Saturday, July 6, 2013
The Great Borrower
Writing as Poor Richard, Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of frugality and the debt-free life. “The second vice is lying; the first is running in debt,” he wrote in a fairly typical entry for the 1748 edition of the Almanack.
So there was more than a little irony in the fact that perhaps Franklin’s greatest service to his country was borrowing a ton of money from France to finance the War of Independence. Our freedom from England was, figuratively speaking, charged to a credit card and not entirely paid off.
Over the recent holiday I brushed up on the topic by reading Stacy Schiff’s wonderful book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, published in 2003. It outlines in entertaining detail Franklin’s years in France as the American representative, trying to cajole money from a government that was having a hard time meeting its own obligations.
Borrow and Spend or Tax and Spend?
The weakness of the American appeal was not lost on the French. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, at one point, according to Schiff, told the American Congress of “his astonishment that an independence-obsessed republic continued to draw for its defense on a foreign monarch rather than taxing its citizens.“ Some two and a quarter centuries later, we were borrowing money from China, rather than taxing ourselves, to pay for our military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nations, like people, apparently don’t change that much.
France, to be sure, had an interest in vexing England, its long-term enemy. But it is not at all clear that the self-interest alone would have led to a substantial outlay in money to fund a war that had every appearance of being a lost cause. Someone had to ask, and Franklin, feeling his way around a foreign country with almost no direction or support from home, was the right man in the right place.
His reputation as a scientist and inventor preceded him and made him, commoner though he was, a respected man at the highest levels of state. His embrace of French culture and society endeared him to his host country. Patiently working from those starting blocks, Franklin carried off one of history’s greatest triumphs of diplomacy by personality.
A Prophet Without Honor
It was a triumph greatly unappreciated at the time, especially back home. The Continental Congress was as dysfunctional then as Congress is today, and Franklin was frequently presented to that body in the worst possible light by his detractors, who included John Adams and Arthur Lee, who were supposed to be helping Franklin negotiate a treaty with France and raise money.
Franklin’s performance, to be fair, gave his critics plenty of ammunition. He was hopeless as an administrator, made no attempt to protect official secrets (not that it would have mattered much in the spy-infested Paris of the time), and was frequently betrayed, financially and otherwise, by people he had trusted too much.
His record, in that regard, illustrates a fine historical point: A public official can make plenty of mistakes as long as he or she does a couple of big things right. Franklin’s big things were the treaty with France and the money that came along with it; at the birth of this country, almost nothing was bigger.
His supreme gift, Schiff writes of Franklin, “was his very flexibility. He was the opportunistic envoy from the land of opportunity that is the United States. His was an initial display of America’s scrappy, improvisatory genius; it is the gift Falstaff gives Hal.” It was the gift that made Franklin, in Walter Isaacson’s words, the Founding Father who winks at us.
Originally posted in November 2011