"MANY… COULD NOT HAVE EXPECTED SO MUCH POLITICAL KNOWLEDGE AND SAGACITY HAD EXISTED IN OUR WILDERNESS… OUR CONSTITUTIONS IN GENERAL ARE MUCH ADMIRED" (FRANKLIN): EXCEEDINGLY RARE FIRST FRENCH EDITION OF CONSTITUTIONS DES TREIZE ÉTATS-UNIS DE L'AMÉRIQUE, 1783, ONE OF ONLY 600 COPIES, COMMISSIONED BY BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, WITH HIS BORDER DESIGN FOR THE WOODCUT-ENGRAVED GREAT SEAL OF THE UNITED STATES, "ITS FIRST APPEARANCE IN A PRINTED BOOK" (HOWES)
(FRANKLIN, Benjamin) (CONSTITUTION). Constitutions des Treize États-Unis de L'Amérique. A Philadelphie [i.e. Paris]; Et se trouve a Paris,: Chez Ph.-D.Pierres… Pissot, 1783. Octavo, period-style full calf gilt, red morocco spine label; pp. (iv), (1-3), 4-540. $8500.
Rare first French edition, one of only 600 copies (including 100 large paper), of the Constitutions of the Several Independent States (1781), proposed by Franklin while America's ambassador to the French Court and amidst his negotiations for peace with Great Britain. This exceptional edition, octavo issue, contains "over 50 footnotes by [Franklin], and shows on title the United States seal… its first appearance in a book" (Howes C716).
In 1783, Benjamin Franklin, then in France as America's ambassador to the Court, celebrated "an astounding diplomatic victory… [when] the 'miracle in human affairs' that Franklin had advertised in 1777 had come to pass; American independence" (Schiff, 327). In skillfully negotiating peace with Britain and protecting America's relationship with the French, it became clear: "If Washington was indispensable to the success of the Revolution in America, Franklin was indispensable to the success of the Revolution abroad" (Wood, Americanization, 200). This exceptionally rare first French edition of the Constitutions des Treize États-Unis de l'Amérique (i.e. Constitutions of the Several Independent States, 1781) was proposed by Franklin early that year when, on "March 24, 1783, Franklin wrote to the Comte de Vergennes:—'I am desirous of printing a translation of the Constitutions of the United States of America, published at Philadelphia, by Order of Congress. Several of these Constitutions have already appeared in the English and American newspapers; others have appeared elsewhere, but there has never yet been a complete translation of them." Franklin then spoke of having already contacted a printer, M. Pierres, "who is ready to commence the impression, and I hope that your Excellency will give your approbation,' &c." In a letter to Thomas Mifflin, President of the American Congress, later that year, Franklin made clear his reasons for this groundbreaking work. "The extravagant Misrepresentations of our Political State in foreign Countries, made it appear necessary to give them better Information, which I thought could not be more effectually and authentically done, than by publishing a Translation into French, now the most general Language in Europe, of the Book of Constitutions… This I accordingly got well done, and present two Copies, handsomely bound, to every foreign minister here, one for himself, the other more elegant for his Sovereign. It has been well taken, and has afforded Matter of Surprise to many, who had conceived mean Ideas of the State of Civilization in America, and could not have expected so much political Knowledge and Sagacity had existed in our Wilderness. And from all Parts I have the satisfaction to hear, that our Constitutions in general are much admired."
That June, Franklin's printer wrote requesting binding instructions and "some copies seem to have been delivered to Franklin toward the end of July. On the 24th of that month he presented a copy to the Comte de Vergennes, and at the same time sent him several copies for the King and the Royal Family." Franklin then wrote to Robert R. Livingston, who was appointed Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Secretary of State) soon after the Articles of Confederation were adopted, informing him that he had "presented copies to all the foreign Ministers." The translation into French was made by Franklin's friend, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. "Among the Franklin papers are numerous letters from the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, all undated, referring to his translations. These letters show that Franklin made suggestions; and it is very probable that the foot-notes throughout were, partly at least, his. The device upon the title-page of this volume seems to be the first appearance of the Arms of the United States in any printed book. The 'Great Seal, which, as we know it, was mainly the design of Charles Thomson, was adopted by Congress on June 22, 1781. The seal was shortly after cut in brass by some unknown engraver… Franklin probably had it engraved from an impression in wax sent him on some document. The saw-tooth border was doubtless his idea, in imitation of the round piece of paper put upon the wax in taking an impression of the seal." This edition contains, along with the complete text of the 13 state constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the texts of several treaties with France and one with Sweden. "The Constitution of Pennsylvania, in French, had appeared in a 1777 Paris edition of La Science du Bonhomme Richard… The Constitutions of several other states, the same [French] text as in this volume, were printed in that irregularly published and rare periodical, Affaires de l'Angleterre et de l'Amerique, with which Franklin was in some way connected" (Livingston & Rogers, Franklin and his Press at Passy, 181-88). Preceded by the 1781 Philadelphia edition of Constitutions of the Several Independent States (200 copies). One of 600 copies printed, of which 100 were on large paper, with the same setting of type: no priority established. Complete as issued without half title. Text in French. Howes C716. Streeter II:1035. Sabin 16118. Cohen 3033. Evans 18265. ESTC T138348.
A few pages lightly foxed, text generally clean, period-style calf-gilt binding handsome and fine. An excellent copy. Quite scarce.