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Benjamin Franklin as diplomat

In this video, Sal and Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson discuss Benjamin Franklin as a diplomat.  Created by Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

Voiceover: So we've talked about Benjamin Franklin as a public leader, we've talked about him as a businessman, we've talked about him as an inventor and scientist, now I think the last piece of the Benjamin Franklin puzzle is just him as, for lack of a better word, him as founding father. Voiceover: Yes, and as a diplomat in particular, 'cause he was America's first diplomat. In about 1757, he becomes the ambassador, or agent, of the Pennsylvania colony, to represent Pennsylvania in London, with the ministers, to try to make sure that the rights of the assembly, and the people of Pennsylvania, were taken into account. And eventually, off and on over the next 17 or 18 years, he becomes an agent for a lot of the colonies, and starts representing the interests of the American colonies in London. Voiceover: And this is a really important time in American history, because this is when tensions between the U.S., between the colonies, and Great Britain are really coming to a head. You have the French and Indian War really kind of part of a larger European war, but that ends in 1763, the British want the colonies to pay for it... Voiceover: Right, that's the big deal, which is the British think that the American colonies have to pay because Britain helped protect them in the French and Indian War, and they just start putting taxes on the American colonies, and the American colonies by this point are as sophisticated, and as strong of an economy, as Britain. They don't feel that they should be dictated to by the people in London. And they have their own legislatures in each of the colonies, so they're saying, yeah, we know we have to have taxes, but our legislatures should do the taxes. We don't want taxation without representation, as became the rallying cry, and so it was up to Franklin to try to talk the British Parliament out of things like the Stamp Act, where every time you bought a piece of paper or newspaper you had to pay a tax to London, and to give the power to the colonial legislatures. Voiceover: So he was really, you know when we read in the history books, this whole time period of things coming, the tensions rising, it was really Benjamin Franklin that was trying to negotiate, communicate, the anger, really... Voiceover: And he was very close to a lot of the people in London then, it was part of the Enlightenment, there's a wonderful picture of him there in London, in which there's Issac Newton looking over his shoulder, and so he is part of that intellectual class of like Doctor Johnson, and all the people in London, but unfortunately the government is still run by a very aristocratic Tory elite, and Franklin has trouble convincing them to give rights to the American colonies. Voiceover: And this breaking up, it does kind of pain him, because as you mention, this is the Enlightenment. Benjamin Franklin is a, kind of a key figure, Voiceover: And he obtained electricity, he was a great scientist, so this is this great man living in a small house in London, right near the Parliament, and he's very well respected by all the intellectuals, but he gets treated very badly by the Parliament. At one point he's called in front of what's called the Cockpit, which is a part of Parliament, and he is humiliated, because they make fun of him for trying to stop the Parliament from taxing the colonies and that enrages Benjamin Franklin, and that finally tips him over to being closer to the side of, we may have to have a revolution and just break away from England. Voiceover: And that actually leads to family problems, 'cause his son... Voiceover: Yeah, so he brought his illegitimate son William over with him, and he's very close to William, but William becomes quite aristocratic, despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact that he was illegitimate kid of a middle-class person, he starts hanging around with the dukes and the earls, and he ends up being appointed by the crown, basically the government and the king, to be the royal governor of New Jersey, so William Franklin becomes a dedicated loyalist, to the crown of England, just as his father Benjamin Franklin is becoming a rebel, and siding with those who want a revolution. Voiceover: And so everything eventually, we know how history went, the 1775, 1776, hostilities begin, 1775 Franklin goes back. Voiceover: Franklin goes back, he goes back unsuccessful because he had tried to stop the hostilities. He gets back to Philadelphia once again, at Market Street he comes off the boat, and everybody in Philadelphia is kind of wondering, is he loyal to the British empire and the crown, or has he truly joined the cause of revolution, and he has a meeting with his son, who's then the royal governor of New Jersey, and he tells his son he's gonna become a revolutionary, his son says I'm gonna stay loyal to the crown, they basically barely speak to each other again for the rest of their lives, this is a great break, and Franklin announces to the people in Philadelphia, that he is going to join the cause of American independence. And that's when he gets to work with Jefferson and Adams on the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776. And right after that, in order to make the Declaration a reality, they realize we have to get France in on our side of the war. You mentioned that the French and Indian War, that the British and the French had been fighting for a century almost, off and on, so in order for the U. S. to win its independence in a war against Britain, it would help to have the support of the French, who are naturally willing to fight Britain, (chuckling) given any opportunity, and were already part of a larger global war with Britain. So he becomes ambassador in Paris, in order to get the French in. Now if you look at those two pictures, it's kind of cool, 'cause there's Franklin in London, looking like quite a gentleman in a velvet coat. When he gets to France, he realizes that the French people have been reading Jean Jacques Rousseau, maybe once too often, about all the natural man and the forest, and how the natural philosopher comes from the back woods. Franklin never lived in the back woods, (chuckling) he lived in Boston, Philadelphia, and London his whole life, but when he gets to Paris, he wears a coonskin cap, and sort of a backwoodsman coat, so that he can appear to the French as sort of this wilderness natural man philosopher from the forest, talking about independence and liberty. Voiceover: And that's what he did, I mean he does eventually return, but he's in Paris, he does convince the French... Voiceover: to get in on our side of the war Voiceover: to get on our side of the war And he spends a significant amount of time there, and becomes... Voiceover: Oh, he becomes a grand old man in Paris, first of all as a diplomat convincing the French to come in on our side of the war, as a publicist, he makes a printing press in his house near Paris, a place called Passy, and he prints the Declaration of Independence, and all the great documents coming out of America. Of course he's renowned as a scientist, 'cause the French had been the first people to do his lightning rod experiments, so they love him in France, and he's kind of, he has, you know, Deborah Read has died by this point, so even as he's in his 70s, he has two famous girlfriends, mistresses in Paris, and he writes wonderful poetry and bagatelles and stories to them. So he is a great bon vivant in Paris. Voiceover: So he's a bit of a Parisian. Voiceover: Very much of a Parisian, and drinks wonderful amounts of port. John Adams also has to come to Paris at a certain point. John Adams is very much the Puritan. And even though they had worked together for many years, they didn't really like each other. And John Adams was appalled at Franklin having two girlfriends, and getting up late in the morning, and drinking a lot of port and brandy, but it is Franklin who is able to get the French in on our side, and then the triumph in Paris is called the Treaty of Paris, when the war is winding down, and Benjamin Franklin is able to negotiate the treaty with Britain to end the American Revolution and give the U. S. its independence, and it ends the war, and Franklin is able to do it working with the French, sometimes behind the back of the French, a very wily diplomat, and at that point they've kicked John Adams out because they know... Voiceover: They didn't like him. Voiceover: Ben Franklin's the guy who can make this complicated piece happen. Voiceover: And they liked him more. Voiceover: Oh yeah, (laughing) he was definitely, if you had to choose who are you gonna spend the evening with in Paris, you'd pick Ben Franklin over John Adams, even though we have to give John Adams [unintelligible] for being a very, very important patriot. Voiceover: And this is the big picture, this is the one something that was surprising to me, is that Benjamin Franklin, who is one of our larger than life founding fathers, his role was not to pick up a musket, his role was for the second half of his life, he was in Europe, he was in London, he was in Paris, and he was really there to represent the country and to negotiate with both England, as kind of an adversary, or eventually an adversary, and with Paris, as an ally. Voiceover: And we would not really have won the Revolution without his diplomacy, because it's the French who send most of the gunpowder we used, most of the troops used, it's Vergennes, the French foreign minister who helps send a navy, so that at Yorktown, when George Washington wins the battle, that pretty much ends the Revolution because the French navy is there supporting him. So all of these things work, and finally, near the end, in 1885, I think, as he's just about to turn 80, he comes back for the last few years of his life, gets involved in the Constitutional Convention, and becomes a great elder statesman. Voiceover: Fascinating.