Franklin in Paris   

Detail from Description des expériences de la machine aérostatique de MM. de Montgolfier

Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis

Le  voilà, ce mortel dont l’heureuse industrie
Sut enchaîner la foudre et lui donner des lois.
Dont la sagesse active et l’eloquente voix
D’un pouvoir oppresseur affranchit sa patrie,
Qui désarma les Dieux, qui réprima les Rois.

 

He wrested the lightning from the skies, the
    sceptre from tyrants
.

Here he is, this mortal whose happy industry
Knew how to shackle thunder and give it laws.
Whose quick wisdom and eloquent voice
Frees his country of an oppressive power,
Who disarmed Gods, who rebuked Kings.

                — Anne Robert Jacques Turgot

 

In the early years of the revolutionary war, the colonists fighting the British in North America deployed a secret weapon, a unique and cherished national treasure: Benjamin Franklin.  Dispatched to Paris, first as one of five commissioners to the court of Louis XVI and then alone as minister to France, Franklin undertook an audacious mission, a diplomatic balancing act in which an avowed revolutionary sought support for defying a European sovereign from a fellow European sovereign. 

Already 70 years old when he went to France in 1776, Franklin came armed only with his formidable wit, international scientific reputation, and steely patience.  Franklin’s scientific reputation was the equal of Isaac Newton’s, with the advantage that Franklin’s work was intelligible to the average reader.  His Experiments and Observations on Electricity, some of which originally appeared as letters in the Transactions of the Royal Society, was published in five English editions, 1751-54, 1754, 1760-65, 1769, and 1774.  It was translated into French in 1752, and then in a second, enlarged edition in 1756 (on display here), and reprinted in Franklin’s Œuvres shortly before the American Revolution in 1773.  Franklin had been elected to the Royal Society in 1756, and in 1772 received the much greater honor of being elected one of eight associés étrangers (foreign members) of Académie Royales des Sciences in Paris.

He cut a distinctive figure in the French court, eschewing wigs and covering his bald head with a consciously affected frontiersman’s fur cap.  In addition to representing his government’s interests, Franklin represented science in the French capital, witnessing the Montgolfier brothers’ pioneering balloon flight, and sitting on a royal commission charged with investigating the claims of Mesmer’s animal magnetism.

He succeeded wildly for the American cause.  The revolutionaries asked for—and received—20,000 muskets, 40,000 uniforms (and cloth for 40,000 more), 80,000 blankets, 100,000 pairs of stockings, 1 million flints, and 200 tons of lead to make bullets and cannonballs, field artillery, gunpowder, and, eventually, direct military assistance.  It was through Franklin’s intercession, that France played its essential role in the foundation of American democracy.