Every month, it seems, we have a new book on one or another of the founders who more than two hundred years ago created the United States. This is something peculiarly American. No other major nation celebrates its past historical characters in quite the way we Americans do, especially characters who existed two centuries ago. We want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action or what George Washington would think of the invasion of Iraq. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington. Americans seem to have a special need for these historical figures in the here and now. Although Americans understandably have had a continual interest in the Revolutionary period, the recent flood of popular histories and biographies of the founders seems unusual. What’s going on?
To get some answers to this question The American Scholar in its spring 2005 issue polled eight scholars. Some of them thought quite sensibly that the interest in the Revolutionary generation has to do with national identity. The identities of other nations, say France or Germany, originated so long ago they are usually taken for granted (which is one reason why such nations are having greater problems with immigrants than we’re having). But Americans became a nation in 1776, and thus in order to know who we are we need to know who our founders were. That’s true enough, but since we’ve had problems of identity for two centuries, why this recent special interest in the founders? Is there something different about the past two decades that accounts for the founders’ popularity?
Other scholars have suggested that the recent interest in famous figures of the eighteenth century might have something to do with cycles of history writing. The generation of historians dating from the 1960s wrote social and cultural histories that concentrated on people in the past who had often been forgotten—women, slaves, and the poor who were at the bottom of society. Now, it is suggested, historians have swung away from that kind of history and are writing more traditional narrative histories about leaders and elites. But this explanation doesn’t seem quite right. Most academic historians haven’t yet changed their approach to the past; they continue to write social and cultural histories concerned with questions of race, class, and gender.
In fact, most if not all of the recent histories and biographies of the founding era have been written not by specialists in the eighteenth century but by biographers and historians who more or less ignore the esoteric debates the academics have among themselves. That is one reason at least for their wide readership. No doubt most academic monographs by their very nature have limited numbers of readers, but their being poorly written makes it all the more difficult for them to find readers. Whatever the limitations of the recent popular studies of the founders by historians such as David McCullough and Joseph Ellis may be, no one can doubt the quality of their prose.
Some of the polled scholars suggested that the recent interest in the founding corresponds to an upsurge in conservative thinking over the past several decades, leading to a new interest in recovering what was wise and valuable in America’s past. Others proposed that the heightened concern with constitutional jurisprudence and “original intent” may account for some of the fascination with the founding and the making of the Constitution. Several claimed that the founders of two hundred years ago have come to be seen as setting the standards against which we should measure our current political leaders. Why don’t we have such leaders today? seems to be an implicit question many ask.
This is a question that historians should be able to answer quite easily. The fact that people ask it at all suggests an ignorant historical perspective. Would we today actually be satisfied with leaders that resembled the founders? Not only did they live in a very different age from our own—an undemocratic age in which women could not vote or engage in most male activities and in which large numbers of people were still held in slavery. But also many of them, as events described in the three recent biographies under review suggest, were even more fractious and partisan than our leaders today, hard as that may be to believe. Indeed, if we look at the way the squabbling founders handled the United States’ relationship with France during the Revolution, we can only shake our heads in wonder at how the dis-United States of the 1770s and 1780s ever won the war and survived.
Three recent biographies deal with three major participants in the diplomacy of the Revolution—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay. The authors are either professional biographers or amateur historians; in other words, none is an academic, which may help to account for the lucid and engaging prose of all three.
The most engaging by far is Stacy Schiff’s A Great Improvisation, an account of Franklin in Paris. As a biographer, Schiff has previously written about two very different twentieth-century characters. She is the author of Saint-Exupéry, a life of the French aviator and writer, and of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. The book on Franklin involved the challenge of writing about a new century. In doing so, she has written a stunning book.
It is not that Schiff has anything startlingly new to say about Franklin that makes her book remarkable. It’s the way she says it. Her book is filled with telling anecdotes and is lively, witty, and extremely readable. Take, for example, her opening description of Franklin’s suitability for the formidable task he faced in his diplomatic mission of 1776, appealing to the French monarchy for assistance in establishing the new republic. Franklin may have been an American, she writes, but
he happened to do a fine imitation of a French courtier. He knew better than to confuse straightforwardness with candor; he was honest, but not too honest, which qualifies in France as a failure of imagination. He left at home certain qualities on which America prides herself: piety, earnestness, efficiency. He was every bit as much the innocent abroad as Mark Twain, who covered his eyes at the Folies Bergère but who peeked. A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray, Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless.
Schiff’s description of Paris in the 1770s is equally telling. The city, only a third of its present size, was “a dim, bustling, steaming, fetid, brimming, deafening madness.” It assaulted the senses:
Entire terraces of the Tuileries, lengths of the quais, public stairways repelled visitors with their odor. From the tangle of dark, congested streets rose a stench that crawled up the visitor’s nostrils and took noxious hold. Rain produced only a sulfurous steam.
Paris was a dangerous place, even for a simple stroll through the streets:
Every day brought accounts of children crushed by coaches; so common were the collisions that the fines for legs, thighs, and arms had been codified.
Paris endangered the health in other ways too. It “was after all a city with over fourteen thousand prostitutes, an army larger than was, at times, General Washington’s.”
Schiff takes a special pleasure in contrasting the two cultures, American and French:
The women of America labored under the illusion that they were to be flirtatious until they landed a husband and paragons of vir-tue thereafter, when every self-respecting Frenchwoman subscribed to the opposite approach; what passed for gallantry in one country was commonly known as adultery in the other.
Schiff tells the story of Lafayette’s friend the duc de Lauzun trying to explain to one American beauty “that he was indeed married, but only a little bit so, hardly enough to bear mention.”
French criticism of America was familiar: “The American coffee was undrinkable, the food inedible, the people overly familiar and bizarrely peripatetic.” But the people of Boston did try to be sociable to the officers of the French fleet that arrived in America to help them. What better to serve them at dinner than “brimming tureens of their national dish.” The officers were surprised to find in each of their bowls “a full-grown brilliantly green Massachusetts frog.” “Why don’t they eat them?” wondered their hosts.
Americans, of course, had deep suspicions of the French from the outset. They had recently fought them in the Seven Years’ War and were not all that happy dealing with a Catholic monarchy. They didn’t even like the language. When Silas Deane in 1778 proposed that his alma mater Yale establish a professorship in French, the college authorities were opposed; Yale did not begin officially teaching the language until 1825. Men might learn it, but women never, for, as Schiff puts it, “where the French language went, depravity, frivolity, and indolence were sure to follow.”
With this combination of cultural insight and enjoyable prose, even if at times it begins to cloy, it is hard to put the book down. One keeps looking for new bons mots (“Dubourg was that rare thing, an entirely affable zealot”) and new aphorisms (“The French tended to treat their affairs of state like bagatelles, their bagatelles like affairs of state”).
But it is Schiff’s descriptions of her immensely talented cast of characters that make her story of Franklin’s French mission so fascinating. There was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais,
the flamboyant, scene-stealing playwright… [who] combined in one fair and lanky body the cunning of a Scarlet Pimpernel, the zeal of d’Artagnan, and the rectitude of the great gentleman burglar Arsène Lupin, the sprightly master of disguise.
There was Silas Deane, the Connecticut lawyer and two-time congressional delegate, sent to France early to acquire arms, who was “a contentious man, with a proclivity toward the shade in his business dealings”—traits that “recommended him for a mission for which he was not otherwise remotely qualified.” There was Arthur Lee of the famous Virginia family, the second of the original three commissioners sent to France, “ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid”; he “never married, as no woman could be found who met his standards.”
Schiff also introduces us to Paul Wentworth, the head of the British Secret Service in Paris, a master spy in a world full of spies, who, “with twenty aliases, assorted disguises, and a host of invisible inks, eluded even the peerless Paris police.” She has much to say about Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, the indefatigable and long-suffering French foreign minister with whom Franklin carried on his most important negotiations. He was “known at Versailles,” Schiff writes, “for qualities that did not endear him there: thrift, industry, prudence, gravity.” And then there was John Adams, Deane’s replacement, who found France too luxury-loving and licentious for his Yankee soul, and whose bullish manners and clumsy honesty drove both Vergennes and Franklin to distraction. There were many other colorful characters besides, too many to describe here, all pungently brought alive by Schiff.
Franklin’s mission seemed impossible from the start. France was initially unwilling to recognize the new country and was anxious not to get into a premature war with Britain. The United States had virtually nothing to offer the French monarchy, except the unlikely prospect of breaking up the British Empire. Franklin’s superior back home, the Congress, went months at a time without communicating with him. He was an old man, seventy years of age in 1776 and suffering from a variety of ailments—gout, painful bladder stones, a chronic skin disease, and swollen joints. He was bitterly disliked by his fellow commissioner Arthur Lee and viewed with suspicion by many Americans. After all, he had spent nearly all of the previous two decades living in London, and his son William, the former royal governor of New Jersey, was a notorious Loyalist, under arrest in America.
No wonder some Americans thought that Franklin might be a spy working for the British. Indeed, the Paris in which Franklin was expected to operate was a hotbed of espionage and counterespionage—a world of undercover agents, moles, and thousands of paid informers. Even the secretary of the American legation, Edward Bancroft, was a spy in the pay of the English government; using the pseudonym “Edward Edwards,” Bancroft conveyed every detail of the American mission to London. (Schiff manages to keep Edwards’s real identity secret until the very end of her book.)
Despite all these difficulties, however, Franklin succeeded admirably. He was the greatest diplomat America has ever had. Not only did he bring the monarchy of Louis XVI into the war on behalf of the new republic, but during the course of that long war he extracted loan after loan from an increasingly impoverished French government. As Schiff makes clear, no other American could have done what Franklin did. Only he had the air of celebrity, the temperament, and what Schiff calls the “gift for creative dissembling” that made the Franco-American alliance possible.
Franklin brought to the mission an already established reputation as a great scientist and philosopher—the native genius who had come out of the wild woods of America to astonish the world. By the 1770s many of the French aristocracy were in love with the idea of America, with its primitiveness, its innocence, and its liberty, and in their minds no one stood for America more than Franklin. Voltaire referred to the Continental Army as “Dr. Franklin’s troops.” The French aristocracy lionized him, published his works, and put his face everywhere—on medallions, snuffboxes, candy boxes, rings, clocks, vases, dishes, handkerchiefs, and pocket knives; women even did their hair à la Franklin. Franklin told his sister that these numerous images distributed throughout the kingdom have made “my face…almost as well known as that of the moon.”
It was Franklin’s genius to know what the French wanted from him and to play his part to perfection. He dressed in a simple brown and white linen suit, and wore a fur cap, no wig, and carried no sword at the court of Versailles, the most elaborate and protocol-ridden court in Europe. And the court and the French nobility loved it. Assuming that everyone from Pennsylvania was a simple Quaker, many Frenchmen thought he had to be one too. Franklin could do no wrong. His natural reserve, which in prattling Paris would normally be frowned upon, became “his sublime reticence.” “From the start,” writes Schiff, “Franklin broke the rules and France returned the favor.”
However, Schiff does not spare Franklin from criticism:
He could be negligent, manipulative, inconsistent, unmethodical, uncommunicative, vindictive, breathtakingly imprecise. Renowned for his overarching curiosity, he sought refuge in professions of ignorance. He set his colleagues’ teeth on edge.
Indeed, she writes, with great accuracy, his “greatest enemies in France were his compatriots.” From the outset Lee disliked Franklin, largely because the French liked him. The Virginian had no faith whatever in the French, and he missed no opportunity to let Vergennes know how fortunate the French were in being able to help the Americans. France, of course, wanted revenge against Britain for its defeat in the Seven Years’ War, but as Edmund S. Morgan has pointed out, there were other things France might have done besides going to war with Britain in support of America, including trying to recover its lost territory in North America. Lee never appreciated that, but Franklin did.
Franklin understood Vergennes and all of his difficulties, and knew how to deal with him; his heavy-handed colleagues, especially John Adams, did not. Franklin knew the French aristocrats saw themselves as a generous people eager to help the oppressed, and he played on these liberal sentiments. He vainly tried to tell his colleagues that appealing to France’s commercial interest was not the way to win French support. He knew when to speak and when to remain silent. Franklin, Schiff writes, had “nerves of steel and the patience of an old man,” and to his task he “brought two great talents: an ability to temporize, and an ability to extemporize.”
His colleagues thought he was lazy and spent too much time dining and seeing people, not realizing, as Schiff says, that he had “quickly mastered the essential French art of accomplishing much while appearing to accomplish little.” Lee and Adams always wanted him to put pressure on Vergennes and were frustrated when he did not. They had no idea that diplomacy was more than shuffling papers and writing dispatches. Both Lee and Adams assumed that Franklin had been taken in by the French or, worse, had shifted his allegiance to France. As difficult as Lee was, ultimately Adams became Franklin’s greatest burden.
Franklin and Adams could scarcely have been more different. Schiff even uses their contrasting approaches to the French language to underline the difference. Where Franklin sidled around the language, “defying genders,… tripping over prepositions, merrily sending pronouns and antecedents their separate ways, ducking under the subjunctive, Adams hurled himself against it.” It was in the same contrasting manner that the two men approached Vergennes and the French government. Franklin, Adams complained, “loves his ease, hates to offend, and seldom gives any opinion until obliged to do it.” By contrast, says Schiff, “Adams was of the sorry school that expected meetings to yield decisions, decisions to yield actions, and actions to yield results.” Adams couldn’t believe the adoration Europeans paid Franklin. “It is universally believed in France, England, and all Europe, that his electric wand has accomplished all this revolution.” Adams’s jealousy of Franklin and later of Washington ran deep.
Yet it was Franklin’s easy way of ceaselessly expressing gratitude that was ideally suited to the French court. Indeed, most French leaders believed that without their respect for Franklin they would never have sustained the American alliance. Certainly the Americans themselves did little to win French confidence—refusing to tax themselves, depreciating their currency, and depriving their army of pay, clothing, and provisions. Yet all Congress could do was blame Franklin and the French for America’s troubles. In fact, congressional hostility toward Franklin was so great that without French support, he would have been recalled.
Like anyone who writes from Franklin’s point of view, Schiff has little patience with Adams. “France was too rich for his blood,” Schiff writes, and he and his wife Abigail could never abide French customs, especially the relationship between the sexes. Adams continually reminded Vergennes of anti-French feelings in America, warning the French minister that many of his compatriots would be only too happy to return to British rule. Sometimes, writes Schiff, Adams admitted “that he did not believe himself qualified to ‘give my opinion and advice to his Majesty’s ministers,’ only to continue on to do precisely that.”
Adams had the awkward habit of challenging some of Vergennes’s diplomatic niceties with his ham-handed honesty, “unable,” as Schiff puts it, “to abide the harmless illusions that make for happy marriages.” Adams fired salvo after salvo at Vergennes and left Franklin “to grapple with the fallout.” In the end Franklin may have been too generous in his famous summary of the Yankee from Massachusetts when he said that Adams meant well for his country, “is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his senses.” Schiff, for her part, has written a remarkably subtle and penetrating portrait of Franklin and his diplomacy; and her account of his relations with Adams is entirely convincing.
Even James Grant, the most recent biographer of Adams, has to admit that Adams went much too far in lecturing Vergennes on France’s duty to America—exchanges that led the French foreign minister to stop communicating with him and ask Congress for his recall. For generations Adams’s bizarre behavior during the peace negotiations has challenged historians. Only recently has it been suggested that his problem may have been physiological. In 1998 John Ferling and Lewis E. Braverman proposed that Adams may have suffered from Graves disease, the thyroid affliction that leads to many of the symptoms that Adams revealed—sore eyes, heart palpitations, irritability, and waves of paranoia.1 Grant accepts this plausible contention.
Grant’s biography of Adams is as different from Schiff’s study of Franklin as the two founders are from each other. Grant, an investment consultant with four books on finance and financial history to his credit, has a clear and direct style, occasionally sprinkled with some dry wit, especially in matters of money and finance—a contrast to Schiff’s sparkling and sinuous prose. With all the studies of Adams that have appeared, it is difficult to say much that is new, but Grant manages to add something on Adams’s religion, particularly on his impatience
with the institutionalized structure of religion—synods, councils, convocations, oaths, and confessions—or with the doctrinal controversies that flared up in the Awakening…. The existence of God, however, he never seemed to doubt; he proved it to himself through a process of reasoning that anticipated the so-called intelligent design theory of the present day.
Grant also gives a lively account of Adams’s ability to acquire loans from the Dutch United Provinces in the 1780s. Asked by a Dutch official about American resources for backing a loan, Adams replied that in addition to America’s exports,
There is a great deal of Plate in America, and if she were driven to Extremities, the Ladies I assure you have Patriotism enough, to give up their Plate to the Publick, rather than loose their Liberties or run any great hazard of it.
Grant’s biography is more critical of Adams in France than David McCullough’s 2001 biography, which is generally protective of its subject. By contrast Grant does not sugarcoat his opinions of Adams. “When Adams hated,” he writes, “it was with all his heart. His hatreds were throbbing, intricately constructed, and obsessive.” And he loathed Franklin, loathed him for what Adams called his “Servility and insidious faithless Selfishness.” Although Grant’s biography is tougher on Adams than McCullough’s, it is less gracefully written. It is also less scholarly than John Ferling’s 1992 biography of Adams, but it is still a good solid study and very readable.2
John Jay, the other key figure in negotiating the peace that ended the war and established American independence, has been curiously overlooked by historians. Walter Stahr, his new biographer, declares that his is the first full life of Jay in nearly seventy years. Part of the reason for the neglect is that Jay’s papers are not as plentiful or as comprehensive as those of many of the other founders. Stahr, who is an international lawyer and, like Grant, an amateur historian, also claims that academic historians have tended to ignore Jay because he was the most conservative of the founders. “He was a reluctant revolutionary, and many of his friends and relatives were Loyalists.” He was also a reluctant democrat and, unlike the other founders, an openly religious man.
Yet this born New Yorker, who married into the powerful Livingston family, was a significant figure throughout the Revolutionary era and beyond. As a skilled patrician lawyer, he had a remarkable ability to command respect. He was instrumental in the drafting of the New York constitution of 1777. He became president of the Continental Congress in 1778 and later was sent as America’s first minister to the Spanish court, which refused to receive him officially, although he managed to raise some money for the US. After years of frustration in Spain, in 1782 he joined Franklin in the peace negotiations in Paris.
Returning to the United States, he served as secretary of foreign affairs under the Confederation. He wrote several of the initial Federalist papers, mainly about the Constitution’s provisions for foreign affairs, until illness forced him to stop, and he had an important part in achieving New York’s ratification of the Constitution. Washington, who knew and admired Jay, appointed him the first chief justice of the United States. In 1794, with the country facing an imminent new war with Great Britain, Washington again turned to his close friend and sent him to London to negotiate a treaty that prevented hostilities. On his way back from England in 1795, Jay was elected governor of New York, forcing him to resign as chief justice.
Jay was an old-fashioned eighteenth-century man. He abhorred political parties and popular democratic politics. One of his finest moments came in 1800, when he laid aside an extraordinary letter from Alexander Hamilton that proposed that Governor Jay get the New York legislature to change the state’s system for selecting presidential electors in order to prevent Jefferson from becoming president. On the back of Hamilton’s letter Jay wrote that it was “proposing a measure for party purposes which I think it would not become me to adopt.”
During the peace negotiations in Paris in 1782 and 1783 Jay, as both Schiff and Stahr show, had a bracing effect on Franklin and persuaded him to take a tougher approach toward Vergennes and the British and Spanish than he otherwise might have. And unlike Adams, he got along with Franklin; indeed, Jay worried that his fellow Americans did not esteem Franklin as fully as they should. Franklin returned the respect: when he died he named Jay as one of the four executors of his will.
At the outset Franklin’s illness and Adams’s absence in the Netherlands left the crucial beginning stages of the negotiations with France in Jay’s hands alone; indeed, lawyer that he was, Jay wrote the first draft of the treaty, much of which survived in the final document. It was his initial insistence that all the parties recognize American independence before any treaty negotiations took place that opened the way to American success.
Stahr has succeeded splendidly in his aim of recovering the reputation of John Jay as a major founder. His biography is a reliable and clearly written account of a man who served the new Republic with great skill both as diplomat and politician before he retired to his farm in Westchester. He makes a persuasive case for including Jay among the first rank of the Revolutionary leaders.
July 14, 2005