Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson once said, “Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us.” What he means is there is more to Franklin than meets the eye. Isaacson is right, Franklin is winking at us. His role at the Constitutional Convention was crucially important, and without him there would most likely not be a United States. We can understand this based on Franklin’s known diplomacy in France including his many appearances at the most famous Salons of Paris.
Historians seek certainty—a document, a letter, a record or some such thing that can be seen and touched. In a court of law, it is called direct evidence. Unfortunately for history and historians, Franklin did not and (as will become clear) could not “leave his fingerprints” as it were. The case, then, for Franklin, revolves around what is called “circumstantial evidence.”
Circumstantial evidence is used to prove a contention when there is little or no direct evidence. For example, let us assume two boys both claim ownership of the same dog. Direct evidence of ownership might be a sales receipt from a pet store showing who the owner is. But if there is no direct evidence, proof of ownership could also be determined by whom the dog favors when called. Though circumstantial, it would most probably be sufficient to prove ownership in a court of law.
Most historians say that Franklin’s importance to the Constitutional Convention was derived solely from his reputation as an inventor and diplomat, and that he brought an aura of seriousness and purpose to the proceedings. Beyond that, his contributions were said to be few. The common notion that all the participants were on a mission to create a single unified nation is somewhat misleading. The underlying reality of the Convention was that there were 13 different competing interests. Each state sent delegates to protect their interests first. As Franklin noted:
The players of our game are so many, their ideas so different, their prejudices so strong and so various, and their particular interests, independent of the general, seeming so opposite, that not a move can be made that is not contested; the numerous objections confound the understanding; the wisest must agree to some unreasonable things, that reasonable ones of more consequence may be obtained….
Franklin, the most senior statesman, assumed the role of mediator. He was not the passive observer most historians claim, but rather was actively involved in managing the deliberations of the delegates. He corrected errors, calmed arguments, and reasoned with unfaltering logic. His diplomacy was difficult because he could not afford to make enemies or take a side. He had to appear neutral, otherwise the Convention could split into factions and fail. His task was very much like moderating a peace treaty among warring factions.
How did Franklin do it? Over many years he had developed the art of “gentle persuasion.” In his Autobiography he wrote:
…[I developed] the Habit of expressing myself in Terms of modest Diffidence, never using when I advance any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words, Certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the Air of Positiveness to an Opinion; but rather say, I conceive, or I apprehend a Thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so or so for such and such Reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. This Habit I believe has been of great Advantage to me, when I have had occasion to inculcate my Opinions and persuade Men into Measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting.
He also included in the Autobiography this line from Alexander Pope:
Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown propos’d as things forgot.
Franklin had the skills to manage the delegates, but he needed a time and a place to employ those skills outside the formal, structured deliberations occurring daily at Independence Hall.
The Salons of Paris
Franklin’s success in Paris, getting the French monarchy to fund the American Revolution as well as supply troops and a navy, to overthrow a monarch and replace it with a republic, is arguably the greatest diplomatic triumph in human history. To accomplish this feat, he had to use all the tools at his disposal. The Salons of Paris are an often-overlooked tool.
In 18th century France, the Palace of Versailles was where the French government did its business. Men held all the important positions. The Salons, on the other hand, were the province of women, the salonnières.
“Salons were organized gatherings hosted in private homes, usually by prominent women. Individuals were invited to salons to discuss literature and share their views and opinions. Guests at salons usually came from the haute bourgeoisie or nobility; most were educated, well read and informed about politics, current affairs and intellectual debates.” Attending them required a mastery of the codes of polite conversation.
“From previous visits to France, [Franklin] knew that French women played an extremely important role in forming public opinion and even in influencing political decisions.” Franklin became a frequent habituate of the most important Salons.
Although they attracted the elite of society, the conversation was not formal but rather gay and gossipy. Consider this item about the dauphin’s health (eldest son of the King of France):
The daily health bulletin on his condition…mentioning a bowel movement was read during supper at the home of Madame Du Deffand. Already astounded that information of this sort would have been given at the table, Walpole was surprised again when Madame Du Deffand added that the dauphin had upset his chamber pot and his bed linens had to be changed.
John Adams, who was incapable of understanding Franklin’s techniques, wrote that “The Life of Dr. Franklin was a Scene of continual dissipation.” But inadvertently, he also left us a clue as to how Franklin operated:
He had wit at will. He had humor that, when he pleased, was delicate and delightful…He was master of that infantine simplicity which the French call naivete which never fails to charm…
In the Salon environment Adams was a fish out of water. Franklin, however, thrived, charming all the women in attendance. France being France, the ladies had no hesitation about kissing Franklin and inviting him to reciprocate, which he did with enthusiasm.
Franklin knew that even though the women held no position of authority, they did possess authority over the men who did. He spoke of the American cause in a casual story-like way. All the ladies, whom he paid exquisite attention to, took up his cause. He had “inculcate(d) his opinions” and persuaded a formidable group to promote them.
Franklin, “happened to be the only American envoy whom—both before and after the alliance—the French both liked and trusted. Nothing could have been more critical to our Revolution than that affection; every other American envoy who approached Versailles bungled along the way. Franklin was inventing the foreign service out of whole cloth. And he was, as we know from so many other realms, a brilliant inventor.”
At the Constitutional Convention
Franklin used the skills he had acquired in Paris to similarly “inculcate his opinions” to the delegates of the convention. His house, only a few blocks from Independence Hall became his own Salon. He, in effect, became the Convention’s unofficial host.
His house became a place where the delegates could relax and unwind from the day’s formal meetings. There, they could openly and casually discuss the issues of the day. The house had a pleasant courtyard with a large mulberry tree that provided shade from the hot Philadelphia sun. He had a dinner table that could seat 24. His only daughter, Sally, who, with her husband and children, lived with Franklin, waited on the visitors with food and refreshments.
Perhaps the best description of Franklin during this time comes from Manasseth Cutler, a botanist by trade and friend of Elbridge Gerry, who invited him to Franklin’s home:
There was no curiosity in Philadelphia which I felt so anxious to see as this great man, who has been the wonder of Europe as well as the glory of America. But a man who stood first in the literary world, and had spent so many years in the Courts of kings, particularly in the refined Court of France, I conceived would not be of very easy access, and must certainly have much of the air of grandeur and majesty about him. Common folks must expect only to gaze at him at a distance, and answer such questions as he might please to ask. In short, when I entered his house, I felt as if I was going to be introduced to the presence of a European Monarch. But how were my ideas changed, when I saw a short, fat, trenched old man, in a plain Quaker dress, bald pate, and short white locks, sitting without his hat under the tree, and, as Mr. Gerry introduced me, rose from his chair, took me by the hand, expressed his joy to see me, welcomed me to the city, and begged me to seat myself close to him….
I delivered him my letters. After he had read them, he took me again by the hand, and, with the usual compliments, introduced me to the other gentlemen of the company, who were most of them members of the convention. Here we entered into a free conversation, and spent our time most agreeably until it was dark. The tea-table was spread under the tree, and Mrs. Bache, a very gross and rather homely lady, who is the only daughter of the Doctor and lives with him, served it out to the company…
He was then going to mention a humorous matter that had that day taken place in Convention, in consequence of his comparing the snake to America, for he seemed to forget that every thing in Convention was to be kept a profound secret; but the secrecy of Convention matters was suggested to him, which stopped him, and deprived me of the story he was going to tell…
Notwithstanding his age (eighty-four), his manners are perfectly easy, and everything about him seems to diffuse an unrestrained freedom and happiness. He has an incessant vein of humor, accompanied with an uncommon vivacity, which seems as natural and involuntary as his breathing.
It is impossible not to imagine the cunning Franklin acting as the humble enquirer as he entertained the delegates in his courtyard, asking questions in such a way that the delegates might see errors in their understanding and self-correct them.
Franklin also employed another strategy at the Convention; he acted infirm. This allowed Franklin to write speeches, which others delivered. At the closing of the convention, Franklin wrote what has variously been described as the “literary masterpiece of the convention,” “the most effective speech of his life,” “a testament to the virtue of intellectual tolerance,” “the most eloquent words Franklin ever wrote.” The intent of the speech, however, was not to show Franklin’s eloquence, it was to sell the Constitution to the delegates.
One could accurately call it a “hard sell” intended to “close the deal.” He used the techniques he had been developing and refining over the past 60 years of his life, in America, England and France. It was forceful while at the same time gentle, emphatic but humorous. It was a masterpiece in salesmanship. Franklin knew the Constitution was good, he knew it was necessary, and he didn’t want to lose it.
Here are examples of Franklin’s persuasive skills in this, his greatest letter:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others….
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered…
I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does…
Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best….
On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
Somehow, Franklin’s speech mysteriously escaped the “profound” secrecy so strictly enforced at the Convention and was distributed widely throughout the new states, helping to sell the Constitution to the public at large. We can be sure Franklin is winking at us!