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

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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 ...

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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 l778; and helped to negotiate the peace of l783. 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"In sparkling prose, burnished to a high gloss, Stacy Schiff tells the tale of Benjamin Franklin in Paris with piquant humor, outrageous anecdotes worthy of the finest French farce, and a wealth of lapidary observations. Her Paris unfolds as a glittering carnival of spies, rogues, frauds, and flawed reformers, eccentric nobility and perpetually squabbling American diplomats. Towering above all is the protean figure of Franklin, an improbable compound of wit, cunning, hypocrisy, courage, and tireless devotion to his country. C'est magnifique!" — Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton

"This is a book to savor. Every page has some new nugget of insight, or some graceful turn of phrase that generates a verbal airburst over the most psychologically agile American of his time, perhaps of all time. Schiff has given a genuine jolt to the recent surge of interest in Franklin, along the way demonstrating why she is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and His Excellency: George Washington

"What a brilliant book. A Great Improvisation pays tribute to the extraordinary love affair between monarchist France and the republican Benjamin Franklin. Their child was America, conceived at home and nurtured into maturity by France. It is a story full of intrigue, jealousy and passion. But ultimately it is a celebration of one American's love for his country. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece, capturing a fleeting moment when the stars aligned between Congress and Versailles. "— Amanda Foreman, Author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

"Stacy Schiff's extensive scholarship, her eye for the colorful detail, and her lively wit combine to bring alive — in full dress and in an absorbing narrative — the cast of statesmen, adventurers, spies, courtiers, patriots and con men who have a part in the story of Benjamin Franklin's negotiations for American independence, and to fix among them America's greatest diplomat, winning his way (and America's) in a style of calculated disarray. An extraordinary book." — Edmund S. Morgan, author of Benjamin Franklin

"This remarkable book breaks new ground. Stacy Schiff has dug deep into the archives of France (no mean feat!) and brought up a motherlode of gems which, polished by her wit, illuminate the doublespeak of the ambassadorial world, as well as the ferocious backbiting among the colonial envoys. From this maelstrom emerges Franklin, inventing the American foreign service as he had figured out electricity, bifocals, a new stove, the glass armonica — step by cautious step." — Claude-Anne Lopez, Author of Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris

Walter Isaacson
Franklin was an ideal choice for the mission, as Stacy Schiff shows in this meticulously researched and judicious account of his eight years as a diplomatic dazzler and charmer in Paris.
— The New York Times
Isabelle de Courtivron
Despite the undeniable impact on U.S.-French relations of two tumultuous centuries, A Great Improvisation reminds us that profound cultural differences between the two societies have not changed all that much -- and thus remain at the root of their conflicting visions of the world. Plus ça change . .
— The Washington Post.
Publishers Weekly
Numerous bestselling volumes have been written recently on the man one biography called "the first American." Pulitzer Prize-winner Schiff (for Vera [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]) eloquently adds to our understanding of Benjamin Franklin with a graceful, sly and smart look at his seven-year sojourn in France in his quasi-secret quest to secure American independence by procuring an alliance with the French. Drawing on newly available sources, Schiff brilliantly chronicles the international intrigues and the political backbiting that surrounded Franklin during his mission. "A master of the oblique approach, a dabbler in shades of gray," she writes, "Franklin was a natural diplomat, genial and ruthless." She deftly recreates the glittering and gossipy late 18th-century Paris in which Franklin moved, and she brings to life such enigmatic French leaders as Jacques-Donatien Chaumont, Franklin's closest adviser and chief supplier of American aid, and Charles Vergennes, the French minister of foreign affairs, who helped Franklin write the French-American Alliance of 1778. Franklin also negotiated the peace of 1783 that led not only to the independence of the colonies from Britain but also to a bond between France and America that, Schiff says, lasted until WWII. Schiff's sure-handed historical research and her majestic prose offer glimpses into a little-explored chapter of Franklin's life and American history. Agent, Lois Wallace. (Apr. 2) Forecast: This should receive excellent review coverage, which will boost sales, and perhaps the blurb from Joseph Ellis will help. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer travels to Paris as Ben Franklin persuades the French to back the Colonies. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Here's breaking news for the Francophobic freedom-fries set: without France, there would have been no United States. "The majority of the guns fired on the British at Saratoga were French," writes ace biographer/historian Schiff (Vera [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov], 1999; Saint-Exupery, 1994). "Four years later, when the British set down their muskets at Yorktown, they surrendered to forces that were nearly equal parts French and American, all of them fed and clothed and paid by France, and protected by de Grasse's fleet." Moreover, she adds, the French came up with the equivalent of $9 billion to secure American independence. But without Benjamin Franklin, Schiff argues, France likely would not have come to the aid of the fledgling republic. It was not only that Franklin, who a few years before had been an ardent royalist, presented the American cause as an ideal way for France to play knavish tricks on Britain, but also that Franklin was not Silas Deane. The latter, a staid Connecticut businessman, was Congress's representative in Paris, having arrived there just three days after the Declaration of Independence was promulgated; his duties also involved espionage, but Deane was an unable spy. Moreover, he was a bumpkin compared to the British ambassador, who had a grand time announcing every American defeat to the court at Versailles. Franklin's reputation as a sophisticate and man of letters and science preceded him, and he found himself welcome and even lionized. His steady lobbying soon brought material aid to the much-suffering rebels, though the French and Americans forged a partnership "founded on various illusions about the past and a general misunderstanding of the future"; theprofessional French military scorned the American militia as mere rabble, and the French in general felt that the Americans showed too little gratitude to them for their help. Which evens the score, one supposes, for subsequent American complaints that the French have been insufficiently grateful for our help. . . . A lively, well-written, and most timely study of diplomacy in action. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805080094
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/10/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 262,299
  • Product dimensions: 5.94 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Stacy Schiff
STACY SCHIFF is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography and Saint-Exupéry: A Biography, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a Director's Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Schiff 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.

Author biograpy courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 26, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Adams, Massachusetts
    1. Education:
      B.A., Williams College, 1982
    2. Website:

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.

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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters xi
Introduction 1
I The First Mistake in Public Business Is the Going into It 1776 7
II Half the Truth Is Often a Great Lie 1776-1777 36
III Three Can Keep a Secret, If Two of Them Are Dead 1777 65
IV The Cat in Gloves Catches No Mice 1777-1778 94
V There Is No Such Thing as a Little Enemy 1778 126
VI Admiration Is the Daughter of Ignorance 1778 165
VII Success Has Ruined Many a Man 1779 196
VIII Everyone Has Wisdom Enough to Manage the Affairs of His Neighbors 1780 229
IX The Sting of a Reproach Is the Truth of It 1780-1781 260
X Those Who in Quarrels Interpose May Get Bloody Nose 1782 291
XI The Absent Are Never Without Fault 1783 325
XII Creditors Have Better Memories Than Debtors 1784-1785 359
Epilogue 398
Chronology 413
Notes 419
Selected Bibliography 459
Acknowledgments 463
Index 467
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2005

    Spy vs. Spy - - desperate moments in the Revolution that were often hilarious

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 26, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Rich in Detail for the Historical Enthusiast!

    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.

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  • Posted February 18, 2013

    Stacy Schiff, previously author of a a fascinating biography of

    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.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2006

    Excellent Book!

    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.

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    Posted January 5, 2009

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    Posted March 3, 2012

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    Posted August 22, 2011

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