The First American Diplomat: Benjamin Franklin

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Franklin in the Studio of Houdon. Diplomatic Reception Rooms

Benjamin Franklin, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was celebrated for the many roles he played in life. Before he was one of America’s Founding Fathers, he was a printer, the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, and an accomplished scientist admired for drawing electricity from the skies. Franklin might have looked forward to a peaceful future had he not lived in extraordinary times.

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Active Chapter Chapter 01/03

From Runaway Apprentice to Patriot

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the fifteenth in a family of seventeen children. His father, candlemaker, insisted that Ben, his last son, learn a trade.

From Runaway Apprentice to Patriot

Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston in 1706, the fifteenth in a family of seventeen children. His father, candlemaker, insisted that Ben, his last son, learn a trade.

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A Critical Alliance

In the fall of 1776 Congress sent Franklin to France as America’s first diplomat. His mission was to win French support in the fight for independence, and his experience in London made him a good choice. He was also highly regarded and much celebrated when he arrived in Paris, for French scientists had studied his electrical experiments. He was invited to join scientific and intellectual circles, all the while charming French society with his plain dress and rustic ways.

A Critical Alliance

In the fall of 1776 Congress sent Franklin to France as America’s first diplomat. His mission was to win French support in the fight for independence, and his experience in London made him a good choice. He was also highly regarded and much celebrated when he arrived in Paris, for French scientists had studied his electrical experiments. He was invited to join scientific and intellectual circles, all the while charming French society with his plain dress and rustic ways.

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Active Chapter Chapter 03/03

The Peace of Paris 1783

Peace Talks & Diplomacy

Between 1775 and 1783, thirteen of Britain’s North American colonies united. The Revolution expanded into a global conflict when France and its ally Spain joined the patriot cause. A major turning point came in 1781. In Yorktown, the British surrendered to allied American and French forces, thus bringing the fighting to a close. In Paris, peace negotiations began.

The Peace of Paris 1783

Peace Talks & Diplomacy

Between 1775 and 1783, thirteen of Britain’s North American colonies united. The Revolution expanded into a global conflict when France and its ally Spain joined the patriot cause. A major turning point came in 1781. In Yorktown, the British surrendered to allied American and French forces, thus bringing the fighting to a close. In Paris, peace negotiations began.

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Chapter 1 - From Runaway Apprentice to Patriot

[My father] sometimes took me to walk with him, and see joiners, bricklayers, turners, braziers, etc., at their work, that he might observe my inclination, and endeavor to fix it on some trade or other on land.

Benjamin Franklin his autobiography

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Franklin A Printer’s Apprentice

For his profession, young Ben chose the printing trade, even though he had completed just two years of schooling. He apprenticed to his older brother, James, who had founded one of the first colonial newspapers, The New-England Courant.

Franklin A Printer’s Apprentice

For his profession, young Ben chose the printing trade, even though he had completed just two years of schooling. He apprenticed to his older brother, James, who had founded one of the first colonial newspapers, The New-England Courant.

I stood out some time, but at last was persuaded, and signed the indentures when I was yet but twelve years old. I was to serve as an apprentice till I was twenty-one years of age.

Benjamin Franklin his autobiography

Ben learned all aspects of the printing trade, including setting the type, inking it, and operating the press. He took over printing The New-England Courant when his brother, James, was jailed for publishing controversial views. At the time printers did not have freedom of the press, and opinion writers often wrote under pen names.

The brothers quarreled, and in 1723 Franklin ran away from his apprenticeship. He arrived in Philadelphia, a bustling port city, and there he practiced the printing trade he had learned. Eventually he and a partner purchased a struggling newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, and made it a great success, read throughout the colonies. In time Franklin also wrote and published Poor Richard’s Almanac, which was immensely popular for its wit and wisdom.

By 1748 Franklin was wealthy enough to turn the printing business over to his partner and devote himself to his scientific experiments with lightning and his inventions. His book Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751) made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In Philadelphia, he entered local politics and was elected to the colonial assembly, but in 1757 Franklin left his home for London. There he represented the colony’s interests to Parliament and the Crown and became a leading voice for other colonies as well.

The movement for American independence gathers strength

Franklin’s rise to prominence coincided with the rise in colonial unrest. Britain had defended its American colonies during the Seven Years War (1754–1763) from the French and their Indian allies, but the victory was costly. Britain was nearly bankrupt. To replenish its treasury, Parliament began to tax the colonies, but these efforts only strengthened the movement for American independence.

This is the first political cartoon in America. In it, Franklin urges Americans to unite in a common defense during the French and Indian War.

The Stamp Act

In 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required the colonists to buy stamps for all printed paper, including legal documents, newspapers, and even playing cards. In London, Franklin delivered a masterful defense of American liberty before the House of Commons and won the hated act’s repeal. But soon other taxes led the colonists to acts of protest and resistance.

Long did I endeavour . . . to preserve from breaking, that fine and noble China Vase the British Empire: for I knew that being once broken, the separate Parts could not retain even their Share of the Strength or Value that existed in the Whole, and that a perfect Re- Union of those Parts could scarce even be hoped for.

Benjamin Franklin to Lord Howe July 20, 1776

From the collection- Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Wilson (British, 1721-1788)

Franklin, the printer, helps draft the Declaration of Independence

Returning to Pennsylvania in 1775, Franklin embraced the American movement for independence. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and in 1776 helped write the Declaration of Independence. The British, once so admiring of Franklin’s diplomacy and scientific knowledge, now denounced him as a leader of the American rebellion and a traitor.

Crossing out Jefferson’s original words “sacred and undeniable,” Franklin wrote simply: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

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Thomas Jefferson’s Rough Draft, Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson’s Rough Draft, Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

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Thomas Jefferson’s Rough Draft, Declaration of Independence

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Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson’s Rough Draft, Declaration of Independence

Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence

Chapter 2 - A Critical Alliance

The pictures, busts, and prints, (of which copies upon copies are spread every where) have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon.

Benjamin Franklin to his daughter, Sally June 3, 1779

I have at the request of friends sat so much and so often to painters and Statuaries, that I am perfectly sick of it. I know of nothing so tedious as sitting Hours in one fix’d Posture.

Benjamin Franklin June 25, 1780

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Franklin in the Arts

Franklin in the Arts

While sympathetic to the American cause, the French did not want to provoke a war with Britain, especially as the patriots had yet to prove themselves. This reluctance changed in 1777, when the Americans won a decisive victory. The next year Franklin signed two treaties that brought France into the Revolutionary War.

Figure Group of King Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin

Attributed to Charles-Gabriel Sauvage and the Niderviller Factory

The sculptor captured the art of diplomacy in this fragile masterpiece made at Niderville, a pottery and porcelain manufactory in northeastern France. Modeled in white porcelain clay, called biscuit, the figure group was left unglazed to produce a fine matte surface imitating marble statuary.

Chapter 3 - The Peace of Paris 1783

The Peace Commissioners

Franklin, then in Paris, was appointed a peace commissioner and instructed by the Continental Congress to negotiate peace terms with Britain. Congress also appointed John Jay and John Adams, American diplomats, who were already serving overseas. They were joined by another diplomat, Henry Laurens, newly released from the Tower of London in a prisoner exchange. William Temple Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, served as secretary.

The Negotiations

John Jay’s insistence that the United States sign a separate treaty with Great Britain, leaving U.S. allies France and Spain to do the same, resulted in terms more favorable than might otherwise have been achieved. That the Americans were able to negotiate a separate peace was surprising. The Franco-American Alliance had, after all, said that neither party would conclude peace with Britain unless the other did as well. Franklin kept the negotiations moving forward.

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin wearing a white shirt with a green jacket and fur trim. In a gold frame with an oval opening
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

 

Nothing has been agreed in the Preliminaries contrary to the Interests of France.

Benjamin Franklin to the French foreign minister December 17, 1782

No Peace is to take Place between us and England till you have concluded yours.

Benjamin Franklin to the French foreign minister December 17, 1782

Why is this painting unfinished?

The American-born artist, Benjamin West, working in London, celebrated the signing of the draft treaty on November 30, 1782 in his painting, the American Commissioners. The British were represented by Richard Oswald and his secretary, Caleb Whitefoord, but Oswald died unexpectedly without leaving a likeness for West to copy. West had painted in the American commissioners, but now he stopped work. Even in its unfinished state, however, the monumental history painting inspired other artists.

The Terms

On the morning of September 3, 1783, Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay signed the Treaty of Paris, as did the British commissioner David Hartley, who replaced Oswald. By the terms of the treaty Britain recognized the United States as a free, independent, and sovereign nation.

The Definitive Treaty was signed the third Instant. We are now Friends with England and with all Mankind. May we never see another War! for in my Opinion there never was a good War, or a bad Peace.

Benjamin Franklin to Josiah Quincy September 11, 1783

Franklin kept his word. That same day, the Treaties of Versailles were signed between Britain and the allied nations, France and Spain. Each was awarded some small territories lost in earlier conflicts.

The Legacy

The United States gained its independence, but for France the American Revolution proved more costly than King Louis XVI of France could have imagined. Five years later, in August 1788, the French royal treasury went bankrupt. The next year King Louis XVI called the traditional assembly, the Estates-General, to deal with the crisis. A revolution swept through France, calling for liberty in a declaration that Thomas Jefferson helped draft. The monarchy collapsed, and in coming years, revolutionary ideals toppled kings and empires. By the twentieth century, the constitutional form of government introduced by the United States had become a model for peoples almost everywhere in the world.

The Revolutionary War might have been lost were it not for a printer from Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin’s negotiating skills as America’s first foreign minister stand as testimony to what diplomacy can achieve.