"Dr. Franklin had a great Genius, original, sagacious, and inventive, capable of discoveries in philosophy no less than in politics. He had a vast Imagination, equal to the conception of any theological subject, and he had an eloquence that could persuade at all times, and by a kind of fascination. His mind was always replenished with wit and humor, which gave an air of gayety, sprightliness, and drollery to all his actions and deportment."
As two of the most influential Founding Fathers, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin played indispensable roles in the American Revolution, but in many ways they were a study in contrasts.
Franklin, some 15 years Adams' senior, was renowned for his worldliness, wit, and cosmopolitanism. Having spent many years living abroad as a successful diplomat and mingling amongst the elite circles of London and Parisian society—Franklin possessed a savvy understanding of international affairs and comfort navigating different cultures. He moved about the world with charisma, intellect, and lively curiosity.
Adams, in turn, was much more of a provincial New Englander, rarely venturing far from his native Massachusetts. Though highly intelligent and principled, he lacked Franklin's polish and diplomatic sensibility. Rather, Adams was seen as more dour, morally rigid, and blunt in his mannerisms. As Franklin glided effortlessly through European salons, Adams bristled at the intricacies of court politics and protocol.
These differences extended to temperament and lifestyle.
The older, sage Franklin preached moderation in all things. The puritanical Adams held himself and others to strict codes of virtue and morality. Amused by wine, women and wit, Franklin urges fellows to "eat, drink and be merry." Adams awoke before dawn and filled his days with reading, writing, and contemplation.
Despite their opposing personalities, Franklin's cosmopolitanism and Adam's New England fire were both assets to the revolutionary cause. Franklin secured critical support from France, while Adams never wavered in advocating for independence from Britain.
Their rivalry pushed them to excel in service to the emerging nation. Though divided in lifestyle and disposition, they were united in forging a new republic.
Though they shared a mutual respect for one another's formidable intellect and invaluable contributions to America's independence, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams never forged a close personal connection.
Adams, with his stern New England temperament, and Franklin, with his urbane wit and cosmopolitanism, made for an odd pairing amongst the Founding Fathers.
Adams appreciated Franklin's many talents, once writing: "his reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them."
Yet he also found Franklin's sensibilities and lifestyle dubious, leading to clashes during their shared time in Europe.
In a letter to friend and fellow Massachusetts politician James Warren, Adams gave a mixed assessment of the sage Franklin.
While acknowledging Franklin's honesty and wisdom, Adams also noted his shortcomings: "always an honest Man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses." To Adams, Franklin's gregarious nature and worldly habits smacked of hedonism and vanity.
Though both were integral to America's fight for independence, Franklin and Adams remained divided in outlook and manners.
Adams saw Franklin as brilliant but misguided—Franklin likely saw the provincial Adams as short-sighted and overzealous.
Mutual respect bridged some divides between the two Founders, but a lasting personal affinity proved elusive. Their contrasting temperaments and lifestyles meant Franklin and Adams's relationship, much like the new nation they helped create, joined together opposing forces in unity but not intimacy.
As tensions escalated with Britain in the early 1770s, the prominent Boston lawyer John Adams was ambivalent about joining the revolutionary fervor sweeping his home province.
Benjamin Franklin, recognizing Adams' talents, helped convince him to represent Massachusetts as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
At first, Adams was energized by his role in Continental Congress as they moved steadily towards declaring independence. But he soon grew frustrated with the slow pace of progress and regional bickering amongst the delegates over issues unrelated to splitting from Britain.
In a letter to a confidant back home, Adams vented about the difficulties of getting the fractious body to consensus. He bemoaned that "We have some narrow, contracted minds, members of our body, who are for making their own advantages by this dispute."
Ever the idealist, Adams was impatient that some in Congress seemed more concerned with personal gain instead of unifying for the patriotic cause.
The sage Franklin likely listened to his younger colleague's complaints with understanding, having already witnessed firsthand how regional interests and ego could stall legislative bodies.
Adams's disgust with the self-interested members of Congress revealed his brewing disillusionment with the realities of political machinations. But his lofty expectations stemmed from the same righteous vigor that made him invaluable to the independence movement.
In autumn 1776, Adams and Franklin were dispatched from Philadelphia to negotiate with the British, enduring days of uncomfortable travel by horse and carriage. Upon reaching a New Jersey tavern, the only available room had one small bed and window.
What followed was a petty squabble between the middle-aged Adams and elderly Franklin over whether to keep the window open to air out the room.
Adams, a sickly puritan, favored shutting it to avoid the night chill. The scientifically-minded Franklin lobbied to keep it open, lecturing on his "theory of colds."
Their argument encapsulates the clashing personalities between austere Adams and cosmopolitan Franklin. But it also underscores the discomfort and lack of amenities associated with 18th century travel, even for elite statesmen.
As the Revolutionary War raged, Benjamin Franklin's deft diplomacy and rapport with the French court proved vital in securing military support against the British. His effectiveness across the Atlantic greatly impressed John Adams, despite their differences.
In a letter to fellow patriot James Warren, Adams effused about Franklin's universally beloved reputation in Europe, writing: "His reputation was more universal than that of Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them."
Adams, known for his more dour and abrasive demeanor, admired Franklin's ability to charm and persuasively argue the American cause with eloquent wit.
While Adams bristled at the rituals and opulence of Europe's royal courts, the cosmopolitan Franklin navigated them with ease.
Franklin's charm offensive with French elites led to shipments of guns and ammunition, troops, and eventually the decisive naval victory at Yorktown that crippled the British.
Adams recognized that without Franklin's talents abroad, the fragile cause of American independence may have collapsed.
So while the two Founding Fathers sparred over matters of personality and approach, Adams gave Franklin his due credit for securing vital French assistance. Franklin's esteemed reputation in Europe awed Adams, who remained America's stalwart advocate in the Continental Congress at home.
Together, their contrasting skills helped turn the tide towards victory.
In the aftermath of America's victory over the British, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were jointly assigned the critical task of securing diplomatic recognition in Europe for the fledgling United States. However, this phase brought renewed friction to the complicated relationship between the two Founding Fathers.
Whereas Franklin was already comfortably ensconced in French society, Adams arrived in Paris unaccustomed to the intricate protocols and expectations.
His stern, taciturn style was ill-suited to the gilded salons and elaborate customs of the European gentry. Adams also grew suspicious of Franklin's cozy rapport with the French court, fearing he was too compromised to advocate for American interests.
Franklin's genteel sensibilities clashed with Adams’s blunt, Puritan disposition.
As fellow envoys, they squabbled over proper etiquette, failed to coordinate negotiating positions, and second-guessed each other’s motives and methods.
Franklin's patience wore thin with Adams's constant critiques and meddling. For his part, Adams found Franklin lazy and vain.
As they struggled to speak with one voice, the ramshackle American diplomats saw their credibility diminished.
Franklin and Adams simply could not temper their contrasting personalities and philosophies to foster a united front. The strained partnership undoubtedly harmed efforts to solidify America's legitimacy after the Revolutionary War.
Ultimately, their antagonistic relationship while abroad served as an embodiment of the wider challenges facing the fledgling republic—balancing regional interests and bridging philosophical divides.
John Adams, ever wary of foreign influences, grew increasingly suspicious of Benjamin Franklin's fondness for French culture and society during their time abroad. In correspondences with confidants back home, Adams sharply criticized his fellow American envoy.
To fellow Massachusetts politician James Warren, Adams wrote that the cosmopolitan Franklin had “a Passion for Reputation and Fame, as strong as you can imagine.” He accused Franklin of being too accommodating to the French court rather than vigorously promoting American interests.
Adams looked on aghast at the way Franklin enthusiastically embraced the refinement and decadence of Europe.
In his view, Franklin was being seduced by the outsized pomp and lax morals of the French aristocracy. Adams wrote that Franklin’s “Imagination is bewitched by this nation.”
As an austere Puritan, Adams was convinced that Franklin’s indulgence in French luxuries and esteem-seeking among the elite reflected poorly on the American cause. In his letters, Adams lamented Franklin’s hedonism and vanity as diminishing America’s gravity and reputation abroad.
However, some historians argue Adams’s rigid position was naïve diplomatically, and Franklin’s charm was an asset.
Their clashing perspectives illustrated the split between America’s European-facing cosmopolitan centers like Boston and Philadelphia, and its more inward-looking rural religious communities.
Much like the new nation they served, Adams and Franklin joined different temperaments and philosophies in an often uneasy alliance.