Kirkus Reviews QR Code
A GREAT IMPROVISATION by Stacy Schiff

A GREAT IMPROVISATION

Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

By Stacy Schiff

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2005
ISBN: 0-8050-6633-0
Publisher: Henry Holt

Here’s breaking news for the Francophobic freedom-fries set: without France, there would have been no United States.

“The majority of the guns fired on the British at Saratoga were French,” writes ace biographer/historian Schiff (Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov], 1999; Saint-Exupéry, 1994). “Four years later, when the British set down their muskets at Yorktown, they surrendered to forces that were nearly equal parts French and American, all of them fed and clothed and paid by France, and protected by de Grasse’s fleet.” Moreover, she adds, the French came up with the equivalent of $9 billion to secure American independence. But without Benjamin Franklin, Schiff argues, France likely would not have come to the aid of the fledgling republic. It was not only that Franklin, who a few years before had been an ardent royalist, presented the American cause as an ideal way for France to play knavish tricks on Britain, but also that Franklin was not Silas Deane. The latter, a staid Connecticut businessman, was Congress’s representative in Paris, having arrived there just three days after the Declaration of Independence was promulgated; his duties also involved espionage, but Deane was an unable spy. Moreover, he was a bumpkin compared to the British ambassador, who had a grand time announcing every American defeat to the court at Versailles. Franklin’s reputation as a sophisticate and man of letters and science preceded him, and he found himself welcome and even lionized. His steady lobbying soon brought material aid to the much-suffering rebels, though the French and Americans forged a partnership “founded on various illusions about the past and a general misunderstanding of the future”; the professional French military scorned the American militia as mere rabble, and the French in general felt that the Americans showed too little gratitude to them for their help. Which evens the score, one supposes, for subsequent American complaints that the French have been insufficiently grateful for our help. . . .

A lively, well-written, and most timely study of diplomacy in action.