Benjamin Franklin, Diplomat: There Never Was a Good War or a Bad Peace: Ben Franklin

Byron King discusses Benjamin Franklin’s career as an official and unofficial Diplomat, and examines his famous maxim, “There never Was a Good War or a Bad Peace.”

“He was genial and homespun, a mixture of a man of the frontier and of the not entirely unsophisticated Eastern cities, at root a master of the oblique approach. Franklin’s world in his dealings with the French was one of practiced nuance, and etched in every conceivable shade of gray.”

WHENCE COMES THE title of this article? So wrote Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) to an acquaintance named Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society in London, in correspondence dated July 27, 1783, and posted from Franklin’s diplomatic residence in Passy, France. And thus was created another of the many aphorisms for which the illustrious Dr. Franklin is so famous, and rightly and highly esteemed.

But a wise man once remarked that there are few things in life more dangerous than blind adherence to maxims. This is particularly the case when dealing with issues so profound as to encompass war, let alone peace.

That “there was never a good War, or a bad Peace” is no simple personal statement by Dr. Franklin’s alter ego Poor Richard, along the lines that “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” War and peace take in the most grand vistas and schemes of human endeavor, and Benjamin Franklin knew this. So even Dr. Franklin cannot get off easy on this one. Somewhere between war and peace, and somewhere between the ears of our old friend Dr. Franklin, lies the topic of this discussion.

Benjamin Franklin, Diplomat: Setting the Stage

First, let us set the world stage for Franklin’s comment, and consider the context of his oft-quoted words. As of the date of the letter, July 27, 1783, Dr. Franklin, lately the American ambassador in France, was commenting upon the impending end of the American Revolutionary War with the British. The peace treaty was in preparation, and due to be signed within two months. It was Dr. Franklin’s job to see that nothing interfered with the process.

As with so many other aspects of his life, Benjamin Franklin — the most distinguished scientific and literary American of his age — was also the very first American diplomat. He was not the second or the third, but the first — the pathfinder of American diplomacy, as of so much else. (This assessment comes from none other than the official history of American diplomacy published by the U.S. State Department.) And as was Franklin’s wont, in his letter to Banks, he was waxing philosophical, if not hopeful, and — being Ben Franklin — in 1783, he had much upon which to look back and reflect.

Near the beginning of his famous letter, Franklin said, “I hope soon to have more Leisure, and to spend a part of it in those Studies, that are much more agreeable to me than political Operations.” Dr. Franklin had been a busy man, having spent most of the past seven years in France, arranging for French support of the American revolutionary cause against Great Britain.

And Dr. Franklin was writing to the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, himself one of the best-known scientists in the world, fresh back from a long  exploration of the South Seas with none other than  Capt. James Cook . President Banks was, among other accomplishments, one of the first white men ever to set foot upon  New Zealand. So Franklin’s letter began with reference to his longing to pursue studies “that are more agreeable to me than political Operations.” More agreeable, indeed. Dr. Franklin was playing to his gallery, and knew well the mind of his correspondent. But this gets ahead of the story.

And then, in his letter to Banks, Dr. Franklin goes on: “I join with you most cordially in rejoicing at the return of Peace.” It had not “returned” quite yet, but that is beside the point. Franklin was looking forward to concluding what would be called the Treaty of Paris, eventually signed on Sept. 3, 1783, which formally ended the American Revolutionary War between the Kingdom of Great Britain and her North American Colonies.

Franklin writes of peace: “I hope it will be lasting, and that Mankind will at length, as they call themselves reasonable Creatures, have Reason and Sense enough to settle their Differences without cutting Throats; for, in my opinion, there was never a good War, or a bad Peace.”

And there it is, that famous line, penned by the one man, out of an entire nation, who had done so much to assist in purchasing, procuring, and perpetuating a revolution and war in North America, not to mention negotiating the peace that brought the war to an end. We will discuss this more, but for now let us read what else Mr. Franklin had to say to Banks:

“What vast additions to the Conveniences and Comforts of Living might Mankind have acquired, if the Money spent in Wars had been employed in Works of public utility! What an extension of Agriculture, even to the Tops of our Mountains: what Rivers rendered navigable, or joined by Canals: what Bridges, Aqueducts, new Roads, and other public Works, Edifices, and Improvements, rendering England a compleat Paradise, might have been obtained by spending those Millions in doing good, which in the last War have been spent in doing Mischief; in bringing Misery into thousands of Families, and destroying the Lives of so many thousands of working people, who might have performed the useful labour!”

From the context of his letter, Dr. Franklin apparently had in mind that “peace” was a spur to extending agriculture, building canals, constructing bridges and public works and the like. Perhaps it is, but is that the best that one can say on the subject? Franklin may as well have just said that “Little strokes fell great oaks.” Oh, wait a minute. He did say that, in Poor Richard’s Almanack of 1757.

As to the misery of war, Franklin apparently was viewing it mainly as a loss of the potential “useful labour” of the otherwise “working people.” Again, this is not an erroneous statement, but where is the typically pithy Franklin commentary applied to the sense of serious purpose that characteristically leads a nation to war?
Sun Tzu , the ancient Chinese scholar of war, had written a classic treatise on the subject 600 years before the birth of Christ. In ancient literature and mythology, war and peace were the playthings of gods.  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) had written of the theory of “just war” in the 13th century. Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries was a tangled skein of animosities, and had rent itself asunder with vicious and brutal wars from Scandinavia to Sicily, Tangiers to Turkey. Franklin knew this.
Benjamin Franklin: Great Expectations

In his own experience, by the summer of 1783, Franklin had lived through and witnessed firsthand many of the episodes of the front-line combat of the French and Indian War and had played a key role in obtaining French support of the more recent American Revolution. Could he not have come up with something better than that, in essence, war is a waste of human labor that could otherwise be used to build canals? Are we not entitled to expect more from Mr. Franklin than this?

Is Franklin, in his letter, merely passing judgment upon war and peace with the same process of intellectual distillation as that which inspired such other famous Franklin sayings as “Plow deep while sluggards sleep”? If I may say so, respectfully, how pedestrian of him.

Where is the depth of analysis that one would otherwise expect from so perceptive an observer and so great a thinker? We can forgive Benjamin Franklin for not being a scholar of war in the nature of the Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), whose firsthand knowledge of the subject would come from fighting both with and against the likes of Napoleon. But is this really the best that Franklin could do? Aqueducts? Canals? Dr. Franklin, of course, knew how to count his pennies (he once said, famously, “A penny saved is a penny earned”), but did he not also know how to take the measure of man?

Let us expand the context of Mr. Franklin’s letter some more. In the summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin had signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. A few months later, on a cold day in December 1776, a small boat landed his 70-year-old frame upon the shores of France. Franklin’s mission was, in essence, to convince the absolute monarch of France to underwrite a revolution against a fellow regent, albeit a British king.  Franklin would spend the next two years, 1776-1778, on a three-man commission to France charged with the critical strategic task of obtaining French support for American independence.

To accomplish this extraordinary undertaking, Franklin’s government had overlooked his age — certainly advanced and indeed remarkable for that time. And his government had, apparently, not been concerned that Franklin lacked any formal diplomatic training, or that he possessed only the most rudimentary knowledge of the French language. After all, why would an emissary to France, whose mission was to gain diplomatic and economic support for a revolution, need to know anything about diplomacy, or to speak French? (Not to neglect an important point, Franklin had also spent several years in London as a representative of the Colonies to the British government.)

When Franklin’s feet first pressed down into the soil of France, he must have understood that he was embarking on the greatest gamble of his career. Franklin was an expert in the politics of the frontier Colonies and had treated on many occasions with certain of the Indian tribes of North America. He had served in London and observed British politics up close. But now he had to learn the European style of diplomacy, not to mention the French language, literally on the run. To make a hard task even more difficult, Franklin had to outmaneuver British spies and French deceivers at almost every step, as well as overcome jealous and hostile colleagues.

In many respects, Franklin’s fame from his publishing and speaking efforts in North America, as well as his stint in London, had preceded him to the continent. As time passed, both French aristocrats and intellectuals alike welcomed Franklin into their homes, and embraced him as the personification of the Enlightenment.

For more than 200 years, French Jesuit missionaries in the New World had been sending back home lengthy and detailed monographs about the North American continent, its native inhabitants, and its flora and fauna. There was a cottage industry within French intellectualism that concerned itself with distributing this knowledge, and teaching and learning about this strange new land across the sea. Franklin, with his extensive experience in both the English Colonies and at the edges of the frontier with the Indians and French settlements, was a natural magnet for further inquiry along these lines.

In a manner reminiscent of a modern rock star, the likeness of Franklin’s face appeared on  medallions , rings, watches, and snuffboxes. Even fashionable ladies adopted the coiffure a la Franklin, in imitation of the  fur cap he wore instead of a wig.

In his first two years in France, Franklin became famous even among those who had not known of him before. He was charismatic, and ingenious in every way. Thus, Franklin’s personal popularity and diplomatic skill were exactly where they were most needed when opportunity arose. He was well positioned to follow up with his inimitable style of diplomacy after news of the first American battlefield success in the Saratoga Campaign, in September and October of 1777, reached Paris.

Benjamin Franklin, Diplomat: Recognizing and Underwriting America

The remarkable success of American arms against the British, coupled with the able assistance of Dr. Franklin’s ministry, convinced the French government to recognize American independence, to conclude an alliance with the 13 states in 1778, and actively enter the war against Britain. Considering that a mere 15 years previous, in another Treaty of Paris, in 1763, the French had conceded defeat after the French and Indian War, this turnaround was a strategic maneuver of immense significance and truly a tale to astonish.

In 1779, after obtaining diplomatic recognition of his country by France, Franklin was formally appointed as the American minister to France. Franklin presented his credentials to the French court, becoming the first American minister — the 18th-century American equivalent of ambassador — ever to be received by a foreign government. Franklin’s home in Passy, just outside Paris, became the center of American diplomacy in Europe.

In the context of the glitter and gossip of the French court, Franklin plied his trade with his own style of efficiency — sometimes workmanlike, and at other times completely at the mercies of his own whims, appetites and caprices. Still, he convinced the French government, ruled by an absolute monarch, to underwrite America’s experiment in democracy.

“Who is wise?” Franklin once asked rhetorically. “He that learns from everyone,” he answered, no doubt with himself in mind. “Who is powerful?” was his next question? “He that governs his passions,” was the reply to his own query, probably with a twinge of regret, knowing Franklin. And “Who is rich?” he asked, following a trail of reasoning that was purely out of the Franklin school of hard work and thrift. “He who is content,” was the answer. And “Who is that?” he queried. “Nobody,” he concluded.

Wise, powerful, but not rich and certainly far from content, thus was Franklin, the American moral philosopher, in France, at the right place, at the right time. He was genial and homespun, a mixture of a man of the frontier and of the not entirely unsophisticated Eastern cities, at root a master of the oblique approach. Franklin’s world in his dealings with the French was one of practiced nuance, and etched in every conceivable shade of gray.

As the U.S. minister to France in 1779, Benjamin Franklin lacked extensive instruction or guidance from his home government due to the obvious constraints of time and distance in those days, when continents were truly isolated by raging seas. And even had the lines of communication been more open, to what end would his government — fighting for its life against a mighty British army — have instructed him? Thus, Franklin often operated in a vacuum. When in doubt, Franklin did what one would expect of him — he improvised and made decisions far outside of his scope of authority.

Benjamin Franklin, Diplomat: Fierce Determination

Here was a man who once had said, “Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.” Now, Franklin was acting as the de facto, yet unappointed, American national banker to the French court. The American cause against Great Britain was threatened with financial insolvency, but Franklin was able to obtain loans and credits. Wearing another of his many hats, Franklin became America’s on-site expert in procuring French naval equipment on credit and urging French ministers to advance funds to support the revolution and to buy the provisions that the fighting forces required.

Franklin was, in his own way, fiercely determined to perform his mission. Upon his arrival in France, Franklin had set up a printing press near his quarters. From this press, he issued hundreds of pamphlets in support of the American cause and saw that they were distributed throughout the corridors of power within the French government and even further afield to anyone else who could possibly be of assistance. In support of his own cause, Franklin was a propagandist of the first order.

It is not overstating the case to say that Franklin’s overt pamphleteering, as well as his backroom dealings at Versailles, was indispensable in propelling George Washington from near defeat at Valley Forge to victory at  Yorktown. And when the British surrendered at Yorktown, they gave quarter to forces that were almost equal parts French and American, virtually all having been fed, clothed, and equipped courtesy of French funding, with a supporting French fleet sailing conveniently offshore. It was, to be sure, a Hollywood ending.

Having assisted in bringing to bear the resources necessary for military victory, Franklin also was instrumental in negotiating the peace treaty of 1783. This treaty led not only to American Colonial independence from Great Britain, but also to a bond between France and America that arguably lasted through World War II, if not beyond. For all of this, the American historical memory can look back with thanks to Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father in more ways than one.

When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Franklin as U.S. ambassador in 1785, the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes. Vergennes asked: “It is you who replace Dr. Franklin?” Jefferson replied, “No one can replace him, sir; I am only his successor.”

In 1785, Franklin returned to Philadelphia. He had helped to midwife a new nation into existence. But despite his years in France, engaging in the highest level of strategic diplomacy in support of the war against Great Britain, Franklin was more than sanguine about the prospects for the fledgling United States.

Along with a weak central government, the Confederation of 13 former Colonies had a monetary system that was essentially useless. The monetary affairs of the new nation fell everywhere along a disordered financial spectrum. Many East Coast merchants used British, Dutch, and Spanish coins. Elsewhere, people had little choice but to use the despised Revolutionary War-era  Continentals, which were all but worthless. In some states and regions, commerce was conducted using state-issued and privately issued paper scrip, but this was of little value for conducting trade over any great distance. And further inland, barter was used extensively in the economies of the Western frontier, where the average person would see no more than a few small metal coins in the course of a year.

Franklin took it all in and had his doubts about the nation as it was evolving under the Articles of Confederation. In his own, inimitable way, he summed up his thoughts:

“I think that a young state, like a young virgin, should modestly stay at home,” he wrote, “and wait the application of suitors for an alliance with her; and not run about offering her amity to all the world; and hazarding their refusal. Our virgin is a jolly one; and though at present not very rich, will in time be a great fortune, and where she has a favorable predisposition, it seems to me well worth cultivating.”

Having been instrumental in creating a new nation, financially distressed as it was, here was Benjamin Franklin at his best. In a few short sentences, he combined his views towards saving and investment with his extensive knowledge of women.

But who better than the sage Franklin to urge upon his national creation the civic virtues of modesty, prudence, and thrift? Here, writ on a larger tapestry of advice on the subject of the supreme national interest of a new nation, was the echo of some of Poor Richard’s old adages.

By advising the young nation to “stay at home” and to “wait for the application of suitors for an alliance,” Franklin was restating a comment of Poor Richard’s from several decades before: “He that blows the coals in quarrels that he has nothing to do with, has no right to complain if the sparks fly in his face.” Sadly, this Franklinesque comment appears nowhere in the current edition of The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. (

When Franklin cautions the young nation against run[ning] about “offering her amity to all the world; and hazarding their refusal,” he is presaging George Washington’s advice to avoid “foreign entanglements” and restating another of his old chestnuts, to “Beware the hobby that eats.” Perhaps Woodrow Wilson should have read up on his Franklin before setting this nation on what became a century-long path of worldwide military expedition to make the world safe for democracy. But this takes us too far away from the chosen topic just now.

To amplify the foregoing comments by Franklin, it was central to his thinking that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” So after all, Franklin did, when he needed to, come up with his measure of man. Fifty years later, the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville would say something eerily similar, that “America is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, she will also cease from being great.”

Benjamin Franklin, Diplomat: The Constitutional Convention
A few years after returning to America from France, Franklin was invited to attend the Constitutional Convention. Before it began, on June 2, 1787, Franklin wrote the following:
“As all history informs us, there has been in every State & Kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the Governing & Governed: the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less.” Franklin’s thinking had to be, in this case, colored by his intimate understanding of the consequences of Britain’s misrule of its American Colonies, leading to revolution and war, as well as his close observation of everyday life during his long residency in France.

Franklin continued: “And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the Princes, or enslaving of the people” — describing his own nation’s revolution and, in not so many words, prophesying the French Revolution, which was about to explode in Europe.

Franklin concluded: “Generally indeed the ruling power carries its point, the revenues of princes constantly increasing, and we see that they are never satisfied, but always in want of more. The more the people are discontented with the oppression of taxes; the greater need the prince has of money to distribute among his partisans and pay the troops that are to suppress all resistance, and enable him to plunder at pleasure. There is scarce a king in a hundred who would not, if he could, follow the example of Pharaoh, get first all the peoples’ money, then all their lands, and then make them and their children servants forever.”

Here is a continuing theme of Franklin’s life philosophy, of thrift and saving, investment and the creation and growth of capital, and the betterment of the world from the ground up. He was an Austrian economist before there were Austrian economists!

The life of all civilizations, said Franklin, was a contest between the citizens of a nation and their rulers and, by extension, their tax collectors. Had Franklin expanded on this theme just a bit more, he could have done no better that to restate another of Poor Richard’s comments, “Ere you consult your fancy, consult your purse.” But Franklin had his own way of making his point, by taking the humble theme of a piece of Poor Richard’s advice and blowing it up and applying it as a general rule to central government.

Franklin well understood the tendency of government to impose, and then to increase, levels of taxation, all in order to magnify its own power by, in essence, paying the troops.” Had Franklin known of the modern tendency of government to expand in size and to regulate and control everything under the sun of its jurisdiction, he would probably have expanded on his comment. He might not have limited his criticism of government taxation in order to support the troops, strictly speaking, but also included in his critique the need for government to raise taxes to pay for the armies of bureaucrats and political appointees that staff its mighty ranks.

And at the consummation of the Constitutional Convention, as if to add a bookend to his cautionary comment near the beginning on the generally taxing nature of government, Franklin stated some words equally profound. One of the Maryland delegates overheard a woman ask Franklin, as he was exiting Independence Hall, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s reply was serious and focused, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

A republic, if we can keep it. Well put, Dr. Franklin. Have we kept it?

We started this discussion with citation to Franklin’s letter to Joseph Banks, that “there was never a good War, or a bad Peace.” Franklin characterized the American Revolutionary War as a waste of “Millions,…which in the last War have been spent in doing Mischief; in bringing Misery into thousands of Families.”

Note that Joseph Banks had become president of the Royal Society in 1778. Thereafter, he promoted science and encouraged exchanges with scientists abroad. He was, at that time, among the most influential figures in all of British science, and in consequence, he certainly played an influential role in British politics.

Franklin’s letter to Banks referred directly to the use of British funds to conduct a war against America, at the cost of agriculture that could have been extended, rivers that could have been made navigable, public works that could have been constructed. Looked at narrowly, Franklin’s letter was addressed to only one man, but that man was very important in making decisions concerning British national policy. Thus, I believe that we can say that the audience for Franklin’s words was intended to be larger than that single correspondent.

Knowing what we know about Benjamin Franklin’s efforts in France during the war, we can now say that perhaps, in his letter to Joseph Banks, Franklin was talking about the waste of British millions, and certainly not of French millions. And we can say that perhaps Franklin was limiting his scope and targeting his point, meaning there could not be a good British war with America, or a bad American peace with Britain. And we can say that perhaps Benjamin Franklin penned his famous words while still practicing his role as his nation’s first diplomat, promoting the future peace treaty between two warring peoples.

There are just wars and unjust wars, necessary wars and unnecessary wars, limited wars and total wars. But are there no good wars? A true examination of the nature of war and peace can be left to those who study Sun Tzu and Aquinas and Clausewitz. For our purposes, Franklin’s short statement on the matter was a product of its own unique circumstances, a comment to an influential member of the intellectual leadership of the opposing nation, and thus can only be understood in that context.

We can sum up by saying that Benjamin Franklin was his own man, a man who made history, and a man who made his own indelible mark on this world. And always, never ceasing, he pursued the interests of the land that he loved and cherished. Franklin did this in his own unique way, striving to influence others, to make friends, and to sway their opinions to the favor of the United States of America.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
April 22, 2005

P.S. From Greg: Byron used a lot of quotations from Benjamin Franklin in his articles. My favorite from Franklin is, “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

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