A Great Improvisation

Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

Stacy Schiff

Holt Paperbacks

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.


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


Praise for A Great Improvisation

"In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations. Her Paris unfolds as a glittering carnival of spies, rogues, frauds, and flawed reformers, eccentric nobility and perpetually squabbling American diplomats. Towering above all is the protean figure of Franklin, an improbable compound of wit, cunning, hypocrisy, courage, and tireless devotion to his country. C'est magnifique!" -- Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton

"This is a book to savor. Every page has some new nugget of insight, or some graceful turn of phrase that generates a verbal airburst over the most psychologically agile American of his time, perhaps of all time. Schiff has given a genuine jolt to the recent surge of interest in Franklin, along the way demonstrating why she is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today."--Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and His Excellency: George Washington

"What a brilliant book. A Great Improvisation pays tribute to the extraordinary love affair between monarchist France and the republican Benjamin Franklin. Their child was America, conceived at home and nurtured into maturity by France. It is a story full of intrigue, jealousy and passion. But ultimately it is a celebration of one American's love for his country. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece, capturing a fleeting moment when the stars aligned between Congress and Versailles. "-- Amanda Foreman, Author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

"Stacy Schiff's extensive scholarship, her eye for the colorful detail, and her lively wit combine to bring alive -- in full dress and in an absorbing narrative -- the cast of statesmen, adventurers, spies, courtiers, patriots and con men who have a part in the story of Benjamin Franklin's negotiations for American independence, and to fix among them America's greatest diplomat, winning his way (and America's) in a style of calculated disarray. An extraordinary book." -- Edmund S. Morgan, author of Benjamin Franklin

"This remarkable book breaks new ground. Stacy Schiff has dug deep into the archives of France (no mean feat!) and brought up a motherlode of gems which, polished by her wit, illuminate the doublespeak of the ambassadorial world, as well as the ferocious backbiting among the colonial envoys. From this maelstrom emerges Franklin, inventing the American foreign service as he had figured out electricity, bifocals, a new stove, the glass armonica -- step by cautious step." -- Claude-Anne Lopez, Author of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Stacy Schiff

  • Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000, and Saint-Exupery, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.
  • Stacy Schiff © Stacy Schiff
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    A Great Improvisation

    Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

    Stacy Schiff




    Holt Paperbacks