A great improvisation Franklin, France, and the birth of America

Stacy Schiff

Book - 2005

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Subjects
Published
New York : Henry Holt 2005.
Language
English
Main Author
Stacy Schiff (-)
Edition
1st ed
Physical Description
xvii, 489 p., [8] p. of plates
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN
9780805066333
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Benjamin Franklin, often regarded as a supreme expression of the innovative and dynamic spirit of the New World, actually spent a large chunk of his later life in Europe. First he served as the agent and liaison with Parliament for several colonies in London. Then from 1776 to 1783 he represented the rebellious American colonies in France, where he successfully forged an alliance that engendered American independence. Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has recounted Franklin's diplomatic efforts in a brilliant, absorbing, and frequently funny book. Franklin, who was 70 years old and spoke minimal French when his mission began, is revealed here as manipulative, occasionally devious, but consistently dedicated to the cause of American liberty. His task was formidable, since he had to overcome the reluctance of French monarchists to support a republican revolution. Even those French eager to bloody the British nose doubted the viability of the American military effort. Franklin also had to fight a rear-guard action against rivals on the American diplomatic team. Yet, as Schiff illustrates, Franklin marshaled his immense personal charm and his intuitive political skills to navigate treacherous waters again and again. This is an outstanding chronicle of an American icon peforming perhaps his greatest service to his country. --Jay Freeman Copyright 2005 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Numerous bestselling volumes have been written recently on the man one biography called "the first American." Pulitzer Prize-winner Schiff (for Vera [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]) eloquently adds to our understanding of Benjamin Franklin with a graceful, sly and smart look at his seven-year sojourn in France in his quasi-secret quest to secure American independence by procuring an alliance with the French. Drawing on newly available sources, Schiff brilliantly chronicles the international intrigues and the political backbiting that surrounded Franklin during his mission. "A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray," she writes, "Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." She deftly recreates the glittering and gossipy late 18th-century Paris in which Franklin moved, and she brings to life such enigmatic French leaders as Jacques-Donatien Chaumont, Franklin's closest adviser and chief supplier of American aid, and Charles Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, who helped Franklin write the French-American Alliance of 1778. Franklin also negotiated the peace of 1783 that led not only to the independence of the colonies from Britain but also to a bond between France and America that, Schiff says, lasted until WWII. Schiff's sure-handed historical research and her majestic prose offer glimpses into a little-explored chapter of Franklin's life and American history. Agent, Lois Wallace. (Apr. 2) Forecast: This should receive excellent review coverage, which will boost sales, and perhaps the blurb from Joseph Ellis will help. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Schiff (Vera [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]) presents a highly detailed narrative of eight years in the life of Benjamin Franklin. In December 1776 he landed on French soil from a small boat and for several years negotiated loans and gifts and understandings with France that probably saved the fledgling United States from defeat by its British overlords. He was 70 years old at the time, his French was clumsy at best, and he was one of the most widely known men in the world from his scientific explorations and popular writings. Franklin, with no diplomatic training though he had served the United States in England, pulled off remarkable coups, e.g., obtaining the Franco-American Alliance of 1778 and the peace treaty of 1783. Schiff brings out singular details of those years: agonizing physical problems (psoriasis, kidney/bladder stones, and gout) and intricate relationships with John Jay and John Adams (cosigners of the treaty), Thomas Jefferson, and John Paul Jones. Franklin's great strength was that he saw the goals clearly and pursued them calmly, logically, and relentlessly. As an audio presentation, this book is ordinary-Susan Denaker is clear and articulates well, but the pacing is pretty much the same throughout, and the overall effect is unexciting. The text, however, is invaluable and belongs in all collections that include American diplomatic history and narratives of the Revolutionary War.-Don Wismer, Cary Memorial Lib., Wayne, ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

From A Great Improvisation : Typically after an ocean crossing Franklin's eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of land; he had just withstood the most brutal voyage of his life. For thirty days he had pitched about violently on the wintry Atlantic, in a cramped cabin and under unremittingly dark skies. He was left with barely the strength to stand, but was to cause a sensation. Even his enemies conceded that he touched down in France like a meteor. Among American arrivals, only Charles Lindbergh could be said to have met with equal rapture, the difference being that Lindbergh was not a celebrity until he landed in Paris. At the time he set foot on French soil Benjamin Franklin was among the most famous men in the world. It was his country that was the great unknown. America was six months old; Franklin seventy years her senior. And the fate of that infant republic was, to a significant extent, in his hands. Excerpted from A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America by Stacy Schiff All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.