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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (Audio)

By: Stacy Schiff (Author)



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Benjamin Franklin began the "the most taxing assignment of his life" at the age of 70: to secure the aid of the French monarchy in helping the fledgling United States establish their republic. The job required tremendous skill, finesse, and discretion, and as Stacy Schiff makes clear in this brilliant book, Franklin was the ideal American, perhaps the only one, to take on the task, due in large part to his considerable personal prestige. One of the most famous men in the world when he landed in France in December 1776, his arrival caused a sensation--he was celebrated as a man of genius, a successor to Newton and Galileo, and treated as a great dignitary, even though the nation he represented was less than a year old and there were many doubts as to whether it would see its second birthday. Though he had no formal diplomatic training and spoke only rudimentary French, Franklin managed to engineer the Franco-American alliance of 1778 and the peace treaty of 1783, effectively inventing American foreign policy as he went along, in addition to serving as chief diplomat, banker, and director of American naval affairs.

Franklin recognized and accepted the fact that French aid was crucial to American independence, but some Founding Fathers resented him for making America dependent on a foreign power and severely attacked him for securing the very aid that saved the cause. Schiff offers fascinating coverage of this American infighting, along with the complex political intrigue in France, complete with British spies and French double agents, secret negotiations and backroom deals. A Great Improvisation is an entertaining and illuminating portrait of Franklin's seven-year adventure in France that "stands not only as his greatest service to his country but the most revealing of the man." --Shawn Carkonen

Short Desription

“In December 1776, a small boat delivered an old man to France.” So begins a dazzling narrative account of Benjamin Franklin’s French mission, the most exacting–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 of his career. But despite minimal direction from Congress he was soon outwitting the British secret service and stirring passion for a republic in an absolute monarchy.

In A Great Improvisation Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff offers an utterly fresh and thrilling account of Franklin’s Parisian adventure and of America’s debut on the world stage. 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.



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