IN THE SWELTERING SUMMER OF 1778, La Chimère, a French frigate, docked at Chester, below Philadelphia, and Conrad-Alexandre Gérard came ashore. Three congressmen were there to greet him and escort him to the city, where that same afternoon he was the guest at a dinner party at the residence of Benedict Arnold. Although still recovering from the wound he had sustained at Saratoga, General Arnold had returned to active duty just before the Continental army departed Valley Forge, and Washington had asked him to become the military governor of Philadelphia, eastern Pennsylvania, and southern New Jersey until he was physically able to take the field again. Arnold consented and entered Philadelphia with the detachment that Washington sent to reclaim the city when the British abandoned it. He took up residence in the Penn mansion, the house that had been Howe's headquarters only days before, and it was in that capacious dwelling that Arnold and several congressmen entertained Gérard, who was a very special guest. He was France's minister plenipotentiary to the United States.
Gérard, who hailed from an upper-middle-class family of Alsatian public servants, had been trained in the law before turning to diplomacy. Close to Vergennes—he had been his first secretary—Gérard had been the foreign minister's choice to negotiate the Franco-American treaties. His every move that summer in Philadelphia was something of a spectacle to the callow Americans, most of whom had never met anything quite so exotic as a Frenchman, not to mention the House of Bourbon's first emissary to the United States. Many Philadelphians, and not least the members of Congress, gaped at Gérard as if he was a newly discovered species, noting that he was “a pretty Large Man “though”