Benjamin Franklin in France: A Cult of Personality
When we think of Benjamin Franklin nowadays, we think of pretty much two things: kite in a rain storm and founding father. But he did way more than that. Largely self-educated, he became a renowned writer, philosopher, businessman, scientist, and statesman. So when Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in 1776 as an emissary for the 13 American colonies that had recently declared themselves independent from Great Britain, he received the rock-star treatment.
Despite modern America’s fascination with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Franklin held the title of most famous American in Europe in his day.1 As soon as he arrived on the rocky shores of northwest France in late 1776, the French welcomed him with open arms. The women adored him, the men idolized him, and everyone quickly found themselves entranced by the mixture of frontier-folksiness and big-city philosophe that he worked so hard to cultivate.
Coiffure á la Franklin
The French fashion of the time dictated that men wear wigs; many also chose to powder their faces white with makeup. Franklin, however, did neither. Keen to play the role of the quaint man of the wilderness that so many Old World aristocrats envisioned Americans to be, Franklin never left home without his trusty fur cap.
The French ate it up. After ending his trans-Atlantic voyage at Auray, a coastal town in the northwestern province of Brittany, Franklin made his way to closest city – Nantes. The city, which was put on the historical map nearly 200 years prior when the then king of France, Henri IV, signed an edict giving French protestants legal protection (known creatively as the Edict of Nantes), welcomed their latest Protestant guest.2
While Franklin wrote to Congress that “I have not yet taken any public character, thinking it prudent first to know whether the court is ready and willing to receive ministers publicly from the Congress,” his presence made quite the stir in Nantes.3 In fact, upon his arrival the city threw him a rather impromptu celebration. So much for laying low. And yet, despite the party filled with French elite, all of whom, no doubt, wore wigs and makeup to the fête, Franklin persisted in wearing his fur cap.
Perhaps foreshadowing his popularity with the women of Paris, the gentlewomen of Nantes found his cap so amusing they sought to emulate it. After the bash in Franklin’s honor, women began wearing wigs styled to look like a fur cap, which they christened coiffure á la Franklin, or, roughly translated, Franklin’s wig.
Benjamin Franklin and the Women of France
Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on December 21, 1776.4 He quickly moved into the elegant home of a French noble in the Parisian suburb of Passy. Seemingly able to enchant women wherever he went in France, Franklin turned up the charm to 11. And while contemporaries made it known in their letters that old Ben’s estate never wanted for a female presence, two women, in all his time in France, captured his heart: Madame Brillon and Madame Helvétius.5
At the age of 33, Madame Brillon was some four decades younger than Benjamin Franklin when they met. An accomplished musician on the harpsichord, as well as the newcomer to the musical scene, the piano, Brillon quickly became the object of the old American’s effections.6 And, for her part, she definitely flirted back.
Fellow Americans who joined Benjamin Franklin on his diplomatic mission to France often expressed surprise bordering on shock over the way the septuagenarian and Brillon acted together. She would often sit in Franklin’s lap, which, in letters to Franklin, she referred to as her “sweet habit of sitting on your lap.”7 One time, she apparently even let Franklin and her husband play a game of chess next to her while she bathed; though, in the style of the day, the tub was covered with a wooden plank, so it’s not quite as sexy as it sounds.
But, for all this, Brillon never took their relationship farther than flirting. She even once referred to Franklin as her “Cher Papa”; total mood killer. Franklin, however, clearly wanted more. His sexual frustration pours out of the letters he wrote to Brillon, with phrases like, “You renounce and exclude arbitrarily every thing corporal from our Amour, except such a merely civil Embrace now and then as you would permit to a country Cousin. . . .”8 After years of frustrated flirting, Franklin penned the “Articles for a Treaty of Peace with Madame Brillon” – what amounted to a constitutional construction for the continuance of their friendship.9
Articles for a Treaty of Peace with Madame Brillon10
There shall be eternal Peace, Friendship & Love, between Madame B. and Mr F.
…In order to maintain the same inviolably, Made B. on her Part stipulates and agrees, that Mr F. shall come to her whenever she sends for him.
That he shall stay with her as long as she pleases.
That when he is with her, he shall be oblig’d to drink Tea, play Chess, hear Musick; or do any other thing that she requires of him.
And that he shall love no other Woman but herself.
And the said Mr F. on his part stipulates and agrees, that he will go away from M. B.’s whenever he pleases.
That he will stay away as long as he pleases.
That when he is with her, he will do what he pleases.
And that he will love any other Woman as far as he finds her amiable.
While Brillon and Franklin remained close for eight years, he closed out these articles with the eighteenth-century version of ‘warmest regards.’
Let me know what you think of these Preliminaries. To me they seem to express the true Meaning and Intention of each Party more plainly than most Treaties. — I shall insist pretty strongly on the eighth Article, tho’ without much Hope of your Consent to it; and on the ninth also, tho I despair of ever finding any other Woman that I could love with equal Tenderness…
Benjamin Franklin met Madame Helvétius in 1778, two years after his arrival in France, on the verge of the Madame’s sixtieth birthday. Though she was born of noble stock, Helvétius was child number 10 out of 20 for her family. So, by the time she came of age, she didn’t receive a dowry. With Plan A out the window, Helvétius, who, at this point in her life was still Anne-Catherine de Ligniville d’Autricourt, did what so many other people in their twenties and thirties have done – searched for their purpose in life.11
She tried the life of a nun for while. Unhappy in the cloister, she moved in with an aunt who had left her husband to become a novelist and salon host. Here, Helvétius met many French intellectuals, including her future husband, Claude-Adrien Helvétius. A wealthy financier, Helvétius could give his new wife the financial stability she had sought for so long, as well as the ability to continue to live the life of the mind.
By the time Madame Helvétius was introduced to Franklin, she was widowed. Franklin, himself a widower, seemed to find in Madame Helvétius a true match. After her husband’s death, Madame Helvétius followed in her aunt’s footsteps and created her own salon, which became known as the l’Académie d’Auteuil. In her Académie, Helvétius collected ducks, dogs, and plenty more exotic flora and fauna; not to mention French philosophers and whatever ideas they brought to the table.
This mixture of homespun eccentricity and lively intellectual debate no doubt appealed to Franklin; afterall, he had been trying to give off this same air since his arrival in France. Franklin’s feelings for Madame Helvétius inspired some of his most witty writing, including the famous Elysian Fields, in which he claimed he’d gone to heaven and learned that Claude-Adrien Helvétius, the late husband of Madame Helvétius, and his “former American friend, Mrs. Franklin,” i.e., his late wife, had been married. Once he returned to earth, Franklin proclaimed to Madame Helvétius “let us avenge ourselves!”12
While Franklin did propose to Made Helvétius, which she declined, his whole heart never seemed quite in it. As Walter Isaacson wrote, he proposed “in a way that was more than half-serious but retained enough ironic detachment to preserve their dignities.”13
Despite the hair styles and the tales of philandering, what Benjamin Franklin was best known for in France was his contribution to science. “He was already well known among scientists in Versailles and Paris for his invention of the lighting conductor,” reported Charles Gravier de Vergennes, who had begun secret negotiations with the American side, hoping to convince his king to aid their cause.14 Indeed, the scientists of Paris and Versailles viewed him as a successor to Newton and Galileo.15
His reputation as a first-rate genius solidly in hand by the time he arrived in France, Franklin found himself mixing and mingling with some of the greatest minds of the time. By John Adams’s account, the consistent retinue of visitors to Franklin’s quarters in Passy included “philosophers, academicians, and economists” and “some of his small tribe of humble friends in the literary way…”16 Like an aging rock star on a farewell tour, the more time Franklin spent in France, the more of his fellow celebrities came to join him on stage.
One such moment was his meeting with Voltaire. Arguably the most famous person in France other than the king, Voltaire’s contributions to literature and philosophy, not to mention his stance against the monarchy’s absolutist policies, won him a huge following. When the two men met it was a staged public spectacle that brought two superstars together under the same roof. Though Voltaire was even older than Franklin at their meeting, coming in at 90 years young, the event caused quite the ruckus.
John Adams, always a sceptic of such showmanship, recorded the meeting as such:
There was a general cry that M. Voltaire and M. Franklin should be introduced to each other. This was no satisfaction; there must be something more. Neither of our philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected; they however took each other by the hand. But this was not enough. The clamor continued until the explanation came out: Il faut s’embrasser à la française [the must embrace in the French way]. The two aged actors upon this great theater of philosophy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms and kissing each other’s cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the cry immediately spread through the kingdom, and I supposed all over Europe: Qu’il est charmant de voir embrasser Solon et Sophocles [It’s charming to see Solon and Sophocles embrace].17
In conclusion, vive Benjamin Franklin!
Sources on Benjamin Franklin in France
- “America’s First Rock Star: Benjamin Franklin in France,” constitutioncenter.org.
- “The Edit of Nantes (1598),” musseeprotestant.org.
- Jared Sparks, “Life of Benjamin Franklin,” ushistory.org.
- Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 326-327.
- Ionelia Engel, “Benjamin Franlin and the French Women,” sas.upenn.edu.
- Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 356-357.
- Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 357.
- Dick Hoefnagel, “Benjamin Franklin and the Stol’n Kiss’,” dartmouth.edu.
- Engel, “Benjamin Franlin and the French Women,” sas.upenn.edu.
- Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 363.
- “Madame Helvétius and Ben Franklin,” rodama1789.blogspot.com.
- Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 365.
- Charles Gravier de Vergennes, “Benjamin Franklin has the Face of a Great Man,” en.chateauversailles.fr.
- Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2006)
- Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 352.
- Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin, 355.