American cultural diplomacy has sought to balance artistic cultivation with democratic and inclusive values.
When Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris in December 1776, his main task was to gain the support of King Louis XVI for the American side in the War of Independence. This he did by playing the balance-of-power game with as much guile as any European diplomat. Among other maneuvers, Franklin leaked intelligence about France’s intentions to the British, sowing just enough suspicion between the two to advance his cause. Franklin also impressed the French nobility with his high degree of cultivation. Renowned for his scientific experiments, he was also celebrated for his wit, intellect, and refined taste in art, music, wine, and food. Not for a moment did he allow his hosts to dismiss him as a crude bumpkin, as the French were inclined to do.
Yet neither did Franklin ape the nobility. On the contrary, he appealed to the philosophes’ fascination with the state of nature by playing the noble savage—moving among the powdered wigs, elaborate silks, and gilded ornaments of the French court adorned in a fur cap, dowdy suit, and plain wooden walking stick. In essence, he turned his dumpy figure into a symbol of enlightened democracy. As Franklin’s fame spread, his physical likeness appeared in a wide range of consumer items, from expensive oil paintings, marble busts, and Sèvres china to terra cotta medallions, cheap engravings, and wooden dolls. It was an extraordinary performance, and it helped to persuade, even seduce, France into expending blood and treasure for the American cause.