marriage also. History has lost Temple’s mother, but we do know that the young man spent the first part of his life in foster care. His dad went to New Jersey and gradually his grandfather became the central figure in young Temple’s life. Ben eventually gained full custody.
So Ben took 15-year old Temple to a meeting at which: (1) Temple met the father he barely knew and (2) his father and grandfather discussed their deep political differences. Despite Franklin’s abilities as a diplomat not much good came of the conference. William remained a loyalist and Temple began university studies at his “grandfather’s school” which we know now as Penn.
July 4, 1775
While Franklin’s family life remained unsettled, he had done what he could. He turned his attention to the Continental Congress. In the first of many overt contributions to the revolution, Franklin spent the days around July 4, 1775 drafting a “a plan of confederation.” That plan had an “out clause” in the unlikely event of reconciliation with the crown. Known as the “Olive Branch” petition, the Congress tried to give George III the ability to step back from the abyss. Franklin had his hand in that effort also. George, however, saw the recent events at Bunker Hill as signs of open rebellion. He rejected the “Olive Branch”. Thus, Franklin’s work on the plan of confederation was the first draft of the form of an independent American government.
With all hope of reconciliation receding, the Second Continental Congress became a de facto national government. George Washington became the essential American and commander-in-chief of a rag tag army. Against steep odds, Washington and his crew embarrassed the British under General Howe in Boston, ending the British siege of the city. Despite the British embarrassment, everyone knew that the next British target would be New York City. The idea was that New York and its waterways offered the opportunity to cut the colonies in two. Washington took his troops to the former Dutch possession and waited.
The war had begun but important paperwork remained. More moderates fell away or, like Franklin, converted to the cause. Calls for formal independence rang louder and with less opposition. Richard Henry Lee pushed the issue to the forefront in early June 1776 with a resolution that the Congress do three things. First, formally declare independence. Second, enter into treaties and alliances with foreign powers, Third, adopt a formal plan of continuing government.
Almost everyone saw the first two issues as intertwined and of the greatest importance. No government was going to risk any sort of known alliance with the colonies while they formally remained a part of the most powerful empire on the planet. At the same time, General Washington’s continuous warnings about his lack of supplies and money clarified that the whole enterprise would fail without help from powerful friendly nations.
War has its own momentum. If there was to be success, the time had come for Congress to harness that momentum. So it appointed committees on all three issues. To draft the declaration, Congress named Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, New York lawyer Robert Livingston and the Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Initial drafting duties fell to Jefferson, both in recognition of his talents and because Franklin deferred.
July 4, 1776
Franklin had one other heartache at the moment. Congress was cleaning house of loyalists in positions of power. As a result, Benjamin Franklin was creating a country and losing his son.
As part of the political house cleaning, the colonists placed William under house arrest in January 1776. William remained unbowed. In June, the New Jersey assembly escalated the arrest. The new assembly detained William and moved him to a Connecticut prison. Despite entreaties from William’s wife, Franklin refused any intervention. William directed loyalist activities from inside the prison. That led to solitary confinement. Again, Franklin offered no help. In a letter of the saddest possible dimension, William wrote the son he had just reconnected with and instructed Temple to honor the father whose inaction likely was keeping William in prison.
The letter concluded with a hope that after the war, their differences could be mended. For Benjamin and William that was not to be. William was eventually freed as part of a prisoner exchange. Eventually he was exiled to London. After the war, William saw Ben once, but the divisions were too deep.
Franklin’s course was now set. He made minor but important changes to Jefferson’s draft. Most notably, Jefferson had written “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” The change to “self-evident” is believed to have come from Franklin. The change makes sense. Franklin, with his scientific background, was the ultimate rationalist. He believed George III was abusing the concept of a divine right. Franklin was a self-described deist. Removing the religious overtones from the document while preserving the concept of natural rights is at least “Franklinesque”.
Via Getty Images
The Congress made many more changes to Jefferson’s masterpiece. In the Pennsylvania State House on July 4, 1776, the delegates from 12 colonies approved the edited declaration. New York abstained, its delegates correctly believing that they had no authority to vote for independence. New York quickly amended the delegates’ charter and the decision was unanimous . After a lifetime of scientific achievement, literary greatness, and adroit diplomacy, Ben Franklin had played a leading role in creating a country unique in human history at a time of personal tragedy.
Now for the hard part.
The Danger of the Fourth of July
The declaration was the first of three steps. Step two was obtaining a formal alliance with foreign powers. Almost immediately, the importance and the improbability of the second step came into clear view. While Jefferson, Franklin and others put the great and necessary words to paper, General Howe landed his troops in New York. Behind them the most powerful naval armada ever assembled assumed a position of unquestioned dominance in the waters surrounding the island. Washington was trapped.
Washington compounds an impossible situation through a series of strategic mistakes and tactical errors. By the end of August, Washington sees a large portion of his army trapped in Brooklyn Heights. Surrounded on three sides by a superior force and with the East River at his back, the Virginian refuses surrender. If the British attack, his force will likely be wiped out and the remainder of the army will disintegrate. The rebellion will be over.
Despite the urgings of subordinates, Howe withholds the full attack necessary to finish the job. The next morning Washington and a 9,000 man army has disappeared. Vanished. Washington redeemed himself and his army with one of the great retreats of all time, using diversions and stealth to remove an entire army without losing one soldier. Eventually, Washington fights his way off the island and escapes Howe’s clutches.
Still, success at Boston is now a distant memory. It is clear that Washington lacks the firepower and naval strength to go head to head with the British. The Virginians group are all volunteers whose presence means suffering families are at home without providers. Howe’s troops are a paid force with no such dilemma. In less than two months, the promise of Philadelphia looks more like a death sentence for the signers, who undoubtedly are guilty of treason against the crown. Left to its own devices, the new country and its leaders will die. Sooner rather than later.
Fulfilling the Promise of the Fourth of July
The answer to the patriots’ dilemma resided at Versailles, in the person of King Louis XVI. Ever since England had prevailed in the Seven Year War, the French had been thinking of their revenge. Aligned with King Louis was his uncle, King Charles of Spain, the two countries controlled by the House of Bourbon. While France and Spain did not feel powerful enough to confront England directly, the conflict with the colonies presented a massive opportunity.
The loss of the colonies as a captive trading partner would deal England a stinging commercial blow. The cost of fighting the colonies would drain the crown’s treasury while France and Spain rebuilt their capabilities. The removal of English capabilities from the new continent would allow France and Spain to protect and possibly expand their opportunities there. For all these reasons and probably a 100 more, France and Spain were on the colonists’ side.
In addition, France had a sizable group of establishment figures with money and a nose for noble causes. Lafayette would prove to be the best of these. As problematic as the French revolution turned out to be, many Frenchmen of import wanted democracy to triumph as much as they wanted England to fail. France, and to a lesser extent Spain, had the money, supplies and Naval power to turn the tide in America. They had the motivation to do it.
And yet—England was the most powerful country in the world. Open support of the colonists risked another direct conflict with England that neither Louis nor Charles felt they were prepared for. The colonists needed them in the fight soon and they were not yet willing to go that far. The patriots had one man who could possibly achieve what was needed. So in the fall of 1776, an aged Ben Franklin and two grandsons boarded the Reprisal for a run through an Atlantic controlled by His Majesty’s Navy. If they made it to France, he could begin the task of convincing the young country’s natural allies into open ones.
The American in Paris
Franklin did make the crossing. The truth is that France had been sending significant covert aid since the shooting had started. That aid violated every treaty obligation the French owed the English, but Louis and his advisers were fairly confident that as long as the scope of their assistance was not apparent, they could forestall a shooting war with England until they (meaning France and Spain) were ready. Franklin’s job was to open the floodgates and make the aid public, the result of which might be a dampening of enthusiasm for the war in England.
It was not as if England did not understand all this. Paris and the French ports swarmed with British spies. One of Franklin’s most trusted confidantes turned out to be a British agent. Part of Franklin’s delegation, in the person of Arthur Lee was there solely to promote his political career and end Franklin’s. The British Navy successfully ended Franklin’s ability to communicate with Congress for almost a year. Worse than all that, continuing losses on the battlefield made the American cause look more and more liking a losing bet. Charles in particular became squeamish about committing. The understanding was that both France and Spain would have to join America, neither would do it on their own. Every day that passed was a day closer to the end of the patriots’ cause.
Still we had Franklin. He understood England intimately from his decades of posting in London. Franklin was wildly popular in France from his writings and his scientific achievements. But most of all, he knew how to play the game, which buttons to push.
In October 1777, the British again attempted to isolate New England from the other colonies. In two battles near Saratoga, New York, General Horatio Gates (with the help of Benedict Arnold) dealt the British a stunning defeat. That effort proved several things. First, the Americans could stay with the British on the field of a large scale battle. It did not have to be all heroic retreats or surprise attacks. Second, French supplies made a difference. Later estimates were that 90% of the American arms used at Saratoga came from France. Third, Benjamin Franklin was a supreme diplomat.
Franklin knew he had to capitalize on Gates’ success before a reversal somewhere else reduced the euphoria. To do so he arranged long meetings with English agents in Paris. The substance of the meetings was just longwinded arguments with no chance of resolving anything. Louis advisers’, however, were worried that England had grown tired of the effort and would soon offer America its independence in exchange for cooperation in evicting other powers–namely France and Spain–from the new world.
By December 1777, Louis had seen enough. He was ready to be all in with the Americans. His uncle, King Charles of Spain was still timid. Franklin convinced Louis that the power struggle in America was worth breaking the Bourbon Compact. So it came to be that on February 6, 1778, France and “America” signed a Treaty if Amity and Commerce. France was openly on our side and would send more money, ships, men and supplies. It might have happened without Benjamin Franklin. But it might not have.
18 months after France openly pledged its support, the war had taken on a decidedly different cast. Enough so that Benjamin Franklin was hosting a Fourth of July celebration in Paris, fairly secure in the knowledge that his country would be a country for many years to come. He composed toasts that included this one: “To the combined fleets of France & Spain, and may fame swell their sails and victory crown all their enterprises”.
A little more than two years from that celebration, Washington, with Lafayette at his side, would trap Cornwallis and force his surrender. Like Washington at Brooklyn, Cornwallis had his back to the water. Unlike Washington at Brooklyn, Cornwallis had no way to avoid the French Navy that had claimed the seas behind him. A new day had dawned.
July 4, 2022.
Lessons from Benjamin Franklin are always useful. Today, particularly so. First, placing your bets on a people willing to fight for their freedom; to risk everything for the ability to live as they determine, is always the right thing to do. Today we and our allies stand as Ukraine’s French hope. We have been the arsenal of democracy before and have the ability to be that again. The role does not come without risk or discomfort. But it is a risk worth taking and a discomfort worth enduring.
Second, when things look bleak, you redouble your efforts. America was born of troubled seas and often we have have not rowed together. In the end, our common purpose of striving to live in a country of merit and opportunity has progressed. We are not yet a country that refuses to favor a religion, a people, a class, or a gender. But we are a country where we can still fight for those ideals.
Third, our work is easier when we appreciate what we have rather than complain about our imperfection. Predictably, Franklin said it best himself when he wished for his countrymen “that Americans know what we are and what we have.” As the holiday weekend draws to a close, keep Ben and his founding brethren close to your heart. They were far from perfect, but they made us who we are and gave us what we have.
July Fourth From Previous Years.