Deane had gone to Paris in search of assistance, with no official position. But immediately after the Declaration of Independence it was decided to send accredited representatives of the new government to France, and in September, 1776, Franklin, Jefferson, and Deane were chosen by Congress as commissioners. Jefferson declined the mission, and in an evil day Arthur Lee was selected in his place. Franklin was unanimously elected on the first ballot. He was by far the most prominent of the commissioners, and was in France the best-known American; his experience and character peculiarly fitted him for the position, and Congress would have acted wisely if he had been sent over as its sole representative. When the vote was announced, he turned to one near and said: "I am old and good for nothing, but, as the storekeepers say of their remnants of cloth, 'I am but a fag end, you may have me for what you please.'" So far as the welfare of the United States was concerned, the most valuable part of Franklin's life was still before him. The results of his mission in France could have been accomplished by no one else, and without them it is by no means certain that American independence would have been achieved until many years later.
A proposed treaty was drafted by Congress, which the commissioners were authorized to sign, with such changes as might be required. It was nothing more than a commercial agreement, but it was hoped that the French government would go further and form an alliance with the new republic. Not only were the commissioners to negotiate for a treaty, but they were to obtain supplies of arms and ammunition, for which Congress would make payment. It was especially important to secure munitions of war, for the colonists were almost entirely unprovided, and there were practically no facilities for manufacturing guns or powder in this country. The guns with which the American soldiers had thus far been furnished were of every variety, and few of them were fit for service. Agents had gone from house to house to obtain muskets, and these were largely old weapons which had been rejected by the inspectors of the English army and had drifted into the hands of the colonists. There was no manufactory where guns could be made in any quantity, and the authorities met with almost insurmountable difficulties in obtaining powder. When the battle of Lexington was fought, it was said there was not enough powder in the thirteen colonies to last for a week's fighting, and that English troops could have marched from Boston to Savannah almost without resistance, because the colonists could not have obtained enough powder for serious opposition.
In July, 1775, the Committee of Safety in New York wrote: "We have no arms, we have no powder, we have no blankets." (W. G. Sumner, The Financier and the Finances of the A merican Revolution, i, 107.) This was still the condition in every part of the United States, and it was for this reason that the necessity was so great of obtaining supplies abroad. The quality of the stores sent from France was occasionally criticized; doubtless some of the powder was poor and some of the guns were defective, but they were vastly superior to anything that could be had on this side of the water.
On October 26, 1776, Franklin sailed for France on the sloop of war Reprisal. The boat was several times chased by English cruisers; she not only escaped capture, but as she neared the other side made two prizes, with which in tow she sailed into Quiberon Bay after a voyage of thirty days. The weather was rough, Franklin had a small and uncomfortable cabin, the fowls were too tough for his teeth, and he lived chiefly on salt beef; between stormy weather and poor nourishment, be was in a very reduced condition when he finally reached land (E. E. Hale, Franklin in France, 49.)
On December 8, he landed at Auray, and from there he proceeded to Nantes. Travel in those days was not luxurious. The carriage, the doctor writes, was uncomfortable and the horses tired; they met few persons, and their spirits were not raised when the driver told them that two weeks before a gang of robbers had plundered and murdered some travellers on the road. But the doctor's party made the journey safely, and at Nantes he was hospitably received. The citizens thronged to see him, he was given a great dinner, and after waiting a few days to recuperate, he went to Paris.
The news that Franklin had arrived in France excited widespread interest. He had become an object of special dislike in England, except among those who sympathized with the colonists, and his journey across the Atlantic loosened the tongues of his adversaries. It was currently reported that, foreseeing the ruin of the insurgent cause, he had abandoned his country, like a rat leaving a sinking ship; that he had fled like a poltroon from the ruin he had helped to create. The accusation was so often repeated that it moved Burke to say he could not believe that Franklin would close a life "which has brightened every hour it continued with so foul and dishonorable a flight." "I have just seen," writes Franklin, "seven paragraphs in the English papers about me, of which six were lies."
Franklin's arrival was especially distasteful to the British ambassador, and Stormont poured out the vials of his wrath. "It is generally believed here," he writes, "that he comes in the double capacity of a negotiator and a fugitive; this suspicion, joined to the knowledge of his former character, and to that reputation of duplicity which he has so justly acquired, will, I hope, throw many difficulties in his way." (Charlemagne Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, i, 164.) "He will lie, he will promise, and he will flatter, with all the insinuation and subtlety that are natural to him," Stormont writes again.
But it was not alone to the English minister that Franklin's arrival furnished a theme for thought. "His arrival," writes Deane, "is the common topic for conversation, and has given birth to a thousand conjectures." When the doctor had reached his destination, the interest increased instead of diminishing. "The celebrated Franklin arrived in Paris the 21st of December," writes one, "and has fixed the eyes of everyone upon his slightest proceeding." Probably in the whole world there was not another man so fitted for the work he had to do as Franklin. His scientific discoveries, his reputation as a philosopher and a sage, the simplicity of his dress, the shrewdness of his talk, the dignity of his expression, all helped to give him in France a position such as had been held by few Frenchmen and by no foreigner.
The Comte de Segur has told us of the reception which the representatives of the thirteen colonies met with in France. "It would be difficult to describe the eagerness and delight with which . . . these agents of a people in a state of insurrection against their monarch were received in France, in the bosom of an ancient monarchy. Nothing could be more striking than the contrast between the luxury of our capital, the elegance of our fashions, the magnificence of Versailles, the still brilliant remains of the monarchical pride of Louis XIV, and the polished and superb dignity of our nobility, ... and the almost rustic apparel, the unpowdered hair, the plain but firm demeanor, the free and direct language of the envoys, whose antique simplicity of dress and appearance seemed to have introduced within our walls, in the midst of the effeminate and servile refinement of the eighteenth century, sages contemporary with Plato, or republicans of the age of Cato and of Fabius. This unexpected spectacle produced upon us a greater effect in consequence of its novelty, and because it occurred precisely at the period when literature and philosophy had spread amongst us all an unusual desire for reforms, a disposition to encourage innovations, and the seeds of an ardent attachment to liberty." (James Parton, Life of Franklin, ii, 211; Segur, Memoires, i, 109.)
"Men imagined," writes another, "they saw in Franklin a sage of antiquity, come back to give austere lessons and generous examples to the moderns. They personified in him the republic, of which he was the representative and the legislator. They regarded his virtues as those of his countrymen, and even judged of their physiognomy by the imposing and serene traits of his own." (Parton, Life of Franklin, ii, 211.)
The French police authorities gave full reports of the distinguished visitor: "Dr. Franklin . . . is very much run after, and feted, not only by the savants, his confreres, but by all people who can get hold of him. . . . This Quaker wears the full costume of his sect. He has an agreeable physiognomy. Spectacles always on his eyes; but little hair, - a fur cap is always on his head. He wears no powder, but a neat air, linen very white, a brown coat." (Hale, Franklin in France, 90.) When he was presented to Louis XV, his chestnut-colored coat was replaced by black velvet; but while he was not in all respects dressed like the ambassador from Austria, no one would have suspected that he was a peasant come to court.
When Franklin arrived at Paris, he first took lodgings at the Hotel de Hamburg on the rue de l'Universite; but a residence in the centre of the city he found inconvenient and disagreeable. Le Ray de Chaumont, a wealthy Frenchman and an ardent friend of the colonists, offered him a more retired abode in the spacious Hotel de Valentinois in Passy. With the enthusiasm displayed by so many Frenchmen for the American cause, Chaumont gave the use of the house free of charge, saying only that when American independence had been established, Congress, if it saw fit, could compensate him with a grant of American land.
This offer was in every way acceptable. Passy was then a pretty village on the outskirts of Paris, about half a mile from the limits and two miles from the centre of the city, conveniently removed from the confusion and bustle of the capital. It was an advantage to Franklin to have a residence so far removed as to lessen somewhat the crowd of visitors that sought him, and this choice was also agreeable to the French ministers. They did not care to have the representative of the rebellious colonies too conspicuously in view. Lord Stormont might find less opportunity to complain if Franklin was somewhat obscurely lodged in a quiet suburb than if he were within a stone's throw of the Louvre. What perhaps was of no less importance, in such a spot it was more easy for the French ministers to have communication with the American representative, and yet escape the vigilant observation of the English ambassador.
The Hotel de Valentinois had recently been purchased by Chaumont. It had had many distinguished owners. In the early part of the century the Duchesse d'Aumont had occupied it as a country residence. It was afterwards owned by the Duc de Valentinois, and in 1776 it was purchased by Chaumont, who was a gentleman of large wealth. The property consisted of two dwellings, and it was the smaller of the two, known as the petit hotel, which Franklin occupied.
A portion of the house still stands in what is now a thickly populated part of the city, and an inscription on the facade informs passers-by that this was the home of Franklin. Chaumont offered the use of the property rent-free, though the arrangement was so convenient for the French ministers, and Chaumont's relations with them were so intimate, that it has been suspected that the French government, rather than this liberal gentleman, was really the benevolent landlord.
However this may be, it was occupied by Franklin for nine years. Any house in which Franklin dwelt was sure to bear his mark, and upon this he placed a lightning rod, which was said to be the first ever put up in France. There the negotiations between the colonies and France, and subsequently between the colonies and England, were carried on; there he exercised an extensive hospitality, and was visited by great numbers of people. Franklin liked society and he had full opportunity to gratify his taste. Six days in the week he dined out, meeting almost every one who was prominent in political, literary, or social life. This was not the least arduous nor the least useful part of his career as an ambassador. He spoke French, not with entire correctness, but with fluency and wit. Never did he weary his auditors by talking too much of America, and never did he lose the opportunity, by fit and felicitous reference, to interest them in the American cause. Every entertainment which he accepted, said one of his listeners, gained him admirers, who became partisans of the American Revolution. Every dinner-party at which the wise doctor was present was a diplomatic success, and aided the cause which he represented. Sundays he stayed at home, and his Sunday dinners were attended by a large number of Americans, as well as by some of his French friends. His doors were open to all Americans, even those who bore him little love. Lee and his followers were often there. Franklin tried, so he said, to bring them all together and compel them, if possible, to forget their animosities. In this endeavor be was not successful, and at last the virulent abuse which Izard poured out upon him disturbed even the doctor's tranquillity, and he refused to receive him further at his house.
While Adams was a joint commissioner, he occupied the same hotel, but Arthur Lee was of too irritable a temperament to be willing to sleep under the same roof with Franklin. The doctor's social life was little to Adams's taste, and the terms on which the American representatives were occupying the house were also distasteful to this practical Yankee. In 1778 he wrote Chaumont, begging as a favor that he would state what rent should be paid for the house and furniture, both for the past and future. "It is not reasonable," he said, "that the United States should be under so great obligation to a private gentleman, as that two of their representatives should occupy for so long a time so elegant a seat with so much furniture and such fine accommodations, without any compensation."
The enthusiastic Chaumont would not accede to Adams's views. "When I consecrated my house to Dr. Franklin," he wrote, "and his associates who might live with him, I made it fully understood that I should expect no compensation . . . It is so much the worse for those who would not do the same, if they had the opportunity, and so much the better for me to have immortalized my house by receiving into it Dr. Franklin and his associates." (John Bigelow, editor; The Life of Benjamin Franklin, written by himself, ii, 429-430.)
As Adams's letter by inference suggested that Dr. Franklin was remiss in living in this house for two years, undisturbed by the fact that his occupation was rent-free, so Chaumont, in his reply, delicately intimated that it was the name of Franklin and not that of Adams which would immortalize the Hotel de Valentinois.
Chaumont's dealings with the United States were by no means confined to furnishing a residence for their commissioners. He took an active part in sending supplies to the colonies, and his experience was hardly more fortunate than that of Beaumarchais. It is sad to reflect that almost every one who attempted business relations with our country, at the time of the Revolution, ended in bankruptcy. Chaumont often acted for the French ministers in obtaining supplies and equipping ships for the colonists, and he also furnished them on his own account. Soon after the beginning of the war he sent a shipload of powder to Boston, with instructions to his agent not to insist on repayment unless the Americans were successful in their struggle for independence. The colonies succeeded in their struggle, but they do not seem to have paid Chaumont for the powder and supplies which he furnished them.
Partly as a result of this, though chiefly from a loose administration of his business matters, of which his dealings with the United States were a fair sample, Chaumont became embarrassed before the outbreak of the French Revolution, and he was forced to make an assignment soon after that. In 1785 his son visited this country and endeavored to obtain a settlement of the father's claim. His father was, so Franklin wrote Washington, "the first in France who gave us credit, and before the Court showed us any countenance, trusted us with two thousand barrels of gunpowder, and from time to time afterwards exerted himself to furnish the Congress with supplies of various kinds, which, for want of due returns, they being of great amount, has finally much distressed him in his circumstances." (Bigelow, Franklin, iii, 437.) Notwithstanding this, the son stayed here many years without obtaining either money or settlement, and finally, like many other creditors of the Confederacy, abandoned the claim as hopeless. He remained in this country and entered into a great land speculation in the interior of New York State. Among the shareholders of his company were many illustrious names, - Caulaincourt, Grouchy, Necker, and Joseph Bonaparte. But be fared no better than his father in American speculations; he finally became bankrupt and returned to France to die.
In the Hotel de Valentinois Franklin lived in comfort, and even with a certain amount of luxury, which disturbed the prudent soul of John Adams, but was appropriate and useful in the position which the doctor held. Though he led an existence that could fairly be called strenuous, yet he preserved in his country home a certain official semi-obscurity which was agreeable to the French government. Vergennes declared that the laws of hospitality forbade refusing a home in Paris to Americans who wished to stay there, but he did not wish to have the fact that the rebellious colonists were officially represented obtrusively paraded before the English minister. The police reported that Franklin was difficult of approach and lived with a reserve that was supposed to be directed by his government. He had no such orders and needed none: his own tact enabled him to adopt the most judicious procedure for the accomplishment of his ends.
If he avoided any unnecessary prominence as a representative of the American government, he attracted personally an amount of attention that would have satisfied the most insatiate lover of publicity. There were no great newspapers that could daily report his sayings and doings; but Franklin, his appearance, his opinions, his modes of life, were known to all Paris. Franklin's reputation, says John Adams, "was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire ; and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them . . . 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 . . . If a collection could be made of all the Gazettes of Europe, for the latter half of the eighteenth century, a greater number of panegyrical paragraphs upon 'le grand Franklin' would appear, it is believed, than upon any other man that ever lived." (Works of John Adams, etc., i, 660.)
It was as a man of science and by his discoveries in electricity that Franklin was best known in France. Scientific studies then excited widespread interest, and this republican sage had made valuable researches. The zeal for such studies was not confined to scholars, but extended through the community. Franklin had been elected a member of the Academy of Sciences, and he attended its meetings with great regularity. The sage who had already snatched lightning from the sky, aroused an admiring sympathy when he was engaged in wresting the sceptre from tyrants.
The writings of Franklin were widely known in France and exceedingly popular. The neatness of his expression, the delicate humor of his style, was peculiarly fitted for French taste, and so also was the philosophy which he taught. It was not abstruse, it was not metaphysical, it was not, perhaps, very elevated, but it inculcated virtues that were dear to the French heart. The apothegms of Poor Richard were almost as familiar to the French as to Americans. They had been often translated; bishops and priests advised their flocks to profit by their study. Poor Richard taught no exalted philosophy, but he preached practical wisdom, and he constantly praised the quality of thrift. No virtue is dearer to the average Frenchman; no one appreciates better than he the wisdom and the delights of a careful economy. When Poor Richard told them that industry pays debts, and if you kept your shop, your shop would keep you; when he bade his readers think of saying as well as of getting, to beware of little expenses, and remember that silks and satins put out the kitchen fire, his words were dear to the industrious, thrifty, penny-saving bourgeois of France.
It is not strange that representations of the wise doctor were multiplied indefinitely, - medallions, busts, medals of every kind and size. He writes his daughter, in reference to medallions, with the smiling, half-contemptuous vanity that was characteristic of him: "A variety of impressions have been made of different sizes; some large enough to be set in the lids of snuff-boxes; some so small as to be worn in rings; and the numbers sold are incredible. These, with the pictures, busts, and printings (of which copies upon copies are spread everywhere), have made your father's face as well known as that of the moon." It was the fashion for everyone to have an engraving of M. Franklin on the mantelpiece, writes a contemporary.
Franklin was fond of women; the homage paid to him by a great circle of ladies was agreeable to the philosopher, and was by no means without value in the work he was sent to do. Petticoats and alcoves still held their place in French political life. There were many Frenchwomen who possessed and liked to exercise an influence in politics, and there were few of these who were not ready to say a good word for the cause which their dear Dr. Franklin advocated. Madame Helvetius was one of those with whom the doctor was most intimate, and if her appearance shocked the New England mind of Mrs. Adams, she was not a useless friend to the American minister. Mrs. Adams has recorded her impressions, which certainly were less favorable than those of the doctor: -
"Her hair was frizzled; over it she had a small straw hat, with a dirty gauze half-handkerchief round it, and a bit of dirtier gauze than ever my maids wore was bowed on behind. She had a black gauze scarf thrown over her shoulders. She ran out of the room; when she returned, the Doctor entered at one door, she at the other; upon which she ran forward to him, caught him by the hand, - 'Helas! Franklin'; then gave him a double kiss, one upon each cheek, and another upon his forehead . . . I should have been greatly astonished at this conduct, if the good Doctor had not told me that in this lady I should see a genuine Frenchwoman, wholly free from affectation or stiffness of behavior, and one of the best women in the world. For this I must take the Doctor's word; but I should have set her down for a very bad one, although sixty years of age, and a widow." (Letters of Mrs. Adams (2d ed.), ii, 55, 56.)
The well-known Comtesse d'Houdetot was one of Franklin's ardent admirers, and long accounts are given of the great fete which she gave in his honor at her chateau. When it was known the doctor was approaching, the whole company set off on foot and met him half a mile from the chateau. Then they walked by his carriage as an escort, and the countess handed him from the carriage, when they had arrived. "The venerable sage," says the French chronicler of the fete, "with his gray hairs flowing down upon his shoulders, his staff in his hand, the spectacles of wisdom on his nose, was the perfect picture of true philosophy and virtue."
In the year following Franklin's arrival at Paris, Voltaire reached that city after twenty-eight years of absence. The orders which forbade his return had never been rescinded, but no one thought of enforcing them. When the officers at the city gates asked if the carriage contained anything dutiable or forbidden, the poet replied that there was nothing contraband except himself, and the exclusion of that prohibited article was not insisted upon. The enthusiastic Parisians could not be content until the great American had met the great Frenchman. In April, 1778, they were both at the Academy of Sciences, and the audience cried out that they should be presented to each other. They rose and bowed, they grasped each other's hands, but it was not enough; the clamor continued until the two philosophers threw their arms about each other and kissed each other's ancient cheeks. Then the French heart was content: Solon and Sophocles had embraced, and the requirements of the situation were satisfied (Works of John Adams, etc., iii, 147.)
Immediately after the arrival of Franklin the commissioners entered upon the important duties with which they had been intrusted. Deane was already at Paris, Lee came over from England and joined his associates, whose existence he was to do so much to render miserable. He was already unfriendly to Deane because the latter had supplanted him in the confidence of Beaumarchais. It was with Deane that Hortalez and Company were arranging for the supplies they were to send to America, while Lee had expected that he would be the intermediary to take charge of this important business. Therefore he looked upon Deane with disfavor, and the person whom Lee disliked he was sure to regard as a rogue, and to impress upon others his opinion. He soon came to dislike Franklin even more than Deane, and if he did not accuse the doctor of dishonesty, he found in him other faults which he declared were quite as grievous.
For a time, however, while the three commissioners did not regard each other with great cordiality, they at least observed the forms of united action. They were sent over to obtain the aid, and, if possible, the alliance of France, and they at once sought an opportunity to present their case to Vergennes; but the reception of envoys from a government which was not recognized and whose existence was not yet established, presented many difficulties. On December 23, 1776, the American representatives sent a formal letter to Vergennes asking for an audience. Congress, so they wrote, was ready to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce and turned first to France. "We flatter ourselves," they added, "that the propositions we are instructed to make are such as will not be found unacceptable." On December 28 they were received at Versailles, but the French minister sought to escape further complaints from Stormont, of which he had already heard so many, and the interview was accordingly secret; it was, however, none the less cordial.
The business was veiled in such mystery that Lord Stormont was kept in torment in his endeavors to discover the facts. On December 18 he wrote Lord Weymouth that half Paris believed Franklin had been twice at Versailles, but really he had not yet arrived. On the 23d he was certain that Franklin had arrived and had had an interview with Vergennes, but he was consoled by trustworthy information that Franklin pressed for an interview with the King and was refused, so he went away in a bad humor. Two clays later Stormont sent reports of another interview which was also imaginary. Finally, on January 1, he reported that Franklin had had a conference with Vergennes, which was true; but he consoled himself by the rumor that the doctor came away from Versailles dissatisfied, which was untrue. "I continue to watch Franklin's motions as narrowly as I can," he writes later, and this he certainly did, though not always with good success (Letters to Weymouth; Hale, Franklin in France, ii, 419-426.)
At the interview, the details of which the English were so anxious to know, the American commissioners obtained no formal promise of aid, but they were received with courtesy, and they could expect no more at the beginning of their negotiations. Their demands were simple. A treaty of commerce was submitted to Vergennes; but the commissioners did not even suggest an alliance, nor did they present any request for aid. Begging, unfortunately, was to be an important part of the duties of our representatives in Europe, still at their first interview the commissioners did not ask for money. The moderation of their requests surprised Vergennes. "Whether it is modesty," he wrote, "or fear, ... such sentiments are very praiseworthy." (Doniol, ii, 120.)
The Americans were content to be received unofficially at first, but Franklin intended that they should soon be placed on the same footing as the representatives of other nations. A formal audience was requested for January 5. The request was not promptly acceded to, and thereupon Franklin prepared a letter and submitted it without more ado. Such a procedure was not conventional, but the doctor was ready to disregard the rules of diplomatic procedure, if he saw any advantage in so doing. Even in the detail of dress he adopted a style not so removed from ordinary usage as to seem uncouth, but which showed that when be found a fashion distasteful he did not fear to disregard it. He was sufficiently conventional to be decorous, and sufficiently unconventional to be unique. He did not attend the royal levee in the Quaker garb appropriate for Philadelphia, and when he was received by Louis XV he was dressed in black velvet, with white silk stockings and silver buckles, but he thought a wig uncomfortable and did not wear one. All the court knew that the man with the scanty unpowdered locks was the American philosopher and sage.
In his diplomatic conduct, while always courteous, he was rigorous in preserving the dignity of his position and yielded to no conventional requirements which he thought might lessen it. If the representatives of ancient monarchies greeted with informality the envoy of a new and small republic, Franklin, with perfect amiability, treated them quite as unceremoniously in return. When Vergennes hesitated to grant a public reception, the doctor sent him a letter, as he might have done to a merchant from whom he wished to purchase a ship. In this communication the commissioners asked for thirty thousand guns, for which Congress would make payment. If the English declared war, the colonies agreed to cooperate with France and Spain in an effort to secure for them the West India Islands belonging to England. North America, they wrote, now offered to those countries her friendship and her commerce.
The arguments presented by the commissioners were made in good faith and in a good cause, but they have not all been realized. Trade with the colonists, so said their memoir, must be very advantageous, as it would consist in an exchange of the products of the soil and raw material for manufactured goods. The colonies, in offering their commerce to France, offered what had been the principal source of England's wealth. Of this France would now reap all the benefits, without any of the burdens of sovereignty. If still attached to Great Britain, the colonists might aid her to conquer other territories; returned to her allegiance, they would threaten the safety of any nation which had possessions in America. But separated from her, their interest and their inclination would lead them to pursue a pacific policy towards all the world for many generations; by reason of their customs and the immense expanse of their territory, they would long give their exclusive attention to agriculture, which was, they added in a phrase inspired by Rousseau, "the most natural, the most interesting and the most innocent of all human occupations." Nor would they ever, even when they had acquired sufficient strength, become embroiled with European states holding possessions in America, nor invade their territory. Few have the gift of prophecy. No Monroe Doctrine, no Mexican nor Cuban war loomed up before the imagination of our first representatives in Europe. Nor did they foresee any more accurately the future of England. Not for six months, they declared, would her finances allow her to carry on war with France. The loss of her commerce with America would soon render it impossible for her to borrow a shilling (Memoir of Dec. 31, 1776; Deane Papers, i, 434-442.)
But the French ministers were not certain that American friendship would compensate for the dangers of a war with England. "We know," Vergennes wrote the Spanish minister, "that republics are less sensible than monarchies to the requirements of honor, and that they regard fidelity to their engagements only as a means to advance their interests, by which alone their action is determined." (Vergennes to Ossun, Jan. 12, 1777; Doniol, ii, 123.) The request for ships was declined, but the King promised to show his good will by furnishing secret succor to the colonists, and making them a gift of two million livres(Doniol, ii, 121.) This advance enabled the commissioners to proceed with the purchase of greatly needed supplies, and was the first of many gifts and loans which went far towards preventing the collapse of the American Revolution from lack of funds.
The French hesitated at the prospect of war with England, yet the American commissioners had every reason to believe that sooner or later such a contest must come. Vergennes and his associates realized indeed how serious this might be. The arguments which Turgot had used against interference in the American quarrel were as forcible now as when they were advanced a year earlier. It is doubtful if Louis XVI at any time really desired an alliance with the colonies. His timidity and his common sense were affected by Turgot's arguments, his monarchical instincts were offended by republicans rebelling against their king. The enthusiasm for the Americans, which pervaded French society and literature, found no echo in his dull mind.
But the King was not an important factor in the administration; it was not he who decided whether France should make war in behalf of American independence, and his ministers were agitated by conflicting hopes and fears. The Americans suggested the evils that might come to France and Spain if the colonists should be forced to submit to Great Britain; that country could then turn her aims to driving her rivals from America. It was of such a result, of some reconciliation by which the rebellious colonists should again become loyal Englishmen and seek consolation for their defeat by laying violent hands on the French and Spanish West Indies, that Vergennes and his associates lived in constant dread. The evils of war with Great Britain were admitted; but it was declared that a worse evil would be the submission of the colonists to the dangerous power of England, which would then be strengthened by the profits of American trade and by the arms of her American subjects.
To these apprehensions was added a strong suspicion that England would declare war on France, without waiting for that country to form an alliance with the colonists. It was known that France was giving to the colonists all the aid she dared to give, without incurring a certain rupture; she lent them money, she furnished them arms, she received their envoys, she violated all principles of international law in the manner in which American cruisers were allowed to seek a refuge for themselves and a market for their prizes in French ports.
Lord Stormont complained with good cause, and threatened war with much justification. Vergennes met his reproaches with entire disingenuousness and small regard for truth. "Franklin," wrote Vergennes, when the English minister complained of the encouragement given that fugitive rebel, - "I don't know what Dr. Franklin has come to do among us. At first one might suppose he had some important commissions, and then suddenly he shut himself up with the philosophers, and if he is engaged in any political intrigues, it is not with the ministers of the King." (Vergennes to Noailles, Feb. 22, 1777; Doniol, ii, 326, 327.)
The English were not deceived by such assurances; if the objects of Franklin's mission were unknown to Vergennes, they were well known to the British ministers; the French, so they complained, were furnishing the insurgents with succor of every kind; Franklin and Deane held frequent conferences with the ministers of the Most Christian King; ships loaded with money and clothing for the rebels had already left the ports, and if the voice was that of Beaumarchais, the hand was believed to be that of Vergennes (Report, March 7,1777.) If such action led the English to declare war upon a power whose conduct was so inconsistent with its professions, naturally the American representatives would have viewed the result without regret.