Close the window. No, leave the window open. Cold night air can be toxic to one’s health. No, what’s truly toxic is stifled, fetid air . . . .
What has for centuries been an argument between couples long-married was, on one evening in September 1776, an impassioned dispute between temporary bedfellows John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Deputed by Congress to parley with Adm. Lord Richard Howe over a possible end to hostilities, both men found themselves forced into the same bed toward the end of their journey. “At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me,” Adams lamented, “in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window.”
A self-described “invalid,” and convinced of the common superstition that cold air caused colds, Adams moved to close the window as the two men prepared for bed. Franklin immediately sprang up. “Oh! . . . Don’t shut the Window. We shall be suffocated.” Replying that he was afraid of the evening air, Adams insisted it stay closed. Franklin retorted that, if left closed, the air within the room would be far more poisonous than the air without—indeed, it already was. “Come! open the Window and come to bed, and I will convince you: I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds.”
Though familiar with Doctor Franklin’s theory, and though it contrasted with his own experience, Adams agreed to keep the window open, risk the cold, and listen to his companion declaim further. “The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep, and left him and his Philosophy together.”
Commissioners Adams and Franklin would continue on their mission the next day, arriving at Lord Howe’s headquarters the day after, September 11. Unable to compromise on American independence, and with Lord Howe unable to do more than declare America back within the King’s “peace,” the entente between the two parties was as cordial as it was brief.
Adams’ and Franklin’s first partnership in diplomacy thus ended anticlimactically. Their second—as United States foreign ministers to France—would be much longer, much more significant, and much more frustrating for both of the erstwhile roommates. Here the stark contrast in personalities—briefly glimpsed during that one late-summer evening outside of New York—would play out on a much larger stage with infinitely more at stake.
Franklin, having already spent years in England as an agent for several colonies, was worldly, scientifically curious, polished, brilliant, a sparkling conversationalist, and one of the most famous men in the world—the ideal diplomat for the Court of Versailles.
Adams was brilliant in his own right, but had little experience of the world outside of the corridor between Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Where Franklin was suave, Adams was opinionated to the point of being cantankerous. Franklin could conform his behavior and style to whatever environment he was in; Adams was ever the boisterous New England lawyer whether he was in a Boston town meeting or a Parisian salon. What Franklin accepted as the nuances and subtleties of European diplomacy were, to Adams, duplicitous evasions and double-speak.
Every bit as at odds over how best to treat with the French as they had been over an open window at bedtime, the two men found themselves tasked with working together to not only garner French recognition of American independence, but, more importantly, to convince the ministry of King Louis XVI to send military, naval, and financial support. It was upon these sinews of war that the American effort depended, and without which Washington and his malnourished, ill-equipped, under-clothed and enfeebled army could not long survive.
Largely because of his diplomatic experience, and his world renown, Franklin had been Congress’s point-man on France from the beginning—before the beginning, in fact, having been appointed to a secret committee in 1775 tasked with seeking foreign support. Shortly thereafter the septuagenarian was sent to Paris to leverage his star-status for more robust and official support from Versailles.
Adams had declined election to the mission at first, and so it was left to Franklin to enter Paris in triumph in late December 1776. There he met the ministry of the Comte de Vergennes, which was interested in both upsetting British hegemony and avenging their own national humiliation in the Seven Year’s War—but still very unsure if the aspiring republic would help or hinder those ambitions.
Events in the field were doing very little to soothe French concern, and to Franklin was left the task of convincing the French that the Americans could not win without their support but could, and would, win with it. So long as “the English are Masters of the American Seas . . . we can only meet them by Land-Marches,” he reminded Vergennes. Should this imbalance continue, America “may possibly . . . be so harass’d, and put to such immense Expence, as that finally our People will find themselves reduc’d to the necessity of Ending the War by an Accommodation.”The implication was clear: support us in our fight against your mortal enemy, or watch us jump back into their arms.
When Franklin was not working to convince the French to be open-armed friends of the United States, he was working to prevent the other two American commissioners, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, from being close-fisted enemies of each other, and of himself.
Deane, a former congressman from Connecticut, had been sent to Europe guised as a private merchant to procure materiel and credit for the United States. A talented protégé of Robert Morris, Franklin gladly ceded the business-negotiating side of the American mission to Deane—who, in turn, followed a common practice of eighteenth century public ministers by simultaneously pursuing both his country’s and his own profit at the same time.
Lee, scion of the famous Lees of Virginia and a practicing lawyer in London, was also a natural choice to represent the United States in France. Looking to move out from the shadows cast by his older brothers Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, he crossed the English Channel especially keen to establish a reputation of his own on the French mission.
The triumvirate had hardly come together at the beginning of 1777 before Lee was accusing Deane and then, in turn, Franklin of padding their private fortunes at the expense of their country—and of conspiring to exclude him from the Commission’s business. The endless stream of scathing allegations—made directly to his two colleagues in France and in correspondence to Congress—would become one of the first public scandals in American history, and would very nearly derail the alliance with France.
The unflappable Franklin mostly ignored him. “If I have often receiv’d and borne your Magisterial Snubbings and rebukes without Reply,” he would write in an unsent letter to Lee, “ascribe it to the right Causes, my Concern for the Honour & Success of our Mission, which would be hurt by our Quarrelling.”
But though Franklin could dismiss Lee’s vituperations, Congress could not. Split into Deane and Lee factions, the latter would ultimately triumph in a vote recalling the Connecticut merchant stateside. To replace him, Congress chose a member of its own whose patriotism and moral rectitude were beyond reproach: John Adams.
Compelled to prove the purity of his public service through self-sacrifice, Adams ultimately accepted the commission in the full knowledge that he was surrendering what had been a thriving legal practice before the war—and despite the creeping suspicion that his time in France would accomplish little of use. “I have abandoned myself and mine . . . to engage in a new scaene, for which I fear I am, very ill qualified,” he would admit before departing. “However . . . if I cannot do much Good in this new Department, I may possibly do less Harm, than some others.”
These premonitions of uselessness seemed to be confirmed when, after a long and dangerous winter voyage, he reached France’s shore to immediately learn that a treaty of alliance had already been agreed to. The great object already achieved, Adams thus made his way to Paris with little apparent purpose beyond living in the shadow of Franklin’s celebrity and bringing some clerical organization to the American mission.
To save any unnecessary expense, Adams shared lodgings with Franklin once more in a suburb just outside of Paris (albeit in separate beds this time). From this proximity Adams would rapidly go from astonished, to indignant, to seething and resentful towards his senior colleague. “I found that the Business of our Commission would never be done, unless I did it,” he complained home. Practiced in following Poor Richard’s admonition of “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise,” Adams was infuriated by Poor Richard himself and his languid failure to follow his own proverb.“I could never obtain the favour of his Company in a Morning before Breakfast . . . It was late when he breakfasted, and as soon as Breakfast was over, a crowd of Carriages came to his Levee . . . with all Sorts of People.”
To Adams, the true “business” of the American commission was to put their accounts in order and to become expert in the French language. It came as a shock to him then to discover that Franklin did “not speak it Grammatically, and indeed upon enquiring, he confesses that he is wholly inattentive to the Grammar.”
More galling was the lack of organization—or any semblance of record-keeping—done by him and the American commissioners previously: “Our affairs in this Kingdom, I find in a state of confusion and darkness, that suprizes me. Prodigious Sums of money have been expended and large Sums are yet due. But there are no Books of Account, or any Documents, from whence I have been able to learn what the United States have received as an Equivalent.”
As having three separate commissioners was causing needless confusion and expense—and as it was self-evident that Franklin was the only one with any influence with the French ministry—Adams quickly concluded that all the United States needed was a single minister plenipotentiary in France (Franklin, obviously), with all others sent to different courts. Too many cooks were spoiling the broth, and “the Inconveniences arising from the multiplicity of Ministers and the Complications of Business” had become wholly counterproductive.
Left with little to do beyond bookkeeping until his advice was heeded by Congress, Adams’s jealous ire began to boil the longer he was made to burn beneath the radiance of Franklin’s celebrity. Noticed only when being mistaken for his cousin Samuel (“Le fameux Adams”), his pride suffered a slow death by a thousand cuts having to stand next to the man who had tamed lightning, who had succeeded Newton and Galileo, and whose face adorned medallions, engravings, rings, and snuffboxes throughout Paris. “On Dr. F. the eyes of all Europe are fixed, as the most important Character, in American Affairs in Europe. Neither L. [Arthur Lee] nor myself, are looked upon of much Consequence.” Adams was the red-headed step-sister, “a Man of whom Nobody had ever heard before, a perfect Cypher, a Man who did not understand a Word of French—awkward in his Figure—awkward in his Dress—No Abilities—a perfect Bigot—and Fanatic.”
Such an inequity in status would have been difficult for even the most stoic and self-assured of men. Adams was neither. The “monopoly of Reputation” that Franklin enjoyed, and the “gross Indecency” in displaying it throughout the streets and salons of Paris (all of which “did great Injustice to the real Merit of others”) were more than he could bear in silence. To him, Franklin represented everything that he had conditioned himself since his days as a lonely schoolmaster to despise. “The love of fame naturally betrays a man into several weaknesses and fopperies,” he had written to himself then, “that tend very much to diminish his reputation, and so defeat itself.” Vanity was perhaps the cardinal vice, and he “is not a wise man, and is unfit to fill any important station in society, that has left one passion in his soul unsubdued.” Written nearly twenty years before he would meet Franklin, he might as well have been writing about the Franklin he was to witness every day in France.
Worst of all, it was undeserved—Franklin was doing little of value beyond enjoying the delights of his dotage, reposed upon laurels constantly thrown his way. The society of much younger (and married) ladies, an overfondness for ease, and often being taken up by “unmeaning Visits from Multitudes of People,” had combined to keep “his Mind in Such a constant State of Dissipation, that if he is left alone here, the public Business, will Suffer in a degree beyond Description.”
Content that he “must soon quit the Scene” and that he was performing his last, great public act, Franklin made no apologies for his decadent lifestyle—and most certainly felt no shame in enjoying the society of the fairer sex in Paris. “The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable,” he informed a friend in the United States, “by their various Attentions and Civilities, & their sensible Conversation. ‘Tis a delightful People to live with.”
No doubt filled with a bounty of pleasant benefits in the process, Franklin fundamentally understood that the real “business” of his mission to France was to play a role—to be the mascot for the United States, “a Martin Fur Cap, among the Powder’d Heads of Paris”—in a French society thrilled by the experiments in republicanism taking place in the wilderness of North America. This enthusiasm was every bit as important to sustaining the alliance with France as convincing the ministry that the War for Independence was a prime opportunity to shear the mane of the British lion.
In the French imagination, Franklin was America, and it was his first and most important job to, in the words of historian Stacy Schiff, “fit a face to a nation that had none.” Franklin as celebrity was what made that happen—and it is what gave him the cachet he needed to continue leveraging loans from an exhausted French treasury.
The antithesis of Adams, Franklin was not one to dwell on resentments towards others (they “are apt to sour ones Temper and disturb one’s Quiet”)—and he certainly was not one to record his assessments of others in correspondence. If Franklin represented everything Adams despised in a man of fame, Adams must have represented much of the joyless, sanctimonious, and morally tyrannical Boston that Franklin had ridiculed in his “Silence Dogood” letters as a youth—and that he had had to escape as a result.
Based on what little he did write to and about Adams, he ignored him (as he did Arthur Lee) when he could, and indulged him and his ideas when he could not. “To be sure, the excessive Respect shown me here by all Ranks of People, & the little Notice taken of them, was a mortifying Circumstance, but it was what I could neither prevent or remedy.” Adams could throw his tantrums; Franklin had more important matters to worry about, and it would not be until the end of his time in Paris that he would finally record his assessment of Adams: “I am persuaded however that he means well for his Country, is always an honest Man, often a Wise One, but sometimes and in some things, absolutely out of his Senses.”
It certainly must have come as a relief to both when news arrived in late 1779 that Adams’s advice had at long last been heeded: Franklin was to remain as minister plenipotentiary and Adams was to return home, “reduced to a private Citizen.”
The parting was to be but a temporary reprieve alas, and hardly had Adams had time to warm himself before his fireside in Braintree before he was again summoned to represent the United States abroad less than a year later—this time in hypothetical peace negotiations if and when the British ministry was ready to confer.
Once more were he and Franklin made to lodge together, and allowing his animosity to spill over into pettiness, Adams refused to explain what his mission was to Franklin. “We live upon good Terms with each other,” Franklin wrote a correspondent, “but he has never communicated anything of his Business to me, and I have made no Enquiries of him, nor have I any Letter from Congress explaining it, so that I am in utter Ignorance.”
It would be another two months before he would receive word of what his purpose in Europe was—and little time after that before Adams was starting fires in the Court of Versailles for Franklin to put out. Left with no function until the British were ready to talk peace—and convinced that the French were not doing enough to support the war in America—he began to become offensive through letters sent to Vergennes without Franklin’s approval.
To preserve the lifeline between the United States and France, Franklin scrambled to assure Vergennes that his, Congress’s, and the American people’s viewpoints “differ widely from those that seem to be express’d by M. Adams,” guaranteeing him “of the great Obligations our Country is under for the important Aids [Louis XVI] has since afforded us.” To the president of Congress he reported that “Mr. Adams has given Offence to the Court here,” and that his “proper Business” being elsewhere, “but the Time not being come for that Business . . . he seems to have endeavored to supply what he may suppose my Negotiations defective in.”
It was Congress’s prerogative to decide if Adams was right in this assessment, but Franklin nevertheless declared that it was his intention, “while I stay here, to procure what Advantages I can for our Country, by endeavouring to please this Court; and I wish I could prevent any thing being said by any of our Countrymen here, that may have a contrary effect.”
Pushed to the limits of his nearly-infinite patience, Franklin was only too happy to wish Adams well when he left for Holland in search of a loan from the bankers of Amsterdam. Between dealing with money demands from his landlord and having to continually plead with Vergennes for more loans to keep the United States afloat, Franklin had enough headaches to deal with, despite the sudden hope for peace brought by the Franco-American victory at Yorktown.
Working on separate missions for over a year, Adams and Franklin would reunite in Paris in the Fall of 1782 for one last diplomatic partnership—Great Britain was ready to begrudgingly talk peace. This last venture together would be their first successful one, and in it they were able to at long last cast aside the sea of differences between them and realize the one purpose they had shared in common since that mission to Lord Howe nearly seven years before: an uncompromising belief in the inevitability of American independence and the determination to achieve it.
“Long did I endeavour with unfeigned and unwearied Zeal,” Franklin had written to Lord Howe back in ‘76, “to preserve from breaking, that fine and noble China Vase the British Empire: for I knew that being once broken . . . a perfect Re-Union of those Parts could scarce even be hoped for.” To an old acquaintance in Parliament, he excoriated the British ministry for attempts to coerce America: “You have begun to burn our Towns, and murder our People. Look upon your Hands! They are stained with the Blood of your Relations!” Speaking as much to the entire British empire as he was to the MP, Franklin concluded, “You and I were long Friends: You are now my Enemy, and I am, Yours.” The connection having been severed, there would be no turning back.
Adams’s assurance of American independence had gone back even further—to those days as a teenage schoolmaster in rural Massachusetts. By the time blood began to be shed in 1775, he knew what must be done as much as he had known what would happen. “From my earliest Entrance into Life . . . I have had upon my Mind, a strong Impression, that Things would be wrought up to their present Crisis.” Every private comfort—every moment he could be spending in the comforts of his family, hearth, and home—“must go and my Life too before I can surrender the Right of my Country to a free Constitution.”
For both men, American independence was the only thing that mattered.
Next to John Jay, Henry Laurens, and William Temple Franklin, Adams and Franklin would come to enjoy the ultimate satisfaction of affixing their signatures—and of watching ministers of King George III affix theirs—to a document that recognized what they had labored together (and in spite of each other) for so long to achieve. The road there had been long, troublesome, contentious, and painful, but we can imagine that in the moments just after they had put their quills to the parchment, little of any of that was crossing their minds. Scarcely could two men be more different than they, yet there they were, having both played seminal roles, in their own unique ways, in achieving one of the more improbable triumphs in world history.
If politics always makes for strange bedfellows, the mutual resolve to achieve independence and to humble an empire had made for stranger bedfellows still.
(I dedicate this article to my Grandma Berentson, who was one of the most enthusiastic book-buyers for me when I first showed an enthusiasm for history. Because she was a Founding Mother in my love of history, I am now writing about America’s Founding Fathers.)
“[Monday September 9, 1776.],” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0187, accessed April 11, 2019.
“[Tuesday. September 17th. 1776.],” Ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/01-03-02-0016-0189, accessed April 11, 2019. See also John Adams to Abigail Adams, September 14, 1776, ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-02-02-0080, accessed April 11, 2019.
H.W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 520-529. For the skepticism Franklin encountered upon his arrival in France, see Benjamin Franklin to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, January 4, 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0066, accessed April 11, 2019.
The American Commissioners to Vergennes, January 5, 1777, ibid., founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0071, accessed April 11, 2019.
Jimmy Dick, “Silas Deane: Forlorn and Forgotten Patriot,” Journal of the American Revolution, August 28, 2016, allthingsliberty.com/2013/10/silas-deane-forlorn-forgotten-patriot/. , accessed May 2, 2019.
“To James Lovell, Braintree Decr 24, 1777,” in Gordon S. Wood, ed., John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1775-1783 (New York: Library of America, 2011), 150. For a discussion of how Adams’ personality played a part in his acceptance of the commission to France, see Peter Shaw, The Character of John Adams (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1976), 106-107.
For Adams’ frustrations with being confused with his cousin Samuel, see “From the Diary: February 8-12, 1779,” ibid., 193. For the adulation and characterizations given to Franklin by the French, see Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Holt Paperback, 2005), 14-15; and Brands, First American, 528-529. For Franklin discussing the way his face was being “i-doll-ized” in Paris, see “To Sarah Bache; Passy, June 3, 1779,” in Lemay, ed., Later Writings, 268-269.
“Diary and Autobiography,” in John Patrick Diggins, ed., The Portable John Adams (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 7, 14. For a discussion of how the young John Adams conditioned himself to be fit for “an important station” in society, see Geoff Smock, “John Adams: Portrait of the Founder as a Young Schoolmaster,” in Don N. Hagist, ed., Journal of the American Revolution: Annual Volume 2018 (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2018), 19-29.
Franklin to Mary Hewson, January 12, 1777,Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-23-02-0093, accessed April 11, 2019.
For an excellent discussion of how Franklin cultivated his image and public persona in France to further the United States’ ends abroad, see Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founding Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 64-99.
Franklin to John Adams, September 26, 1778,Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-27-02-0442, accessed April 11, 2019.
Franklin to William Carmichael, April 12, 1781, ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-34-02-0416, accessed April 11, 2019.
Benjamin Franklin to Robert R. Livingston, 22[–26] July 1783, ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-40-02-0212, accessed April 11, 2019.
Franklin to Carmichael, March 31 [–April 7, 1780], Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-32-02-0117, accessed April 11, 2019.
Franklin to John Jay, June 13, 1780, ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-32-02-0365, accessed April 11, 2019.
Adams to the Comte de Vergennes, June 22, 1780, ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0280-0004, accessed April 11, 2019; Adams to Vergennes, July 13, 1780, ibid,founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-09-02-0309-0002, accessed April 11, 2019.
Franklin to Vergennes, July 10, 1780, ibid, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-33-02-0034, accessed April 11, 2019.
Franklin to Adams, October 8, 1780, Founders Online, National Archives, founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-33-02-0319, accessed April 11, 2019.
“John Adams to Abigail Adams; Philadelphia, October 7, 1775,” in John P. Kaminski, ed., The Founders on the Founders: Word Portraits from the Revolutionary Era (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 22.