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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by James Parton

Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.


Part 6




            IN connection with this great fact of the alliance between the ancient kingdom and the young republic, and quickly following it, were several striking and memorable historic scenes; which serve to show us the importance attached to the event by the men of that generation.

            One of these occurred in the British House of Commons, February 17th, eleven days after the signing of the treaties at Paris. It had been known, for a day or two, to the very selectest circle of the Opposition in London, that France had concluded an alliance with the United States; a secret too momentous to be kept by the sixteen persons — six Americans and ten Frenchmen — who had been intrusted with it. The House, on the night of the 17th, was crowded with members and peers, not one of whom, to his dying day, forgot the impressive and startling events of the sitting. No corps of reporters then sat assiduous, in a gallery replete with every convenience, to reproduce and improve the debates. If Mr. Horace Walpole had not taken the trouble to make, in his diary, a brief chronicle of what occurred, nearly all knowledge of the details must have perished with the generation that witnessed them. Amid breathless silence, Lord North rose to introduce his Conciliation Bill, which gave the colonies just what Dr. Franklin had demanded for them the last winter he was in England. The premier now owned that he and his party had been all in the wrong with regard to America, and he expressed a most earnest desire to make peace with the colonies on almost any terms. The astonishment, says Walpole, of a great majority of the House at the prime minister's confessions and proposals, was totally indescribable. The Opposition, led by Fox and Burke, promptly seconded Lord North's plan, not omitting to remind him that he then proposed only what they had advocated two years before; and every day since. The tories, though for some time dumb with mere amazement, could not but follow their leader; and so Lord North seemed likely to have an evening of triumph.

            "But," continues Horace Walpole, "Charles Fox threw a bomb, that much disconcerted the minister. My cousin, Thomas Walpole, had acquainted me that the treaty with France was signed. We agreed to inform Charles Fox; but, as we both distrusted Burke (i. e., his prudence), and feared the childish fluctuations of Lord Rockingham, we determined that Fox should know nothing of the secret till an hour or two before the House met. Accordingly, Thomas Walpole communicated the notice of the treaty to the Duke of Grafton on the 16th, and engaged him to acquaint Charles Fox but just before the House should meet next day. This was done most exactly, and Burke knew nothing of the matter until he came into the House. As soon as Lord North had opened his two bills, Charles Fox rose, and after pluming himself on having sat there till he had brought the noble Lord to concur in sentiment with him and his friends, he astonished Lord North by asking him whether a commercial treaty with France had not been signed by the American agents at Paris, within the last ten days? 'If so,' said he, 'the Administration is beaten by ten days, a situation so threatening, that in such a time of danger the House must concur with the propositions, though probably now they would have no effect.' Lord North was thunderstruck, and would not rise.

            "Burke called on him to answer to the fact of the treaty. Still the Minister was silent, till Sir G. Savile rose, and told him that it would be criminal, and a matter of impeachment, to withhold an answer, and ended with crying, 'An answer! an answer! an answer!' Lord North, thus forced up, owned he had heard a report of the treaty, but desired to give no answer to the House at that moment; he had no official intelligence on that subject. The report might be vague. Some time ago the Ministers of France had denied it. Such evasive answers convinced everybody of the truth of the report."

            Another spectacle, which occurred in Versailles, a few weeks later, our grandfathers were deeply interested in. The American envoys, after the signing, pressed upon the French ministry the importance of publicly acknowledging the alliance, without waiting for the ratification of the treaties; and all France seemed impatient for the hour. But, for nearly six weeks, the government hesitated; during which the alliance was a secret, just as the authorship of Waverly was once a secret; twenty persons knew it, and, in all Europe, twenty persons may have doubted it. M. Gerard's argument against immediate avowal, was this: If we should publish the treaties in Europe, and they should then be rejected in America, how deeply humiliating it would be to France, and how exasperating to Frenchmen! "There cannot be a doubt," said Mr. Lee, one day, at the end of a long harangue on the subject, "that Congress will ratify the treaties." "Do you think so, sir?" asked M. Gerard. Mr. Lee's comment upon this innocent inquiry, is an amusing instance of his morbid and mad suspiciousness: "M. Gerard's manner struck me with some surprise, but I now suppose it arose from the very friendly suspicions my colleagues had been endeavoring to infuse." At length, however, the envoys were notified that the fact of the alliance would be formally announced, and that they would be presented to the king on the twentieth of March.

            Vain were the attempt to convey to American readers of 1864 an adequate sense of the importance attached to this ceremonial by Europeans of 1778. I can only relate the few incidents of the august occasion which chance has preserved.

            Dr. Franklin, we are informed, began his preparations by ordering a wig; since no man had yet dared to contemplate the possibility of exhibiting uncovered locks to a monarch of France. Mr. Austin used to say, that, not only was the court costume exactly prescribed, but each season had its own costume, and if any one presented himself in lace ruffles, when the time of year demanded cambric, the chamberlain of the palace would refuse him admission. Readers of Madame Campan remember her lively pictures of the intense etiquette which worried the soul of Marie Antoinette in these very years. So Dr. Franklin ordered a wig. On the appointed day, says tradition, the peruquier himself brought home the work of his hands, and tried it on; but the utmost efforts of the great artist could not get it upon the head it was designed to disfigure. After patiently submitting for a long time to the manipulations of the peruquier, Dr. Franklin ventured to hint that, perhaps, the wig was a little too small. "Monsieur, it is impossible." After many more fruitless trials, the peruquier dashed the wig to the floor, in a furious passion, exclaiming, "No, Monsieur; it is not the wig which is too small; it is your head which is too large." It was too late, continues the anonymous chronicler who recorded this anecdote, to procure another, and, therefore, the audacious philosopher resolved to approach the presence of majesty "without a bag." "The size and appearance of Franklin's head," he concludes, "became a subject of common conversation. 'Yes, sir,' was the usual remark: 'Il a une grosse tête, et une grande tête. He has a big head, and a great head.' "

            Having abandoned the wig, he ventured to discard the still more indispensable sword, as well as the universal chapeau that was carried under the arm. On the morning of the great day he dressed as he would have dressed if he were going out to dine with the president of Congress — in a suit of plain, black velvet, with the usual snowy ruffles at wrist and bosom, white silk stockings and silver buckles. And a more superb costume than that has never been worn by an old gentleman in any age or country. So General Washington was attired on occasions of state, with the addition of yellow gloves, a cocked hat and plume, and sword with steel hilt and white leather scabbard. Dr. Franklin's costume, I need not say, was a most brilliant success. Mr. Austin intimates that the chamberlain hesitated a moment about admitting him, but it was only for a moment; and all the court were captivated at the noble, well-timed effrontery of his conduct. Better for the whole tribe of chamberlains if that chamberlain had done his duty, and sent the American home for his wig. The recoil from the French Revolution (in which we are now living) has given the chamberlain class another century of life, but Franklin really announced their departure when he went to court without a court dress, amid the ecstatic applause of Europe. Mr. Deane and Mr. Lee, as was proper, conformed to the custom, and wore both wig and sword.

            On the morning of the twentieth of March the three envoys, each in his own carriage, and attended by the usual train of servants, drove into Versailles, and alighted at the residence (in a wing of the palace) of M. de Vergennes, the appointed rendezvous. Mr. Izard, Mr. William Lee, and a great crowd of Americans assembled at the apartments of the minister, to whom the more important individuals were presented. A concourse of Parisians filled the court-yard of the palace. At the proper moment, Count de Vergennes conducted the envoys, who were followed by all the Americans, to the king's ante-chamber; and, a few minutes after, the doors were thrown open, and the whole crowd admitted to the king's dressing-room. The five envoys, Franklin, Deane, Lee, William Lee, and Ralph Izard, were then presented to the king, by the Count de Vergennes, the rest of the Americans looking on from behind. The king is reported to have addressed them thus: "Gentlemen, I wish the Congress to be assured of my friendship; I beg leave also to observe that I am exceedingly satisfied, in particular, with your own conduct during your residence in my kingdom." He then left the apartment. Arthur Lee records, that the king, on this great occasion, "had his hair undressed, hanging down on his shoulders; no appearance of preparation to receive us, nor any ceremony in doing it. The king appeared to speak with manly sincerity." (1)

            Leaving the king's dressing-room, the envoys, still followed by the crowd of Americans, were conducted across the spacious court-yard of the palace to be presented to the other members of the cabinet. As soon as they appeared, the crowd, regardless of the etiquette of the place, clapped and cheered with great enthusiasm. The introductions over, the five envoys returned to the residence of Count de Vergennes, where a magnificent company of the nobility were invited to meet them at dinner. The other Americans repaired to a hotel, where a dinner had been ordered for them by Dr. Franklin and his colleagues. In the evening, Madame Campan records, "the envoys went by particular invitation to the 'Jeu de la Reine,' where they found the royal family seated at play round a large table; a considerable heap of louis d'ors lay before each of the players, and from the number of these, which, from time to time, were shoveled by the losers to the winners, the gaming appeared to be high. On this occasion Dr. Franklin was honored by the particular notice of the queen, who courteously desired him to stand near to her, and as often as the game did not require her immediate attention, she took occasion to speak to him in very obliging terms."

            The next morning Lord Stormont left Paris on his way to England without having taken leave of the king. Ominous event! But Paris took it lightly. When his household goods were advertised for sale, one of the items in the catalogue was, “a quantity of table furniture that has never been used." "No wonder," said some one, "he never gave us any thing to eat;" at which all Paris laughed.

            The day after this significant departure, the envoys went again to Versailles to attend a levee of the queen. Mr. Lee gives a sorry count of this adventure. "It was with great difficulty the commissioners could pass through an unordered crowd, all pressing to get into the room where the queen was. When they got in, they stood a moment in view of the queen, and then crowded out again. They were neither presented nor spoken to, and every thing seemed in confusion. They went next to Monsieur and Madame, the king’s eldest brother and his wife: then to Madame, the king's maiden sister. The youngest brother, Count d'Artois, was at this time under a temporary banishment from court for having fought a duel with Duke Bourbon, a prince of the blood. They then visited the chancellor, whose office is for life, and he is obliged always to wear the robe of it. After this they dined with the Americans in their suite at Monsieur Gerard's."

            That was the last dinner party given by M. Gerard in France for many a day; for he had been secretly appointed plenipotentiary to the Congress, and was to sail in the French fleet destined to cruise in American waters, and about to depart. Mr. Deane, too (March 4th), had received his letters of recall, and was going in the same ship. Four American captains had been engaged by Mr. Deane to go out in the fleet as pilots, and had been presented to the Count de Vergennes. Mr. Deane received from the king the usual gift of a diamond snuff box, from M. de Vergennes a cordial and complimentary letter of farewell, and from Dr. Franklin a particularly emphatic declaration of the ability and zeal with which he had served his country in circumstances of extreme novelty and difficulty. All these movements, the destination of the fleet, the appointment of M. Gerard, the intended departure of Mr. Deane, the diamond snuffbox, and the four pilots, — were, by the express injunction of the Count de Vergennes, concealed from Arthur Lee; because the private secretary of that gentleman was suspected to be the channel of communication with the English ministry, and it was deemed a matter of the first importance to keep secret as long us possible the sailing of the fleet. The night of March 31st Mr. Deane, M. Gerard, the four captains and their attendants, secretly left Paris, each by a different route. Near Toulon, M. Gerard and Mr. Deane met, and traveled together to that port, "happy," writes Deane, " in the great prospects before us." He had no doubt that, after giving Congress the information they said they were in want of, he should return to Europe to continue his labors. On the very day of his departure from Paris, Mr. John Adams arrived at Bordeaux to take his place, bringing in a prize worth seventy thousand pounds.

            The mention of Mr. Adams calls to mind a curious circumstance preserved in the letters of his wife. During these weeks of joy and glory, when the compliments of the king and the smiles of the queen had made Dr. Franklin ten times more the fashion in Paris than ever, his friends in America supposed him dead, the victim of an assassin. Mrs. Adams heard the story a week after her husband's departure for France, and evidently believed it. In her first letter to Mr. Adams she wrote: "'Tis a little more than three weeks since the dearest of friends and tenderest of husbands left his solitary partner, and quitted all the fond endearments of domestic felicity for the dangers of the sea, exposed, perhaps, to the attack of a hostile foe, and, O good Heaven! can I add, to the dark assassin, to the secret murderer, and the bloody emissary of as cruel a tyrant as God, in his righteous judgments, ever suffered to disgrace the throne of Britain. I have traveled with you over the wide Atlantic, and could have landed you safe, with humble confidence, at your desired haven, and then have set myself down to enjoy a negative kind of happiness, in the painful part which it has pleased Heaven to allot me; but the intelligence with regard to that great philosopher, able statesman, and unshaken friend of his country, has planted a dagger in my breast, and I feel, with a double edge, the weapon that pierced the bosom of a Franklin." She says, in another letter, that "the horrid story of Dr. Franklin’s assassination was received from France, and sent by Mr. Purveyance, of Baltimore, to Congress and to Boston. Near two months before that was contradicted."

            It was in this spring of 1778 that Voltaire, at the age of eighty-four, came to Paris, after an exile of twenty-seven years, to be overwhelmed and destroyed by the enthusiasm of his countrymen. What crowds followed his carriage; what cheers welcomed him to the theatre; how nobles disguised themselves as tavern-waiters to get sight of him, and how he finally sank under the weight of his own glory, all the world knows, and will not soon forget, for the pathetic story has been greatly told. The American envoys (so Arthur Lee used to relate) sent to ask permission to wait upon the patriarch of literature. They found him lying upon a couch, feeble, attenuated, sick, his countenance all withered into wrinkles; only his eyes, "glittering like two carbuncles," showing the quality of the man. Seeing them enter, he feebly raised himself from his pillow, and repeated several lines from Thomson's Ode to Liberty; a poet that had sprung into celebrity during Voltaire's residence in England fifty years before:

                        "Lo! swarming southward on rejoicing suns,

            Gay Colonies extend, the calm retreat

            Of undeserv'd Distress, the better home

            Of those whom bigots chase from foreign lands:

            Not built on rapine, servitude, and woe,

            And in their turn some petty tyrant's prey;

            But, bound by social Freedom, firm they rise.''

            He then began to converse with Dr. Franklin in English; when his niece, Madame Denis, begged them to speak in French, in order that she and others present might understand what was said, "I beg your pardon," said the polite and spirited old man; "I have, for a moment, yielded to the vanity of showing that I can speak in the language of a Franklin." Dr. Franklin presenting his grandson, Voltaire lifted his arms over the head of the young man, and said to him: "My child, God and Liberty! Recollect those two words." After a short interview, for the old man could not bear a long one, the envoys withdrew, deeply impressed with the language and demeanor of the dying genius.

            Voltaire himself wrote, a few days after: "When I gave my benediction to the grandson of the sage and illustrious Franklin, the most respectable man of America, I uttered only these words, God and Liberty! All who were present shed tears."

            But this was not the only scene between Franklin and Voltaire. Another occurred, April 29th, in the presence of a concourse of "philosophers" at a session of the Academy of Sciences. The meeting was attended by Voltaire and Franklin, who sat near each other on the platform in full view of the audience. At a pause in the proceedings, a confused cry arose, in which could be distinguished the names of the two favorites, and which was interpreted to mean that they should be introduced. This was done. They rose, bowed, and spoke to one another. But the clamor did not subside; the people were evidently dissatisfied; something more must be done. They shook hands. Even this was not enough. At length, the words of the clamor were distinguished: "Il faut s’embrasser, à la Françoise;" "you must embrace, French fashion." Then, says John Adams, who witnessed the spectacle, "the two aged actors upon this great theatre of philosophy and frivolity, embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms, and kissing each other's cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the cry immediately spread through the whole kingdom, and, I suppose, over all Europe, 'How charming it was to see Solon and Sophocles embrace?'" (2)

            Another month, and Voltaire lay dead, his brilliant eyes quenched at last, and his friends seeking surreptitious burial for him in consecrated ground. It was at this time that Beaumarchais, a true disciple of Voltaire, conceived the idea of publishing a complete edition of his master's works, upon which he squandered many millions of francs; for the edition was in eighty-one volumes, and he only sold two thousand sets out of fifteen thousand printed. Truly our friend must have been in a good way of business to indulge in such luxuries as this, and yet build a great mansion, keep three coachmen, and give away the profits of Figaro, the most successful comedy of the time.

            Another Scene. — General Washington's camp at Valley Forge, May 6th. The long winter is over; the thrilling news of the alliance has come to greet the opening May; and this is the day named by the General-in-chief for the celebration of the great event in camp. At nine in the morning, the whole army was drawn up without arms in brigades, each brigade on its own parade ground. The brigade chaplains, according to the programme issued the day before by the General, then mounted their rostrums, and read to the troops the outline of the news and the leading articles of the treaty of alliance, as published by order of Congress in the Pennsylvania Gazette. (3) Prayers and thanksgivings followed; after which each chaplain delivered a patriotic discourse, with such eloquence as nature had bestowed upon him, and the men were then dismissed. At half-past ten a cannon summoned the troops again, armed, and in their best uniforms, to their several parade grounds, where they were inspected, and drawn up in marching order. At half-past eleven, at the sound of the second cannon, the brigades began their march to the review ground, and, in an instant, the scene became animated and picturesque in the highest degree — the whole plain covered with moving coils and lines of troops, their arms glittering in the bright May sun, colors flying, mounted officers in gay if not splendid uniforms, prancing at the head of each column. "I can convey," wrote an eye-witness, "no adequate idea of their movements to their several posts — of the appearance of His Excellency during his circuit round the lines — of the air of our soldiers — the cleanliness of their dress — the brilliancy and good order of their arms, and the remarkable animation with which they performed the necessary salute as the General passed along. Indeed, during the whole of the review, the utmost military decorum was preserved, while at the same time one might observe the hearts of the soldiery struggling to express their feelings in a way more agreeable to nature."

            The review over, General Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, Lord Stirling, General Greene, and the officers of their staffs, retired to the center of the field to witness the feu de joie, which was conducted with strictest decorum. First, there was a salute of thirteen cannon; then a running fire of musketry, that flashed and rolled from right to left, and then back again from left to right. Then, one cannon as a signal; upon hearing which, the whole array, in unison, cried "Huzza! Long live the King op France! "Again thirteen cannon; again the running fire of musketry, from right to left, and from left to right. Then, at the sound of the signal gun, a second shout, "Huzza! Long live the friendly European Powers!" A third salute of thirteen guns, another fire of musketry, another signal gun, and the troops cry "Huzza for the American States!" The men then marched back to their camps, and the officers advanced to the entertainment provided for them by the General-in-chief, of which our eye-witness gives a pleasing account:

            "Some of the ancients," he remarks, "were not more attached to their mystical figures than many of the moderns. We of America have our number thirteen. The officers approached the place of entertainment in different columns, thirteen abreast, and closely linked together in each other's arms. The appearance was pretty enough. The number of officers composing each line signified the Thirteen American States; and the interweaving of arms a complete union and most perfect confederation. The amphitheater looked elegant. The outer seats for the officers were covered with tent canvas stretched out upon poles; and the tables in the center shaded by elegant markees, raised high, and arranged in a very striking and agreeable style. An excellent band of music attended during the entertainment; but the feast was still more animating by the discourse and behavior of His Excellency to the officers, and the gentlemen in the country (many of them our old Philadelphia acquaintances) who were present on this occasion. Mrs. Washington, the Countess of Stirling, Lady Kitty, her daughter, Mrs. Greene, and a number of other ladies, favored the feast with their company, amongst whom good humor and the graces were contending for the pre-eminence. The wine circulated in the most genial manner — to the King of France — the friendly European powers — the American States — the Honorable Congress, and other toasts of a similar nature, descriptive of the spirit of freemen. About six o'clock in the evening the company broke up, and His Excellency returned to head-quarters. The French gentlemen of rank and distinction seemed peculiarly pleased with this public approbation of our alliance with their nation. The General himself wore a countenance of uncommon delight and complacence." (4)

            And yet another scene. — August 6th. In Congress. This was the day named for the reception by Congress of M. Gerard, who had arrived some weeks before. The reception was conducted with the same rigorous, exact, and yet affecting decorum, which marked the military celebration just described. Divine Decorum! how pleasant to read these old narratives in these days of slang and expectoration. In the well-known chamber of the State House at Philadelphia, Congress was arranged in a large semicircle within the bar. At one extremity of the semicircle was a platform, raised two steps, for the President, and at the other extremity a chair for the Embassador on the floor. The space below the bar was filled by two hundred of the principal gentlemen of the State, among whom were the chief officers of the State Government, a number of French gentlemen, and several officers of the army. At the appointed hour, we are told —

            "In pursuance of the ceremonial established by Congress, the Hon. Richard Henry Lee, Esq., and the Hon. Samuel Adams, Esq., in a coach and six provided by Congress, waited upon the minister at his house. In a few minutes the minister and the two delegates entered the coach, Mr. Lee placing himself at the minister's left hand on the back seat, Mr. Adams occupying the front seat; the minister's chariot, being behind, received his secretary. The carriages being arrived at the state-house, the two members of Congress, placing themselves at the minister's left hand, a little before one o'clock, introduced him to his chair in the Congress chamber, the President and Congress sitting. The minister being seated, he gave his credentials into the hands of his secretary, who advanced and delivered them to the President. The secretary of Congress then read and translated them; which being done, Mr. Lee announced the minister to the President and Congress. At this time the President, the Congress, and the minister rose together; he bowed to the President and the Congress — they bowed to him; whereupon, the whole seated themselves. In a moment the minister rose and made a speech to Congress, they sitting. The speech being finished, the minister sat down, and giving a copy of his speech to his secretary, he presented it to the President. The President and the Congress then rose, and the President announced their answer to the speech, the minister standing. The answer being ended, the whole were again seated, and the President, giving a copy of the answer to the secretary of Congress, he presented it to the minister. The President, the Congress, and the minister then again rose together: the minister bowed to the President, who returned the salute, and then to the Congress, who also bowed in return; and the minister having bowed to the President, and received his bow, he withdrew, and was attended home in the same manner in which he had been conducted to the audience."

            After the audience, the members and the minister met at a banquet provided by Congress for his entertainment, which was "conducted with a decorum suited to the occasion, and gave perfect satisfaction to the whole company." We may justly boast, I think, that the Congress of rustic America received the first plenipotentiary ever accredited to them in a style not less becoming than that in which their own envoys were received at the court which was supposed to be the politest in Europe.




1. One of the New York tory newspapers of the time gave this account of the presentation: "When Dr. Franklin and Silas Deane were introduced to the French King in the quality of embassadors from North America, they went in elegant coaches, attended by domestics in superb French liveries, with a suite. On their entrance into the court-yard, martial music struck up, the soldiers were under arms, and the French flag was lowered as a solemn salute, which all the officers accompanied. In the inner part of the palace they were received by les cent Suisses, the major of which announced ‘Les ambassadeurs des trieze provinces uníes, i.e., The ambassadors from the 'Thirteen United Provinces.' When they were ushered into the royal presence, the college of Paris, the bishops, the nobility, ministers, foreign and domestic, and ladies a rose and saluted them. Old Franklin was observed to weep, but the Count de Vergennes relieved the confusion of the philosopher, by waiving certain forms, and immediately presenting him to the king, who, à l’Anglaise, took the embassador by the hand, and viewing his credentials, entered directly into conversation." — New York Journal. July 6, 1778.

2. "Life and Works of John Adams," iii., 147.

3. The tories affected to disbelieve the alliance. Rivington, in his New York Gazette, said: "This may be looked upon as the masterpiece, or keystone of the arch that supports that system of lies with which the good people of America have been gulled and deceived; but the foundation is rotten, and the whole fabric must soon fall to the ground. Franklin knew this, and makes use of the last effort to support his own consequence. But the deception is too gross, too palpable almost for the Congress itself. They have only ventured to publish in an indirect manner, three of the most conspicuous articles, by which, supposing them to be really genuine, France engages to do nothing."

            The Pennsylvania Ledger commented thus: "Of this extraordinary publication, we doubt not but our readers will think as we do — that we have good reason to suspect it is, what many former publications from the same quarter certainly have been, a seasonable piece of misrepresentation. There is an art, well known by these adepts, of mixing truth and falsehood, or of conveying falsehood in the vehicle of truth."

4. New York Journal, May, 1778.


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