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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin
by James Parton
Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.
ARRIVAL OF DR. FRANKLIN.
HELP was at hand. The note informed Mr. Deane that Dr. Franklin was at Nantes, two hundred and eight miles southwest of Paris!
It was on the twenty-sixth of September, a month after Hortalez and Co. had taken possession of the Hotel de Hollande, that Congress elected the three plenipotentiaries to represent the United States at the friendly court of France. Vain was the attempt to keep the grand embassy a secret. A curious and unique entry in the Records of the Secret Committee acquaints us with the fact that it remained a secret only four days. On the first of October, as we learn from this entry, Mr. Robert Story appeared before Dr. Franklin and Mr. Thomas Morris, the only members of the committee then in Philadelphia, and delivered to them the verbal message with which Arthur Lee had charged him: namely, that the King of France, moved thereto by the powerful intercession of Mr. Lee, had determined to send to America, before the next campaign opened, two hundred thousand pounds worth of arms and ammunition. Intelligence more thrilling has seldom been brought across the ocean than this announcement, as a certainty, of the practical alliance of France with the infant nation. Nevertheless, the two members of the Secret Committee deliberately resolved to conceal it even from Congress, because, as they entered in their records, "we find by fatal experience, that the Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets, as none could be more strongly enjoined than the present embassy to France, notwithstanding which, Mr. Morris was this day asked whether Dr. Franklin and others were really going embassadors to France." It was, however, agreed between them, that in case "any unexampled misfortune should befall the States of America, so as to depress the spirits of Congress," then Mr. Morris should cheer them up with this great news; otherwise, he should keep it buried in the archives of the committee, until at least part of the supplies should have escaped the enemy’s frigates, and reached an American port. (1) This was the last official act of any note done by Dr. Franklin before his departure.
One private deed of his, performed during the month of preparation, shines, starlike, in the cloudy records of the time. He collected all the money he could command at such short notice, "between three and four thousand pounds," and lent it to Congress; a practical proof of his faith in the cause, which, we are told, had its effect in replenishing the public coffers. This is the man who is regarded by some as the type of penny wisdom!
Two grandsons were to accompany Dr. Franklin on this occasion; William Temple Franklin, his son’s son, now a handsome lad of seventeen or eighteen, whom he intended to place at a French or German university, with a view to his adopting the law; and Benjamin Franklin Bache, the eldest son of his daughter, a boy of seven, whom he meant to send to school in Paris. Governor Franklin, then a prisoner in Connecticut, knew nothing of his son’s departure for several weeks after he had sailed; as we read in one of his letters to this wife, dated November 27th. "If," wrote the governor, "the old gentleman has taken the boy with him, I hope it is only to put him into some foreign university, which he seemed anxious to do when he spoke to me last about his education."
Franklin’s last writing before his departure was a letter to a friend; which, falling into the hands of the enemy, the king and his cabinet had the pleasure of reading a few weeks later. It was written the day before he left home: "Being once more ordered to Europe, and to embark this day, I write this line. As to our public affairs, I hope our people will keep up their courage. I have no doubt of their finally succeeding by the blessing of God, nor have I any doubt that so good a cause will fail of that blessing. It is computed that we have already taken a million sterling from the enemy. They must soon be sick of their piratical project. No time should be lost in fortifying three or four posts on our extended coast as strong as art and expense can make them. Nothing will give us greater weight and importance in the eyes of the commercial states, than a conviction that we can annoy, on occasion, their trade, and carry our prizes into safe harbors; and whatever expense we are at in such fortifying, will soon be repaid by the encouragement and success of privateering." (2)
A swift sloop of war, called the Reprisal, of sixteen guns, Captain Wickes, lay at Marcus Hook, in the Delaware, awaiting the pleasure of Dr. Franklin and his little party. The sloop had three thousand pounds' worth of indigo on board for the first expenses of the plenipotentiaries. There was a fitness in his going by this vessel, since it was he who had originated the policy of reprisals, of which policy this gallant little sloop was one of the prettiest fruits. Readers remember the fiery Preamble which he dashed to paper when the news reached him of the passage of Lord North's Prohibitory bill. On the twenty-sixth of October he and his grandsons left Philadelphia; not attended on this occasion by an escort of three hundred horse; but with precautions to keep their departure secret. That night they lay at Chester, and the next morning rode in a carriage to Marcus Hook, three miles beyond, and embarked on board the sloop, which immediately weighed and stood down the river. Useless precautions! That the British authorities in New York were instantly informed of the event, we learn from a letter of Sir Grey Cooper (an old London friend of Franklin's), written at New York, October 28th, which contains this sentence: "The Arch ---? Dr. Franklin, has lately eloped under a cloak of plenipotentiary to Versailles;" i. e., to avoid the inevitable collapse of the revolt.
The voyage was short, rough, and eventful. Several times the vessel was chased by the enemy's cruisers, when Captain Wickes would beat to quarters, and clear for action in a style which Franklin thought could be surpassed in no king's ship. At the same time, the captain made all sail to get away, since his orders were to fight if he must, but avoid fighting if he could. It was one wild November gale nearly all the way over, and the old man was sadly cramped in the contracted cabin; so that of all his eight voyages, this was the most distressing. His grandson assures us, however, that sick or well, sea smooth or sea rough, the ardent experimenter contrived every day to take the temperature of the ocean, in order to verify anew his discovery of the warmth of the Gulf Stream. We may imagine, too, that he spent some hours in furbishing his French, in speaking which he had had but little practice, and that long ago. During his earlier visits to Paris he had depended too much upon his comrade Sir John Pringle; and he told Mr. Adams, a year or two after this voyage, that on reaching France he found it extremely difficult, for a while, to make himself understood, though he read French with perfect ease. What American embassador has ever crossed the ocean without a furtive phrase-book in his trunk?
William Temple Franklin alone has related with any minuteness, and he too meagerly, the circumstances attending the arrival of his grandfather on the shores of France. "November 27th," he says, "our vessel being near the coast of France, though out of soundings, several sail were seen, and, about noon, the sloop brought to and took a brig from Bordeaux, bound to Cork (being Irish property), loaded with lumber and some wine. She had left Bordeaux the day before. The captain found, by the brig's reckoning, that he was then only sixteen leagues from land. In the afternoon of the same day he came up with, and took another brig, from Rochfort, belonging to Hull, bound to Hamburg, with brandy and flax-seed. Early the next morning land was in sight from the masthead; it proved to be Bellisle; a pilot came on board, and the sloop was brought to an anchor in the evening. On the 29th she ran into Quiberon Bay, where she continued till December 3d; when finding the contrary winds likely to continue, which prevented her entering the Loire, the captain procured a fishing boat to put Dr. Franklin and his grandsons on shore at Auray, about six leagues distant, where they were landed in the evening. The boatmen spoke the Breton language as well as the French; and it appeared to be the common language of the country people in that province. One word only was intelligible, which was Diaul; it signifies Devil, and is the same in the Welsh language. It is said there is a considerable affinity between the two languages, and that the Welsh and Breton fishermen and peasantry can comprehend each other. Auray proved to be a wretched place. No post-chaises to be hired; obliged to send to Vannes for one; which did not arrive till next day; when the party reached that town, late in the evening. Dr. Franklin in the little journal he kept, and from which the above details are taken, adds: ‘The carriage was a miserable one, with tired horses, the evening dark, scarce a traveler but ourselves on the road; and to make it more comfortable, the driver stopped near a wood we were to pass through, to tell us that a gang of eighteen robbers infested that wood, who but two weeks ago had robbed and murdered some travelers on that very spot.’''
"The same journal contains the following remark: 'December 6th. On the road yesterday,' (traveling to Nantes), 'we met six or seven country women in company, on horseback and astride; they were all of fair white and red complexions, but one among them was the fairest woman I ever beheld. Most of the men have good complexions, not swarthy, like those of the North of France in which I remember that, except about Abbeville, I saw few fair people.'
"Arriving at Nantes on the 7th of December, a grand dinner was prepared on the occasion by some friends of America, at which Dr. Franklin was present, and in the afternoon went to meet a large party at the country seat of Mons. Gruel (senior partner of M. Penet), a short distance from town, where crowds of visitors came to compliment him on his safe arrival, expressing great satisfaction, as they were warm friends to America, and hoped his being in France would be of advantage to the American cause. A magnificent supper closed the evening.
"Being much fatigued and weakened by the voyage and journey, Dr. Franklin was persuaded to remain some time at M. Gruel's country house, where he was elegantly and commodiously lodged: his strength, indeed, was not equal to an immediate journey to Paris." (Franklin himself says, that on landing at Auray, he was so weakened by the voyage, that he could scarcely stand.) "During his stay at M. Gruel's, he was in hopes of living retired, but the house was almost always full of visitors; from whom, however, much useful information was obtained respecting the state of affairs at court, and the character of persons in power." (3)
At Nantes, a large and important port (now of more than a hundred thousand inhabitants, and the fourth seaport of France), America had indeed hosts of friends ?- interested and disinterested. M. Penet lived there, and had been shipping goods for America; Beaumarchais had been there, collecting and dispatching stores by the shipload to the illustrious Congress. Not a soul in Nantes, not a soul in Europe, knew of Franklin's coming; for the swift Reprisal had outstripped even the rumor of his appointment. The surprise greatly heightened the eclat of his arrival.
The correspondence and diaries of the period, English, French, and German, contain abundant evidence that Dr. Franklin's sudden appearance on the French coast was the "sensation" of that winter. "An account came," wrote Horace Walpole (a stanch friend of America), "that Dr. Franklin, at the age of 72 or 74, and at the risk of his head, had bravely embarked on board an American frigate, and, with two prizes taken on the way, had landed at Nantes in France, and was to be at Paris the 14th, where the highest admiration and expectation of him were raised." Madame du Deffand wrote to Horace Walpole from Paris: "The object of Dr. Franklin's visit is still problematical; and what is the most singular of all is, that no one can tell whether he is actually in Paris or not. For three or four days it has been said in the morning that he had arrived, and in the evening that he had not yet come." The Marquis of Rockingham told Mr. Burke that he considered the presence of Dr. Franklin at the French court "much more than a balance for the few additional acres which the English had gained by the conquest of Manhattan Island." Many similar passages will occur to readers familiar with the letters of that time. Nantes was in a prodigious ferment. He says himself, in his moderate manner: "I find it generally supposed at Nantes, that I am sent to negotiate; and that opinion appears to give great pleasure, if I can judge by
the extreme civilities I meet with from numbers of the principal people, who have done me the honor to visit me."
On the 22d of December, Madame du Deffand communicated to Horace Walpole the great event: "Dr. Franklin arrived in town yesterday, at two o'clock in the afternoon; he slept the night before at Versailles. He was accompanied by two of his grandsons, one seven years old the other seventeen, and by his friend, M. Penet. He has taken lodgings in the Rue de l'Université." Even so; at the Hotel de Hamburg, where also lived Silas Deane, now one of the happiest of men. "Here," he wrote exultingly to Mr. Dumas, "is the hero, and philosopher, and patriot, all united in this celebrated American, who, at the age of seventy-four, risks all dangers for his country! I know your heart rejoices with me on this occasion." And more: "He left Philadelphia the last of October, and everything was favorable in America!" America was not endangered, nor even discouraged, by the loss of New York!
Respecting Dr. Franklin's journey from Nantes to Paris, Cobbett has preserved from the old newspapers, an anecdote of some point, and not too improbable for belief. I know not whether there is any truth in it. The story is, that at one of the inns at which he slept on the road, he was informed that Gibbon (the first volume of whose History had been published in the spring of that year) was also stopping. "Franklin sent his compliments, requesting the pleasure of spending the evening with Mr. Gibbon. In answer he received a card, importing that, notwithstanding Mr. Gibbon's regard for the character of Dr. Franklin, as a man and a philosopher, he could not reconcile it with his duty to his king, to have any conversation with a revolted subject! Franklin in reply wrote a note, declaring, that 'though Mr. Gibbon's principles had compelled him to withhold the pleasure of his conversation, Dr. Franklin had still such a respect for the character of Mr. Gibbon, as a gentleman and a historian, that when, in the course of his writing the history of the decline and fall of empires, the decline and fall of the British Empire should come to be his subject, as he expects it soon would, Dr. Franklin would be happy to furnish him with ample materials which were in his possession.'"
Cobbett, in the amiable manner usual with him when speaking of Franklin, adds: "Whether this anecdote record a truth or not I shall not pretend to say; but it must be confessed that the expressions imputed to the two personages were strictly in character. In Gibbon we see the faithful subject, and the man of candor and honor; in Franklin, the treacherous and malicious 'old Zanga of Boston.'" (4)
Gibbon, like Hume, was an extreme tory, and supported Lord North unflinchingly in all his American measures; with the reward, at length, of a sinecure place of eight hundred pounds a year. I notice, also, that Mr. Gibbon, in his barren autobiography, mentions having visited France not long after the publication of his first volume; and he seems to have spent several weeks there, and to have distinguished himself by his opposition to the republican enthusiasm that prevailed in salon, palace, and château. The anecdote, however, stands without support.
In Paris, then, Dr. Franklin was established in the last days of December, 1776. Old friends welcomed him, new ones gathering round, and the public manifesting a strange interest in all that he did. Indeed, his reception in Parish, and his popularity throughout France, during the many years of his residence in that country, were so remarkable, and produced such effects upon public affairs, and upon his own tranquility, that it seems proper to pause here for a moment on the threshold of his new career, and say a few words respecting the causes of the enthusiasm his presence excited. Generally speaking, popularity is trivial matter, not worth many words; but it may be undervalued as well as overvalued. There are times when a popularity, even though evanescent and unmerited, has such results that it cannot be overlooked. Franklin’s popularity among the amiable people of France, which was neither evanescent nor unmerited, formed part of the atmosphere in which he lived for so many years. He breathed incense all the time.
A genuine reputation is a growing thing; and Franklin’s European renown was now nearly a quarter of a century old. The electrical discoveries to which he owed his universal celebrity were such as appealed to the uninstructed millions, even more strongly than to the learned few. He had been a printer, editor, and postmaster; which had brought him into intimate relations with the entire press of one continent, and a part of the press of another. Printers, perhaps, had more esprit du corps than any other of the colonial vocations, and the old printers seem to have been never better pleased than when they were giving currency to paragraphs by or concerning Dr. Franklin. Moreover, he was always either saying or doing a good thing; i. e., shedding the material of paragraphs. Now, as in these modern days, celebrity is simply the having your name often printed in newspapers. Franklin would have been among the most celebrated men of his day from this cause alone. Add to this accident of his former career, his solid and various merits, and we have the material of a very general and vivid celebrity. But this was not all. No people excel the French in the art of living with a certain elegance upon a small revenue. France is full of people who enjoy the best results of civilization upon incomes which we should consider synonymous with pinching poverty. Hence, perhaps, the success in France of Poor Richard, whose homely maxims were three times translated into French, and were everywhere known. I may also remark, that Benjamin Franklin, Printer, of Philadelphia, in the Paris of 1776, was the contact of two civilizations that are always pleased with one another when they are properly introduced, and see each other to good advantage. Count Sigur's well-known passage illustrates this point:
"It would be difficult to describe," he says, "the eagerness and delight with which the American Envoys, the agents of a people in a state of insurrection against their monarch, were received in France, in the bosom of an ancient monarchy. Nothing could be more striking, than the contrast between the luxury of our capital, the elegance of our fashions, the magnificence of Versailles, the still brilliant remains of the monarchical pride of Louis XIV., and the polished and superb dignity of our nobility, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, the almost rustic apparel, the plain but firm demeanor, the free and direct language of the envoys, whose antique simplicity of dress and appearance seemed to have introduced within our walls, in the midst of the effeminate and servile refinement of the 18th century, some sages contemporary with Plato, or republicans of the age of Cato and of Fabius. This unexpected apparition produced upon us a greater effect in consequence of its novelty, and of its occurring precisely at the period when literature and philosophy had circulated amongst us an unusual desire for reforms, a disposition to encourage innovations, and the seeds of an ardent attachment to liberty." (5)
M. Lacretelle, a French historian, discourses in a similar strain: "Men imagined they saw in Franklin a sage of antiquity, come back to give austere lessons and generous examples to the moderns. They personified in him the republic, of which he was the representative and the legislator. They regarded his virtues as those of his countrymen, and even judged of their physiognomy by the imposing and serene traits of his own. Happy was he who could gain admittance to see him in the house which he occupied. This venerable old man, it was said, joined to the demeanor of Phocion the spirit of Socrates." And the German, Schlosser, says "Franklin's appearance in the Paris salons, even before he began to negotiate, was an event of great importance to the whole of Europe. Paris, at that time, set the fashion for the civilized world, and the admiration of Franklin, carried to a degree approaching folly, produced a remarkable effect on the fashionable circles of Paris. His dress, the simplicity of his external appearance, the friendly meekness of the old man, and the apparent humility of the Quaker, procured for Freedom a mass of votaries among the court circles, who used to be alarmed at its coarseness and unsophisticated truths." Other chroniclers of the period bear similar testimony.
"With regard to the rustic apparel, Count Sigur was in error, neither Silas Deane nor Dr. Franklin was capable of such an affectation. Nevertheless, Franklin did venture upon one bold and wise innovation: he resisted the tyranny of the hair-dressers; he positively would not again submit to the daily nuisance of pigtail and powder. His white hair being now too scanty for the protection of his head, he was accustomed to wear at this time (but soon discarded it) an odd-looking fur cap, which did impart to his appearance something that might pass for rusticity. One of the first letters which he wrote in Paris, contains a humorous description of his appearance: "Figure me, in your mind, as jolly as formerly and as strong and hearty, only a few years older; very plainly dressed, wearing my thin, gray, straight hair, that peeps out under my only coiffure, a fine fur cap, which comes down my forehead almost to my spectacles. Think how this must appear among the powdered heads of Paris! I wish every lady and gentleman in France would only be so obliging as to follow my fashion, comb their own heads, as I do mine, dismiss their friseurs, and pay me half the money they paid to them. You see, the gentry might well afford this, and I could then enlist these friseurs, who are at least one hundred thousand, and with the money I would maintain them, make a visit with them to England, and dress the heads of your ministers and privy counselors; which I conceive at present to be un peu dérangées." (A little out of order.)
No one has more forcibly described the estimation in which Franklin was held in Europe than John Adams; who, unhappily, was not able to regard his colleague's great fame with equanimity. "Franklin's reputation," says Mr. Adams, "was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire; and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them….. His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady's chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen, who was not familiar with it, and who did not consider him a friend to human kind. When they spoke of him they seemed to think he was to restore the golden age….. If a collection could be made of all the Gazettes of Europe, for the latter half of the eighteenth century, a greater number of panegyrical paragraphs upon le grand Franklin would appear, it is believed, than upon any other man that ever lived….. The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Quakers believed him a wet Quaker….. He was thought to be the magician who had excited the ignorant Americans to resistance. His mysterious wand had separated the colonies from Great Britain. He had framed and established all the American constitutions of government, especially all the best of them, i. e., the most democratical. His plans and his example were to abolish monarchy, aristocracy, and hierarchy, throughout the world." (6)
Mr. Adams chronicles in his diary a conversation he once had with M. Marbois, which contains a smothered hint at another cause of the peculiar affection felt for Franklin in some Parisian circles. "'All religions,' said M Marbois, 'are tolerated in America. The embassadors have a right in all courts to a chapel in their own way; but Mr. Franklin never had any.' 'No,' said I, laughing, 'because Mr. Franklin has no —.' I was going to say what I did not say, and will not say here. I stopped short and laughed. 'No,' said M. Marbois, 'Mr. Franklin adores only great Nature, which has interested a great many people of both sexes in his favor.' 'Yes,' said I, laughing; 'all the atheists, deists, and libertines, as well the philosophers and ladies, are in his train.'" (7) Mr. Adams could never forgive Franklin's immense importance in Europe. If by the word Religion, he meant any thing which passed in New England by that name, John had little more of it than Benjamin.
Silas Deane, on the contrary, felt an honest pride in the honors bestowed upon his countryman. "Never,” he wrote, "did I enjoy greater satisfaction than in being the spectator of the public honors often paid him. A celebrated cause being to be heard before the Parliament of Paris, and the house and street leading to it crowded with people, on the appearance of Dr. Franklin way was made for him in the most respectful manner, and he passed through the crowd to the seat reserved for him amid the acclamations of the people — an honor seldom paid to their first princes of the blood. When he attended the operas and plays, similar honors were paid him, and I confess I felt a joy and pride which was pure and honest, though not disinterested, for I considered it an honor to be known to be an American and his acquaintance."
Such was the number of portraits published of him, that one of his great grandsons in Philadelphia has been able, even at this late day, to collect a hundred and fifty of them, few of which are duplicates. Medallions, medals, busts, in all sizes, styles, and materials, were produced in astonishing numbers. What he says himself on this subject to his daughter, is not a mere humorous exaggeration, but a statement of fact. Writing in 1779 of a certain medallion to which his daughter had alluded, he continued: "A variety of others have been made since of different sizes; some to be set in the lids of snuff boxes, (8) and some so small as to be worn in rings; and the numbers sold are incredible. These, with the pictures, busts, and prints (of which copies upon copies are spread everywhere), have made your father's face as well known as that of the moon, so that he durst not do any thing that would oblige him to run away, as his phiz would discover him wherever he should venture to show it. It is said by learned etymologists, that the name doll, for the images children play with, is derived from the word Idol. From the number of dolls now made of him, he may be truly said, in that sense, to be i-doll-ized in this country."
In the same humorous manner he always spoke of the extravagant estimation in which he was held. The incense-clouds neither blinded, poisoned, intoxicated, nor inflated him. In one of his letters to Mrs. Jay occurs this amusing paragraph: "Mrs. Jay does me much honor in desiring to have one of the prints that have been made here of her countryman. I send what is said to be the best of five or six engraved by different hands, from different paintings. The verses at the bottom are truly extravagant. But you must know, that the desire of pleasing, by a perpetual rise of compliments in this polite nation, has so used up all the common expressions of approbation, that they are become flat and insipid, and to use them almost implies censure. Hence music, that formerly might be sufficiently praised when it was called bonne, to go a little further they called it excellente, then superbe, magnifique, exquise, celeste, all which being in their turns worn out, there only remains divine; and, when that is grown as insignificant as its predecessors, I think they must return to common speech and common sense; as, from vying with one another in fine and costly paintings on their coaches, since I first knew the country, not being able to go farther in that way, they have returned lately to plain carriages, painted without arms or figures, in one uniform color."
On the other side of the channel, the presence of Franklin in the French capital excited, as may be imagined, a world of comment, chiefly hostile. "France, my lords," exclaimed the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, "has insulted you. She has encouraged and sustained America; and, whether America be wrong or right, the dignity of this country ought to spurn at the officious insult of French interference. The ministers and embassadors of those who are called rebels are in Paris; in Paris they transact the reciprocal business of America and France. Can there be a more mortifying insult? Can even our ministers sustain a more humiliating disgrace? Do they dare to resent it? Do they presume even to hint a vindication of their honor and the dignity of the state, by requiring the dismissal of the plenipotentiaries of America?" Still, it was in this very speech that the aged statesman said, in alluding to the employment of the Hessians: "If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, whilst a foreign troop was landed in my country, I would never lay down my arms — never — never — NEVER!"
One penny-a-liner (there were penny-a-liners then) informed the public, that Dr. Franklin had a son, who, though illegitimate, was a "much more honest man than his father;" and as to the mother of that son, nothing was known of her except that her seducer let her "die in the streets." Another writer essayed a satirical piece, in Franklin's own manner, in the form of a "Copy of Dr. Franklin's Proposals from the American Congress to the French Court," a sorry burlesque, much quoted at the time, but not worth copying now. "I have just seen," wrote Franklin in one of his first letters, "seven paragraphs in the (English) papers about me, of which six were lies."
The weakest manifestation of British spleen, however, was an act of the poor, blind king. The Purfleet Powder Magazine, protected by lightning rods of Franklin's own selection, was struck by lightning, and escaped without explosion, or even serious injury. This event having revived the old controversy, whether lightning rods should be blunt or pointed, Dr. Wilson led the assault upon Franklin's opinion, and stoutly contended for blunt. How easy to convince a George III., at such a time, that Franklin's opinions were erroneous! Down came the Franklinian pointed conductors from the Powder Magazine, and from Buckingham Palace, the king's own residence, and in their stead appeared Dr. Wilson's blunt ones. The retort of Franklin, when he was informed of this ridiculous event, has been often quoted: "The king's changing his pointed conductors for blunt ones is a matter of small importance to me. If I had a wish about it, it would be, that he had rejected them altogether as ineffectual. For it is only since he thought himself and family safe from the thunder of Heaven, that he dared to use his own thunder in destroying his innocent subjects." The epigram which the affair evoked in London is also well known:
"While you, great George, for safety hunt,And sharp conductors change for blunt,The empire 's out of joint.Franklin a wiser course pursues,And all your thunder fearless views,By keeping to the point." (9)
England was strangely divided against herself in this contest. While the court, the newspapers, the ministry, an increasing majority of Parliament, and a vast majority of the people (who usually join the war party en masse after the first bloodshed) regarded Franklin as a rebel of the deepest dye, nearly every man in England of whom England now is proud, revered him as a patriot and a sage. At the very time of Franklin's arrival in Paris and during the first weeks of his residence there, no one approached him with sincerer homage, no one more prized his society and conversation, than Charles James Fox, the leader of the English opposition. Four years after, in the course of a debate in the House of Commons, a member having spoken of the contest in America as a Holy War, Mr. Fox said: "To others, the application of such an epithet to the actual contest may appear new; but to me it has no novelty. I was in Paris precisely at the time when the present war began, in 1776, and Dr. Franklin honored me with his intimacy. I recollect, that conversing with him on the subject of the impending hostilities, he, while he predicted their ruinous consequences, compared their principle and their consequences to those of the ancient Crusades. He foretold that we should expend our best blood and treasure in attempting an unattainable object; and that like the holy war of the dark ages, while we carried desolation and slaughter over America, we should finally depopulate, enfeeble, and impoverish Great Britain." (10)
Nor was it only such as Fox, Burke, Rockingham, Shelburne, Chatham, Priestley, and Price, who befriended America at this time. All the winter a popular subscription had been going on for the benefit of American prisoners of war in England; prisoners whom the government affected to regard as felons. The subscription in February, 1777, amounted to four thousand six hundred and forty-seven pounds sterling; (11) and was still proceeding.
For a few weeks Dr. Franklin lived with Mr. Deane at the Hotel de Hamburg amid the whirl and roar of Paris, overwhelmed with the endless rush of visitors. By the time he had discovered that this would not do, the good Genius which in London sent him to Craven Street and Mrs. Stevenson, procured him, near Paris, a most delightful and convenient retreat. At that time Paris, like London, was a great city surrounded by little villages; and the Seine, like the Thames, flowed between verdant banks and past gardens and villas almost to the verge of the metropolis. The villages have long ago been overrun and swallowed up by the spreading cities, leaving only their names to mark the districts where once they stood. Of the villages near Paris one of the most noted was Passy, situated on a lofty hill overlooking the river, the city, and a great expanse of gardens, parks, farms, châteaux, and villages. It is now included within the fortification of Paris, yet retains much of its ancient, leafy, secluded pleasantness, and all its grandeur of situation. At Passy, in houses of their own building, live, or have recently lived, Bellini, Rossini, Lamartine, Erard, Grisi, and other notabilities of Paris and Europe. Thomas Moore lived and wrote a poem there. In 1776, one of the most spacious and sumptuous mansions in the place, called the Hotel de Valentinois, belonged to that munificent friend of America, M. Ray de Chaumont, who lived in part of it himself. M. De Chaumont had been among the first to welcome Dr. Franklin to Paris; had been with him daily; had conceived for him the warmest affection. He now pressed Franklin to accept part of his house at Passy as a place of permanent abode. It was but two miles from the center of Paris; far enough to reduce the crowd of idle visitors, and near enough for easy access. Dr. Franklin accepted the offer. M. De Chaumont would accept no rent for his house as long as the contest of America for independence could be considered doubtful. When the war was over and the country happily settled and prosperous, then Congress, if it pleased, might grant him in compensation a piece of American land. Early in the year 1777 Dr. Franklin established himself at Passy, in a court of the Hotel de Valentinois, and there continued to reside during the whole of his stay in France. He had his own servants and, in all respects, an independent establishment. A chariot and pair was one of his first and most necessary acquisitions.
The impression prevails that a Spartan simplicity characterized the household of Dr. Franklin in France. No such thing. He lived liberally, as became his age, his position, and his office. Spartan simplicity was impossible — as Mrs. Adams discovered, a few years later. "It is the policy of France," she observes in one of her letters home, "to oblige you to keep a certain number of servants, and one will not touch what belongs to the business of another, though he or she has time enough to perform the whole. In the first place, there is a coachman who does not an individual thing but attend to the carriages and horses; then the gardener, who has business enough; then comes the cook; then the maître d'hôtel; his business is to purchase articles for the family, and oversee that nobody cheats but himself; a valet de chambre; a femme de chambre; a coiffeuse, — for this place, I have a French girl about nineteen, whom I have been upon the point of turning away, because Madame will not brush a chamber; 'it is not de fashion, it is not her business.' I would not have kept her a day longer, but found, upon inquiry, that I could not better myself, and hair-dressing here is very expensive, unless you keep such a madam in the house. There is another indispensable servant, who is called a frotteur; his business is to rub the floors. We have a servant who acts as maître d'hôtel, whom I like at present, and who is so very gracious as to act as footman too, to save the expense of another servant, upon condition that we give him a gentleman's suit of clothes in lieu of a livery. Thus, with seven servants and hiring a charwoman upon occasion of company, we may possibly make out to keep house; with less, we should be hooted at as ridiculous, and could not entertain any company."
Some such retinue as this, I suppose, Dr. Franklin was compelled to maintain at Passy. He appears to have expended in France an average of about thirteen thousand dollars a year.
1. Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, ii., 16.
2. American Archives.
3. William Temple Franklin's Memoirs of Benj. Franklin, vol. i., p. 809.
4. Gobbett's Works, vol., vii, p. 244.
5. Memoris of Count Sigur, vol. i., p. 101.
6. Works of John Adams, i., 660.
7. Works of John Adams, iii., 220.
8. The following went the round of the press during the Revolution:
"On seeing a small mezzotinto print of Dr. Franklin in the case of a watch, 1778. By an Englishman.
"Had but our nation mov'd like this great man,—With wisdom's wheel to regulate its plan,—Not urg'd by rancor, nor disturb'd by rage,—But guided by the prudence of this sage;The spring of state had still been strong and tight,Its chain of friendship lasting, pure, and bright,Our hand of time had pointed still at noon,And sable night had not approach'd so soon."
"The author of the above lines immediately after, finding himself in a thoughtful mood, wrote as follows:
"Cheer up, my friend, and view yon western main,There young day dawns, and Phœbus smiles again,So 'tis with Liberty — here sunk in shade,While there blooms sweetly the celestial maid.The soil is good, the tree has taken root,And soon the industrious kind shall reap the fruit.His persevering toil hath dearly earn'dThose golden fruits which foolish Britain spurn'd,While wiser France saw Albion's wretched doom,Begg'd of it suckers to transplant at home;Where her State Husbandmen are now employ'dTo pluck those apples which we once enjoy'd."
9. To show that this story of the blunt conductors was no fiction of the hour, I transcribe Mr. Weld's account of the controversy, as given in his History of the Royal Society:
''It was no longer scientific men who were allowed to decide the question, but political partisans, so that the advocates of pointed conductors soon became identified with the insurgent colonists; and those opposed to blunt points were considered as disaffected subjects. As usual in such cases, the populace, and even the higher classes of society, took up the quarrel without inquiring into its merits, or, indeed, knowing any thing about the matter in a scientific point of view. Wilson thus found protection and support, as he would have done against the theorem ofPythagoras, had geometry been the subject of dispute.
"But the most extraordinary part of this dispute is, that George III. is stated to have taken the side of Wilson, not on scientific grounds, but from political motives; and that he even had blunt conductors fixed on his palace, and actually endeavored to make the Royal Society rescind their resolutions in favor of pointed conductors. His majesty, it is declared, had an interview with Sir John Pringle, during which he earnestly entreated him to use his influence in supporting Mr. Wilson. The reply of the president was highly honorable to himself and the Society whom he represented. It was to the effect that duty as well as inclination would always induce him to execute his majesty's wishes to the utmost of his power: but 'Sire,' said he, 'I cannot reverse the laws and operations of nature.'….
"Several resolutions and amendments were moved and seconded by the leading fellows, but not carried. Eventually, it was determined that a reply should be written by the secretary, to the secretary of the Board of Ordnance. It ran thus:
'"Sir: In answer to your letter of the 19th May, I am directed to inform you, that the Society has never since its first institution given an opinion as a body at large, but constantly by committees. And that in the particular instance of the questions lately proposed by the Board of Ordnance, the Society has no reason to be dissatisfied with the report of its committee.'
"This letter had the effect of increasing the anger of Wilson and his friends, and, strange as it now appears, the dispute, which had its origin in a question of Natural Philosophy, was made one of party politics. This is attributable to the fact, that England was at the hight of her quarrel with her American colonies, and it was Franklin who invented pointed conductors." — Weld's History of the Royal Society, ii., 99.
10. Wraxall's Memoirs.
11. Gordon's History of the United States, iii., 100.
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