A Great Improvisation Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

Stacy Schiff

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

528 Pages



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Winner of the Ambassador Book Award A George Washington Book Prize Finalist
A New York Times Notable Book

A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the YearAn Economist Best Book of the Year "In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins a narrative account of Benjamin Franklin's French mission, the most exciting—and momentous—eight years of his life. 
When Franklin embarked, the colonies were without money, munitions, gunpowder, or common cause; like all adolescents, they were to discover that there was a difference between declaring independence and achieving it. To close that gap Franklin was dispatched to Paris, amid great secrecy, across a winter sea thick with enemy cruisers. He was seventy years old; without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French. He was also among the most famous men in the world.
Franklin well understood that he was off on the greatest gamble if his career. But despite minimal direction from Congress he was soon outwitting the British secret service and stirring a passion for a republic in an absolute monarchy. He would leave more of an imprint of himself than he did elsewhere; in France he was not the famously elusive Franklin but a very conspicuous one, his image reproduced on teacups and wallpaper, his every word publicly recorded.
The French mission stands not only as Franklin's most vital service to his country but as the most revealing of the man. In Paris he was by turns indomitable and vulnerable, a brilliant negotiator and an abysmal administrator. He was at the height of his power, isolated, sabotaged by opportunists, at odds with his colleagues, preyed upon by French and British spies. Fortunately, he was no innocent abroad; he succeeded brilliantly. It was in large part on account of his fame, charisma, and ingenuity that France underwrote the American Revolution; it was Franklin who would engineer the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and help to negotiate the peace of 1783. The French posting would prove the most inventive act in a life of astonishing inventions.
In A Great Improvisation, Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff offers a fresh account of Franklin's Parisian adventure—and of America's debut on the world stage. Here is the unfamiliar chapter of the Revolution, a rousing tale of American infighting and treacherous backroom dealings. Schiff weaves her tale of international intrigue from new and little-known primary sources, working from a host of diplomatic archives, family papers, and intelligence reports. From her pages emerges a particularly human Founding Father, as well as a vivid sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country’s bid for independence.


Praise for A Great Improvisation

"In 1776, after he had helped edit Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, the 70-year-old Franklin was sent on a wartime Atlantic crossing deemed necessary to make that document a reality . . . Franklin was an ideal choice for the mission, as Stacy Schiff shows in her meticulously researched and judicious account of his eight years as a diplomatic dazzler and charmer in Paris . . . Schiff scrupulously researches the details of Franklin's mission and skillfully spices up the tale with the colorful spies, stock manipulators, war profiteers, and double-dealers who swarmed around him . . . Her research is so convincing and her feel for the subject so profound that A Great Improvisation becomes both an enjoyable narrative and the most important recent addition to original Franklin scholarship."—Walter Isaacson, The New York Times Book Review

"Exhaustively researched and finely written . . . Schiff is a consummate scholar of Atlantic crossings."—Joyce E. Chaplin, Chicago Tribune

"This meticulously researched account captures a key moment in [Franklin's] history with verve, élan, and wit . . . Schiff's Franklin is at once diplomat and flirt, scientist and intriguer. She shows him, above all, as a man of immense resourcefulness who mixed an idiosyncratic cocktail of courage and cynical manipulation for the highest of national, and intellectual, ends."—The New Yorker

"This tale of shuttle diplomacy, of courtiers and back channels, could easily be part of a historical romance. But thanks to Schiff's tough-minded prose and rigorously scholarly citation, we know that it isn't . . . A brilliant [and] memorable book."—Josh Ozersky, Newsday

"The unlikeliness of this book—which celebrates a triumph of Euro-American relations at a moment of profound mutual incomprehension—is exactly why [this biography] is welcome . . . Despite recent attempts to locate the birth of modern thought in Edinburgh and London, neither held a candle to Paris, which was the capital of something far bigger than France. Ms. Schiff succeeds nicely in vivifying this enormous, complicated place, pointing out its snares along with its lures, and recapturing the intellectual excitement that was literally in the air."—Ted Widmer, The New York Observer

"This is an extraordinary achievement. One might think that Benjamin Franklin, among the Founding Fathers perhaps the most interesting, has been adequately covered in the rich literature devoted to him. In fact, Stacy Schiff has uncovered a subject she is the first to treat in depth: Franklin in France from 1776 to 1783, laboring to extract help, financial and otherwise, from the French monarchy to the rebellious American colonies, which had just declared independence from their British mother country. In her marvelous study, as witty as it is scholarly, Schiff has unearthed much unfamiliar material and gives Franklin's historic mission the attention it fully deserves. And she does so stylishly: there is not a dry page to slow the reader down."—Peter Gay, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University

"Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has recounted Franklin's diplomatic efforts in a brilliant, absorbing, and frequently funny book . . . This is an outstanding chronicle of an American icon performing perhaps his greatest service to his country."—Jay Freeman, Booklist (starred review)

"Franklin's most vital service to his country [is comprised by] the eight years he spent in France. During that time, the charismatic and naturally diplomatic Philadelphian convinced France to bankroll America's independence . . . The author covers these eight crucial years with engaging, stylish prose and suspenseful drama."—Jeff Perlah, Bookselling This Week

"Engaging . . . A Great Improvisation has many levels. It is a factual, historical, and meticulously detailed recounting of the travails, vexations, negotiations, complexities, and setbacks of the political and diplomatic maneuvers that ultimately led France to support the young American cause. It is also an enlightening discussion of the vexed and complex beginnings of the transatlantic alliance. Finally, it is an entertaining story, bringing alive a cast of colorful characters, strange plot twists, and bizarre anecdotes, which sometimes reads like a movie script replete with intrigues, ultimatums, cabals, swindles, and vendettas . . . Marshaling so much original information—drawn from diplomatic archives, family papers, spy reports, and the archives of the French foreign service—could have made for a tedious read were it not for Schiff's storytelling skills . . . Schiff introduces us to a cast of unique characters, who she captures in a few vivid and incisive traits."—Isabelle de Courtivron, The Washington Post Book World (cover review)

"[A] magnificent account of Franklin's mission to Paris to secure French support for American independence . . . Schiff has such command of tempo that she sends shivers down a reader's spine when describing a 1780 conversation in which abbé Jean-Louis Soulavie asks Franklin about a prediction that France would one day suffer a revolution even greater than America's. Franklin responds that he 'had some forebodings' . . . [Schiff] has drawn on newly available and little-exploited primary sources for the writing of A Great Improvisation. These [findings] illuminate, in fuller scope and in finer nuance, his mission to Paris."—Avedis Hadjian, Los Angeles Times

"[A] sparkling and amusing history . . . By restricting her narrative to Franklin's period in Paris, Ms. Schiff, a brilliant stylist, has intensified the scope of her story as deftly as any dramatist—and without cheating! This is a scrupulously documented account based on impressive work in French archives. Indeed, the biographer's acknowledgments suggest that, like Franklin, Ms. Schiff brought her best game to Paris: arriving well prepared to inveigle her way into the hearts of the haughty, recalcitrant French, who like to be courted . . . I am tempted just to go on quoting Ms. Schiff because I know that my own words cannot possibly be better than hers . . . We are all in the audience applauding Ms. Schiff, whose supple style is the perfect accompaniment to Franklin's agile flirtation with the French . . . Not since Melville's Israel Potter has there been such a robust and risible portrayal of Franklin and his period."—Carl Rollyson, The New York Sun

"A lively, well-written, and most timely study of diplomacy in action."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

From A Great Improvisation:
Typically after an ocean crossing Franklin's eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of land; he had just withstood the most brutal voyage of his life. For thirty days he had pitched about violently on the wintry Atlantic, in a cramped cabin and under unremittingly dark skies. He was left with barely the strength to stand, but was to cause a sensation. Even his enemies conceded that he touched down in France like a meteor. Among American arrivals, only Charles Lindbergh could be said to have met with equal rapture, the difference being that Lindbergh was not a celebrity
Read the full excerpt


  • Stacy Schiff

  • Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in biography, and Saint-Exupéry, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was a Director’s Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Schiff lives in New York City.
  • Stacy Schiff © Stacy Schiff
    Stacy Schiff




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