France Pays Tribute to Benjamin Franklin


June 3, 2024
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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Benjamin Franklin died at his home in Philadelphia at eleven o’clock p.m. on April 17, 1790; he was eighty-four years old. On June 4, Benjamin Vaughan, a doctor, Member of Parliament and friend of Franklin, wrote to the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, another friend of Franklin. In his letter that arrived on June 10, he informed Rochefoucauld of Franklin’s death:

His funeral was attended by every person, public & private of any consequence or description, the procession being ½ an English mile in length, & viewed by such a concourse of people as was probably never before assembled in America . . . I know no person, among those not belonging to the British empire, who will leave more friends to regret him in it. . . . Your grace will indulge me by communication news of Dr. Franklin’s death to the Marquis de LaFayette. Mons. De Mirabeau . . . and such of his friends as it more immediately concerns”[1]

“B. J. Franklin est Mort,” France. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The three men decided that the Assemblee Nationale[2] needed to be informed; they decided that Mirabeau would speak for them. On the morning of June 11, 1790, the Assemblee Nationale was about to adjourn when Mirabeau asked to be heard; his request was granted. His first three words were “FRANKLIN est mort.” His speech was brief but well prepared. At the end of the eulogy,

The National Assembly decree[d], that their Members shall wear, during three days, mourning for Benjamin Franklin, to commence on Monday next (June 14), – that the discourse, pronounced on this occasion, be printed; and that the President write to the American Congress, in the name of the National Assembly.[3]

That same night the Generale de la Commune de Paris[4] passed a motion that the Assemblee should “consecrate the memory of Benjamin Franklin with a historical eulogy.”[5] Abbe Claude Fauchet was chosen to deliver the eulogy and a committee was chosen to select the place where the eulogy would be given. The place they chose was the large hall at the Nouvelle Halle-aux-Bles. The eulogy would not be delivered for another seven weeks; it took Fauchet several weeks to prepare it and the Commune was undergoing a reorganization.

On June 13, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld delivered a speech at the meeting of the Societe de 1789.[6] Rochefoucauld had known Franklin since his arrival in Paris. He described Franklin’s humble beginnings and how he rose to become the Sage of Philadelphia. In his eyes Franklin was the prototype of the common man who rose to the highest positions in a democratic society.

Six days later another tribute was organized by the Friends of the Revolution and Liberty. It was a group of philosophers who met in the back room of Cafe Procope. On this day for their meeting the walls of the room were covered in black drapes and a bust of Franklin crowned with oak leaves sat on a pedestal; under the bust was the Latin word VIR, “man.” [7]

Jean-Antoine Houdon, a sculptor, presented the Assemblee with a bust of Franklin.[8]

On June 20, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, President of the Assemblee wrote, as instructed, to the Congress of the United States; this was his last day in office. He was being replaced by Le Pelletier de Saint-Fargeau. At the heart of the eulogy, he wrote,

The name of Benjamin Franklin will be immortal in the records of freedom and philosophy; but it is more particularly dear to a country, where, conducted by the most sublime mission, this verable man knew how very soon to acquire an infinite number of friends and admirers, as well by the simplicity and sweetness of his manners, as by the purity of his principles, the extent of his knowledge, and charms of his mind.

It will be remembered, that every success, which he obtained in his important negotiation, was applauded and celebrated all over France, as so many crowns conferred on genius and virtue.[9]

On May 10, Louis Otto, the French Charge de Affaires, stationed in Philadelphia, wrote to Armand Marc, the Comte de Montmorin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The letter arrived on July 2; in it he informed Montmorin of the death of Franklin. This was the first official communication regarding the matter. Within six days, a nearly identical letter appeared in the Moniteur, a Paris newspaper.[10] Otto’s letter ended with the words Peu d’hommes ont ete si completement heureux. Peu d’hommes ontsi bien merite de l’etre (Few men have been so completely happy. Few men have so well deserved to be).[11]

Allegorical portrait of Benjamin Franklin in a medallion supported by Diogenes after a portrait painted in 1777 or 1778 by Anne-Rosalie Bocquet; published by Honoré-Thomas Bligny, France. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

On July 21, Abbe Fauchet delivered the civic eulogy (Eloge Civique). The Halle-aux-Bles had been transformed into a quasi-church. The walls were draped in black with funeral decorations, veiled sconces were affixed to pillars, a pulpit was built and in the middle of the hall was a sarcophagus upon which sat the bust of Franklin. Under the bust was a line from Turgot: Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis (From heav’n the Thunder, his Great Genius bore; and usurp’d Sceptre, from proud Tyrants tore).[12] Unlike Mirabeau’s brief speech, Fauchet’s eulogy was long; it included the paragraphs:

Venerable old man! august philosopher! legislator of the felicity of thy country, prophet of the fraternity of the human race, what ecstatic happiness embellished the end of thy career! From thy fortunate asylum, and in the midst of thy brothers who enjoyed in tranquility the fruit of thy virtue, and the success of thy genius thou hast sung songs of deliverance. The last looks, which thou did cast around thee, beheld America happy, France on the other side of the ocean, free, and a sure indication of the approaching freedom and happiness of the world.
The United States, looking upon themselves as thy children, have bewailed the death of the father of their republic. France, thy family by adoption, has honored thee as the founder of her laws; and the human race has revered thee as the universal patriarch who has formed the alliance of nature with society, The remembrance belongs to all ages; thy memory to all nations; thy glory to eternity.[13]

Three thousand people attended the tribute. The eulogy was printed and distributed immediately afterward.

Abbe Berniere was directed to inform the Congress of the United States of the eulogy. On July 29, he wrote:

The august Legislators of our nation have hastened to set the example; but the assembly of representatives of the Commons of the Capital believed it their duty to add to this universal mourning a new tribute of honor, in decreeing that the virtues and the talents of this true Philosopher should be transmitted to posterity, in a public and solemn eulogium, the first that has been rendered among us to civic virtue.[14]

On August 10, the Societe des Ouvriers Imprimeurs de Paris (The Society of Printers – Typographers of Paris) met at the Couvent des Cordeliers to pay tribute to the man who was a printer himself and who respected the profession.[15] The bust of Franklin was not present in the hall; instead a printing press was set up on a platform. There were two speakers, an apprenti and a veteran.[16] The two speeches were unlike any that had already been given. They did not adorn Franklin with accolades, but instead spoke about two society-changing decisions that Franklin deeply believed in and advocated for: freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

The apprenti said:

We have once again become, according to the declaration of rights, owners of our industry; freedom of the press assures us of the ease of forming establishments and of improving our lot in proportion to our intelligence and our talents . . . a citizen must not believe that he has fulfilled his duties by paying public contributions, by expressing his wish in the elections; he must also make himself capable of fulfilling the functions to which the trust of his fellow citizens may [require of] him . . . O Franklin! If one of us possessed your conciliatory spirit, your insinuating eloquence, your learned calculation of respective interests he would appease the factions which are tearing our unhappy homeland apart.

The veteran said

You celebrate the freedom of the press, without which there has never been political freedom. But also penetrating the abuses and dangers of license, you have just renewed the civic oath; it must . . . become the most useful, the most important, the most necessary of all in current circumstances . . . What a superb example you will give of the sacrifices of personal interest for the public good. These incendiary writings, dictated by the vilest, the blackest . . . will no longer stain your hands . . . History will tell of your useful coalition; our nephew will learn that printing workers, hitherto regarded as passive and weak instruments, are those who best knew, best felt the price, the use, the true goal of the art they practice . . . And we are old men . . . will be the first to report to the immortal Franklin what the seeds of virtue, of work, of patriotism have produced, the germ of which he took in the same state where you collect it today with such zeal, brilliance and success.[17]

Their memorial to Franklin was not what was said that day but rather what they did going forward.

Like the Society of Printers, Franklin was also closely associated with the Academie de Medecine. In 1778 he had been made an associe etranger (foreign Partner). On March 14, 1791, his friend, Vicq d’Azyr, delivered a eulogy at a public meeting at the Academie. His first line was Un Homme est mort, et deux mondes sont en deuil (One man is dead, and two worlds are mourning).[18] This is considered by some to be the most complete oration following Franklin’s death. D’Azyr addressed many of the facets of Franklin’s person – his inventions, his discoveries, his political influences, his diplomatic successes and struggles, and his morality. Sadly, because the meeting’s proceedings were not published, the eulogy was not made available to the public for more than thirty years.

There were probably a number of Masonic lodges that held eulogies for Franklin but because their proceedings were usually private there is limited information about them.

Thomas Jefferson, the successor to Franklin as the United States Minister to France, may have said it best when describing Franklin’s influence in France, and for that matter all of Europe. In a letter to William Smith, dated February 19, 1791, he wrote:

I can only therefore testify in general that there appeared to me more respect and veneration attached to the character of Doctor Franklin in France than to that of any other person in the same country, foreign or native. I had the opportunities of knowing particularly how far these sentiments were felt by the foreign Ambassadors and ministers at the court of Versailles.[19]


[1] Gilbert Chinard, “The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin,” The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 99, No. 6 (December 1955), 441.

[2] The Assemblee was the Revolutionary Assembly of France formed by the Third Estate (the commoners) of the Estates General between June of 1789 and July of 1791.

[3] Chinard, “The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin,” 452.

[4] The established Revolutionary government of Paris after the storming of the Bastille.

[5] Recueil des Proces-verbaux de I’Assemblee generale de la Commune de Paris 7, seance du 11 Juin, 1790, Paris, 1791.

[6] The Societe was a club formed in 1790 from the moderate members of the Jacobin Club; it met at the Palais-Royal-Galerie de Beaujolais.

[7] Journal de la Municipalite de Paris, June 19, 1790 and Moniteur, June 15, 1790. Some historians think this was an allusion to the statue that had been erected to King Louis XIV in the Place des Victoires. Under that statue were the words VIR IMMORTALI.

[8] He also presented the Assemblee with a bust of Washington on this day. One of his most famous works was the full statue of Washington that stands in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia.

[9] “To George Washington from the National Assembly of France, 20 June 1790,” in The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino and Jack D. Warren, eds., (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 540-42.

[10]According to the records in the Ministere des Affaires etrangeres, Montmorin shared the letter with Gerard de Rayneval, who annotated it and most likely submitted it to the Moniteur.

[11] Chinard, “The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin,” 448.

[12] “To Benjamin Franklin from M – L – , 12 March, 1781,” in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 34, November 16, 1780 through April 30, 1781, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1998), 450-51. It was the first line of a sestet by Turgot.

[13] Abbe Claude Fauchet, Eloge Civique de Benjamin Franklin (Paris: J.R. Lottin & G.L. Bailly, 1790).

[14] Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 19, 25 January –31 May 1791 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 107-08.

[15] Franklin opened a printing shop near his residence in Passy, a suburb of Paris – it had three printing presses. He used it to print passport blanks, loan certificates, witty satire, bagatelles, and pamphlets.

[16] Pierre-Jean-Baptiste Nougaret, Anecdotes du Regne de Louis XVI (Paris: 1791), 4:445.

[17] Chinard, “The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin,” 472-3.

[18] Eloge de Vicq d’Azyr, March 11, 1791 in the Revue Retrospective, Second Series, 1836.

[19] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974), 19:112-14.

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