The French hailed Benjamin Franklin. Two hundred years ago, he was over in Paris (with John Adams and John Jay) trying to end the Revolutionary War. He lacked money and met resplendent Louis XVI with republican simplicity - and no wig. (He didn't even powder his hair.) This was the man - Parisians told each other - who had brought lightning down from the clouds! He was a smash hit.
Two hundred years later, in 1983, the bells will peal in the Old North Church in Boston. There will be anniversary ceremonies of the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American War of Independence, up and down the land.
The preliminary American treaties were signed in Paris on Sept. 3, 1783, but there were also articles of peace between France and Britain, and Britain and Spain. There were months of delay before the draft treaty and its ratification by Congress could go back and forth across the Atlantic. But, in brief: the war ended; the American Colonies became a nation; and the British Empire and the United States, sharing a language and a system of laws, formed a relationship a little closer than other nations'.
Two hundred years ago, as now, there were criticisms in Congress over what the treaty negotiators had signed. The new Constitution gave the Senate an extraordinary power. One-third of its members, plus one, could block a treaty recommended by the president. (The provision would keep the US out of the League of Nations in 1920, and help block the recent second SALT treaty.) Some Americans in 1783 said the negotiators in Paris had betrayed the infant republic: They wanted Canada annexed to the US. Actually, the terms were surprisingly favorable. They marked acceptance of the new society in America which then had the most radical government in the world.
The English historian, Lord Acton, says of it:
''It was from America that the plain ideas that men ought to mind their own business, and that the nation is responsible to Heaven for the Acts of the state - ideas long locked in the breasts of solitary thinkers, and hidden among Latin folios - burst forth like a conqueror upon the world they were destined to transform under the title of the Rights of Man. . . .''
The war that the Treaty of Paris ended extended to almost every part of the world. Britain had been fighting not only its former colonies, but also France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The world map was redrawn. Britain ceded Minorca and the Floridas to Spain (but kept Gibraltar); France got Tobago in the West Indies and Senegal in Africa. And the US won the west to the Mississippi, north to Canada, and south to the Floridas. The experimental new republic was hailed in all liberal circles of England and Europe.
The general settlement was called the ''Treaty of Paris.'' The main provisions affecting the United States were:
* Britain recognized US independence.
* Sweeping boundary agreements defined the US from Nova Scotia to the Great Lakes; also Spanish Florida and Louisiana, and the US and Canada.
* Confirmation of US rights to fish off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
* Debts invalidated by the outbreak of war were now valid.
* Congress promised to ''earnestly recommend'' to the state legislatures the full restoration of the rights and properties of the Loyalists.
* Hostilities would cease; British land and sea forces would depart ''with all convenient speed.''
Like many other treaty negotiators, the American team - Franklin, Jay, and Adams - brought criticism at home. Congress had instructed them explicitly not to reach agreement with Britain without consulting France. They disregarded the order in some particulars. Robert Livingston, secretary of foreign affairs, said they had insulted Congress.
Commercial interests at home were unhappy, too, at provisions for recovery of debts owed to British merchants. There was disagreement over boundaries and agitation at the State House at Annapolis, Md. (the temporary capital of the United States).
Franklin, the homespun philosopher, sighed. He wrote a colleague: ''The blessing promised to peacemakers, I fancy, relates to the next world, for in this they seem to have a greater chance of being cursed.''
Two hundred years later, most historians still wonder that the American delegation at Paris got such good terms.