Excerpts

The Old Conjurer's Last Trick: How Benjamin Franklin Made an Ally of the French and a Fool of Arthur Lee

Excerpts from "The Old Conjurer's Last Trick" by George T. Morrow II

On December 22, 1776, the third member of the American mission arrived in Paris. Though battered by a rough sea voyage and old age (he was now 70), Franklin could be expected to provide an effective counterweight to Arthur Lee's "malignant temper" and Silas Deane's schemes. Nor did it hurt that Franklin was carrying Congress' appointment as head of the American mission. What Congress hoped to gain, other than political balance, by having a third negotiator at the table was revealed in the letter of appointment: it described Franklin as the most experienced and the safest of diplomats. The next day, his court work ended, Arthur Lee returned to Paris, and the troika that was to negotiate the alliance that would successfully conclude the American Revolutionary War was in place.

Almost at once they split into factions. While Deane schemed and Franklin sorted through dinner invitations, Lee lamented the loss of the people he "could have loved" – the English. While Franklin and Deane were sitting down to hot chocolate, bread, butter and honey at the Hotel Valentinois, the luxurious lodgings outside Paris at Passy provided for them by M. Chaumont, Lee was dreaming of "perishing in [America's] last struggle" (written the day he arrived in Paris). That Franklin spoke very little French, Deane less, and Lee none at all could hardly have helped. But the real problem, from the outset, was that with Franklin occupied in the pursuit of pleasure, particularly the pleasure of female society, and with Lee resisting "external dependence" on France, control over the Mission's commercial affairs and diplomacy devolved on Silas Deane. In a March 1777 letter to Arthur Lee, Franklin claimed that his disengagement was purposeful: "I have never changed the Opinion I gave Congress that a Virgin State should preserve the Virgin Character, and not go suitoring for Alliances, but wait with decent Dignity for the applications of others.."

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It was about this time that Arthur Lee decided to try his hand at diplomacy. If his fear of spies and suspicions about Deane's profiteering and Franklin's apathy understated the awful reality, his anxiety over being personally implicated in what he viewed as a scandal in the making did not. His proposed mission to Spain thus fell somewhere between a genuine inspiration and an act of desperation. It would take him away from Passy, and there was a slim chance that it might work. For all his doubts about suitoring for alliances, Franklin was happy to see him go. So, clearly, was Silas Deane. In the event, Lee left with their written consent to "hazard everything [including] . . . the censure of Congress by exceeding our instructions" if it were essential to his success.

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It is not often that we get to witness the devious mind of Benjamin Franklin in action. We do so here. When the hyperirritable Lee found that his plea for an answer had once again been met with silence and smiling civilities, what was he likely to do? He would fly into even greater rages and make even more outrageous charges, the effect of which would be to discredit both himself and his charges. If Lee's "sick mind" insisted on "forever tormenting itself with suspicions", why not help it along? If Lee would insist on documenting people, why not encourage him to document his own insanity? It was a perfect, self-effectuating strategy, one that allowed Franklin to avoid a face-to-face altercation while satisfying his lifelong urge to extract paradoxical moral lessons from the ironies of existence. Instead of being its own reward, Lee’s virtue would be the ruin of him, now and forever.

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