Thursday, June 28, 2018

Romancing France

America’s alliance with France during the Revolution was a decisive factor in defeating Britain. But as is normal in the relations of nations, treaties are not so easily formed, and a whole lot of maneuvering, arm-twisting, romancing, and sleight of hand went on behind the scenes to get France on board. Today I’m going to take a brief look at the American commissioners delegated by Congress to manage the process, beginning with the first man on the ground.

Silas Deane by William Johnston
Silas Deane was born in Groton, Connecticut, on January 4, 1738. He was a lawyer, a prosperous merchant, and a delegate to the Continental Congress. On March 2, 1776, Congress appointed him as a secret envoy to France, and as soon as he arrived in Paris he began negotiating with French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes for financial aid and unofficial shipments of arms and munitions. His position became official when Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee arrived in Paris with congressional orders appointing the three of them as the diplomatic delegation to France.

A month after the Treaties of Amity and Commerce and of Alliance between France and America were signed on February 6, 1778, Deane received a letter from Congress recalling him. He arrived in Philadelphia to discover to his shock that reports by Arthur accused him of financial improprieties even though both Vergennes and Franklin had written letters commending him. After a long and bitter dispute over the charges, Deane was allowed to return to Paris in 1780 to settle his affairs only to discover that he was almost ruined financially because his investments had plummeted in value and ships carrying his merchandise had been captured by the British.

Even worse, the British intercepted letters in which Deane described America’s military situation as hopeless and suggested negotiating with Britain. Nicely, they forwarded them to General Clinton in New York City. The general in turn gave copies to a loyalist newspaper publisher, James Rivington, who shared them in his Royal Gazette. The result was that Deane was labeled a traitor by his fellow countrymen. Sometimes you just can’t win!

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778
Benjamin Franklin was the chief American commissioner. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1706, he was one of seventeen children born to Josiah Franklin, and one of ten borne by Josiah’s second wife, Abiah Folger. Over the course of his life he founded many civic organizations and became an author, printer, politician, scientist, inventor, philosopher, postmaster, and diplomat, among other things—in addition to being one of our Founding Fathers. One might say he was an overachiever. Just thinking about his accomplishments makes me tired!

Franklin lived in London for many years serving as an agent for several colonies in addition to his scientific and philosophical endeavors. In December 1776, when he was 70 years old, Congress appointed him as one of three commissioners along with Deane and Lee and sent him to France. While living in Paris, he always wore a bearskin hat and dressed in plain clothing rather than the expected elaborate court dress, a habit that contributed largely to his reputation as the premier republican from America. Since he was well known among the French philosophes for his scientific discoveries, he was welcomed with great enthusiasm, especially by the ladies, who universally adored him. Consequently he was a prime mover in securing the alliance with France in 1778 in spite of the fact that his habit of staying up late schmoozing with the French movers and shakers (and especially the ladies), and then getting up late in the day. This frustrated to no end John Adams, who rose promptly at 5 a.m. to get to work. The commission was finally dissolved in September 1778, when Congress appointed Franklin as minister plenipotentiary to France, a position he held until he negotiated the Treaty of Paris in 1783 along with John Adams, John Jay, and Henry Laurens, which formally ended the war.

Arthur Lee
Arthur Lee was born in Virginia in December 1740, the youngest of four notable brothers that included Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, and William Lee. He was educated in medicine and law at Edinburgh and London and for several years practiced law in London, where he met Benjamin Franklin. He was critical of Franklin’s extravagant lifestyle, which was not auspicious for their relations when Congress sent him to Paris to work with Franklin as one of the commissioners. Lee didn’t get along with Deane either. In fact, he didn’t get along with most people. He was naturally suspicious of everyone and by all accounts was not liked or trusted by French officials, which, as you can imagine, didn’t help in negotiating with them. Franklin could hardly be civil to him, and John Adams was hard put to keep peace between the two men so the commission could actually accomplish its work. Although Lee persuaded Congress to recall Deane for financial irregularities, he was also recalled soon thereafter.

Interestingly, Lee was one of America’s first spies. He gathered information in France and Britain and also accused Edward Bancroft, who functioned as secretary to the commission, of being a British spy. More on him in my next month’s post. He was indeed a spy—a double agent, in fact—but unfortunately the other commissioners didn’t believe him, probably because they disliked him. As a result Bancroft continued his nefarious activities undiscovered to the end of the war. It was many years later after he and his colleagues had passed away before he was exposed.

John Adams by John Trumbull, 1792
John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts, the oldest of 3 sons of John Adams Sr. and Susanna Boylston. He’s also one of our Founding Father and served as the He was a lawyer, diplomat, politician, one of our Founding Fathers, the first vice president under George Washington, and the second president of the United States.

When Deane was recalled, Adams was named to replace him. He arrived in Paris in April 1778 only to learn that the alliance with France had been concluded in February. He found it frustrating to work with his fellow commissioners. He thought Lee paranoid and cynical and considered Franklin to be irritating, lazy, and overly accommodating to the French. He also distrusted and disliked Bancroft, though he didn’t believe Lee’s accusation that he was a British spy. In spite of not speaking French when he first arrived, Adams worked hard to impose order where it was lacking in the delegation’s finances and record keeping and soon became the commission’s administrator.

In September 1778 Congress named Franklin minister plenipotentiary to France. They sent Lee to serve in Spain, but left Adams hanging with no instructions. Feeling that he’d been slighted, Adams left France the following March. He returned in 1782 as a member of the American delegation negotiating the peace treaty with Great Britain.

We tend to idealize important figures in history like our Founding Fathers and the other heroes of the American Revolution, so it’s kind of gratifying to find out that they were very, very human, just like the rest of us. Undoubtedly it was a really fun assignment to work with this group of brilliant, but eccentric diplomats—or not so much.