This post is a part of the 2020 Selected Papers of the Consortium on the Revolutionary Era, which were edited and compiled by members of the CRE’s board alongside editors at Age of Revolutions.
By Kelsa Pellettiere
For generations, Benjamin Franklin has remained a popular American figure due to his exploits as a scientist, inventor, and diplomat. However, Franklin’s exploits as a diplomat have received infrequent attention over the years. Thankfully, this infrequency has not hindered historians from recognizing Franklin’s diplomatic accomplishments, his difficulties in obtaining foreign assistance, his difficulties with his American compatriots, and Franklin’s appreciation for French women. Historians who study Franklin and early American diplomacy generally agree that Franklin benefitted from socializing with French women because they gave him access to French society, which in turn enabled him to use his reputation and popularity to gain support from the French public, acquire additional secret aid from the French government, and complicate British war objectives while integrating himself into French society. In recent years, Stacy Schiff and Jonathan R. Dull have advanced the argument that Franklin’s French-like behavior was a key component contributing to his success as a diplomat even though his behavior conflicted with the other revolutionary leaders’ ideas of accepted moral behavior. However, historians have not fully explored the diplomatic implications of Franklin’s friendships with French women or how Franklin’s relationships with French women affected his role as an emissary. Instead, they generalize about the scandalous nature of Franklin’s behavior in France and limit themselves by focusing almost exclusively on Franklin’s romantic interests in French women. In short, despite the excellent work of scholars who have written extensively on Benjamin Franklin’s nine-year diplomatic mission to France, historians have neglected to explore the intersection of diplomacy, gender, and friendship in the late eighteenth-century.
To address this gap in the historiography of early American diplomacy, this paper explores the nuances in Franklin’s friendship with Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy, a famous composer and one of Franklin’s most important social links in French society during his diplomatic mission. This paper argues that Franklin’s intimate friendships with French women played a key political role in early American diplomacy, that the Franklin-Brillon friendship helped Benjamin Franklin to achieve his diplomatic goals, and reaffirms Brillon as one of Franklin’s most important social links in Paris during the American Revolution. This study challenges preconceived notions regarding Franklin and Brillon’s relationship by expanding the historical understanding of friendship between members of the opposite gender by revealing how Franklin and Brillon mutually benefited politically from their relationship. Furthermore, this study draws on recent scholarship regarding gender and friendship to demonstrate how men and women politically benefited from this cultural climate in Paris during the late-eighteenth century.
Benjamin Franklin first met Brillon through their neighbor in Passy, Louis-Guillaume Le Veillard, in the spring of 1777. After being enchanted by Franklin during their first meeting, Brillon asked her friend to arrange a second encounter for her with the famous American. After bonding over Franklin’s love of Scottish songs, the two began regularly meeting at the Brillon estate in Passy for tea and games of chess. Over the course of four years, Franklin spent nearly every Wednesday and Saturday with Brillon at her home, where he dined with her husband and children all the while Franklin tried to push the boundaries of their friendship to a more sexual level. One of the letters most often quoted to highlight Franklin’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the French woman is his letter to Brillon referencing the ten commandments in where he says how “charm’d” he is “with the Goodness of [his] Spiritual Guide,” who promised to absolve Franklin of “all Sins past, present and future.” In the same letter, Franklin admits that he is guilty of “Coveting [his] Neighbour’s Wife,” and suggests that “the most effectual Way to get rid of a certain Temptation, is, as often as it returns, to comply with and Satisfy it.” However, Brillon was quick to remind her dear friend of her husband’s existence, Jacques Brillon de Jouy, and explained that women and men could not address temptation in the same way.
If we reasoned according to the natural law, we would be a little more comfortable: let us leave simply the point where we are; you are a man, I a woman, we could think of the same, and we must speak and act differently: there can be no great harm that a man desires and succumbs — the woman may desire, but must not succumb.
While these flirtatious exchanges between the two friends appear to solidify Franklin’s reputation as America’s “Founding Flirt,” their letters also reveal how Brillon dictated the nature of her friendship with Franklin in response to the pressures of French society during the late-eighteenth century. In a letter from 1779, Brillon wrote to Franklin:
No, my dear papa, your visits have never caused me any trouble; all those who surround me respect you and love you, and feel honored by the friendship you grant us. I told you that certain criticisms had been uttered by persons whom I meet in society concerning the kind of familiarity that reigns between us. I despise the back-biters and am at peace with myself. But that is not enough: one must submit to what is called propriety (the word varies in every century, in every land!). Though I may not sit upon your knee so often, it certainly will not be because I love you less; our hearts will be neither more nor less pure, but we shall have shut the mouths of evil speakers, and that is no small feat, even for a sage.
In a world where French women “could be moral and respectable only within a family gender economy established by the husband,” Brillon promoted Franklin to a sort of father-figure to maintain a balance between her social and private life. In addition to gaining Franklin as her “papa,” Brillon also transformed herself into a daughter-like figure for Franklin. Although, their new kinship relationship did not halt the flirtatious nature of their friendship altogether.
While historians have acknowledged that Franklin’s friendship with Brillon helped to provide him access to well-connected Parisians before the French government publicly recognized the United States of America as a sovereign country, they have not adequately addressed the political nuances surrounding their friendship. Specifically, they have not addressed how Franklin’s friendship with Brillon helped Franklin to hinder the goals of the British Ambassador, Lord Stormont. Franklin first arrived in France in December of 1776 and the news of his arrival sparked widespread discussion among the French people. In early January, Marie-Louise-Nicole-Elisabeth de La Rochefoucauld, Duchesse d’ Enville, a prominent French noblewoman and supporter of the Americans’ cause, invited Franklin to attend dinner and a private concert at her home, but after realizing that Lord Stormont and his wife would likely attend she wrote Franklin advising him to decline her invitation to avoid any unpleasantness. This exchange highlights an underappreciated fact about Franklin’s mission: that Lord Stormont possessed a great deal of respect among French elites. This significantly limited Franklin’s ability to connect with prominent Frenchmen and women who might be able to assist him in his diplomatic mission until Brillon unintentionally intervened.
In September of 1777, when Brillon invited “her kindly father” to “have lunch with Monsieur Vernet on Thursday” she also directed him to arrive “at six o’clock precisely to have tea on Wednesday” with her and her friends, Wattellét and his mistress, Lecomte, for an art exhibition being held at the Académie Royale in the Louvre. While this letter lacks the allure of their other more scandalous letters, Brillon’s invitation to the art exhibit is significant. Her invitation provided Franklin with the access he needed to an event where wealthy Parisians planned to gather, which enabled Franklin to use his public image to promote the Americans’ cause while simultaneously disrupting the British Ambassador charged with ensuring that the French government did not assist the American rebels.
Franklin and Brillon’s lengthy correspondence suggests that the art exhibition at the Académie Royale in September 1777 is significant for two reasons. First, this letter highlights the early phase of their friendship as an important turning point in American diplomatic relations whereby Benjamin Franklin’s used his public image in conjunction with sociability at larger salon gatherings to gain public support for the American war effort among French elites through Brillon. Secondly, this letter identifies when Brillon established herself as one of Franklin’s most important social links in Paris and serves as an important example behind the political significance of friendship and sociability between men and women in the public sphere during the late-eighteenth century. These nuances reveal that Franklin capitalized on his friendship with Brillon to gain access to this complicated Parisian world because the well-connected British Ambassador, Lord Stormont, closely watched Franklin’s actions, which made it difficult for Franklin to connect with other Frenchmen and French women who might be sympathetic to the Americans.
In between their flirtatious exchanges between March of 1777 and February of 1778, Brillon often arranged for Franklin to attend her salon where he could mingle with her friends and neighbors in Passy. As time passed, she arranged for Franklin to attend other social events with various members of French society where Franklin used his public image to benefit the American war effort by socializing with Parisian elites as a way to subtly pressure the French government. In exchange, Brillon increased her social influence exponentially due to her connection to Franklin. As a woman of influence under the Old Regime, Brillon possessed all the qualities and privileges necessary to access elite social circles and engage in patronage, a practice where women freely exerted their subversive power to influence choices for political offices and other highly sought after positions of wealth and power. French women often used their friendships and family ties within their social networks to exert their influence. By establishing herself as Franklin’s “daughter,” Brillon served as Franklin’s confidant, translator, and coordinator for his “deputations and friendships.”
In 1779, a year after France formally recognized the United States, Brillon took on a more active role in bestowing her patronage through her papa. Sometime before November 30, 1778, Brillon reached out to Franklin on behalf of their mutual friend Veillard, regarding an election within the Academy of Science. After Veillard announced his plans to run for the position of deputy chemist, Madame Brillon enthusiastically exclaimed that Franklin’s “recommendation to the academics” will have a “great effect for Veillard,” and asks her “dear father” to help secure the votes Veillard needed for his desired position by taking the “trouble to write today to the academics you know,” since “the election” was set for the following day.
I know the number of your occupations, and respect your time; but I believe that you have always had that of rendering service, your soul being made for this pleasure; Mr. Veillard is worthy in all respects of being presented by you; my friendship for him, and my confidence in you have emboldened me to ask you this grace; if I obtain it, I believe that you have loved me very much, and that will make me happy.
Beyond requesting favors for their mutual friends, Brillon also acted as an intermediary between her “dear Papa” and an officer desiring to meet Franklin to discuss a captured “English vessel.” “I have promised,” she writes, “to persuade you to come early” for tea and “I have said that I hope you will not refuse me this mark of friendship.” Brillon often worried about “the attachment that I am known for you, my kind papa, [because] I am tormented without a cease to ask you for any recommendations for America” and that “the fear of annoying” her good father “makes me refuse to accept these kinds of commissions.” However, that did not stop her from asking her American papa to bestow a letter of recommendation on behalf of her parents for “M. Billion des Gayeres,” who went to America on business “relative to the Provision for the Subsistence of the French Troops.”
Despite his fame, general popularity in France, and overall success in France, it must be remembered that Franklin still encountered some opposition from the French. Before France formally recognized the United States in February of 1778, many salonnières had to be sure not to prioritize the company of the rebellious American over the British Ambassador, Lord Stormont, or else they risked offending the British Ambassador. Furthermore, they had to be careful not to deliberately appear as though they disregarded the French government’s official sanction against the Americans so as not to be harassed by local law enforcement. Although, the French government did little to enforce these regulations unless Lord Stormont complained. Therefore, an unintentional but welcomed consequence of Franklin’s friendship with Brillon was the extended social platform she provided him, which then enabled Franklin to lay the foundation for his diplomatic successes in France during the American Revolution.
These sources illuminate the complex nature of friendship, gender, and sociability in the late eighteenth century between Benjamin Franklin and Brillon and suggest further examination into the intersection of diplomacy, gender, and friendship is desperately needed to expand the historiography of the origins and process of American diplomacy. Understanding that friendship is inherently political due to the social, economic, and geographical connections that link people to one another, in addition to understanding the emotional discourse developed through intimate friendships, are important factors for understanding the influence of engendered social networks and power relations.
Benjamin Franklin once said that “the purest and most useful friend a man could possibly procure, was a Frenchwoman of a certain age who had no designs on his person. They are so ready to do you service, and from their knowledge of the world know well how to serve you wisely.” This brief reexamination into the origins of Franklin and Brillon’s friendship confirms the wisdom behind his words and highlights the need to reevaluate the role of French women’s connection to Franklin during the American Revolution and the origins of American diplomacy. The problem that historians run into when examining Franklin and his behavior in France is that common types of associations, specifically romantic, patriarchal, and platonic spheres between men and women, constantly overlap and shift throughout his time in Paris. By bridging the gap between American and European ideas of friendship and incorporating the ideas from both regions into a study of the Franklin-Brillon friendship, historians can grasp the international implications of Franklin’s French-like behavior and the political impact of French women during the American Revolution.
Kelsa Pellettiere earned both her B.A. in history in 2015 and her M.A. in history in 2017 from Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. In 2018, she entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Mississippi. Her research focuses on early diplomatic history in the United States, specifically Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution.
Title image: Franklin’s appearance at the Court in Versailles on March 20, 1778. King Louis XVI approved the Treaty of Alliance between France and the United States. Library of Congress. Anton Hohenstein, 1860s.
 Gerald Stourzh, Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954); Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries (Washington Square: New York University Press, 1957); Claude-Anne Lopez, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), first published in 1966; Thomas J. Fleming, The Man Who Dared the Lightning: A New Look at Benjamin Franklin (New York: Morrow, 1971); Claude-Anne Lopez, and Eugenia W. Herbert, The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975); David Schoenbrun, Triumph in Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin, (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); Larry Tise, Ed., Benjamin Franklin and Women (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000); Edmund S. Morgan, Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2002); Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) first published in 2003; Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York: Owl Book, Henry Holt and Company, 2005); Edmund Morgan, Not Your Usual Founding Father: Selected Readings from Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); J.A. Leo Lemay, The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Vols. 1-3, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Jonathan R. Dull, Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution (Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2010).
 Works focusing on friendship between men in the late eighteenth century: Richard Godbeer, The Overflowing of Friendship: Love between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009); Kenneth Loiselle, Brother Love: Freemasonry and Male Friendship in Enlightenment France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); and Bryan A. Banks, “Real and Imaginary Friends in Revolutionary France: Quakers, Political Culture, and the Atlantic World,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2017): 361-379. Works examining friendship between women in the nineteenth century: Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs Vol. 1, No. 1 (1975): 1-29; Selena M. Crosson, “Pilgrim Sisters: Exploring Female Friendship in Upper Canada in the Life of Frances Stewart (1794–1872),” (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2005); and Amanda E. Herbert Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2014). Works examining friendship between men and women: Dena Good, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 83-84; Sarah Horowitz, Friendship and Politics in Post-Revolutionary France (Penn State University Press, 2014), 111-132, 133-153; and Cassandra A. Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
 Anne-Louise Brillon married Jacques Brillon de Jouy in 1763. In 1772, her husband Jacques Brillon became the Receiver of the Consignments of the King’s Councils, of the Parliament, of all the Courts and Jurisdictions of Paris at the Office, Cloitre Notre-Dame; Anne-Catherine de Ligniville Helvétius is the other key social link for Franklin during his nine-year stay in France after France recognized the United States of American in 1778, Aldridge, Franklin and his French Contemporaries, 161.
 “From Louis-Guillaume Le Veillard, Enclosing [Madame Brillon] to Him: Two Notes,” The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 23, October 27, 1776, through April 30, 1777, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), 542–543.
 From Anne-Louise Brillon de Jouy to Benjamin Franklin, 30 July 1777, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 24, May 1 through September 30, 1777, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 376; From Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, 30 [November 1777], The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 25, October 1, 1777, through February 28, 1778, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), 218-219.
 From Benjamin Franklin to Madame Brillon, 10 March 1778, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 26, March 1 through June 30, 1778, ed. William B. Willcox (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1897), 85-86. Emphasis is Franklin’s.
 From Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, [16 March 1778], 26:116-117. *All translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
 From Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, 22 January , The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 28, November 1, 1778, through February 28, 1779, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990),411-412. Translation and emphasis for this passage belong to Claude-Anne Lopez. See Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, 60.
 Dena Goodman, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 14. See also Jan Lewis, who argues that Madame Brillon understood she needed to be publicly seen as morally correct by other elites in “Sex and the Married Man: Benjamin Franklin’s Families,” in Benjamin Franklin and Women (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 71.
 Lopez, The Private Franklin: The Man and His Family, 272.
 David Murray, Seventh Viscount Stormont, was born October 9, 1727. He was an educated man who entered the diplomatic corps for the British government in 1751 and distinguished himself as the British Ambassador to the court of Maria Theresa in Vienna from 1763-1772. In 1772, King George III appointed Stormont as the British Ambassador to France, which was “the highest diplomatic post” in the British Empire. He was described as speaking with a reserved “stiffness” and that his “Tory ‘arrogance’ or temper militated against his real sympathy.” Additionally, Stormont’s “wit, which was keen and dry, sometimes caustic and ironic,” did not always translate well with the French. See Helen Bates, The Diplomacy of Lord Stormont in Relation to American Affairs, 1775-1778 (Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan, 1933), iii, v.
 Marie-Louise-Nicole-Elisabeth de La Rochefoucauld, duchesse d’ Enville was a prominent member among French nobility who hosted a salon frequented by the philosophes and various economists, such as Turgot, Adam Smith, and Franklin, Abigail Ann Geheb, “Benjamin Franklin, Salons, And Franco-American Relations, 1776-1785,” (MA thesis., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003), 9-10; Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, 185.
 Bates, The Diplomacy of Lord Stormont in Relation to American Affairs, 1-2.
 It was also common knowledge among French nobles that Lord Stormont represented the interests of the King of England abroad due to his position as the British Ambassador and his presence at the French court, Bates, Bates, The Diplomacy of Lord Stormont in Relation to American Affairs, 2. This awareness also played a role in salonnières decisions to prioritize Lord Stormont’s company over that of the American rebels.
 From Madame Brillon to Monsieur Franklin, A Passy, [September 1, 1777], The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, May 1 through September 30, 1777, ed. William B. Willcox, 24:491. See the editor’s note for the specific details regarding the event and the date of the exhibit, 491.
 Prior to attending large public venues with Madame Brillon, Franklin often mingled with the Philosophes to discuss his electric experiments. By January 1777, his image also appeared on rings, watches, vases, clocks, dishes, etc. See Durand Echeverria, Mirage in the West; a History of the French Image of American Society to 1815 (United States: 1957), 44-46; Franklin wrote his daughter, Sarah Bache, describing “the pictures, busts, and prints,” of his face made him “well known as that of the moon,” see letter from Benjamin Franklin to Sarah Bache, 3 June 1779, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 29, March 1 through June 30, 1779, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), 612–615.
 Dena Goodman argues that French women defined the social institution known as the Parisian salon, see Goodman, The Republic of letters, 2-3. However, Antoine Lilti disagrees with Dena Goodman’s view and claims she misinterprets the historical significance of Parisian salons as an institution of the Enlightenment. Above all, Lilti argues that eighteenth-century salons served as “social spaces of elite leisure” that cannot be defined ideologically as literary, philosophical, and aristocratic spaces, see Antoine Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 4. This paper argues that elite women are central figures in French salon culture and that salons served as important social spaces for French women like Brillon to craft their social networks to suit their interests in the pursuit of both personal and political gains.
 Geheb, “Benjamin Franklin, Salons, And Franco-American Relations, 1776-1785,” 9-10. Lord Stormont stayed in France as the British Ambassador to France consistently from June 25, 1776 until he was recalled to England in March 20, 1778, see Bates, The Diplomacy of Lord Stormont in Relation to American Affairs, 6-7. *Note: it cannot be confirmed at this time if Stormont attended the event due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic affecting access to additional sources. However, Stormont’s second wife, the young Louisia, third daughter of Lord Cathcart, was often “incapacitated” during her stay in France which prevented him from attending some events, Bates, iv.
 De La Laurencie Lionel and Theodore Baker, “Benjamin Franklin and the Claveciniste Brillon De Jouy,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, (1923): 247.
 Good, Founding Friendships, 173-174.
 “From Madame Brillon: Four Letters before November 30, 1778” to Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Barbara B. Oberg, 28:171-174.
 “From Madame Brillon: Four Letters before November 30, 1778,” The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 28:171-174.
 “From Madame Brillon: Four Letters before November 30, 1778,” 28:171-174.
 From Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, 30 November, , 28:175.
 From Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, 30 November, , 28:175. Translation and emphasis is mine.
 From Madame Brillon to Benjamin Franklin, 10 [March 1780], The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 32, March 1 through June 30, 1780, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996) 78-79.
 From Benjamin Franklin to Robert Morris, 10 March 1780, 32:79.
 French philosophes fascination with the American continent and French scientists’ infatuation with Benjamin Franklin’s electricity experiments made Franklin a popular figure when he first arrived in France. See Echeverria, Mirage in the West, 3-24.
 Bates, The Diplomacy of Lord Stormont in Relation to American Affairs, 1775-1778, 2.
 Lopez, Mon Cher Papa, 180-185; The French government secretly provided financial aid to the Americans until the end of 1777 when the French Foreign Minister, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, decided the French navy was finally prepared for another war with Great Britain. He then pressured the French king to move forward with recognizing the Americans, which led to the dual treaties of February, 1778. See Jonathan R. Dull, Benjamin Franklin and the American Revolution, 70; For more information on French aid prior to recognition see Louis De Loménie, Beaumarchais and His Times: Sketches of French Society in the Eighteenth Century from Unpublished Documents, trans. Henry S. Edwards (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square, 1857), 284; See also Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1783-1848, Oxford History of Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press), 36-39.
 William Seward and Eighteenth-century collections online, Anecdotes of some Distinguished Persons: Chiefly of the Present and Two Preceding Centuries. Adorned with Sculptures (London: printed for T. Cadell, jun. and W. Davies, successors to Mr. Cadell in the Strand, 1795), 341.
One thought on “Friendship and Sociability: A Reexamination of Benjamin Franklin’s Friendship with Madame Brillon de Jouy”
I found this article thoroughly edifying! Benjamin Franklin’s diplomatic liaisons with prominent French women are too often lumped into a single narrative that focuses on sexuality and scandal while neglecting other crucial threads. We have to be critical of the myopic readings of gender in politics that have come down to us from earlier accounts, which invariably reflect the mores in the time of the telling, often to the exclusion of contrary evidence in the primary sources.