Benjamin Franklin in Paris: a Protean 

humorist at King Louis XVI’s court


When a few years ago, Art Buchwald was interviewed by Larry King about his Paris experience, he marvelled at the full liberty young lovers enjoyed while kissing on the benches of public parks. No wonder that in 1776, Franklin, then a fresh septuagenarian, was titillated upon his arrival on the banks of the Seine. The fires of passion still smoldered and were soon to blaze.

 Franklin loved France, its urbane wordliness, its enlightened intellectual pursuits, its musical and literary salons, among a so-called “delightful people.” As early as 1767 on his first visit to Paris he had discovered he was a celebrity as the fame of the lightning rod and the Almanac of Poor Richard–le bonhomme Richard–had preceded him. While Franklin was enjoying high living at Passy, John Adams expressed indignation over his senior colleague’s addiction to French women, wine and food. As a welcome recess from the turmoil of the American scene, joie de vivre was then linked to the pursuit of happiness in Franklin’s mind.

 A born impersonator, Franklin donned a multitude of masks and borrowed as many voices to elaborate on his experiments with a new mode of life. Masquerading was a way to cultivate gleeful ambiguity while enjoying the pleasures of a libertine Ancien Régime that had achieved a sexual revolution before supporting American insurgents against the English Crown, but meanwhile ignoring the plight of an impoverished population. For a time estranged from the violence of the American Revolution, Franklin found at the French court a closed world, a microcosm given over to intrigue, gossip and hedonistic gratifications. Meanwhile, the language barrier could be a serious handicap. As Franklin said once “If you Frenchmen talked a quarter as much, I could understand it and not have to leave good company so often, not knowing what they had talked about” (Writings 1071).

 Nurtured on deapan Yankee humor, Franklin was first impatient with hyperbolic discourse as exemplified in such recurrent terms as magnifique, exquis, and superbe. Although he constantly strove to ingratiate himself with the most influential agents of the monarchy, he did not expect noblemen to rationalize their behavior in terms of the rights of men. The ironic observer was well aware that kings had gathered courtiers in Versailles to neutralize provincial potentates. As early as 1766, Franklin knew that the French hatred of the British could be exploited humorously for instance with his hoax entitled “The Frenchman and the Poker.”

 As the British were complaining about not being paid by the colonists for the cost of printing stamps after the repeal of the Stamp Act, Franklin likened such demands of payment to those of a Frenchman who accosted English visitors on the Pont Neuf with a red hot poker in his hand. He would then say: “Do me the favor to let me have the honor of trusting this hot iron into your backside.” When the stranger answered negativey, the Frenchman exclaimed: “Monsieur, if you do not chuse it, I do not insist upon it. But at least you will in Justice have the goodness to pay me something for the heating of my iron” (Writings 583).

 In the interview I previously mentioned Larry King also asked Buchwald the reasons for French antiamericanism, the answer was: “why should the French like Americans, they already hate each other.” Of course Franklin did not live long enough to learn about the Terreur. Being lionized by the French aristocrat, bourgeois and leather aproned-man altogether was his most notable privilege. His icon was thus a miraculous way to transcend Gallic antagonisms to reach a general consensus. Having an inborn sense of relativity he played whatever part he was assigned and thoroughly relished it without ever losing his integrity, which is the prerogative of the true humorist. Besides he conquered the French by making them feel superior. In Edmond Rostand’s play Chantecler (1910), the emblematic rooster believes that his cockadoodledo makes the sun rise at dawn. Franklin thought he himself was by no means immune to vanity, the major French sin in La Fontaine’s fables. History had already substantiated his opinion. The fall of a transatlantic empire to counteract British influence in America suggested the fate of the frog that wanted to rival the ox in size. When lost in 1763 Canada was already considered as just a few acres of snow by Voltaire, whose statement recalled the fox that deemed sour the grapes he could not reach.

 Franklin was often likened to the type of anchorite courtiers loved to exhibit in their households as a token of their open-mindedness and exotic leanings. His innocent pose slyly capitalized on the myth of the natural man conveyed by trendy philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The image of wildness was equally thrilling in sophisticated salons littéraires. Yet ever since the mid-eighteenth century with Buffon’s natural history, France had been echoing with rumors about precocious Americans who literally collapsed physically and mentally at middle-age. Once, Franklin delighted in refuting such arguments on premature senility and degeneracy by resorting to a practical joke. He invited Abbé Raynal to dinner with an equal number of Frenchmen and Americans. The priest eloquently developed his theory of the decrepitude of men and animals in America. Meanwhile Franklin noticed that the Americans were sitting on one side of the table, and the French on the other. He playfully asked his guests to stand up to see on which side nature had degenerated. It happened that the Americans were particularly tall and the French very short. Raynal himself, who was “a mere shrimp” in Jefferson’s own words, readily admitted exceptions, which allowed him to remain seated by Franklin, another American six-footer. Incidentally Bonaparte was about a foot shorter than Jefferson. Abbé Raynal progressively qualified his negative statements, but still insisted on the appalling expanse of bad lands, rebellious sand dunes, turbid swamps and forbidding craggy rocks to be encountered in barbarian America. Pehaps Franklin’s most ironic insinuation about French vanity was implicitly “Information to ‘Those Who Would Remove to America’” published In February 1784 at Passy. It was intended for noblemen who expected much from expatriation, thinking that their ranks and titles would naturally qualify them for prestigious positions. “A mere man of Quality,” he said, “will be despised and disregarded.” On the other hand Franklin stated that a poor man could have his own property if he worked hard. America was no Pays de Cocagne where “the fowls fly about ready roasted” (Writings 975-83). But the French reader also learned from Franklin that the ignorance of every gainful art compelled the youth to become soldiers, servants or thieves, which was roughly what had seaaled the fate of feudal New France. The idea of the self made man was never easily compatible with the predominance of castes and coteries in Franklin’s guest country. At least catholicity paradoxically appealed to his own brand of deism. Referring to the miraculous conversion of water into wine in Cana in a letter from Abbé Franklin to Abbé Morellet, his pun on divine providence implied that if whisky could be from Satan in America, wine was from Jesus in France.

 Doctor Franklin was in fact more learned and sophisticated than most of the naive Parisian erudites in his entourage. He introduced a cultural praxis by putting in order a whole network of unexpected analogiess by means of verbal jingling. The non dogmatic skeptic peeped through most of his writings. His bagatelles reveal a democratic pilgrim’s progress through successive moods, between comic relief, image enhancing and narcissitic comfort. The French monarchy was obsessed with fashion, decorum and baroque accoutrements. A New World Socrates in the guise of Prometheus, Franklin chose laughter rather than frontal onslaught to remain both a delinquent conformist and an approved dissident. Humor somehow fahioned his success story in Paris.

 Sometimes described as a Quaker grandpa, with his unpowdered thin hair under a fur cap and blue yarn stockings, he stood as the embodiment of a pioneer emerging from the wilderness. Despite rumors that Louis XVI had chamber pots with Franklin’s image at the bottom, his portraits by Houdon and Jean Baptiste Nini were major assets. He thus acted as a playboy of the western world despite his age. Franklin was by no means behind time when confronted with Parisian high society. He was aware that he embodied omniscience, benevolence and success but would not allow himself to be a saint, praised for his good works. He loved the carefree manners of aristocrats but resented their highly stratified society. He admired French women but disagreed with mothers giving out their children for nursing. A surgeon having diagnosed that they could not give suck because of their flat breasts, Franklin’s close attention to the symptom led him to substantiate the first opinion. He enjoyed the pervasive atmosphere of coquettish and erotic innuendoes, the most attractive ladies having a thousand ways of making themselves agreeable. He however deplored that they preferred embraces or their necks kissed, not to rub off the rouge off their cheeks or blow the powder from their hair. He was an epicurian but disapproved of excessive consumption and luxury. To the man of pleasure sacrificing every laudable improvement of his mind or of his fortune to mere corporeal satisfactions, it meant providing pain instead of pleasure. Such was Franklin’s playful moral in “The Whistle” (Writings 931-33).

 The salon littéraire was one of the high places where the wives of dignitaries masterminded the competition for prestige. The libertines loved to bite the hand that fed them. They toyed with the notion of freedom and fought social conformity with risqué attitudes, thus amalgamating philandering with civil emancipation. While doting on the famous philosopher, none of the ladies would ever think of rebuking him for sexual harassment. At court, virtue could be a real handicap

 It is remarkable that no ban prevented the release of Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos in 1782, which reveals the permissiveness of the times. Franklin’s new environment became a stage on which he easily adjusted to the art of seduction by capitalizing on the themes and techniques of libertine fiction. Franklin knew that epigrammatic wit was a standard value for the distinguished, idle rich. He added underlying self-mockery probably to ward off ridicule in anticipation, as expressed in the flaunting of his leg deformed by the gout. Meanwhile the canon of the traditional comedy of manners was deliberately subverted in his bagatelles, essentially to comply with libertine requisites.

Madam Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy was in her mid -thirties when Franklin met her in 1777. Her husband was a wealthy nobleman only ten years younger than Franklin. What began as a flirtation half- playfully half-seriously with the talented lady produced a correspondence in which Franklin appears as a rogue who takes it for granted that youth and crabbed age are not natural antagonists, the old man being allegedly an expert adviser on feminine behavior. The outspoken suitor does no worry about virtue or vice when he claims that his “égarements” are due to overwhelming physical urges. Whereas Madame Brillon is clever and staid, Franklin pretends that love has hit him like a stunning blow. He even boldly draws an analogy between Cupid’s anatomy and his genitalia. The dividing line between erotica and pornography then becomes flimsy. At times he falls back on an alternative strategy by regressing into immature speech, confessing his guilt, becoming a bashful lover indulging in calf-love and posing as a victim. Many of his aphorisms are provocative. Instead of asserting the universality of a moral rule, they assert the universality of its transgression.

The “Ephemera” is a sustained allegory packed with entomological similes. (Writings 922-24) The old fluttering dragonfly philosopher is Franklin himself and Madame Brillon the ever amiable Brillante. The eighteen hours life span of the insect stands for man’s life. Toil in amassing honeydew on leaves has not permitted the old haired ephemera to enjoy life. His few moments of pleasure are experienced at Moulin Joli, a secret haven where coruscating Brillante is the favorite lady ephemera. As in Crébillon’s novels, nature serves as a secluded shelter inspired by the Decameron.

 In his bouts of wits with Madame Brillon Frankiln transmutes the game of seduction into a theatrical performance through a parody of libertine lovemaking, thereby assuming the part of a quarrelsome lover stimulated by the prospect of reconciliation. In a mock display of revengeful jealous outburts he also impersonates the sly seducer whose persuasive arguments will ultimately win over the honest woman’s defensive attitude. Availing himself of a twisted rhetoric he first gives factual evidence: “You renounce and exclude arbitraily everything corporeal from our amour except a mere embrace now and then as you would permit to a country cousin.” (Writings 964-66) He then resorts to the enlightend notions of contract and natural rights to complete his strategy. He offers to strike a deal allowing him to make love to any other woman as far as he finds her amiable. Such devious contentions are in keeping with Crébillon’s libertine transgressions, thus violating the commandment not to covet one’s neighbor’s wife. French exceptionalim seemed to be a godsend for Franklin. Mark Twain was less tolerant when he stated later that a Frenchman’s house is where another man’s wife lives.

 Through Franklin’s ironic distance libertine courtship is described in words that give more significance to the narrative than to the actual gratification of desire. Do the bagatelles allow the contemporary reader to form judgemnts on his genuine intentions? I remember a debate with Owen Aldridge and Leo Lemay in Dublin back in 1999. The question was: “Did Franklin transcend his own wishful thinking by elaborating on his fantasies to entertain a wide range of readers?”; “Or were the bagatelles essentially intended to seduce the addresse, carnal knowledge being an immediate objective?” The debate remains open. At the time there was no paparazi lurking on the Passy back streets to stalk celebrities. Besides whoever identified the author of the erectile bagatelles could not miss his humor if he had in mind a bulky, balding American with a deformed leg who was mimicking some dashing galant in one of Fragonard’s racy paintings.

 With “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker,” Franklin had undermined conventiional assumptions to serve practical morality. A sinful, rebellious woman of pleasure had risen up against a judge to achieve rspectability. For Leo Lemay Polly was Franklin’s paradigm of human nature (Writings 305-08). In the “guerre en dentelles” (lace war) waged at the court of Versailles, many aristocratic ladies did not have to overcome Puritan inhibitions to sleep their way to wealth. Claude Adrien Baron de Helvetius had been a wealthy tax collector living off the fat of the land whose philosophy had turned him into a limousine radical, (the French translation is “caviar left”). In Franklin’s eyes Anne Catherine Helvetiius his sixty year old widow, nicknamed Notre Dame d’Auteuil, was a genuine French woman free from affectation or stiffness of behavior. Abigail Adams, a staunch supporter of women’s rights was horrified when she saw her at her home in the prurient posture of an odalisque, surrounded by promiscuous young abbots. Abigail also reported that Madame Helvetius threw herself on a settee where she showed more than her feet. She also gave Franklin double kisses and threw her arm carelessly around his neck. Auteuil was a replica of Sodom and Gomorrah for Mrs Adams. If I may dare an anachronistic simile, can you imagine Jane Addams being confronted with Calvin Coolidge in Mae West’s waterbed in the roaring twenties? In Franklin’s fantasies Madame Helvetius might constitute a projection of the old mistress whose qualifications had been described in the Apologue of 1745. “The Elysian fields,” a bagatelle written in 1778 is a full-grown jeu d’esprit in the shape of a portentous dream (Writings 924-25). Franklin recounts that, depressed as he was by Madame Helvetius’s refusal to marry him, he had fallen asleep and believing himself dead had been transported to the Great Beyond. Asking to be taken to the home of the philosophers, he met Helvetius who was Socrates next door neighbor. Mourning did not become the former who had remarried with the late Deborah, and did not care much about Madame Helvetius’s steadfast fidelity. Franklin’s inventive libertine stratagem then hurries to invite the reluctant widow to legitimize wife-swapping between the living and the dead. The combination of cynicism with candor provides the humorous tone of the text which also reflects the libertine’s igorance of connubial faithfulness. Anne Catherine’s rebuff did not deter Franklin from trying his luck again and again. By 1784 the humorist returned to the entomological theme in “The Flies” in whih the insects dwelling in Franklin’s house present their respects to Madame Helvetius who has managed to have their arch enemies, the murderous spiders, swept away the flies who have lived happily ever since add a request. One thing alone remains for us to wish in order to assure the permanence of our Good Fortune, permit us to say it


It is to see the two of you henceforth forming a single household. Incidentally in French bizou means kiss in baby talk. (Writings 990-91)

 In 1792 at the residence of Madame Helvetius in Auteuil the busts of Voltaire, Franklin and Helvetius were set up on an altar to celebrate the abolition of privileges. Homage was paid to the song ça Ira, ca ira, partly ascribed to Franklin. Actually whenever he was asked about the war of independence in Paris, he used to reply: “Ah, ça ira” (things will go well). The phrase became a favorite quip. Composer Ladré wrote the song of the same name in July 1790 for the Fête de la Fédération It became immensely popular: “Ah, ca ira, ca ira, les aristocates a la lanterne ah ca ira ca ira the aristocates on les pendra.” The next lines are X-rated.

 Franklin had enjoyed the shallow pleasures of a decadent aristocratic sociey, an elusive paradise soon to be swept to its downfall before the outbreak of the terror. Bagatelles dedicated to the constrasted figures of Madame Brillon and Madame Helvetius, involved ritual connivance, ironic detachment and pleasant flirtation, thus reconciling images of the lingering charms of the Grand Siècle with the radical, disturbing prospects of future challenges. Humor had been part of Franklin’s survival kit, enabling him to filter the agonizing raw material he had stumbled over and transmute it into an elating spectacle.


Daniel Royot[1]



Franklin, Benjamin, Writings, Essays, Articles, Bagatelles, and Letters, Poor Richard’s Almanack, Autobiography. New York: The Library of America, 1987.




[1] Professeur Emérite, Université de Paris III.