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Ben Franklin’s Masterful Negotiation Lessons – Part I


Written by Marty Latz, Latz Negotiation Institute

Without Founding Father Benjamin Franklin’s extraordinary negotiation skills, the United States of America may not even exist. It was Franklin, after all, that successfully negotiated with France for sufficient financial and military resources to fight the British in the Revolutionary War. And France played a crucial role in the U.S. victory.

So what strategies and tactics did Franklin use in this effort and in subsequent negotiations to end the war and during the Constitutional Convention? Here are two, with an additional two in next week’s column. (I derived these from Ken Burns’ documentary Benjamin Franklin “An American,” which I highly recommend).

1. The Power of Passion

I was trained as a lawyer to put a premium on logic, rationality, analysis and an even-handed and often dispassionate evaluation of issues. This approach can be very helpful in many negotiations.

But it is not always enough, and Franklin knew this. Sometimes you need to passionately express your heartfelt beliefs and let your emotions carry the day.

In 1781, Congress tasked Franklin, John Adams and John Jay with negotiating a peace agreement to end the war with the British. And in 1782, they had a preliminary agreement that England would: 1) recognize American independence, 2) remove its troops from the U.S., 3) allow U.S. fishing rights off the Newfoundland coast, and 4) relinquish its claims south of the Great Lakes.

There was a sticking point, however, as the British insisted on compensation for the losses of Americans who had sided with them during the war (called “Loyalists”). According to historian Clay Jenkinson, Adams and Jay wavered on this request, but Franklin got angry and responded:

“You ruined our crops. You burned our cities. You took our citizens across the Atlantic and tortured them. You engaged in state terror against the citizens of the United States. Don’t talk to me about recompensing Loyalists unless you want to pay for Norfolk and all the cities you burned and trashed, and the homes that you ruined, and the lives that you shattered.”

The final agreement, the Treaty of Paris (1783), did not include reparations for Loyalists.

Jenkinson called it “one of the most lopsided treaties in American diplomatic history. It’s a total victory for the United States. . . . There is a consensus, at the end, among the negotiators, including the Brits, that we’re witnessing the creation of an American empire.”

2. The Role of a Sincere Apology

Despite all that France had done to help the U.S. win the war, the U.S. froze it out of the end-of-war negotiations with the British. This, according to historian Joseph Ellis, occurred even though the U.S. had previously agreed to involve them.

So how did Franklin smooth this over after-the-fact with French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes, with whom Franklin had previously negotiated all its aid? He wrote a letter and straightforwardly and sincerely apologized “for our failure to fulfill our promise.”

It worked – and he even asked for more money from France in that same letter! And got it!

Latz’s Lesson:  Sometimes you need to passionately and powerfully express your feelings and emotions on a critical issue. And don’t underestimate the defining role that a sincere apology can play in the process.


Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation Institute, a national negotiation training and consulting company, and ExpertNegotiator, a Web-based software company that helps managers and negotiators more effectively negotiate and implement best practices based on the experts' proven research.  He is also the author of Gain the Edge! Negotiating to Get What You Want (St. Martin’s Press 2004). He can be reached at 480-951-3222 or


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