During the 1770s and 1780s, King Louis XVI’s subjects were fascinated with all things American. That fascination often centered on America’s celebrity diplomat, Benjamin Franklin. During his nine-year stint first as America’s commissioner and then as its ambassador to France, Franklin was fêted by the elite of French society as the embodiment of American freedom and virtue, as evidenced by his homespun simplicity and coonskin cap.

The culmination of the French frenzy for America can be seen in the contest sponsored in the 1780s by the Abbé Raynal, a well-known philosophe, for the best essay on the question, “Has the discovery of America been beneficial or harmful to the human race?” From the first...


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