CONSTITUTION CORNER - Article 39
FROM THE COLONIAL BATTLEFIELDS TO THE PALACE OF VERSAILLES
By Judy Leithe
France was an unlikely ally from which Benjamin Franklin sought aid in the United States’ Revolutionary War against Great Britain. Both of these European countries were ruled by kings but, ironically, we had more in common with the British than with the pure monarchial rule of France. We shared with our English “cousins” a common language, customs, and most significantly, in 1776, our founders cited the English Magna Carta as a precedent for our liberty from the oppressive taxation by England’s King George III.
Note: The Magna Carta Libertatum was written in 1215. In 1225, after pressure from powerful barons, King John finally adopted the “Great Charter of Liberties” as the English system of Common Law. To the king’s relief, this put a stop to a brewing rebellion based on the monarch’s heavy taxation of his countrymen!
The Continental army was out-funded and out-manned by the British Army, and we needed help. Our Congress knew the French were bitter enemies of the British, so they turned to arguably one of the brightest minds this country has ever produced, Benjamin Franklin. They commissioned the 70-year-old Franklin to be the Ambassador to France, with the hopes he could negotiate an alliance.
When Franklin arrived in Paris in December, 1776, he was acutely aware of the divide between the haves and the have nots. The average people lived in abject poverty in neglected neighborhoods whose streets had open sewers running down the middle. They were forbidden to go near the elegant mansions and businesses in and around the Tuileries Gardens, where the wealthy and influential Parisians resided. The Court of the twenty-two-year old King of France, Louis XVI, was located outside of Paris at the opulent Palace of Versailles, where he and Queen Marie Antoinette lived in the height of luxury, virtually a world apart from the most of their subjects.
As a lauded doctor of science, inventor, and statesman, Benjamin Franklin was known in the societies of Paris, even before he arrived in France. In fact, during the nine years Franklin served as the U.S. Ambassador, Parisians made him their cause celeb. He wrote to his daughter, Sally, “My picture is everywhere, on lids of snuff boxes, on rings, and busts…My portrait is a best seller…Your father’s face is now as well known as the man in the moon.”
Especially with rumors of the U.S. seeking financial support for their war with the British Crown, Paris was inundated with spies from England. Just about everything Franklin said in public was sent posthaste across the English Channel and delivered to King George.
Back in the States, the war for independence continued. After the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, the British grudgingly admitted that Washington and his army of patriots were a force to be reckoned with.
Next week: Battle of Saratoga The Turning Point of the American Fight for Freedom