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Franklin's Contributions to the
American Revolution as a Diplomat in France

National Archives
Benjamin Franklin

Of all the representatives sent abroad to secure aid from friendly nations, no one has equaled Benjamin Franklin in ability, tact, common sense, diplomacy, and international reputation.

He began as a printer, became a publisher, founded papers, served as editor and reporter, and also printed an almanac known as "Poor Richard's Almanac" which is indeed historical. His wise sayings and maxims show an unusual common sense philosophy.

He established in Philadelphia better plans of transportation and also aided throughout Pennsylvania and improved communication. He helped save property from destruction and aided insurance plans against fire.

As an inventor, his accomplishments were unusual. He also aided in changing our standards of life by the invention of the Franklin Stove and started the pioneer work to harness electricity to be an agent for the benefit of mankind. In Philadelphia, he also founded one of the great universities of the world. In government, he made contributions in developing unity and democracy in our colonies, and he also served for many years as official colonial agent in London for Pennsylvania. He pointed out for a long time to the British Government that taxation without representation was a principle upon which America stood firmly.

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When Franklin went to France in the early part of the Revolution as the official diplomat and ambassador of the thirteen colonies, he came as a man of maturity, brilliance, ability, and as a world statesman. Upon his arrival in Paris, there was no other statesman or philosopher who could equal him in his ability and accomplishments. His presence in Paris annoyed the British minister and staff. Franklin enjoyed the situation. The years he remained in Paris were unusually fruitful ones for America and helping to work out the future destiny of the United States of America. In the early 1950's the United States published ten volumes of the United States Foreign Affairs during the Revolution, and the major part of the ten volumes covers the work of Franklin.

The colonies indeed needed help of every description--men, money, equipment, ships, and all things to fight a successful war. The long years of enmity between France and Britain opened the way for the leadership of Franklin. And he was not only the man to exploit it, but also the reason for the acceptance of thirteen states as a recognized nation in the world of nations.

During his long career of service, we shall never know how many men sought commissions in the Revolution. But this much we do know--that Franklin was never deceived, as he never held out any hope for a commission unless the applicant had the ability in his chosen field. One of the men aided very early was John Paul Jones; and as an Admiral in the little American Navy composed of two ships under his command, he took those two ships and sailed into English waters for a fight. In a terrific battle, two proud English ships surrendered; and they were brought into French waters as American prizes.

When the United States flag, the red, white, and blue, became the official flag of the country in June, 1777, the French Navy saluted it as the first of all nations.

Another important selection was Baron Von Steuben who came to be an important leader at Valley Forge during the tragic winter of 1777-1778 in the reorganization of the Continental Army. Franklin wrote Washington a long personal letter about Steuben. When his services were accepted by Congress, he showed that he was thoroughly dependable; and his military ability and leadership were likewise shown in the reorganization of the Army in the days ahead. His devotion to Washington and earnestness to his new country constitute fine commendation of Franklin's aid.

In the final stages of the war, after long weeks of hard campaigning, Cornwallis was bottled up in Yorktown, Virginia. Lafayette, who had done so much for the American cause out of his own private fortune and by his persistence to his own government for men, equipment, and ships, always backed up the entire procedure of Franklin.

As the conditions became ripe and favorable, then Washington and his Continentals came down from the North and by rapid marches joined the French soldiers under Rochembeau; and the last great battle of the war entered its final phase. DeGrasse, Commander of the French fleet, kept reinforcements away; and the armies, under the supreme command of Washington, in a series of successful attacks upon the British forces led to the final conclusion and surrender of Cornwallis in October, 1782.

There were times during the long residence of Franklin in Paris when events were pleasant and joyful instead of war planning and persuading the French officials to be more generous in their gifts to America. There were meetings of scholars, writers, and scientists in which Franklin was invariably the center of attraction. The plainness of his dress, the simplicity of his personality, and his tact, agreeableness, and responsiveness were always appreciated; and there was nothing haughty about him. Under all conditions, he was a friend of man, a world benefactor, and the representative of a cause which appealed to people all over the world--a living exponent of American democracy. He had a wonderful story to tell of the conquest of a continent by a people through thrift, endurance, sacrifice and grit. He was always a welcomed guest at the Royal receptions, and the king and queen appreciated his ready wit.

When the war was over, the great problem remained to conclude the peace. The French politicians determined to make the American alliance turn in every way to their own advantage. When the news of the glorious alliance was made in early Spring, May 1778, which brought so much cheer and new faith to the officers and men alike, just as the new life of Spring was bringing green grass and bursting buds to the naked trees of Valley Forge, which was symbolical of the improved conditions of the American soldiers as they had suffered on the bleak hills of Valley Forge during the tragic winter.

Now the war was over and there were those in power who thought they could use Franklin, the American alliance and the United States to their own advantage. The French politicians were opposed to a separate peace treaty for the United States, but they proposed to have a treaty in which American independence and sovereignty would be tied directly to the French treaty. And then they could hold the United States under their own direction.

Franklin knew French politicians too well, and he resolved such conditions should not result. Franklin was courageous, bold and had a definite sense of vision plans in diplomacy. consequently, he met the leaders of the British commission and secured a separate treaty with them. He secured just what he wanted for his country; namely, the absolute independence of the United States, recognition of it as a distinctive government, and at the same time the exact boundaries of the United States were generally established. Some of the American members were fearful lest all plans should be ruined, but not so Franklin.

The French commission was furious and spoke unkindly to Franklin. Again undaunted, he met them and convinced them they could not hold the United States to their own plans; and thus he succeeded.

In conclusion, with excerpts of four important Franklin letters as follows:

  • "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

    -In the Continental Congress just before signing the Declaration of Independence, 1776.

  • "It is a common observation here (Paris) that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own."

    -Letter to Samuel Cooper, 1777

  • "Thus the great and hazardous enterprise we have been engaged in is, God be praised, happily completed***. A few years of peace will improve, will restore and increase our strength; but our future will depend on our union and our virtue***. Let us, therefore, beware of being lulled into a dangerous security; and of being both enervated and impoverished by luxury; of being weakened by internal contentions and divisions***."

    -Letter to Charles Thomson, from Paris, 1784,
    just after signing the Peace Treaty

  • "Our Constitution is in actual operation; everything appears to promise that it will last; but nothing in this world is certain but death and taxes."

    -Letter to M. Leroy, 1789.

Excerpted from a summary of an address delivered in the Washington Memorial Chapel on February 22, 1956 by Charles William Heathcote, Ph.D.

Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society


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