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 Year
An 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.