Saturday, March 29, 2008

John Adams on Ben Franklin - French Fried

HBO brought to life the pageantry and showiness of 18th Century France, with all its pomp and formalities. A far cry from the brash nature of John Adams and his more simple life from Braintree, Massachusetts. Suffice it to say, Adams was out of place in Paris. He himself said that he was unsuitably "accoutered" to be in the company of such opulence.

Sent to France, with Benjamin Franklin, to present to Louis XVI a proposition of a treaty to defeat the British together, Adams often felt as if he was alone in this endeavor.

"The longer I live in Europe and the more I consider our affairs, the more important our alliance with France appears to me", Adams wrote in his diary. Though upon his arrival, as alluded to in HBO's series, to his astonishment France and the United States had already formed an alliance. It was after the victory at Saratoga that France agreed that this fight was winnable and agreed that...

"If War should break out between France and Great Britain, during the continuance of the present War between the United States and England, his Majesty and the said united States, shall make it a common cause, and aid each other mutually with their good Offices, their Counsels, and their forces, according to the exigence of Conjunctures as becomes good & faithful Allies"
By the way... exigence means: the condition of being in need of immediate assistance. I had no idea what it meant, and had to look it up myself.

(here is the full text of the agreement:

This agreement was signed February 6, 1778, before Adams even left the shores Boston. Word travels slow across the ocean, which caused a communication problem during Adams' entire tenure. It was nearly impossible to stay abreast on the war at home and word from congress, forcing Adams and Franklin to make uninformed decisions.

From David McCullough's book John AdamsJohn Adams by David McCullough:

"There was no news from Congress, no news of the war at home, which was a formidable a problem as any. Dispatches from Philadelphia that evaded capture at sea took at least six weeks to reach Paris under ideal sailing conditions. The great distance separating America from Europe, the inevitable long delay in any communications with Congress, or worse, the complete lack of communication for months at a stretch, would plaque both Franklin and Adams their whole time in Europe, and put them at a decided disadvantage in dealing with European ministers, who maintained far closer, more efficient contact."
Thus, an answer from an inquiry sent from Franklin, Adams or Arthur Lee (brother of Virginia's great Richard Henry Lee) the third commissioner sent by Congress, could take 6 months.

Arthur Lee's presence added to the burden Adams felt in completing his mission. Lee, he believed, was unqualified for the post and added to the aggravation of the situation because of he was distrusted and disliked by the French. Additionally, Lee had learned to dislike Franklin during his days in London, and found it difficult to serve under Franklin, refusing to share quarters with him as well.

Adams, an advocate of efficiency and order, believed that the presence of he and Lee were gratuitous and that Franklin, and his good standing relationship with the French would suffice for America's cause.

Thinking his attendance unnecessary and feeling out of place, Adams was frustrated with the entire situation and expressed his feelings in a letter to his cousin, Samuel Adams:

"Between you and me, I have a difficult task. I am between two gentlemen of opposite tempers. The one may be too easy and good natured upon some occasions, the other too rigid and severe upon some occasions. The one may perhaps overlook an instance of roguery, from inadvertence and too much confidence. The other may mistake an instance of integrity for its opposite... Yet both may be and I believe are honest men, and devoted friends to their country. But this is an ugly situation for me who does not abound in philosophy and who cannot and will not trim. The consequence of it may very probably be that I may have the entire confidence of neither. Yet I have hitherto lived in friendship with both."

What Adams is referring to is the fact that Lee believed everybody was a spy, and Franklin, on the other hand, ignorantly gave information for many years to Dr. Edward Bancroft, a New England physician who was commissioned by the Crown for 500 pounds/year. Franklin befriended Bancroft, and according to Adams, out of pure laziness left too many decisions to Bancroft and Jacques Donatien Le Ray, the Comte de Chaumont. Chaumont was a wealthy Government contractor, who allowed Adams and Franklin to stay at his gracious garden estate. It was about one hour's ride to the King at Versailles.

Ben Franklin playing the part of rustic, Pennsylvania backwoods quaker to the amusement of FranceFranklin's aloofness furthered the tension between he and Adams. Though what Franklin lacked in awareness, he made up for with his respect from the French people.
Franklin was kind of a celebrity, and was loved by the French for his American rusticness. Franklin took his diplomatic duties seriously and exaggerated his homespun image by wearing a fur hat (seen left) and simply allowing his hair to grow long, and not opting for a powdered wig, which was the acceptable fashion at the time.

The French viewed Franklin as an inventive scientist from the backwoods of Pennsylvania often mistaken for being a Quaker. And because it made him more likable, he did nothing to reveal the truth.

Franklin was indeed the perfect diplomat to France. He was well liked and was able to frolic amongst the fancily-clad French, and considering his intelligence, his support of independence and assuming proper orders from Congress, could have done the job himself. Adams on the other hand, didn't fit in and was forced to assimilate to the French culture before becoming comfortable in his role. This is why Adams felt his services were not needed and would have rather fought for the Continental Army.
It was here that Adams' thoughts on Franklin began to change. I'll save his opinions for another post.

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Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to when the HBO series on John Adams will be released on DVD. Alas, no premium cable at my house. Great piece here. I've just found your site c/o History and Education: Past and Present. Glad I did.

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