Exclusive: When Franklin Met Voltaire

By famsecmatters •  Updated: 05/05/19 •  19 min read

Politicians today seem to come from a certain “class.” Only a few have had their characters forged upon battlefields. Those who are “academic” are bland, having lived cloistered lives. Compared to their predecessors, they seem to possess only minor intellects. Two centuries ago, American politicians were far greater figures, capable of changing the entire course of world history. They did not rely upon speech-writers or autocues to augment their oratory. No Founding Father would have publicly spoken of “whose ass to kick.”

Benjamin Franklin rose from humble, hardworking origins to become one of the greatest men of his time. As a scientist and philosopher, his greatness went far beyond his role as a statesman. Franklin and his contemporaries in Congress far exceeded Plato’s ideal of “philosopher-kings,” achieving their status through merit and shared ideals, rather than by privilege of birthright. Our current politicians are but faint shadows of the men who came together to give America its Declaration of Independence, its Constitution, and its Bill of rights.

The Scientist-Statesman

Accompanied by two grandsons, Benjamin Franklin arrived in France on December 21, 1776. He was in his sixty-ninth year. This was not his fist trip to France, but in December 1776, Benjamin Franklin was on an important mission. He had arrived to serve a role as a commissioner for the newly-formed United States. He would join two other commissioners – Silas Deane and Arthur Lee – who were already in Paris. Franklin had been sent by Congress for the purposes of gaining armaments and support for the American cause, fully aware that Britain would not let go of her colonies without a fight. Franklin would remain as the chief American representative in France for seven and a half years, until Thomas Jefferson was sent in 1784 as the official American ambassador to France. On September 14, 1779, Congress awarded Franklin the title of “Minister Plenipotentiary” to the court of France.

Through his own writings and on account of the good report of others regarding his scientific, intellectual and political skills, Franklin was already well-known in France when he arrived. He was warmly received and trusted by all strata of society. In 1778, after Silas Deane had been recalled (a malicious campaign against him had been led by Arthur Lee), a new commissioner was sent to Paris. This was John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States.

Adams (and his wife Abigail) had been shocked by the manner in which Franklin was so at ease with French “politics” of the time, which involved as much socializing and conversations as it did hard bargaining. Adams, unaccustomed to serious politics being accompanied by such apparent frivolity in the salons of Paris, did not remain as a commissioner in France for long. Jefferson did not share the same temperament as Adams, and would later write admiringly of how Franklin engaged confidently within such refined circles:

“He [Franklin] was therefore, feasted and invited to all the court parties. At these he sometimes met the old Duchess of Bourbon, who, being a chess player of about his force, they very generally played together. Happening once to put her king into prize, the Doctor took it. ‘Ah,’ says she, ‘we do not take kings so.’ ‘We do in America,’ said the Doctor.”

Franklin’s papers describing his experiments with electricity were translated into French by Thomas-FrançoisDalibard in 1752, and had been distributed in France and Europe. Franklin had proved with a kite, flown in June 1752, that lightning and electricity were one and the same. Dalibard first met Benjamin Franklin in 1767 on one of the statesman-scientist’s previous visits to France. In his autobiography, Franklin had noted that “What gave my book the more sudden and general celebrity, was the success of one of its proposed experiments, made by Messrs. Dalibard and De Lor at Marly, for drawing lightning from the clouds. This engag’d the public attention everywhere.”

In a letter written by Franklin from London (dated September 22, 1769) Dalibard and his family are thanked for their hospitality on his previous visit. Franklin sent him an engraved plate of himself as a keepsake, acknowledging that “As I cannot soon agin enjoy the Happiness of being personally in your Company, permit my Shadow to pay my Respects to you.”

It was while he was in France in his capacity of “commissioner” that Benjamin Franklin, already in the latter years of his life, would meet Europe’s most renowned intellectual, who was also in advancing years and fully aware that he was dying. The two men had admired each other’s achievements from afar, but their meeting formed the basis of a brief but important friendship. One of the people who would witness this friendship would be John Adams.

The Poet and Playwright

For three decades, Voltaire had been forbidden to return to Paris, even though it was the place of his birth. He had been born there on November 1, 1694 and baptized 21 days later as Francois-Marie Arouet. He later renamed himself as Voltaire. As a child he had been encouraged to be an iconoclast by his godfather, the Abbé de Chateauneuf. This libertine godfather had boasted to his friend Ninon de Lenclos: “He is only three and he knows the whole of the Mosaide by half.” The Mosaide was a poem that denounced all religions.

Voltaire had never got along with French royalty. In 1717, Philippe II, Duc D’Orleans, was the regent of France (while seven-year old Louis XV was too young to reign). Philippe placed Voltaire in the Bastille prison. On his release Voltaire was accused of satirizing the Duke in a poem and was sent into exile. In 1726, Voltaire was again thrown into the Bastille after an instance when he had tried to defend his honor against a nobleman who had sent thugs who had beaten him. Voltaire’s patron had refused to take Voltaire’s side so he had taken fencing lessons. The thuggish nobleman’s family feared his revenge and had him imprisoned again. Around 1745 Voltaire offended Louis XV, who had liked neither the man nor his writings, after he was overheard referring to the Queen as a card-cheat. Voltaire eventually settled at Ferney, on the border of France and Switzerland, and lightened the boredom by publicly defending cases of injustice that had led to executions of innocents.

Voltaire was a phenomenon, a humorist, an iconoclast, and a humanitarian, with a love of science and astronomy. He was thoroughly opposed to abuse of power by monarchs and by organized religions, though he often depended upon the patronage of aristocrats and monarchs, such as Frederick of Prussia, for his survival. Under Frederick’s protection he still insulted the monarch’s poor poetry and became exiled again, even though they were later reconciled.

Voltaire  openly condemned the founder of Islam as a manipulating and murderous despot in a play he wrote in 1741, called Mahomet. This was his personal favorite amongst all his plays that dealt with “tragedy”. Voltaire even engaged in early science fiction (Micromegas, 1751) as a means to satirize the ridiculous and cruel mores of his world.

By the start of 1778, Voltaire, then aged 83, was spitting blood. He knew he was dying. While Louis XV had lived, Voltaire had been banned from entering Paris, but this monarch had died almost four years earlier, on May 10, 1774. The court of Louis XVI was more charitable, and numerous individuals and groups had implored Voltaire to return to the place of his birth. A new play he had written, called Irène, was to be staged by the Comedie Francaise. Voltaire left Ferney, and undertook the journey to Paris, arriving on February 10.

Americans in Paris

The American representatives in Paris were seen as living proof that it was possible to throw off the shackles of tyranny. Louis XV had not been a popular king. When his own father Louis XIV – the Sun King – had died, drinking booths had been erected along the path of the funeral procession, and few had mourned his passing. The rule of the regent had been little better. Louis XV had allowed institutional cruelty against individuals to continue and Voltaire had publicly drawn attention to these antiquated and class-driven barbarities. For many in Paris, revolution was a dream. Up to and beyond the French Revolution which commenced in 1789, the Americans who had signed the Declaration of Independence were lionized. They were seen as symbolic heroes, even though their presence derived from need – a need for French financial and ordnance assistance to fully complete their independence from Britain.

John Adams arrived in Paris at the start of April, 1778. A practical and thorough man, he desired to improve his French. He was especially concerned about whom he could find to teach him French. He was constantly aware of a need to be cautious, that he could unwittingly be dealing with individuals who would be spies of the French court. On April 16, 1778, around a fortnight after his arrival, Adams wrote:

“Dr. Franklin was reported to speak french very well, but I found upon attending critically to him that he did not speak it, grammatically, and upon my asking him sometimes whether a Phrase he had used was correct, he acknowledged to me, that he was wholly inattentive to the grammar. His pronunciation too, upon which the French Gentlemen and Ladies complemented him very highly and which he seemed to think pretty well, I soon found was very inaccurate, and some Gentlemen of high rank afterwards candidly told me that it was so confused, that it was scarcely possible to understand him. Indeed his Knowledge of French, at least his faculty of speaking it, may be said to have commenced with his Embassy to France. He told me that when he was in France some Years before, Sir John Pringle was with him, and did all his conversation for him, as his Interpreter, and that he understood and spoke French, with great difficulty, untill his present Residence, although he read it.”

Adams had dined that same day with the family of a M. La Freté and observed:

“The greatest part of the Conversation was concerning Voltaire. He was extolled to the Skies as a Prodigy. His Eminence in History, Epick Poetry, Dramatick Poetry, Phylosophy, even the Neutonian Phylosophy: His Prose and Verse were equally admirable. No Writer had ever excelled in so many Branches of Science and Learning, besides that astonishing multitude of his fugitive Pieces. He was the grand Monarch of Science and Litterature. If he should die the Republick of Letters would be restored. But it was now a Monarchy &c. &c. &c.”

Keen to improve his French, Adams attended the theater to assist him in this end. He wrote in his journal that on the evening of Monday, April 27:

“Dined with Mr. Boulainvilliers, at his house in Passi, with Generals and Bishops and Ladies. In the Evening I went to the French Comedy, and happened to be placed in the Front Box very near to Voltaire, who was then upon his last Visit to Paris, and now attended the representation of his own Alzire. The Audience between the several Acts, called Out, Voltaire! Voltaire! Voltaire! and clapped and applauded him during all the intervals. The Aged Poet on Occasion of some extraordinary Applause arose and bowed respectfully to the Spectators. Although he was very far advanced in Age, had the Paleness of death and deep lines and Wrinkles in his face, he had at some times an eager piercing Stare, and at others a sparkling vivacity in his Eyes. They were still the Poets Eyes with a fine frenzy rolling. And there was yet much vigour in his Countenance. After the Tragedy, they acted the Tuteur, a Comedy or a Farce in one Act. This Theatre did not exceed that at Bourdeaux.”

A little later, on Wednesday, April 29, 1778, Adams wrote:

“After dinner We went to the Accademy of Sciences, and heard Mr. D’Alembert as Secretary perpetual, pronounce Eulogies on several of their Members lately deceased. Voltaire and Franklin were both present, and there presently arose a general Cry that Monsieur Voltaire and Monsieur Franklin should be introduced to each other. This was done and they bowed and spoke to each other. This was no Satisfaction. There must be something more. Neither of our Philosophers seemed to divine what was wished or expected. They however took each other by the hand…. But this was not enough. The Clamour continued, untill the explanation came out “Il faut s’embrasser, a la francoise.” The two Aged Actors upon this great Theatre of Philosophy and frivolity then embraced each other by hugging one another in their Arms and kissing each others cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the Cry immediately spread through the whole Kingdom and I suppose over all Europe Qu’il etoit charmant. Oh! il etoit enchantant, de voir Solon et Sophocle embrassans. How charming it was! Oh! it was enchanting to see Solon and Sophocles embracing!”

Adams seemed wryly cynical of the eulogizing and fawning. There are no extant records from Benjamin Franklin or Voltaire himself, writing of how they felt about their “fans”. Voltaire seemed happy to be idolized, as he had previously known persecution and unpopularity.

Abigail Adams certainly approved of the writings of Voltaire. In December 1784, she wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Cranch that: “I commonly take a play of Voltaire or some other French Book to read, or I should have no patience.”

When Voltaire had prepared to leave Ferney to come to Paris, he had expressed some caution, remembering that he had many foes who would even wish to burn him. He was reassured that there would be double that number who would protect him and douse their torches. Upon his arrival in the capital, Voltaire had taken up residence at the Hotel de Villette in what is now the Quai Voltaire in the 7th arrondissement. As soon as his place of residence had become known, visitors had flocked to see him. On February 11, after he had been in Paris for only one day, 300 people had arrived at his residence

The entire company of the Comedie-Francaise paid their respects, and a deputation from the Academy of Sciences had come to see him. Mme Marie Du Deffand visited him. She had known Voltaire since 1721. She was a patron of the arts who had reputedly once had an affair with the Regent, and had engaged Voltaire in a correspondence of letters since 1736. And one of the first visitors to come to his new home was Benjamin Franklin. Accompanying Franklin was one of his grandsons. He wanted Voltaire to bestow his blessings on the youth. According to biographer Paul Elmer More:

“The American envoys asked permission to wait upon the great man, and were received by Voltaire lying on his couch. He quoted a few lines from Thomson’s “Ode to Liberty,” and then began to talk with Franklin in English; but his niece [Madame Denis who had accompanied Voltaire from Ferney], not understanding that language, begged them to speak in French. Whereupon Voltaire replied: “I beg your pardon. I have for a moment yielded to the vanity of showing that I can speak in the language of a Franklin.” When Dr. Franklin presented his grandson, the old philosopher pronounced over his head only these words: “God and Liberty!” All who were present shed tears.”

Few now are cognizant of John Thomson’s poem, Ode to Liberty. English intellectual Samuel Johnson (who had also corresponded with Franklin) had tried to read it but “soon desisted.” At the time of Franklin’s first meeting with Voltaire, however, the 3,500 line poem was seen as influential and inspirational, strong in its praise of Liberty.

Mme. Louise D’Épinay wrote that whenever Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire appeared together,

‘whether at the play or in public places or at the Academies, applause was continuous. Voltaire sneezed. “God bless you sir!” said Franklin – and the business began again.’

As well as being a scientist and a man of civic duty, Benjamin Franklin had been a man of letters, writing not for an elite but for the common man. As he wrote in his autobiography:

In 1732 I first publish’d my Almanack, under the name of Richard Saunders; it was continu’d by me about twenty-five years, commonly called “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” I endeavour’d to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand, that I reap’d considerable profit from it, vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighborhood in the province being without it, I consider’d it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books; I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurr’d between the remarkable days in the calendar with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want, to act always honestly, as, to use here one of those proverbs, it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.

Voltaire would have been well aware of Franklin’s significance within the scientific world. The friendship between Franklin and the terminally ill Voltaire was brief. Voltaire, being so ill and exhausted, could not fully reciprocate friendship as he had done in his youth, and Franklin himself had once said: “Let all Men know thee but no man know thee thoroughly”. The friendship between the two men was intellectual and spiritual, but was it “close”? Perhaps not. However, it was based upon a mutual respect for their contributions to humanity’s enlightenment and progress, something that rarely inspires relationships today.

There was another bond that linked Voltaire and Franklin – they were both closely associated with Freemasonry. In Philadelphia, Franklin had founded a Masonic group called the Junto (or Leather Apron) club. While Voltaire was in Paris at the end of his life, he became initiated into the newly-formed La Loge des Neufs Soeurs (the Lodge of the Nine Sisters), at Paris, on April 7, 1778. The name “Nine Sisters” referred to the Nine Muses of Greek mythology. At the time of Voltaire’s initiation into the Lodge, Franklin was only a visitor. Shortly after this, Franklin became the second Worshipful Master of the Loge des Neufs Soeurs, serving for a period of two years in this role.

Jared Sparks wrote that the first meeting of Franklin and Voltaire, that occurred in Mme. de la Vilette’s hotel, had been requested by Voltaire:

Having now been in France eighteen months, Dr. Franklin had attracted around him a large number of personal friends. Among these were Turgot, Buffon, D’Alembert, Condorcet, La Rochefoucauld, Vicq d’Azyr, Cabanis, Le Roy, Morellet, Raynal, Mably, and many others, who were conspicuous in the political, scientific, and literary circles of the great metropolis of France. He was often present at the meetings of the Academy, where he was honored with every mark of consideration and respect. When Voltaire came to Paris for the last time, to be idolized and to die, he expressed a desire to see the American philosopher.

André Maurois (1885-1967), who wrote a short biography of Voltaire, which I have referred to in the compilation of this article, was convinced of the ultimate significance of the two men’s liaison in Paris:

“The meeting of Franklin and Voltaire, democracy shaking hands with theism, was the Revolution’s dawning.”

Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, with the other Founding Fathers of the American Revolution, created one of the few revolutions that did not subsequently debase itself with internecine bloodletting, or proscriptions of those deemed to be “enemies”. The Founding Fathers were diverse in attitude and temperament, but came together on matters of principle and created a new and stable nation.

For France, which had lived in a state of factional conflict for seventy five years before the Revolution of 1789, its revolution would descend into chaos and violence. And for Voltaire, who had lived through that period of unrest, it was reputed that even in death his body did not escape the political violence.

On May 11, 1778, Voltaire slipped into a fever and on May 30, he died. The local parish priest threatened to throw Voltaire’s body in to a ditch rather than bury it, and Voltaire was eventually interred outside of the city at Sellières, where his nephew was the Abbé. His heart was removed from his body and preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale, where it remains to this day. In 1791, on the orders of the Constituent Assembly, his coffin was transferred from the cemetery at Sellières to the Pantheon, to lie among the relics of other heroes of the New Republic.

In 1814, it is alleged, a group of religious fanatics broke into Voltaire’s tomb and extracted his bones. The remains were placed in a pit and covered in quicklime to effectively remove all trace of his physical existence. This story has been circulating as if it is factual, but it is untrue. In 1897, his coffin in the Pantheon was opened up – Voltaire’s bones remained intact.

Even after his death, Voltaire would be at the center of controversy. His works could provoke praise and rage in equal measure. In my next article, I will show how a recent reading of his play on Mahomet would lead to rioting. Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers created a system that is still (despite the intentions of certain “progressives”) alive and well today. Voltaire, who had no time for superstitious dogma or abuse of power, is a man who should be increasingly relevant in today’s world.

In a world where barbarian fanatics threaten to kill cartoonists for “blasphemy”, Voltaire’s forthright contempt for tyrannical theocratic dogma is now sorely lacking. If the West is to preserve its values and freedoms, it needs an army of Voltaires.

And for those “proud Americans” in the media and in the current US administration who are too scared to openly condemn the intolerance of Islamism, ponder on this. Would Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams, if alive today, silently stand by while followers of a brutal 7th century ideology threaten to kill people for exercising their freedom of expression?

Further reading: The Franklin Papers by Edmund S. Morgan.

FamilySecurityMatters.org – Contributing Editor – Adrian Morgan is a British based writer and artist. He has previously contributed to various publications, including the Guardian and New Scientist and is a former Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Society. He is currently compiling a book on the demise of democracy and the growth of extremism in Britain.