By the time Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in December 1776, he had found immense fame for his inventions and scientific experiments; he enjoyed successful careers as a printer, publisher and writer; and he was a revered statesman as a Founding Father who helped write the Declaration of Independence. But as he made his way to Paris, his most difficult – and most important – challenge still awaited him.


That is the setting for a new miniseries, Franklin, streaming on Apple TV+ from 12 April. Based on Stacy Schiff’s 2005 biography, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, it stars Michael Douglas in the titular role, Noah Jupe as Franklin’s teen grandson Temple, and Thibault de Montalembert as French foreign minister, Comte de Vergennes [the Count of Vergennes].

Across eight episodes, the drama follows Franklin’s clandestine mission to secure French support, both military and financial, for the United States in their fight for independence. He navigates the royal court, risks discovery by spies, and clashes with his fellow Americans, all as Franklin the diplomat bears the burden of a young nation’s future on his shoulders.

Why did Benjamin Franklin go to France?

In 1776, Franklin turned 70. Long retired from his printing and publishing ventures as a wealthy man, he had focused his attentions in other fields.

As a scientist he advanced understanding of electricity thanks in part to his famous 1752 experiment of flying a kite in a storm. As an inventor he developed the lightning rod, bifocal spectacles and a musical instrument made of glass used by the likes of the composers Mozart and Beethoven. And as a figurehead of Enlightenment ideals, in 1743 he founded the American Philosophical Society.

Yet it was as a public servant that Franklin was most devoted. Having held several offices in his adopted state of Pennsylvania, he lived for nearly two decades in London and dedicated much of his efforts to mediate between Britain and the American colonies.

As calls for American independence from British rule grew louder, though, he firmly picked a side. Franklin returned to Philadelphia in May 1775, with the American Revolutionary War already begun, and was immediately selected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. There, he was a member of the ‘Committee of Five’ that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

As the world’s most famous American, a proven statesman and a loyal Patriot, Franklin was chosen to go to France to plead the case of the United States.

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Benjamin Franklin: a diplomat in France

The fledgling United States needed an ally, plus the legitimacy that came from a formal acknowledgement by a foreign power. France, meanwhile, generally looked to exploit any opportunity to attack and humiliate their old enemy, Britain.

Franklin was to negotiate an alliance that would bring French soldiers, military hardware and money into the American War of Independence. While his purpose was a secret – leading to much speculation in Paris as to why the famed polymath had come – if the British intercepted him during the Atlantic crossing, he could have been executed as a traitor to the crown.

In France with Franklin were fellow diplomats Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, as well as his teenage grandson, Temple (who acted as his secretary), and 7-year-old grandson Benny. The American cause also had an ally in the French foreign minister, the count of Vergennes. However, from Franklin’s arrival in December 1776, convincing the French to back the United States proved a tricky task, since George Washington’s Continental Army was suffering defeat after defeat.

For much of 1777, a formal alliance was (from France’s perspective) a far from tempting prospect. Besides, France had been covertly aiding the Americans anyway by selling munitions, and several French soldiers had gone to fight on the American side, including Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.

But Franklin was patient. He decided that the best way to win over the French was by throwing himself fully into the culture of the royal court at Versailles, by befriending and networking in the salons and at high society events, and by exploiting his celebrity status.

Franklin’s fashions in France: how he became a style icon

Franklin had a distinctive look while in France, choosing to wear a simple brown jacket rather than sport the elaborate fashions of the day, and wearing a fur cap instead of a wig. The French embraced it. Franklin’s face was soon appearing on a host of items, including paintings, medallions, rings and snuffboxes, while his hat was widely imitated. Women even had their hair done in the “coiffure a la Franklin” style.

While he lacked fluent French, his charisma, ready wit and diplomacy – and not to mention his abilities at promotion and bluffing – gradually found increasingly sympathetic audiences. What Franklin needed now was a shift in fortune in the war back home.

How did Benjamin Franklin negotiate the Franco-American Alliance?

A year after he arrived in France, a messenger came to Franklin with the news he was waiting for: a stunning victory against the British in the 1777 battle of Saratoga. This encouraged King Louis XVI and his court to look more favourably on American chances.

France decided to formally recognise the United States, and agreed to the Franco-American Alliance, as negotiated by Franklin. Two treaties were signed on 6 February 1778. The Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce marked France’s recognition of US independence and established commercial interests between the two countries.

The Treaty of Alliance secured military backing against Britian. France entered the war, resulting in a vital shift in momentum. France spent so much as part of the alliance, in fact – and not to mention the human cost – that it all but crippled the country, which proved to be a significant cause of the French Revolution just over a decade later.

Benjamin Franklin as the first ambassador to France

The alliance had been achieved, but Franklin’s work was far from done. He was made the Minister to France (the contemporary equivalent to the role of ambassador) and spent the next few years liaising with the French to ensure a steady supply of men, equipment and funds.

Despite his age and increasingly poor health – suffering, as he did, from painful bouts of gout – Franklin regularly worked throughout the night. A main draw on his time was the constant stream of visitors to his home at Passy, from merchants wanting to sell to the Americans, to would-be inventors.

Then, in April 1778, the relationships Franklin had spent years crafting within the French court came under threat with the arrival of John Adams, a fellow Founding Father (and future president) dispatched as a new diplomat. His brash and abrasive manner clashed with the manners of the etiquette of Versailles, and with Franklin. The pair disliked each other immensely.

But in 1781, the end of the war finally came into view with a decisive victory at the Siege of Yorktown. Franklin was soon called upon to play a key role in the peace negotiations with representatives of the British king, George III, and would be one of the signatories of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, officially ending the war.

In 1785, after nine years in France, Franklin returned home to find a nation emerging from the shadow of war. He also found Congress keen to downplay just how indebted the United States had been to French aid, and so reluctant to acknowledge publicly the extent of his efforts.

Yet without France, the Americans would not have won; and without Franklin, there would have been no France.

And for his roles before, during and after the war, Franklin holds a unique honour as the only person to sign the Declaration of Independence, Franco-American Alliance, Treaty of Paris, and – his public service continuing until his death in 1790 – the US Constitution.


Franklin is streaming now on Apple TV+


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.