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A delightfully intricate chronicle of the American plenipotentiaries who, willingly or not, lost their innocence at the courts of Europe before and during the War of Independence. Underpaid but gouty, the representatives of the increasingly rebellious colonies matter-of-factly combined matters of state with private business, especially since both involved the pre-war quest for land titles. Consummate master of the diplomatic byways of London and Paris was Benjamin Franklin, whose popularity so aggrieved Louis XVI of France that he had Franklin's portrait enameled on a chamberpot. But the Franco-American alliance not only alarmed the British, it put the indebted Americans on the ""leash"" of Gallic supervision of their diplomatic efforts, and aggravated potential fights among them. The Lees of Virginia thought Silas Deane too pro-French and Franklin too conservative, while John Adams, cross at the difficulty of extracting loans from prudent Dutch bankers, mistrusted Franklin's cosmopolitanism and feared that American diplomacy had become ""a rope of sand."" The most virginal envoys were John Jay in Spain, who ""spoke for a rising middle class of a quasi nation with excellent prospects, but had to beg for alms at the palace gates,"" and his counterpart Francis Dana, at the Russian court--which returned a protrait of Washington addressed to Dana because no one knew the American envoy's name. Smirking at it all was the ineffable Edward Bancroft, trusted as a patriot in exile by every American faction, who turned out in 1790 to have been a British agent. Bendiner has repeated the success he had in his anatomy of the League of Nations, A Time for Angels (1975), making diplomacy and its context fresh and real; if the characters remain more diminutive than in other Bicentennial portraits, we see sharp new facets of each one.

Pub Date: Oct. 13th, 1976
Publisher: Knopf