How Ben Franklin Leveraged the French Addiction to Snuff to Get Aid for Independence

tags: American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, tobacco, Addiction

Willard Sterne Randall is the author of The Founders' Fortunes: How Money Shaped the Birth of America and Unshackling America: How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution, as well as biographies of several of the Founding Fathers. He is a distinguished scholar in history and professor emeritus at Champlain College who specializes in the history of the Founding Era.

No sooner had Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence than he was off, secretly, to France, on what seemed, in the winter of 1776, to be an impossible mission: to secure loans and arms from King Louis XVI.

Why would France — only a dozen years after its complete thrashing by the British in the Seven Years War and the loss of all North American colonies, in defiance of the Treaty of Paris and international law — risk helping revolutionaries? To exact revenge for their humiliating defeat? To rekindle an ancient rivalry between two royal families? And how, whether or not they succeeded, could the Americans ever repay any loans? The embryonic United States had no money, no banks and no credit.

Franklin, after decades of living in England as a colonial lobbyist, and as a noted man of science and inveterate traveler, knew Europe, its culture, its customs and its habits probably better than any other American. He was undoubtedly well aware of the highly popular fad of using costly cured, scented and finely pulverized tobacco called snuff.

Tobacco had first entered Europe at the end of the sixteenth century on Columbus's return to Spain from his second voyage of discovery. His crews had observed native Caribs smoking it. The Portuguese similarly brought the weed home from their base in Brazil.

In 1611, John Rolfe, Pocahontas's husband, introduced sweet tobacco from the Caribbean to Virginia. Planters soon grew nothing else, sending off their crops to England to be to dried and crushed to a fine powder called snuff.

The costly new commodity became a hallmark of the elite. Commoners couldn't afford it; they smoked their tobacco in pipes. Snuff inhalers were rewarded with a powerful charge of nicotine.

Snuff became a court favorite for men and women. In England, Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III and mother of 14, kept a well-stocked room full of her favorite varieties under lock and key in Windsor Castle. In France's elegant court at Versailles, Queen Marie Antoinette demurely took a pinch of snuff between the tip of her thumb and her index finger and inhaled it, considerately sneezing it into a scented handkerchief.


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