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French twist

How Ben Franklin convinced an absolute monarchy to back America's democratic experiment

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America
By Stacy Schiff
Holt, 489 pp., illustrated, $30

Americans have been ambivalent about the French for more than 200 years. They funded our revolution, we inspired theirs, and still we look on them as freaks. They are too refined, or too radical. They scorn us for the wrong things, we think. Even when the two nations cooperate, we dwell on the differences. During the 1780s, the Continental Congress kept a critical distance from the French love affair with Benjamin Franklin, precisely because America's other leaders could not bear to face up to what we owed France.

Stacy Schiff shares none of this anxiety, but she is fascinated by the differences. The prize-winning biographer of ''Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)" and ''Saint-Exupéry" traveled to archives all over Europe to complete this artful portrait of Franklin's years in France. Along the way she has picked up a decidedly French confidence in her opinions about national differences, which she employs to irresistible effect. ''France loves ingénues, and France loves underdogs, and there is no better kind of ingénue underdog than a seventy-year-old winner." Such remarks were the order of the day in 1776, and Schiff is almost as adept as Franklin at playing with them.

Along the way we meet a raft of fascinating characters. There is Vergennes, the deft, hard-working foreign minister with a taste for revenge -- against England. There is Edward Bancroft, Franklin's ''congenial and gregarious" secretary who, we are finally informed in the epilogue, was the most effective British spy in a Parisian nest of them. There is plenty of John Adams, whom Schiff is careful to grant his moments of political good sense and personal nonsense in the order in which they occurred. And then there are the brilliant ladies of Paris who charmed Franklin and whom Franklin charmed, doing politics and flirtation over tea tables. Franklin succeeded despite his fellow diplomats' inability to appreciate how business was done in Paris. Schiff is at her best in detailing how some of the other Yankees blundered about, made silly demands, and frustrated themselves -- and almost American independence as well -- in the process. Franklin, by contrast, listened -- and flattered like a true courtier. Clearly, Franklin helped make America by acting not like the caricature of an American that the French saw in him, but like a refined version of a Frenchman himself, minus the wig. In Franklin's fake Quaker, they saw a reformed version of themselves.

The people, the place, and the politics call out for a cosmopolitan, even French approach. In Schiff they have found a wordsmith equal to the task as well. Her writing sometimes verges on outrageous generalization, and bon mot over precision. Meet Madame Brillon, with whom Franklin was most smitten of all: ''She was an exemplary specimen of an exemplary breed, that perfectly calibrated confection of steel and silk which is a well-bred Frenchwoman." Later: ''The fresh-faced Madame Brillon cited Molière, she lent Montaigne, she knew her Homer. Refinement was her basic instinct." Of course Schiff knows that refinement is the opposite of instinct. Most of the time, though, her verbal pyrotechnics make an effective point about ironic situations, such as the spectacle of a Catholic monarch legitimizing a disorganized pack of Protestant rebels in order to tilt the balance of power.

In that 18th-century world, French aristocrats and commoners alike starved for ideals. That is where Franklin fit in. By supporting Franklin and America, French men and women who read and wrote for a carefully monitored press could celebrate liberty and embrace France's national aims simultaneously. It was a feel-good politics and an expensive one (proponents of Iraq occupation might take note). A spendthrift, authoritarian regime sped its own demise in this popular cause. Schiff conveys as well as anyone has what a splendid match it was: the former printer, Colonial agent, politician, and world-renowned scientist -- the French philosophes had spread his already exaggerated reputation -- met up with a culture whose mix of speculation and repression inspired the sorts of theatricality and outright fakery that in America had only been breached by Franklin himself. France wanted to see herself as generous, and Franklin obliged. It seems that nobody was paying the bills -- and America walked off with the prize.

Oddly, Schiff stumbles only when Franklin returns to America (she clearly wishes he had not). Having pinpointed exactly why Americans could embrace Franklin's deeds but not his persona as the suitor of the French, she misses how he did in fact act as a political weathervane, and football, after having spent yet another decade as the most famous American in the world. Praising Franklin as a great American improviser, she follows the recent celebratory trend and depicts ''Franklin's final speech" as a brilliant, sincere ''attack on slavery, a resounding vote for free and independent men, and in 1790 another dissident act." Only it was not a speech, it was an anonymous newspaper essay. This satire against Southern planters who had attacked him for his signature on an anti-slave trade petition criticized only the slave trade, not slavery. And it was not courageous dissent, since slavery had been put on the road to extinction in Pennsylvania 10 years earlier, and antislavery had become quite fashionable among Franklin's European fans even before then. In the end, Franklin eludes us all, and always comes out ahead. He continues to make every one of us French.

David Waldstreicher is a professor of history at Temple University and the author of ''Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution" (Hill and Wang).

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