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Wednesday, 9 July 2008

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Monsieur Franklin Slept Here

By Richard Carreño
Montreal:-- He was a diplomat. The city's first postmaster. As a successful printer and scribe, he along the way helped establish its first newspaper.

For many scholars of Benjamin Franklin -- even those less versed in his myriad achievements -- such accomplishments seem just about to sum up a day's work for the 18th century's most prodigious multi-tasker. Whether in London, Paris, or in his hometown of Philadelphia, Dr. Franklin's legendary exploits as inventor, scientist, author and -- did we mention? -- as senior founder of the United States are, of course, widely heralded.

But how about the peripatetic Franklin's diplomacy, postmastering, and newspapering in Montreal?

Frequently and mystifyingly absent from the great man's oft-recited canon is Franklin's personal 'invasion' of the capital of what was then British-controlled Canada. The time? May 1776. The mission: Encourage Canada's disaffected francophones to side with American colonists. Picture, if you will, Franklin as international secret agent.

Who knew?

Not surprisingly, the Sage of Philadelphia carried out his charge, as always, while living large, including wheeling and dealing for war-time supplies with local merchants. And, in this case, as well, it is said, in a fractured version French employed by the audatic Franklin.
Franklin's tour of Montreal was just another notch -- albeit, his least known chapter -- in his world travels.

In a time when most his countrymen hardly travelled from their farms or towns, much less their counties, Philadelphia's first citizen -- by today's standards -- could well be a member of any million-mile program, racking up multiple visits to England; France; and Belgium and Holland (yes, he went there, too). Never mind, of course, his touring the Atlantic seaboard from Boston (his birthplace) to Philadelphia, the city of his greatest fame.

Let's add another first to the Franklin lexicon: First Tourist.

Franklin's legacy lives on quietly in Montreal, today the second largest French-speaking city with a population of about 2 million.

While Franklin's biggest frontprint, of course, was in Philadelphia, his house, off Market Street East, no longer exists. Ditto Boston. Ditto for the hôtel particulière in which he resided in Paris' Passy quarter.

Remarkably -- thanks to fundraising efforts in Philadelphia and London -- Franklin's townhouse in Craven Street, in London, still stands. And it is often referred to the only Franklin residence still extant.

Well, maybe. The management of the Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet, in Montreal's Old City, begs to differ -- well, at least a bit. In fact, the Calvet, named after its 18th-century owner and the merchant with whom Franklin was smoozing and temporarily living with, had proof: a bronze plaque on its front wall announcing, in the tradition of such things, that 'Franklin Slept Here.'

That is, until recently, when the plaque -- unbeknownst to the Calvet's staff, mysteriously went missing.

Coincidentally, my introduction to Franklin's Montreal was also via another bronze plaque, this one in the Avenue St. Antoine, near downtown.

I was a guide at the time, many years ago, shepherding guileless American tourists through La Belle Province on week-long holidays. I spent much of my free time exploring the city, building upon my lore for the tour. My charges, from New England, were, for the most part, history-challenged, and they loved being regaled by stories of American military action in Canada, events heretofore unbeknownst to them.

Campaigns by Richard Montgomery in Montreal and Benedict Arnold in Quebec City. That sort of thing. Tales about Dr. Franklin, everyone's favorite revolutionary, were the most popular.

The plaque I encountered was stuck on a nondescript Canadian Pacific building, almost if it were an afterthought.'In 1763 Benjamin Franklin, the Deputy Postmaster General in North America, established the first organised postal service in Canada....' The plaque is still there.

Despite its reference, in 1776, as the Revolution was heating up, it was hardly philatelical reasons that brought Franklin north. Nor was he the only American in town. Since November 1775, the city had been occupied by American troops.

'...His primary mission was to use his diplomatic skills to persuade Canadians to join the American war of independence from Britain,' noted historian Ronald T. Harvie. 'His secondary task: to pump up the morale of the American army....'

Franklin wasn't lacking in propaganda skills.

What better way to spin a story, Franklin figured, than by starting a pro-American newspaper.
To that end, accompanying Franklin in his arduous horse-drawn journey, was French journalist Fleury Mesplet. (Mesplet, who Franklin met in 1773 in London, went on to be the founder of The Gazette, now Montreal's oldest newspaper).

Also accompanying Franklin was a Philadelphia Jesuit priest, a Father Carroll. This was Franklin's way in covering his bases with the influential Roman Catholic clergy.

Franklin's HQ for meeting and greeting was the 18th-century Château Ramezay, now a well-preserved museum not far from the Philadelphian's quarters at the Calvet residence.

I visited the Ramezay recently, and got a glimpse of visitor reaction to the museum's presentation of the Franklin story. As was the case with visitors I guided years before, there was surprise. Even bewilderment. (A room, overseen by an oil portrait of Franklin, is dedicated to his visit).

Lack of historical knowledge, André Delisle, the museum's director told me, surely accounts for how most visitors (about 30 percent are American) react to the Franklin's saga's missing link. Another? The château's own bronze plaque, recording the Franklin visit, has also, like the one at the Calvet house, disappeared.

Delisle, a slender, serious type, quickly explained:

'Thieves.'

'Interested in historical artifacts?' I responded.

'No. Interested in the value of bronze.'

Delisle made another point, one not usually associated with the wily Dr. Franklin, almost universally recognized as early America's 'go-to guy.'

Despite Franklin's charm and legendary powers of persuasion, his month-long mission in Montreal was met with failure. Surely, Franklin turned on his backwoods hokiness, including coon-skin cap -- a technique he would later employ successfully at the French court -- as a way of ingratiating himself with his hosts. Trouble was, his hosts were wearing coon-skin caps, as well.

Delisle also noted that Montrealers felt quite well treated by the British, who didn't, for larger political reasons, discourage the French language, nor their religiosity. Moreover, Montrealers viewed the standing American army in their city as occupiers, hardly liberators. (Anything reminscient of that?)

Even for the eminent Dr. Franklin, Canada was out of his grasp. The wizard of American diplomacy could not have everything.

'It would have been easier for Franklin to buy Canada than to conquer it,' Delisle said.

(This article appeared, in somewhat different form, in the 9 July hardcopy edition of the Weekly Press and on-line via www.weeklypress.com).

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