Ben Franklin charms France
Ben Franklin charms France

Ben Franklin charms France

How Ben Franklin used wealth, wisdom, and the fraternal bonds of Freemasonry to leverage his influence into bringing France into the war on behalf of America.

By Paul R. Swanson, 32° KCCH

Scottish Rite Valley of Tallahassee, March 25, 2024

I want to tell you about how Ben Franklin’s monumental task of seeking help from the French to enter the war on our side was accomplished. In a contrast and comparison that resembles the Plutarch Lives of old books, I will reveal how Ben and Voltaire were similar in many ways and how Voltaire ended up helping the American cause, unknowingly.

Then I would like to relate to you “the rest of the story” as Brother Paul Harvey used to say.

I hope to do all of this and yet be brief!

Both men were of high intellect. Both were viewed as “Men of Letters”, a term which was highly complementary and meant, “a man engaged in literary pursuits, especially a professional writer. A man of great learning, a scholar”.

Both men were oriented towards science. Voltaire was in England when Isaac Newton passed and was moved by how England turned out for their native son. He would spend many of his years bringing to the rest of Europe Newtonian natural philosophy (i.e. physics and science) which refuted his native countryman Descartes.

Both men were subjected to the condemnation of the conservatives of their times when they embraced Enlightenment ideals and policies, particularly regarding how science was changing the world. Conservatives in France were the government and the monarchy, the Roman Catholic church, and their supporters. Conservatives in America were called “loyalists”.

Both men were born 12 years apart and lived into their 80s. Both ended life with an abundance of wealth. Voltaire was blessed by inherited wealth and then invested that in an area of industry which he would preach against for the rest of his life, the war machine of France.  But he also earned many gifts and pensions of his own accord over the years.

Ben, like Voltaire, was set by his father on the path of enterprise, and like Ben Voltaire rebelled against the industry and his father. Unlike Ben, Voltaire managed his social ladder climbing with several mishaps which landed him in the famous prison of Bastille. Ben wasn’t that controversial due to being in a land that wasn’t stratified by nobility and commoners.

Voltaire’s writing career took off, but he was again sent to the Bastille in 1726 after arguing with the Chevalier de Rohan, a notable member of the French elite. Voltaire had changed his name to sound more aristocratic. He was being mocked by a French nobleman for this and in France at that time commoners, no matter how famous or wealthy, could not make retorts to noblemen and expect to avoid prison. Voltaire was very sarcastic, and it cost him time in prison.

Voltaire wrote copiously, embracing other great minds of the Enlightenment, such as Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Francis Bacon. He was guided by reason and favored religious tolerance. His fame and reputation were known throughout Europe as a champion of these causes while living in a religiously conservative France, a path fraught with danger.

In the 1730s, he sparked a correspondence and friendship with Frederick the Great, (another famous Freemason), visiting Prussia many times and even moving there for several years in 1750 to work for his friend. 

By 1748, the 42-year-old Franklin had become one of the richest men in Pennsylvania, and he became a soldier in the Pennsylvania militia. He turned his printing business over to a partner to give himself more time to conduct scientific experiments.

Voltaire wrote prodigiously. Voltaire composed over 20,000 letters and 2,000 books during his long life. It is said, he managed this fantastic feat by writing for 18 hours per day.

Ben’s collections of writings comprised some 8,000 volumes. But he also is credited with numerous discoveries and inventions, one of which was the “rocking chair”.

Voltaire in his middle years was so wealthy that in today’s dollars, he was seeing an income of nearly $1 million per year!

Voltaire embarks on making his corner of the world a better place. He builds a Roman Catholic church for his townsmen while remaining a Deist. He hires a full-time priest. He becomes a writing machine. Distinguished visitors from all over Europe visit him at his home. Then Voltaire takes on his old friend Fredrick the Great and the war that Fredrick championed in his published writing. The result makes him run for his life before finding refuge away from Paris.

Both Ben and Voltaire were Deists, which is a belief system without structure like priests or Bishops, still claiming that God exists, but He isn’t personally interfering on behalf of or against the regular person.

Ben Franklin wrote and published a pamphlet while in London on Deism. John Adams was raised a Calvinist but studied deism, eventually joining the Unitarian church. Thomas Jefferson was the most famous deist of these men. Franklin and Jefferson were lifelong friends. Thomas Paine, who wrote Common Sense and galvanized the citizens of the colonies into rebellion, was a firm Deist. He was also a friend of Ben Franklin. Deists tended to be liberals in those times.

At the heart of Voltaire’s works lies his unwavering advocacy for civil liberties. He was a staunch supporter of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and lastly the complete separation of church and state, something that the Scottish Rite 32d degree stipulates.

Ben had a huge problem when he was sent to France. He was successful in gaining material help for the American cause. He was not successful in getting the King of France to intercede in the war on behalf of the cause for many months. He was, despite being famous and wealthy, just a commoner. He had to win over the French conservatives in power to his liberal cause somehow. But how?

Within a year of Franklin’s arrival, over five million livres of aid were sent to support the American army. France formally entered the war, recognized the United States in 1778, and signed the Treaty of Alliance.

French agents sent the Patriots military aid (predominantly gunpowder) through a company called Rodrigue Hortalez et Compagnie, beginning in the spring of 1776. Estimates place the percentage of French-supplied arms to the Americans in the Saratoga campaign at up to 90%.

Despite these successes, Ben needed to win over the hearts and minds of the conservative French Nobles and the French public to pressure the government to come to direct military aid for the fledging country’s liberal cause.

He developed a plan. It was a multiple-front charm offensive!

He played chess with anyone and everyone he could, particularly nobles, ladies included. He uses his wit to charm the nobles into supporting the American cause. For those who are not aware, chess was at that time a game of intellectuals, with Paris being the center of the chess world since 1761. In 1774 London formed a formal chess club.

As a 40-plus-year Mason, he also uses the fraternity in this scheme.

(The Nine Sisters) La Loge des Neuf Soeurs, established in Paris in 1776, was a prominent French Masonic Lodge of the Grand Orient of de France and it was influential in organizing French support for the American Revolution. The name referred to the nine Muses, the daughters of Memory, patrons of the arts and sciences since antiquity, and long significant in French cultural circles.

In 1778, when Voltaire became a member, Benjamin Franklin and John Paul Jones were also accepted. Benjamin Franklin became Master of the Lodge in 1779 and was re-elected in 1780, with considerable controversy.

Voltaire was initiated into the lodge on April 4, 1778, in Paris; his conductors were Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Court de Gébelin.

Voltaire died the following month. His membership, however, was symbolic of the independence of mind The Nine Sisters stood for and his many friends remained friendly to the American cause and supported the French intervention against Britain.

In conclusion, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and the Nine Sisters in Paris were interconnected. They were all part of this influential Masonic Lodge, which played a significant role in the cultural and political landscape of the time.

September to October, 1781
A joint French and American force traps a large British army on Virginia’s Yorktown peninsula. Unable to evacuate or receive reinforcements because a French fleet has driven off a British fleet, General Cornwallis is forced to surrender. Although New York City and Charleston, S.C., will remain in British hands until a peace treaty is signed two years later, the war for American independence is essentially over.

In response to France entering the war, Spain and the Dutch Republic also sided with the Continental Army, sending assistance, and leaving the British without European allies.


Now for the rest of the story, as Brother Paul Harvey would say:

It required great sacrifice from the people of France to support America, and the nation’s debt swelled to over one billion livres, straining its finances and escalating tensions among economic classes. This crushing debt fell on the citizens of France for the most part.

This reaction to the disparity of wealth distribution between the monarchy and the extremely poor and hungry citizens was a significant reason why the French Revolution of 1789 followed just a few years after the end of America’s war with Britain, 1765 to 1783.  

Does this extreme divide in the wealth gap sound familiar?

Note, Lyndon B. Johnson was initiated into the first degree of Freemasonry – “Entered Apprentice”, October 30, 1937, in Johnson City Lodge No. 561, at Johnson City, Texas, but did not advance any further and did not become a full member of his lodge. Isn’t it interesting that Voltaire in the lists of famous Masons isn’t identified as only gaining his EA like a recent president?

Politics perhaps?

Lastly, when Voltaire died the conservatives (clergy/king/elite) in his country felt they were justified in having his body thrown into a common grave, a huge disgrace for one of France’s biggest intellectual giants, which was meant to suppress the commoner’s ideas of liberty and freedom that were rampant in his many books. This horrified his many followers and supporters who worked with great energy to prevent the clergy/monarchy from humiliating their hero in such a way.

He was buried in a simple grave, only to be dug up 13 years later, and moved to a place more fitting where he rests to this day.

This section will not be presented in the Masonic Education at the April stated meeting but is offered for those who venture forth to check out this article on our website at:


An interesting side note, Ben Franklin’s autobiography does not include his involvement with the Masonic fraternity. It was integral to his social ladder climbing and success, but it isn’t mentioned.

From a historical and Masonic viewpoint, the story of Voltaire’s death and burial was a bit more involved, as he had aroused the anger of the conservatives of his time, repeatedly and had also inspired the public to aspire to liberty, religious freedom with religious tolerance, and lastly, for wars to end. These notions were popular with the nobles who read Voltaire’s writing but also the people who had lost a champion for their rights.

History has cycled back today to the same division of the population between the conservatives represented at that time in France by the clergy, the elite, and the monarchy and the liberals like Voltaire in France and the numerous liberals in England, such as Francis Bacon, and Jonathan Swift (known for Gulliver’s Travels), Alexander Pope, and John Locke (recognized as the founder of British empiricism and the author of the first systematic exposition and defense of political liberalism).  

Sadly, conservatives and liberals today are still debating the same things that were discussed in France and which Voltaire tried to bring to light, the injustices of the people at the expense of the elite, known today as the 1%. The very same economic issues then are easily recognizable today in the conservative elite political power policies as opposed to the liberal’s policy support for the people who labor and work. The people’s answer then was to rebel and conduct a revolution for liberty.

American Philosophical Society gives this information on the aftermath of Brother Franklin’s assisting Voltaire in the Nine Sisters Masonic Lodge.

The highlighting is mine, for emphasis, copied from a source directly to avoid any error of fact or tone.

The Nine Sisters had known nothing but tribulations since they had held, on November 28, 1778, a grandiose commemoration of Voltaire—with Franklin’s rather rash participation. 

The American may not have gauged the intensity of anger aroused in the Church by Voltaire’s anticlerical pronouncements and the problems confronted by Louis XVI, who was both a Mason and a devout Catholic.

The royal displeasure was vented on the Lodge through the masonic channel of the Grand Orient de France, headed by the King’s own cousin, the Duc de Chartres.

First, the Nine Sisters were evicted from their spacious quarters on the rue du Pot-de-Fer and relegated to a small locale in an annex.

Then, on December 22, the current Vénérable, Joseph-Jérôme de Lalande, was roundly reprimanded for having, among other infractions, admitted two women to the ceremony.

More trouble occurred—or was deliberately provoked—on March 9, 1779, when the Lodge, in order to mark the anniversary of its foundation, held what was called a “loge d’adoption,” i.e., a special convocation for women, all of them of high birth and related to Masons, to be enrolled in philanthropic endeavors.

In the ensuing clamor, the Nine Sisters came close to being abrogated but three of their defenders reacted so eloquently that the Grand Orient, as mentioned in the document below, finally backed down.

The choice of Franklin as next Vénérable is wrapped in the usual masonic mystery, but his election certainly was an important factor in cooling the atmosphere. The author of Bachaumont’s Mémoires secrets, no friend of Freemasons, commented sarcastically on May 26: “Il est merveilleux de voir M. Franklin, malgré les grandes & nombreuses affaires dont il est chargé, trouver assez de temps pour jouer à la chapelle, & suivre les assemblées de franc-maçons, comme le frere le plus oisif: jeudi dernier [May 20] il a été élu vénérable de la loge des Neuf-Soeurs, & une députation est allée à Passy lui en faire part.” The chronicler went on to predict trouble because the publication of La Dixmerie’s Mémoire had provoked the garde des sceaux [minister of justice] to order the prefect of police to stop its distribution and do his utmost to discover its publisher. His gleeful conclusion: “… voilà matiere de quoi exercer le zele du nouveau vénérable.”

But the “nouveau vénérable,” perhaps because of his personal friendship with the head of police, M. Lenoir, steered clear of trouble. “L’inventeur du paratonnerre devait, ici encore, écarter la foudre.”

There were a few more aftershocks during the summer and fall of 1779, but Franklin held himself apart from them and they eventually subsided.

Antoine Court, who named himself Antoine Court de Gébelin With the American patriot Benjamon Franklin and others he supported U.S. independence in Affaires de l’Angleterre et de l’Amérique (1776 et seq.; “Affairs of England and America”).

For further understanding of this era suggested reading, The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783, by Joseph J. Ellis.

Excerpt Page 11, “As Adams saw it, and Blackstone seemed almost eager to confirm, most Englishmen still lived within a contrived set of political and religious assumptions designed to suppress personal freedom, assumptions that validated dominion by the privileged few over the muffled many.”

Contrast those views with Voltaire’s 3-year time in England a few decades before when he found her so much freer than his home of France and the Nobles who could subvert and imprison any commoner for daring to talk back. Freedom is a matter of degrees it would seem.

Primary sources for this article are taken from my personal in-home library and include the following:

Plutarch’s Lives, with notes critical and historical, and a Life of Plutarch, by John Langhorne, D.D and William Langhorne, A.M, 1826.

Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer J Adler, Volume 34, Swift, Voltaire, Diderot.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac, and other papers 1936, published under World’s Greatest Literature.

The Selected Work of Tom Paine and Citizen Tom Paine, by Howard Fast 1945.

The Complete Romances of Voltaire, Also the Philosopher of History, The Ignorant Philosopher, Dialogues and Philosophic Criticisms. Eight volumes in one 1927.

Chess The History of the Game, by Richard Eales 1985

The Great Courses CD, Voltaire, and the Triumph of the Enlightenment, by Professor Alan Charles Kors 2001