Benjamin Franklin’s Science
Le Sceptre et la foudre: Franklin à Paris, 1776–1785
Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris
Becoming Benjamin Franklin: The Autobiography and the Life
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volumes 1–14
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volumes 15–26
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 27
The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 28
Benjamin Franklin: His Life As He Wrote It
When Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, a little more than two hundred years ago, the first Congress of the United States under its new Constitution was busy addressing the problems of a young republic in a world of monarchies. Franklin was eighty-four years old, had been ill for some time, and his death could scarcely have come as a surprise, Still, apart from the republic’s new president, Franklin was the best known of the Founding Fathers. His death could not go without some sort of official notice. The House of Representatives, after listening to a brief tribute by James Madison, voted to wear badges of mourning for two months and then got on with business.
In France the reaction was more dramatic. There the new National Assembly was in session in June when Mirabeau, who had just received the news, rose and announced simply, “Franklin est mort.” There was a stunned silence before Mirabeau proceeded to an eloquent eulogy, giving Franklin credit not only for American independence and the framing of the United States Constitution but also for gaining recognition of the rights of man throughout the world. The Assembly voted by acclamation to join the United States Congress in mourning. That evening the Commune of Paris commissioned another eulogy, which was delivered to an audience of three thousand on July 21, a little over a year after the storming of the Bastille.
Something more, or less, than mourning lay behind these proceedings in both France and America. Enlisting dead heroes in live causes has always been a stock in trade of politics. In France, where Franklin had lived from 1776 to 1785, he had won an extraordinary place in the public mind. The French had lionized him to the point of absurdity—or so at least his colleagues in the American mission thought. John Adams, who joined the mission in 1778, remembered years later that
His name was familiar to government and people, to kings, courtiers, nobility, clergy, and philosophers, as well as plebeians, to such a degree that there was scarcely a peasant or a citizen, a valet de chambre, coachman or footman, a lady’s chambermaid or a scullion in a kitchen who was not familiar with it and who did not consider him as a friend to human kind.
Franklin himself was surprised to find his image everywhere, in medallions, portraits, busts, and prints. He could hear his name linked regularly with those of Voltaire and Rousseau in the galaxy of Enlightment heroes. He could view the three of them in waxworks at the fair of St. Germain, standing together beside the King, Queen, and Dauphin. The adulation reached the point where the king himself found it a bit much and is said to have presented one over-enthusiastic admirer of Franklin with a Sèvres porcelain chamber pot carrying the philosopher’s portrait.
In 1790 Franklin was remembered in France as “that great man, who will be ever the object of the admiration of succeeding …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.