Benjamin Franklin and the Recueil in France

By Kenneth Maxwell

Benjamin Franklin, then seventy years of age, was famous as a leading figure in natural philosophy and a prominent member of the Republic of Letters.

By the time he arrived in France as a diplomat on December 21, 1776, Franklin had distinguished himself over the course of several decades as a journalist, polemicist, moralist, and scientist and as the deputy postmaster of the English colonies in North America, a political thinker and leader, and a philanthropist.

Franklin was well acquainted with leading figures in the French Enlightenment. These included Louis-Alexandre de la Rochefoucauld d’Enville, a natural scientist, president of the Academy of Medicine, and a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, who would be a strong supporter of the North Americans in their revolt against England. Franklin also counted among his acquaintances the abbé Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, future author of a 1784 commentary on the constitutions of the United States as published in the Recueil, in the form of a series of letters addressed to John Adams.

(Durand Echeverria, “Image et influence de Benjamin Franklin en France avant et Pendant la Révolution de 1789,” Tocqueville Review 9 (1989); correspondance of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld with Franklin and Silas Deane, January 29, 1777, and of Edmé-Jacques Genet with Franklin, May 9 and June 5, 1778, Franklin Papers 23:426–27, 592. On Franklin’s activities in London and his connections there during his three sojourns (1724–1726, 1757–1762, and 1764– 1775), see George Goodwin, Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of Americas Founding Father (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017).)

Thanks to his international renown, a previous visit to Paris in 1767, and his ongoing correspondence with prominent European philosophes, Franklin was already famous and revered in France. His celebrity would only grow over the course of his mission.

He was indeed the ideal choice for this critical task. The publication of the Recueil in 1778 was intended by the American delegates in Paris as propaganda that would introduce the American constitutional experiments to Europe.

Its aim was to encourage France to assist the American Revolution at a critical stage in the armed conflict between the North American colonial revolutionaries and the British government. Franklin was the perfect revolutionary for the purpose of reassuring the French privileged class, different enough to be interesting but familiar enough not to be frightening, a Philadelphia rustic with years of experience at court, an American who mispronounced their language but could create a splendid bon mot.

Franklin helped reinforce Vergennes’s Anglophobia in 1777–1778, and, more importantly, helped assure it would not be counterbalanced by fear of dangerous American revolutionaries. It was in this context that the Recueil was published, and this was the propaganda text in French which the Minas conspirators possessed and discussed in late 1788 and early 1789.

(Joyce Chaplin, The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (New York: Basic Books, 2006). On Franklin’s relationships, fame, and image in France, see Gilbert Chinard, LApothéose de Benjamin Franklin (Paris: Librairie Orientale et Américaine, 1955); Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and His French Contemporaries (New York: New York University Press, 1957); Bernard Baylin, “Realism and Idealism in America Diplomacy: Franklin in Paris, Couronné par la Liberté,” in To Begin the World Anew: The Genius and Ambiguities of the American Founders (New York: Knopf, 2003); Abbé de Mably, Observations sur le gouvernement et les lois des États-Unis [Remarks concerning the government and the laws of the United States of America] (London: J. Debret, 1784); Bruno Carvalho, “Partial Enlightenments: Precedents and Possibilities for 18th-Century Luso-Brazilian Studies,” Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies 29 (2016): 1–15.)

In 2013 an annotated critical edition of the 1778 Recueil in Portuguese was published in Brazil with Penguin and Companhia de Letras. This was a collective effort, and I was able to complete the project with the essential scholarly collaboration of Gabriel de Avilez Rocha, Bruno Carvalho, and John Huffman, who provided a detailed analysis of the problems of translation and representation in the French texts.

They collectively had the historical knowledge and the linguistic skills to analyze the American and French texts and to annotate the Portuguese translation. The Portuguese edition was titled O livro de Tiradentes. Professors Heloisa Murgel Starling and Júnia Ferreira Furtado of the Federal University of Minas Gerais contributed an essential essay of analysis to the introductory texts.

The Recueil opens with a dedication to Franklin by the editor, Claude Ambroise Régnier. Régnier was a French lawyer and politician and later a supporter of Napoleon. In his 1778 introduction to the Recueil, Régnier wrote that the North American constitutional laws are “one of the most beautiful monuments of the human knowledge and, at the same time, constitutes the purest democracy ever imagined.”

Régnier is careful to note that he has merely “collected” (rassemblées) these documents. In fact they were lifted verbatim from Les Affaires. The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, as well as the state constitutions, were strategically deployed by Franklin and Silas Deane to construct the image of a cohesive confederation of fully functional governments, the better to secure loans and alliances.

Franklin told the committee of secret correspondence of the Congress: “All of Europe is with us. Our Articles of Confederation being by our means translated and published have given an Appearance of Consistence and Firmness to the American State and Government that begins to make them considerable.”

Franklin reported that they were being read “with rapture.”

The shift from future tense to present tense in the French translation also transfigures a nation about to be created into one already established and proclaiming its own unity. Because of the consistency and relative uniformity among the constitutions, the appearance of unity is also apparent in the state constitutions, where the declarations of rights (paired with explicit commitments to democratic principles) declares that government derives its authority from the people and is founded on a compact for the common good.

Frequent free elections would provide the mechanism by which the people would control and shape the government, as well as hold their representatives accountable. The declaration of rights of each state is in some cases contained in the first articles, in some cases in a bill or declaration of rights as a separate statement.

(On the American mission to the French court, see also Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1935); Claude Anne Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Robert Middlekauff, “Benjamin Franklin, Pragmatic Visionary: Politician, Statesman, Diplomat,” and Ellen R. Cohn, “The Printer at Passy,” in Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, ed. Page Talbott (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005); Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Jonathan R. Dull, Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010); Jonathan R. Dull, “Franklin the Diplomat: The French Mission,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 72, pt. 1 (1982): 1–76; Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).)

The Pennsylvania constitution in the Recueil begins by “declaring the rights of the inhabitants of the Republic of Pennsylvania.” The original September 28, 1776, Pennsylvania constitution, however, spoke not of a “Republic” but of “the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania.” And “republic” is used wherever “commonwealth” is used in the original.

The constitution of Pennsylvania declared that the “the king of Great Britain commenced, and still continues to carry on, with unabated vengeance, a most cruel and unjust war against them, employing therein, not only the troops of Great Britain, but foreign mercenaries, savages and slaves.”

The Pennsylvania constitution in the Recueil has extensive explanatory footnotes written by Franklin. Under the title “of Note of an American,” Franklin writes: “Perhaps one is surprised to find a distinction of free men in a country in which it is believed that all men are free. There still are in America two classes that aren’t; one, entirely enslaved, blacks.

In reality, a variety and even a majority of the Colonies always opposed their importation, and with frequency made laws to stop it; but, since the consent of the Crown was necessary for the confirmation of these laws, they could never be established, the King having always rejected them as contrary to the interests of the English African Company; therefore, the prohibition of importing these unfortunate victims of European avarice was one of the first operations of the General Congress; and it should be believed that it will soon legislate on the fortune of blacks currently within the extension of the 13 States.”

(Dull, “Franklin the Diplomat”, p. 27.)

Franklin added in his footnote that in Pennsylvania some proprietors had already freed their enslaved people, though many existed within the “colony and many more within the Southern Colonies.” He then describes the role of minor infants (les Enfants mineures), apprentices, and indentures (les Domestiques engage) which he says facilitates the colonies acquisition of new inhabitants. In 1777, in Philadelphia, Franklin was chosen to be the first president of the republic of Pennsylvania and John Morris to be the secretary.

The radicalism of the 1777 Pennsylvania constitution provoked much opposition.

John Adams, in his own copy of the Recueil, wrote in comments on the text that “the following Constitution of Pa, was well known by such as were in the secret, to have been principally prepared by Timothy Matlock, Jas. Gannon [sic], Thomas Paine and Thomas Young, all ingenious Men, but none of them deeply read in the Science of Legislation. The Bill of Rights is taken almost verbatim from that of Va. The Form of Government, is the Worst that has been established in America, & will be found so in Experience. It has weakened that state, divided it, by that Means embarrasses and obstructs the American cause more than any other thing”

(Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, letters to the committee of secret correspondence, March 12, 1777, American Philosophical Society and Yale University, “The Papers of Benjamin Franklin,” John Adams’s copy of the Recueil is held in the special collections of the Boston Public Library.)

The Pennsylvania constitution extended voting rights to all taxpaying free men, guaranteed unrestricted freedom of the press, established a unicameral legislature with term limits, no standing army in times of peace and strict subordination of military power to civilians, a thirteen-member executive council, a president elected by the assembly and council, a provision that all legislation should be held so that Pennsylvanians could assess the proposed laws, a council of censors to oversee activities and protect the constitution from violation, open-door sessions of the general assembly, accessible education (schools and universities), and regulation of profits deemed excessive.

Its efforts to avoid perpetuity in office and a political aristocracy of incumbents are also noteworthy.

In fact, John Adams was perceptive in his criticism: the 1777 Pennsylvania constitution was replaced in 1790. Richard Ryerson claims that “by late 1776 the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was perhaps the most vital participatory democracy in the world.” The Pennsylvania constitution contained a radical provision: it abolished property and financial qualifications not only for the electorate but also for those seeking office.

The state constitutions also gave considerable attention to reinforcing the impartiality, integrity, and independence of the courts and judges and upheld the basic continuity of rights under English common law. They also provided protection against the gruesome application of judicial power and provided protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

All the state constitutions sought to secure freedom of religion. The declarations of freedom of the press, of the judiciary, and of religion, along with many others, coexisted with the continuing practice and legal recognition of slavery.

As far as the slave trade was concerned, the text of the navigation act, included in the Recueil, differs substantially from the original by giving additional emphasis to the prohibition of the slave trade. In the Recueil, only the constitution of Delaware made any provision for the abolition of slavery.

(Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Record Group 26: Records of the Department of State, Basic Documents; The Articles of Confederation, in George Athan Billias, American Constitutionalism Heard Round the World, 1776–1989 (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 27–32, 66–86.}

The 1778 Recueil is the way in which the Brazilians in Minas Gerais perceived and understood North America’s anti-colonial and revolutionary attempt to organize new independent constitutional government in former colonies. It was a vision mediated through French translations.

All these were organized and heavily influenced in the way they were presented by the critical intervention of Benjamin Franklin. This gave the French text, as Carvalho, Huffman, and Rocha observe, “the weight of an original in this context.”

Thus in significant ways the French text modifies or diverges from the originals in English and provided, in the words of Carvalho, Huffman, and Rocha, “an angled snapshot of the process by which the architecture of the United States government was constructed”: the image of unity, the transfiguration of a nation poised to be created, to an already established nation, proclaiming its own unity. This was all undoubtedly a welcome shift of emphasis for the American envoys in Paris and at Versailles seeking French military and diplomatic support.

(Carvalho, Huffmann and Rocha “O conteúdo do Récueil”, 101-5.}

Pennsylvania’s constitution, moreover, would have received the most attention from readers due to its prominent placement in the Recueil, its association with Franklin, and the sheer number of footnotes it received in this edition.

The “Note d’un Americain” also gave an artificial coherence to the decidedly antislavery slant of the collection and to the supposition that general abolition was imminent as well as restrictions on slavery and the slave trade, and it gave a particular emphasis to the constitution of the republic of Pennsylvania. Franklin certainly by 1778 wanted slavery abolished and the slave trade ended, yet most North Americans at the time did not, especially in the southern states.

(David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); also published in Brazil as Declaração de Independência: Uma história global (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2011), especially pp. 27–88. Bruno Carvalho, John Huffman, and Gabriel de Avilez Rocha have provided detailed analysis on the content of the Recueil and problems of translation and representation, “O conteúdo do Recueil: Problemas de tradução e representação,” in Kenneth Maxwell, ed., O livro de Tiradentes (São Paulo: Penguin Classics and Companhia das Letras, 2013), 67–105. On the honorary degree given by Harvard to George Washington, see the discussion by Gabriel Rocha, “George Washington in Minas Gerais,” ReVista 6, no. 3 (2007): 78–79.)

The Recueil in this sense portrayed in large part an “imagined” North American republic organized (and distorted) according to Benjamin Franklin’s interpretation.

This is how the French saw the constitutional innovations in North America in 1778 and how the Brazilians via the Recueil also perceived the North American constitutional arrangements in late 1788 and early 1789 when they were planning their own republican constitutional structure which they intended to implement in Minas Gerais once they had overthrown Portuguese rule after the expected imposition of the massive tax of the derrama in 1789.

The Minas conspirators in 1788 owned two copies of the Recueil. The Tiradentes copy claimed on its frontispiece that it was published “en Suisse.”

This was a pirated edition. It was identical in all other respects to the Recueil that claimed on its frontispiece that it was published in Philadelphia.

Two copies of the Recueil were brought to Minas Gerais in 1788 by former Brazilian students at the University of Coimbra, one by José Álvares Maciel and the other by José Pereira Ribeiro. The copy owned by Pereira Ribeiro appears to have been smuggled out of Minas Gerais at the time of the arrests of the conspirators in June 1789.

(From here it may have traveled to Pernambuco, where it may have informed the federalist republican revolt of 1817. J. Paul Selsam, The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936); Richard Alan Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765–1776 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978); Chinard, Notes on the French Translations, 90, 19; Annotations of John Adams in the Adams Library, Boston Public Library, 233.7, cited also by Iain McLean, “Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen,” in The Future of Liberal Democracy: Thomas Jefferson and the Contemporary World, ed. Robert Fatton Jr. and R. K. Ramazani (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 13–30.)

The featured photo shows Professor Maxwell’s copy of the Recueil.

For the first two articles in the series on the imagined republics:

Imagined Republics: The United States of America, France, and Brazil (1776–1792)

The United States and Portugal in the Time of the 18th Century Revolutions