Benjamin Franklin: First American Diplomat, 1776–1785
Benjamin Franklin, the most distinguished scientific and literary American of his age, was the first American diplomat.
He served from 1776 to 1778 on a three-person commission to France charged with the critical task of gaining French support for American independence. French aristocrats and intellectuals embraced Franklin as the personification of the New World Enlightenment. His likeness appeared on medallions, rings, watches, and snuffboxes, while fashionable ladies adopted the coiffure a la Franklin in imitation of the fur cap he wore instead of a wig. His popularity and diplomatic skill—along with the first American battlefield success at Saratoga—convinced France to recognize American independence and conclude an alliance with the thirteen states in 1778. Franklin presented his credentials to the French court in 1779, becoming the first American Minister (the 18th American century equivalent of ambassador) to be received by a foreign government. Franklin’s home in Passy, just outside Paris, became the center of American diplomacy in Europe.
When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Franklin in 1785, the French Foreign Minister, Vergennes asked: “It is you who replace Dr. Franklin?” Jefferson replied, “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.”