In December 1776, nearly six months after the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from British rule, 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin landed on the shores of France with two of his grandsons, 16-year-old William Temple Franklin and 7-year-old Benjamin Franklin Bache.

Franklin wasn’t the first American delegate to make his way to Versailles to lobby for France’s support in the nascent nation’s war against Britain. (The lawyer Silas Deane had arrived in Paris on July 7.) But over the next eight and a half years, he was the individual who secured the European country’s financial and military support. Without Franklin and the relationship he cultivated with the French minister of foreign affairs, France would not have funded the American war effort as robustly, and Britain might very well have won the war.

Stacy Schiff’s 2005 book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America, chronicles the famed polymath’s time in France, from his first clandestine meeting at Versailles in December 1776 to the end of his ambassadorship in May 1785. Now, Apple TV+ is releasing an eight-episode limited series based on Schiff’s biography. The show, titled “Franklin,” centers on its titular character’s “considerable efforts to charm, cajole and bamboozle the French into paying for the American Revolution,” says writer and executive producer Howard Korder.

Academy Award winner Michael Douglas plays Franklin, while Noah Jupe, whose previous credits include A Quiet Place and Ford v Ferrari, plays Temple. Here’s what you need to know about the real history behind “Franklin” ahead of the show’s three-episode premiere on April 12.

Franklin - Official Trailer | Apple TV+

The making of “Franklin”

By 1776, Franklin was internationally renowned as an inventor, scientist, scholar and statesman. He took a huge risk by embarking on the secret voyage to France. If caught by the British, he could be hanged as a traitor for signing the Declaration of Independence. But he “saw democracy as the penultimate truth, as a new future where the world really had to go,” and he was willing to put his life on the line for the cause, Douglas tells IGN.

According to writer and executive producer Kirk Ellis, “Franklin” dramatizes “the intergenerational conflict between both the Old World and the New,” as well as Franklin and his oldest grandson. This approach gave the creative team “a chance to explore, through Temple’s eyes, what a young man’s journey through the French court might be,” says Ellis.

The illegitimate son of Franklin’s own illegitimate son, Temple “has no idea who he is,” Jupe tells IGN. “He’s got no idea really where he’s from and what matters to him. He’s just trying to discover that and find his purpose in the world.” Complicating matters further was the fact that Temple’s father, William, was a Loyalist, exiled to England in 1782 for his political views.

Michael Douglas as Benjamin Franklin and Noah Jupe as his grandson William Temple Franklin in "Franklin"
Michael Douglas (left) as Benjamin Franklin and Noah Jupe (right) as his grandson William Temple Franklin in "Franklin" Apple TV+

“Franklin” streamlines the number of players involved in negotiations with France, reducing the roles of diplomats like Deane and Arthur Lee. “There were a lot of people who came and went over the eight years that [Franklin] was in France,” says Korder. “You have to decide which one of these horses you are going to try and ride to the end of the story.”

Deane arrived in France in July 1776 and was “in over his head” from the start, struggling to covertly procure clothes and munitions for America, Schiff tells Smithsonian magazine. Lee, meanwhile, traveled from London to Paris, arriving shortly after Franklin in December 1776. As Schiff writes in her book, he was “ideally suited for the mission in every way save for his personality, which was rancid.”

Franklin’s negotiations with France

A major reason why Franklin was a more effective diplomat than Deane and Lee was his relative ease in navigating the French court, particularly his relationship with the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes.

“He just loved to charm people, and he had such a gift for it,” says Lorraine Smith Pangle, author of The Political Philosophy of Benjamin Franklin. “At the same time, he was making the case for American principles, including things like free trade and equal respect of countries and individual freedoms. … He was just wonderfully deft at doing all those things at the same time.”

Franklin was the only American delegate to earn Vergennes’ respect. “It’s almost like a buddy movie,” Schiff says. “They end up being profoundly, deeply in admiration of one another … and it’s very clear that Vergennes realizes that he, as a master statesman, has met his equal in Benjamin Franklin.” In contrast, Schiff adds, the other American delegates were “cloddish in every respect.”

Silas Deane
Silas Deane Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes
Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Vergennes shared Franklin’s desire to humiliate Britain, France’s longtime rival for supremacy in Europe. But he maintained an official stance of not directly helping the Americans, preferring to provide aid through covert channels so as not to provoke Britain into declaring war on France, too.

America’s victory at the Battle of Saratoga on October 17, 1777, marked a turning point in the revolution. When news of the British defeat reached Paris on December 6, Vergennes wrote that he and the French minister of state, Jean Frédéric Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas, agreed that Versailles must strengthen its relationship “with a friend who could be useful if bound to us, dangerous if neglected.”

Negotiations for the Franco-American Treaty of Alliance began in January 1778, with representatives of both countries signing the agreement the following month. The treaty stipulated that neither America nor France would seek a separate peace with Britain and set American independence as a requirement for any future agreements. The two parties also signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which gave the colonies favorable trade status with France.

Franklin’s fellow diplomats, Deane and Lee, didn’t get along with him or each other. Within a year of the treaty’s signing, Congress recalled both men, leaving Franklin as the main representative of his country’s interests abroad.

Franklin's signature is visible at the bottom of this page from the 1778 Treaty of Alliance.
Franklin's signature is visible at the bottom of this page from the 1778 Treaty of Alliance. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Spying on Franklin

Franklin succeeded in securing France’s support despite the fact that he was surrounded by double agents and spies, both English and French. “We know about this incredibly efficient intelligence network that’s built up around Franklin,” says Schiff. “He walks through that in this almost serene way, where he basically just shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I’m just going to assume that everyone is spying on me and comport myself as if my valet is also a spy.’”

As it turns out, Franklin was right to be suspicious: One of his closest confidants, the American physician Edward Bancroft, was a British spy who worked under the pseudonym Edward Edwards. Bancroft conspired with master spy Paul Wentworth to copy almost every letter that made its way across Franklin’s desk. “Bancroft and Wentworth actually had known each other from both being in Suriname in the 1750s,” says Korder. “Bancroft was working as some sort of overseer for a plantation there, and Wentworth was acting as a British agent in some capacity.”

An 1823 illustration of Franklin's reception at French court in 1778
An 1823 illustration of Franklin's reception at French court in 1778 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin likely didn’t know that Bancroft was a spy, as his duplicity wasn’t uncovered until the late 1880s. Regardless, the statesman viewed his openness in diplomatic dealings as a defense against espionage.

During Franklin’s time in France, he faced multiple threats to his safety. “We don’t know the actual details, but we do know … there are attempts to assassinate him, because it would have been a tremendous loss to the American cause for Franklin to be eliminated,” says Schiff.

The end of the American Revolution

Despite the danger, Franklin persevered in his diplomatic work. Following Deane’s recall, he worked with future president John Adams, who came to France as a replacement envoy in 1778. The men had radically different views regarding diplomacy and often clashed.

“Franklin thought honesty is the best policy because people who are dishonest are going to be found out,” says Pangle. “They won’t be trusted. They’ll be isolated, and frankness is almost always disarming, and it helps you to find the common ground with people. … That was very much his policy toward the French court for most of the time that he was there.”

A circa 1792 portrait of John Adams
A circa 1792 portrait of John Adams Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A depiction of Franklin as an envoy to French court
A depiction of Franklin as an envoy to French court Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Adams, on the other hand, believed that countries will always act in their own interest, making negotiations a battle of wills in which each party pushes hard for its rights. He was suspicious of and had little patience for the elaborate inner workings of the French court, so much so that Vergennes at one point refused to communicate with him.

Luckily for America, the Treaty of Alliance was already signed by the time Adams arrived on the scene. It enabled France to start openly sending over arms, ammunitions and troops. Temple hoped to contribute to the cause directly: In 1779, he was slated to participate in a French raid of England, serving as the Marquis de Lafayette’s aide-de-camp, but the invasion was canceled due to sick crews and bad weather.

It wasn’t until 1780 that France’s support truly made a difference in the American Revolution. That July, Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, landed in Rhode Island with nearly 6,000 soldiers ready to fight alongside George Washington’s Continental Army. In the fall of 1781, French and American troops defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown, essentially ending the war.

French Navy ships participating in the 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake
French Navy ships participating in the 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Getting a signed peace agreement, however, would take two more years. After Yorktown, Congress assigned Franklin, Adams, John Jay and Henry Laurens to negotiate with Britain in partnership with France, per the terms of the 1778 treaty. Confoundingly for the Americans, Lafayette pushed to be involved in the talks.

“Lafayette’s primary relationship isn’t with either Temple or with Franklin, but with this idea of liberty,” says Schiff. “He’s the emblematic French noble who’s been thirsting to prove himself, to prove his worth by fighting [for] a worthy cause.”

The Americans managed to shut Lafayette out. But Franklin faced dissension from within his own ranks. Adams and Jay wanted to forgo the French treaty’s obligations, as well as the directive from Congress, and negotiate directly with Britain. (Laurens wasn’t eager to be part of the negotiations and didn’t arrive in Paris until the proceedings were essentially over.) Franklin disagreed with this approach. “As to our treating separately and quitting our present alliance … it is impossible,” he wrote to Laurens in April 1782. “Our treaties and our instructions, as well as the honor and interest of our country, forbid it.”

But Franklin soon accepted the fact that he had little power to overrule his fellow diplomats. “He realizes that he’s going to essentially make this deal with colleagues who feel differently from him, and they’re going [to] outvote him, and he’s simply going to have to do it their way,” says Schiff. “And then he makes the best of this lousy hand that they have dealt him.”

An unfinished painting of the Americans who negotiated for peace with Britain. L to R: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens and William Temple Franklin
An unfinished painting of the Americans who negotiated for peace with Britain. L to R: John Jay, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens and William Temple Franklin Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The negotiations—with not only Britain but also Jay and Adams—put a strain on Franklin, who was already in poor health. Tim Van Patten, director of the “Franklin” series, says he drew inspiration from the 1957 movie 12 Angry Men while filming, hoping to visualize “the physical and mental toll that [period] had on [Franklin] over time. He was really fighting for his life, for his health. He could barely stand up.”

After two months of negotiations, the Americans agreed to a preliminary deal with Britain—without consulting France—on November 30, 1782. Called the Treaty of Paris, the agreement was officially ratified on September 3, 1783. Its terms gave America more than France would have liked, including control of the land east of the Mississippi River and fishing rights off Newfoundland.

France’s foreign minister felt railroaded by the news that the Americans—specifically Franklin—had gone behind his back. “Vergennes realizes he’s been outplayed by the Americans, and I think he is in some shock that this has happened, but [he] also realizes that they did the strategically smart thing,” says Schiff. “Despite himself, he’s almost admiring that they’ve made this end run around him, like he hadn’t expected that kind of canniness from these innocents.”

Franklin’s personal life in France

Franklin’s years in France, where he lived in Passy on the estate of aristocrat Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, found him forging friendships and working to establish a future for Temple. (His younger grandson—Benny, the son of Franklin’s daughter, Sarah—was off at boarding school for most of the family’s time abroad.)

Temple’s time in France likely did him more harm than good when it came to building a name for himself in America. “Franklin really, in a way, does a disservice to Temple because he does turn him into a European,” says Schiff. “Once he’s brought back to America, it’s very hard for him to settle down in Philadelphia or New Jersey.”

According to Van Patten, Temple, who served as Franklin’s private secretary in France, was interested in pursuits his grandfather may not have approved of. “Ultimately, Temple couldn’t fill [his] shoes,” the director says. “Franklin was grooming him to be [a] mini Franklin. … But Temple was also coming of age, and a boy is a boy, and he fell in love with [French] culture. He got with his rakish friends, and he just chose that path.”

Madame Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy
Madame Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius
Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin tried to arrange a match between Temple and the daughter of Madame Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy, a married neighbor he was particularly fond of. “She represented a level of wit and sophistication that he had a lifelong hunger for and may even have been very surprised and delighted to have found in a woman,” says Korder.

In a March 1778 letter to Brillon, Franklin confessed that the commandment “which forbids coveting my neighbor’s wife” was one that he broke constantly. “God forgive me, as often as I see or think of my lovely confessor,” he wrote. “And I am afraid I should never be able to repent of the sin, even if I had the full possession of her.”

Brillon shut down any potential engagement between Temple and her daughter, leading her relationship with Franklin, whom she called “mon cher papa,” or “my dear father,” to chill. It’s possible that the pair’s dynamic also suffered because Brillon rebuked Franklin’s efforts to make their relationship more physically intimate. “They were both playing a very self-aware game of mutual flirtation,” says Korder. “Franklin imagined something more. … Brillon was keenly aware and did everything she could to say, ‘So far and no further.’”

Brillon wasn’t the only woman Franklin bonded with in France. Another intimate was the widow Anne-Catherine de Ligniville, Madame Helvétius. The two women were quite different: In her book, Schiff writes that Helvétius was “as unfettered by nerves or convention as Madame Brillon was a prisoner of both.”

Franklin’s last years

Franklin kept in touch with both Brillon and Helvétius after he left France in July 1785. His letters to the women, preserved in both his papers and Claude-Anne Lopez’s Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris, helped inspire their portrayals in the limited series. Ludivine Sagnier plays Brillon, while Jeanne Balibar portrays Helvétius.

Temple returned to the United States with Franklin but never received the diplomatic position he craved, despite his grandfather’s best efforts. Even his supporters wouldn’t go out on a limb for him. Thomas Jefferson, for example, sent Temple to America with two letters to James Monroe. The first introduced Temple to Monroe in positive terms; the second, which was in code, stated that Jefferson had “never been with [Temple] enough to unravel his character with certainty,” adding that the young man’s “understanding is good enough for common uses but not great enough for uncommon ones.”

William Temple Franklin
William Temple Franklin Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin "Benny" Franklin Bache
Benjamin "Benny" Franklin Bache Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin set Temple up on 600 acres of land in New Jersey. But Temple never lost his European predilections, once telling Jefferson that his dream was “to be appointed to the court of France.” That assignment never came, so Temple moved back to Paris on his own in 1796. He died there in 1823, penniless. A friend covered his burial costs.

Benny more readily followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. Even though he had essentially forgotten how to speak English after years in boarding school, he relearned the language and set up a printing press in Philadelphia. In 1798, Benny was jailed for libel against then-President Adams, and he died of yellow fever soon after, at age 29.

As for Franklin, he served as the oldest delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and as president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania (effectively the state’s governor) between 1785 and 1788. He died on April 17, 1790, at age 84.

While history has remembered Franklin for his many accomplishments, from experimenting with electricity to developing the modern library, his actions in France are often overlooked, even though they are perhaps his greatest achievement.

“Franklin” aims to rectify that. “We live, unfortunately, in an era now where it’s all about action, force—it’s all about who has the most forceful personality,” says Ellis. “What we forget is that most of what gets done [takes place] behind closed doors by people speaking softly, using words as weapons. And that’s what we wanted to try to convey with this show.”

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