Realism and Idealism 3

Franklin’s despair of his colleague’s judgment and behavior was warmly reciprocated. The two men had met before they joined forces in Paris, most intimately in 1776, as representatives to the so- called Staten Island Peace Conference. At that makeshift, futile meeting, accommodations had been such that they had had to share a bed, an event Adams recorded with good humor—how he had failed to get that “old conjuror,” that “Egyptian mummy,” to shut the window, and how he had fallen asleep when Franklin began lecturing him “upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration.” But now, in Paris, the issues were deadly serious. What was Adams to make of Franklin’s behavior? The world famous scientist and writer was seventy in 1777 when he settled into Paris, where, on two previous visits, he had already been celebrated as a philosophe, savant, and legislator—and “as a kind of living document from America.” Now, a member of the French Royal Academy and the embodiment of America’s enlightened Revolution, he quickly became the rage of Parisian high society and the toast of the cognoscenti all over Europe. The Paris salons were entranced by him. The most sophisti¬cated women literally hung on his neck, wrote poems to him, sent him, and received back from him, bantering love letters. His writings were published and republished. His portrait was painted and repro¬duced in prints endlessly; his face appeared everywhere—on medal¬lions, vases, rings, dishware, snuflboxes. So familiar was his name, Adams recalled, 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. When they spoke of him, they seemed to think he was to restore the golden age.”
Franklin’s fame, his untroubled high spirits, his gaiety and wit, his social success, and above all his casual insouciance and apparent indolence drove Adams into fits of frustration. Franklin, he came to believe, was corrupt, both morally and politically. The great man, Adams recalled in his autobiography, slept late, and when he man¬aged to finish breakfast he was surrounded by all sorts of odd types, “phylosophers, accademicians and economists… atheists, deists, and libertines,” and by crowds of women and children who flocked around just to look at him, “and to have the pleasure of telling stories about his simplicity, his bald head, and scattering gray hair.” Eventu¬ally, Adams reported, they would all amble off to dinner and the the¬atre and an evening of chatter in the salons.
As far as Adams could see, Franklin did very little work, and what he did was done with an appalling lack of secrecy. Versailles was a snake pit of intrigue, and Franklin’s desk, Adams said, was a regular sieve. In fact, it was worse than he knew. We know—he did not—that the secretary of the American delegation, Edward Bancroft, in addi¬tion to being a crooked speculator in arms shipments and stock mar¬kets, was a British spy. Undetected, leaving documents for the British ambassador in the hole of a tree on the south side of the Tuileries, he sent so much secret information over to London that it became an embarrassment to British intelligence. One highly confidential memorial from the American commissioners to the French foreign secretary, Vergennes, was protested by the British ambassador before Vergennes had heard of it. But Franklin seemed not to care. His rule, he wrote one of the people who warned him that he was “sur¬rounded with spies, who watch your every movement,” was to do nothing shameful, “nothing but what spies may see and welcome.” The more one’s honorable actions were known, he wrote, the better for all. “If I was sure therefore that my valet de place was a spy, as probably he is, I think I should not discharge him for that, if in other respects I lik’d him.”
Adams was shocked by such bland and righteous innocence. He could not believe it was sincere, hence it was highly suspicious—and then, to compound the mystery of Franklin’s behavior, it all seemed to work to America’s advantage. The loose flow of information from Franklin to Britain’s secret service suggested to the French, who could not believe Franklin was not deliberately leaking such confi¬dential documents, that he was conniving with the British and might soon come to terms with them. The French, who were determined not to let this happen, were therefore encouraged to support Amer¬ica’s war for independence or lose the great opportunity to take revenge on Britain for the defeats of the Seven Years’ War. At the same time the British actually read the dispatches, and realized how close the coordination of French and American policy was, and so they got the impression, heightened by France’s public celebration of Franklin, that America and France were on the verge of an alliance, and that therefore England should not commit itself totally to the American conflict with a major war with France lurking over the horizon.

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