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‘We were going down fast’: how Benjamin Franklin saved America
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‘We were going down fast’: how Benjamin Franklin saved America

“A long life has taught me that diplomacy must never be a siege but a seduction,” says Michael Douglas’s Benjamin Franklin, raising a wine glass in a world of candlelit tables, baroque music and powdered wigs. “Think of America as a courted virgin. One that does not solicit favours but grants them. And nothing speaks to romance quite as loudly as a dowry worth half a hemisphere.”

This is the first episode of Franklin, now streaming on Apple TV+, which tells the story of author, printer, postmaster, scientist, statesman and all-round Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin’s late-life secret mission to France, aimed at persuading the country to help America win the Revolutionary war and gain independence from Britain.

The eight-part limited series is achingly sumptuous and splashily cast: Douglas, 79, is best known for roles including Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, Andrew Shepherd in The American President, Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction and Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. “Ben Franklin was as charismatic as he was complicated,” says Stacy Schiff, author of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, on which the series is based. “I’ve no idea how Michael did it, but in scene after scene he drives both points quietly home.

“He seems to be able to speak a paragraph with the arch of an eyebrow. He spouts Franklin’s lines, channels his mannerisms, prints his pages, raises his grandson – all without recourse to a Ben Franklin makeover. I will admit that it’s startling, even a bit eerie, to hear him speaking lines of Franklin’s that I know to have slept in foreign archives for over 200 years and that have not been spoken aloud since.”

Douglas’s father was a Hollywood titan; Franklin’s was a candle and soap maker from England who married twice and had 17 children. Born in Boston, Franklin left school aged 10 and began an apprenticeship in his brother’s print shop at 12. He ran away at 17, had a spell in London then set up a print shop in Philadelphia and began to publish the Pennsylvania Gazette.

Franklin was a man of many talents. He helped establish Philadelphia’s first public library, police force and volunteer firefighting company and an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania. He became postmaster of Philadelphia and served as a clerk of the Pennsylvania legislature.

Franklin began researching electricity in 1748 and, in an experiment, flew a kite in a thunderstorm to prove that lightning is an electrical discharge. He came up with inventions including bifocals, the medical catheter, the odometer and the Franklin stove, a wood-burning stove that made home heating safer. For nearly a decade Franklin represented Pennsylvania in London, where he testified before the British parliament about the colony’s hatred for the Stamp Act.

He returned to America as the American Revolution drew near and was a delegate at the Continental Congress. He helped draft the Declaration of Independence and signed the final document. At the same time Franklin’s illegitimate son, William Franklin, emerged as a leader of the British loyalists (he was exiled to England in 1782 for his political views).

In 1776 Congress dispatched Franklin to France to secure recognition of the new United States. But it was a gamble. Why send a 70-year-old with no prior diplomatic experience who could be hanged as a traitor if caught by the British? In an email interview, Schiff, who lives in New York, explains: “Already Franklin had crossed the ocean seven times; he had more experience of the world beyond American shores than any other congressional delegate.

“He was dimly understood to speak French. He was a masterful negotiator and – as the only thing the colonies had by way of a senior statesman – the unanimous choice of Congress. The obvious candidate on one side of the the ocean turned out to be the ideal one on the other; Congress had no idea they were sending a sort of walking Statue of Liberty to France, where Franklin was already a celebrity, for his scientific work.”

 a black and white painting of a man with curly white hair sitting at a desk in a vest and coatView image in fullscreen

After a 38-day voyage across the Atlantic, Franklin – who brought two grandsons, 16-year-old William Temple Franklin and seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin Bache – was warmly greeted as the most famous American in the world. Schiff adds: “He seemed to the French to have walked out of the pages of Rousseau; he was hailed as the man who had tamed the lightning. Mobbed on his arrival, he soon saw his portrait reproduced on walking sticks and wallpaper. The callers were continuous; he came to dread, as he put it, the sound of every carriage in his courtyard.”

With New York having just fallen to the British army, Franklin threw himself into the all-important effort to secure French support for the American cause. Charming and witty, and trading on his novelty value as an “American”, he cultivated relationships with King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and the French minister of foreign affairs, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. The TV dramatisation finds Douglas’s Franklin outfoxing British spies, French informers and hostile colleagues.

Schiff reflects: “Franklin considered his eight and a half years in France the most critical – and the most taxing – assignment of his life. At the same time it’s the chapter of his life about which we know the least, partly because it takes place abroad, partly because it takes place in a foreign language, partly because the documentation for the Paris years is difficult to access.

“I wanted to know how Franklin had pulled off a feat of statecraft that made the Revolution possible – and what that errand told us about Ben Franklin. Sometimes you can see a biographical subject best when he is out of context, stumbling about in a language not his own. This chapter felt a little like Franklin laid bare. He was after all on what sounded like a fool’s errand: it was his job to convince an absolute monarch to help found a republic.”

Diplomats and historians still regard it as the greatest single tour of duty by an ambassador in American history. Franklin pushed a reliable button: French hatred for the British. He could also point to some battlefield successes to convince them that America had a decent chance of winning.

After two years, he secured two treaties that included political recognition for the United States. The French government provided military assistance, including troops, naval support and supplies. The support was vital to the pivotal triumph of the Continental Army at Yorktown in 1781. Without French aid, the American Revolution would probably have failed; with it, the British were defeated.

Douglas told the New York Times last week: “I did not realize to what degree, if it was not for France, we would not have had a free America. It would have been a colony, absolutely. We were going down fast.”

Michael Douglas and Noah Jupe in FranklinView image in fullscreen

Outside the White House today is Lafayette Park, where a the bronze statue is thought to portray the Marquis de Lafayette petitioning the French national assembly for help for the Americans in the fight for independence. Whenever a French president visits the White House today, the US president invariably refers to “our oldest ally”.

Schiff reflects: “The war could not have been fought without the arms, money and munitions that Franklin winkled out of the French government, both before and after the 1778 alliance. At the time of Franklin’s arrival in France Washington’s army had something like five rounds of powder to a man.

“The world wondered, Franklin wrote, why the Americans never fired a cannon. The reason was that they could not afford to do so. Independence rested squarely on the assistance, and the alliance, that he engineered abroad.”

With John Jay and John Adams, Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris with Britain, confirming its acceptance of a “free, sovereign and independent” United States, which was signed in 1783.

But Schiff adds: “For the posting Franklin received no syllable of gratitude. Once the peace had been signed it was preferable to think that American independence had been won by America; the foreign assist was largely written out of the picture, Franklin’s French mission with it.”

Franklin, who died in 1790 aged 84, does at least enjoy recognition today in books, museums, a recent Ken Burns documentary and now the Apple TV+ series directed by Tim Van Patten (Masters of the Air, The Sopranos). There is also a statue of him in front of the Old Post Office on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of what used to be the Trump International hotel.

Indeed, in an era when American democracy seems unduly fragile, politicians and commentators are fond of recalling the story that, when exiting the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created. He replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

So what would Franklin make of Donald Trump and the divisions in America today? Schiff says: “Party politics would have horrified all of the founders. Franklin believed especially fervently in selfless public service. ‘The less the profit,’ as he put it, ‘the greater the honor.’ Enough said.”

  • Franklin is now showing on Apple TV+

Source: theguardian.com