The early relations between the United States of America, and the monarchies of Europe, may be studied with advantage by those writers who attach little or no importance to the personal factor in history. The prospects of the young republic were seriously, and to all appearance irretrievably, damnified by the mismanagement of Congress; but the position was saved by the ability, the discretion, and the force of one single man. Benjamin Franklin was now past seventy. He had begun to earn his bread as a child of ten; he commenced as an author at sixteen; and he had ever since been working with his hands, and taxing his brain, unintermittently, and to the top of his power. Such exertions were not maintained with impunity. He kept his strength of will unimpaired, his mind clear and lively, and his temper equable, by a life-long habit of rigid abstemiousness; but he already felt the approach of painful disease that tortured him cruelly before the immense undertaking, which still lay before him, had been half accomplished. In September, 1776, he was elected Commissioner to France, by a unanimous resolution of Congress. Franklin, in the highest sense of the term, was a professional diplomatist; for he had passed sixteen years in England as agent for his colony, and his individual qualities had gained for him a political influence, and a social standing, out of all proportion to the comparatively humble interests which he represented at the British court. The ambassadors of the Great Powers, who were resident in London, treated him as one of themselves. He was old enough to be the father of most among them, and wise enough to be the adviser of all; and, toward the end of his time, they united in regarding him as in some sort the doyen of their body. . . .
From other Americans then resident in Paris Franklin received little help, and a great deal of most unnecessary hindrance. Silas Deane, who had business knowledge and business aptitudes, was of service in arranging contracts and inspecting warlike stores; and Deane, after Franklin's arrival in Europe, had the good sense to confine himself strictly within his own province. But Arthur Lee was an uneasy, and a most dangerous yoke-fellow. Lee was a sinister personage in the drama of the American revolution;the assassin of other men's reputation and careers, and the suicide of his own. He now was bent on defaming and destroying Silas Deane, whom he fiercely hated, and on persuading the government at home to transfer Franklin to Vienna, so that he himself might remain behind in France as the single representative of America at the Court of Versailles. The group of politicians in Philadelphia, who were caballing against George Washington, maintained confidential, and not very creditable, relations with Arthur Lee at Paris. His eloquent brother was his mouthpiece in Congress; and he plied Samuel Adam with a series of venomous libels upon Franklin, which were preserved unrebuked, and too evidently had been read with pleasure.
The best that can be said for Arthur Lee is that, in his personal dealings with the colleagues whom he was seeking to ruin, he made no pretense of a friendship which he did not feel; and his attitude toward his brother envoys was, to the last degree, hostile and insulting. He found an ally in Ralph Izard, who lived at Paris, an ambassador in partibus, two hundred leagues away from the capital to which he was accredited; drawing the same salary as Franklin; denouncing him in open letters addrest to the President of Congress, and insisting, with querulous impertinence, on his right to participate in all the secret counsels of the French Court. Franklin for some months maintained an unruffled composure. He had never been quick to mark offenses, and he now had reached that happy period of life when a man values the good-will of his juniors, but troubles himself very little about their disapproval. He ignored the provocation given by his pair of enemies, and extended to them a hospitality which they, on their part, did not refrain from accepting, altho his food and wine might well have choked them. But the moment came when his, own self-respect, and a due consideration for the public interest, forbade Franklin any longer to pass over their conduct in silence, and he spoke out in a style which astonished both of them at the time, and has gratified the American reader ever since. He castigated Arthur Lee in as plain, and vigorous English as ever was set down on paper, and informed Ralph Izard, calmly but very explicitly, that he would do well to mind his own business.
Franklin, as long as he was on European soil, had no need to stand upon ceremony when dealing with a refractory fellow countryman; for he was in great authority on that side of the Atlantic Ocean. Europe had welcomed and accepted him, not as a mere spokesman and agent of the government at Philadelphia, but as the living and breathing embodiment of the American republic. No statesman would do business with anybody but Franklin. No financier would negotiate a loan except with him, or pay over money into other hands but his. "It was to Franklin that both the French and English ministries turned, as if he were not only the sole representative of the United States in Europe, but as if he were endowed with plenipotentiary power." Nine-tenths of the public letters addrest to the American Commissioners were brought to his home; "and" (so his colleagues admitted), "they would ever be carried wherever Doctor Franklin is." He transacted his affairs with Louis the Sixteenth's ministers on a footing of equality, and (as time went on), of unostentatious but unquestionable superiority. Thomas Jefferson, an impartial and most competent observer, had on one occasion been contending that American diplomatists were always spoiled for use after they had been kept seven years abroad. But this (said Jefferson) did not apply to Franklin, "who was America itself when in France, not subjecting himself to French influence," but imposing American influence upon France, and upon the whole course and conduct of her national policy. . . .
His immense and (as he himself was the foremost to acknowledge) his extravagant popularity was founded on a solid basis of admiration and esteem. The origin of his fame dated from a time which seemed fabulously distant to the existing generation. His qualities and accomplishments were genuine and unpretentious; and his services to the world were appreciated by high and low, rich and poor, in every country where men learned from books, or profited by the discoveries of science. His Poor Richardwhich expounded and elucidated a code of rules for the every-day conduct of life with sagacity that never failed, and wit that very seldom missed the markhad been thrice translated into French, had gone through many editions, and had been recommended by priests and bishops for common use in their parishes and diocese. As an investigator, and an experimentalist, he was more widely known even than as an author; for he had always aimed at making natural philosophy the handmaid of material progress. Those homely and practical inventions by which he had done so much to promote the comfort and convenience of the average citizen, had caused him to be regarded as a public benefactor in every civilized community throughout the world. His reputation (so John Adams wrote) was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton. "His name was familiar to government and people, to foreign countriesto nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as to plebeiansto such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet, coachman, or footman, a lady's chambermaid, or scullion in the kitchen, who did not consider him a friend to humankind." If Franklin, at seventy years of age, had visited France as a private tourist, his progress through her cities would have been one long ovation, and her enthusiasm transcended all bounds when, coming as an ambassador from a new world beyond the seas, he appealed to French chivalry on behalf of a young nation struggling for freedom. . . .
When he appeared in public he was drest in good broadcloth of a sober tint; conspicuous with his long straight hair, whitened by age, and not by art; and wearing a pair of spectacles to remedy an old man's dimness of vision, and a cap of fine marten's fur, because he had an old man's susceptibility to cold.
Franklin's costume had not been designed with any idea of pleasing the Parisians, but it obtained an extraordinary success, and has left a mark on history. Fine gentlemen, with their heads full of the new philosophy, regarded his unembroidered coat, and unpowdered locks, as a tacit, but visible, protest against those luxuries and artificialities which they all condemned, but had not the smallest intention of themselves renouncing. He reminded them of everything and everybody that Jean Jacques Rousseau had taught them to admire. The Comte de Segur declared that "Franklin's antique and patriarchal aspect seemed to transport into the midst of an enervated, and servile, civilization a Republican of Rome of the time of Cato and Fabius, or a sage who had consorted with Plato." Some compared him to Diogenes, and some to Phocionabout whom they can have known very little; for, if Phocion had been a Pennsylvanian of Anno Domini 1776, he would, beyond all question, have been a strenuous and uncompromising supporter of the British connection. Readers of Emile, who then comprized three-fourths of the fashionable world, delighted to recognize in the American stranger an express and living image of the Savoyard Vicar; and it was believed, with some reason, that his views on religion nearly corresponded to those of Rousseau's famous ecclesiastic, altho Franklin would most certainly have comprest his profession of faith into much shorter compass. The great French ladies were attracted and fascinated by his quiet self-possession, his benign courtesy, and his playful, yet always rational, conversation. The ardor of Franklin's votaries sometimes manifested itself with an exuberance which made it difficult for him to keep his countenance.
1 From Trevelyan's "The American Revolution." Reprinted by permission of the publishers, Longmans, Green & Company. Copyright, 1903-1905.