A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America

by Stacy Schiff

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In this dazzling work of history, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author follows Benjamin Franklin to France for the crowning achievement of his career

In December of 1776 a small boat delivered an old man to France." So begins an enthralling narrative account of how Benjamin Franklin--seventy years old, without any diplomatic training, and possessed of the most rudimentary French--convinced France, an absolute monarchy, to underwrite America's experiment in democracy.

When Franklin stepped onto French soil, he well understood he was embarking on the greatest gamble of his career. By virtue of fame, charisma, and ingenuity, Franklin outmaneuvered British spies, French informers, and hostile colleagues; engineered the Franco-American alliance of 1778; and helped to negotiate the peace of 1783. The eight-year French mission stands not only as Franklin's most vital service to his country but as the most revealing of the man.

In A Great Improvisation, Stacy Schiff draws from new and little-known sources to illuminate the least-explored part of Franklin's life. Here is an unfamiliar, unforgettable chapter of the Revolution, a rousing tale of American infighting, and the treacherous backroom dealings at Versailles that would propel George Washington from near decimation at Valley Forge to victory at Yorktown. From these pages emerge a particularly human and yet fiercely determined Founding Father, as well as a profound sense of how fragile, improvisational, and international was our country's bid for independence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429907996
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/10/2006
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 32,154
File size: 624 KB

About the Author

Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000, and Saint-Exupery, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.

Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000, and Saint-Exupery, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

October 26, 1961

Place of Birth:

Adams, Massachusetts


B.A., Williams College, 1982

Read an Excerpt

From A Great Improvisation:
Typically after an ocean crossing Franklin's eyes brimmed with tears at the sight of land; he had just withstood the most brutal voyage of his life. For thirty days he had pitched about violently on the wintry Atlantic, in a cramped cabin and under unremittingly dark skies. He was left with barely the strength to stand, but was to cause a sensation. Even his enemies conceded that he touched down in France like a meteor. Among American arrivals, only Charles Lindbergh could be said to have met with equal rapture, the difference being that Lindbergh was not a celebrity until he landed in Paris. At the time he set foot on French soil Benjamin Franklin was among the most famous men in the world. It was his country that was the great unknown. America was six months old; Franklin seventy years her senior. And the fate of that infant republic was, to a significant extent, in his hands.

Table of Contents

Cast of Charactersxi
IThe First Mistake in Public Business Is the Going into It 17767
IIHalf the Truth Is Often a Great Lie 1776-177736
IIIThree Can Keep a Secret, If Two of Them Are Dead 177765
IVThe Cat in Gloves Catches No Mice 1777-177894
VThere Is No Such Thing as a Little Enemy 1778126
VIAdmiration Is the Daughter of Ignorance 1778165
VIISuccess Has Ruined Many a Man 1779196
VIIIEveryone Has Wisdom Enough to Manage the Affairs of His Neighbors 1780229
IXThe Sting of a Reproach Is the Truth of It 1780-1781260
XThose Who in Quarrels Interpose May Get Bloody Nose 1782291
XIThe Absent Are Never Without Fault 1783325
XIICreditors Have Better Memories Than Debtors 1784-1785359
Selected Bibliography459

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. How would you answer the question raised in the Crèvecoeur quote that opens the introduction? How would a colonist answer the question? How would a European?

2. What set Benjamin Franklin apart from other founding fathers? Did he personify "this new man" more accurately than the other founding fathers did?

3. Though charged with similar duties, Franklin and Silas Deane garnered fairly different results. Compare their diplomacy styles, and other factors affecting their mission in France. Did the fact that Franklin made the pivotal trip to France in his seventies give him an upper hand?

4. Did the negotiation tactics of John Adams enhance or undermine Franklin's successes? Do you think Franklin is to blame for his difficulties with his colleagues, or was he simply unlucky in the company Congress sent him?

5. Many of the fascinating details culled by Stacy Schiff include the vagaries of transatlantic travel and correspondence in the eighteenth century. Vital letters ended up on the ocean floor; spies intercepted hand-delivered missives; supply ships were captured; and passengers (even Franklin, en route to the French coast in 1776) often had to endure horrifically rough voyages to cross the ocean. How has modern technology transformed diplomacy? Were there any benefits to the laborious protocol of Franklin's era?

6. Discuss Vergennes's motivations in negotiating with Franklin. In Vergennes's mind, what were the political and financial ramifications of supporting the Americans? What events caused his point of view to shift? How did his motivations compare to those of private suppliers, such as Chaumont?

7. How did Benny fare as a schoolboy in Europe? In what way was his identity influenced by living there at such a formative age? Did he and Temple share their grandfather's perception of French culture? Do you believe that Temple's father, William, had good reason to be a Loyalist, Did he do the right thing? Did Franklin?

8. Franklin's numerous inventions contributed to his fame throughout France, where his likeness appeared on assorted kitschy objects. Why was he more celebrated (and more properly eulogized) in France than in the colonies?

9. Discuss the women in Franklin's life. What do you conclude about his marriage? Did American culture permit women like Madame Brillon and Madame Helvétius to exist in Franklin's homeland? How did you react to the generations of illegitimate children marking Franklin's lineage?

10. The title A Great Improvisation reminds us of the unscripted, uncharted territory in which Franklin and the patriots gambled with high stakes. How did Franklin put uncertainty to work for him? Was he a better improviser than the kings of France, Spain, and England?

11. What defenses did Franklin possess for undermining British propaganda efforts? Why do you think he—America's greatest writer and prominent publisher—wrote so little while in France?

12. The year prior to Franklin's death, French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison and set in motion Napoleon's rise to power. What might Franklin have thought of those events? What did he seem to think about the general concept of monarchies?

13. Did Franklin feel at home once he returned to Philadelphia? Why was he not given compensation equal to other American diplomats? Do you have sympathy for him?

14. This chapter of American history raises several provocative what-ifs: What if Franklin had not been dispatched to France? What if George Washington's wish had been fulfilled and the revolution had been fought without French troops?

15. What could the world's current political leaders learn from the aphorisms that comprise the chapter titles – All drawn from Poor Richard's Almanac—in A Great Improvisation?

16. Did this chapter of Franklin's life color your sense of the other, better-known adventures? Why do you think the author chose to focus on it? How does Schiff's Franklin tally with your image of him before your read A Great Improvisation?

17. Among the supporting cast, did you develop a fondness for any particular character?

18. Did the author approach the subject of Ben Franklin in the same way she approached the subjects of her previous biographies, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) and Saint-Exupéry?

Customer Reviews

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A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a great read. A lone American goes to France to convince a monarchy to back a revolution. Franklin pulled off the impossible despite being undermined by Congress and British and American spies. In one way, it was a terrific con, which makes this book a pleasure. But Franklin's belief in America was sincere, and he brilliantly explained the ideas behind the country. He out-philosophized the country of philosophers. He out-witted the country of great wits. I loved the way this book balances the serious and the humorous. (There was a mania for Franklin 'merchandise'!) Also, it's written with energy and style. I read aloud to whomever was in the room many, many brilliant one-liners.
Unreachableshelf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An engrossing and informative account that goes far beyond common knowledge of the French involvement in the American Revolution and shows additonal sides of important founding fathers.
jcbrunner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What can I say? Stacy Schiff's sparkling prose is a joy. This book covers Benjamin Franklin's time in France, or in her own words:"The outline of his unfinished autobiography ends: 'To France. Treaty, etc.' This is the story of those four words, with emphasis on the last."Schiff's book is not written for someone looking for a concise Franklin biography. Her oblique references to Franco-American relations and misunderstandings, to Franklin's position in the founding father pantheon (she shrinks Adams, who had recently seen a revival, back to size) require from the reader a good working knowledge of history. Franklin's life serves as a theme for countless improvisations and insights about the man, his time and our world.
tburghart on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Only because I have the utmost respect for and interest in what Franklin did in Paris did I finish this book.The prose in this book is so contorted, and the actual information content so weak, that I had to work to finish it. Had I known how little reward would be forthcoming for the effort, I'd never have started.I'm an avid reader of history, and I bought this book because I'd seen some good reviews for it, but I doubt that I'll ever buy another of Ms. Schiff's works again.
carterchristian1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting what different positions my previous LT reviewers took on this book. It is of course hardly a full blown biography of Franklin, but one that focuses on his French experience. I would judge it competent.
CritEER on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
- In support of the American Revolution, Franklin most significant contribution came as ambassador to France and this book concentrates on Franklins 9 years in France (1776 - 1785)- Franklin was 70 year old and spoke little French when he arrived, yet his diplomatic efforts were often brilliant¿the American Colonies needed money, munitions, gunpowder and recognition/support from France and Franklin was able to deliver- Joseph Ellis is spot on when he stated ¿she (Schiff) is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today¿ and what makes this book so outstanding is this book reads like a novel with swindles, vendettas, a cast of colorful characters, and humor¿- Stacy Schiff is author of Vera (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov) which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000
AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
I found this book a delight to read, rich in detail of personalities especially the French. Schiff does a fine job of setting up in juxtaposition the personalities especially of Adams and Franklin (a legacy with which we continue to struggle) as well as the European monarchies and intrigue with America as newcomer and democracy. Recommended for all interested in the history and founding of the USA as well as America's place in the global political arena.
rmgonline More than 1 year ago
Stacy Schiff, previously author of a a fascinating biography of Vera Nabokov, has written yet another subtle book recounting Benjamin Franklin's diplomatic mission to France in 1776 and its importance to the success of the beleaguered American revolution. Impeccably researched and frequently side-splittingly funny (due to the French aristocracy's penchant for turning everything they favored into toys for their amusement - with tragic consequences 15 years later - many Frenchmen were not quite as amused by the spectacle of the idle rich at play.)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a great and entralling way to learn about one of the most ingenious and creative man in our history.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Well researched and well written by someone who clearly loves the subject matter. Benjamin Franklin is portrayed as the man he really was, all his achievements and his foibles are illustrated with the greatest of care. The Franklin here is the man of the people vilified by his own for a service that only he was capable of, The father who gave up his beloved son for a cause whose love of family extended to all save for his own wife and daughter whom he ignored with as much fervor as that with which he brokered alliances with Europe. It was his unique American identity, an identity that was as yet still foreign even to other Americans that made its way to Paris and an uncertain future on the heels of a world changing war. The book itself is a treasure trove of secondary and tertiary information on events and people too often ignored by the histories. From Characters like Chaumont and the Brillons to the secret power brokers 'of which Paris seemingly overflowed with' like the firebrand playwright Beaumarchais whose patriotic passions flamed brighter from the streets of Paris than any to be found in Boston. This books greatest strength is also its weakness. The scope is so expansive that a single book can barely do justice, leaving a book that is overfilled with insights and information that at times give the appearance more of a historical jumble of facts and figures. There are too many characters whose egos alone could fill volumes, to many important dates and events worth note that one is left with a feeling that the whole is less that the parts. Despite this, I recommend the book with regards and with the following advice¿ Read ¿A Great Improvisation¿ along with ¿The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin¿ by Gordon S. Wood to gain a full understanding of this very complicated Promethean figure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
An informative, well written narrative that's fun to read. If you have any interest whatsoever in Franklin or the birth of America, you will love this book.