Monday, February 15, 2010

Unlikely Allies - book

Unlikely Allies, by Joel Richard Paul (Riverhead Books, New York, 2009)

The subtitle of this fascinating book tells you precisely what it is about: “How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution.” The specifics are found within. And what specifics they are! The Playwright and the Spy are truly larger-than-life, stranger-than-fiction characters who, acting on motives of their own, furthered the cause of the American Revolution. The Merchant, Silas Deane, who you quite likely have never heard of (unless you are a pretty serious student of the American Revolution), was an unlikely figure to have been charged with trying to get France to help America free itself from the British. Deane, the son of a blacksmith, became a successful businessman, but spoke no French, and had never been far from his home in Connecticut, when he was sent to France, even before Benjamin Franklin, to enlist French aid in the form of rifles, cannons, and the myriad other items needed to equip an as yet formed army of 30,000. Even more incredible, he was instructed to do this on credit and promises as the newly formed American Congress had no funds. How he ultimately managed to do this is a true tale to rival any fictional account, and makes history truly come to life.
Caron de Beaumarchais was a French playwright who started out and became successful as an innovative watchmaker was also a musician, but became more famous for writing The Barber of Seville. Being outspoken about things he had fallen into disfavor with the French Court. In order to re-establish himself with the King he undertook a strange assignment to recover some compromising papers the King had written that, had they become public, would have started another war with Britain which France could not have afforded (having just experienced a devastating loss to the British already). These papers were in the hands of the Chevalier d’Eon, who had once been sent to Russia disguised as a woman to spy on the Russians and who also had fallen into disfavor with the King.

The Chevalier d’Eon, a child prodigy, was also a decorated French soldier, a diplomat, and a spy. It was believed by some that d’Eon was actually a woman and at one time large bets were placed in London by some who thought so. The truth of the matter was not established until the Chevalier’s death. He/she, too, wished to re-establish a position in the Court of Louis XVI, but was loathe to give up the secret papers unless promises were made that were difficult to work out. If Beaumarchais could get the papers and return them to the King he would gain prestige and position, and if d’Eon would give them up in the proper manner he/she, too, would gain. Beaumarchais spent months in London courting the Chevalier in his attempt.

Beaumarchais had returned to France in disgrace having been imprisoned in Austria over a fantastic story he had concocted to demonstrate to Louis XVI how he had tried to save him from some embarrassment over France’s relations with that country. His persistent appeals to the King eventually resulted in a meeting with the Comte de Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister. It was Vergennes, who knew the King was being blackmailed by d’Eon, who appointed Beaumarchais to retrieve the letters, and the two of them formed a friendly relationship. Thus it was Beaumarchais who eventually convinced Vergennes that France should help the Americans with their revolution, and as Vergennes had the power to provide arms and other supplies, he secretly agreed to aid the Americans as long as it could be kept secret from the British. It was an outrageous breech of agreements between Britain and France. It was, of course, Silas Deane, who convinced Beaumarchais, whom he met in Paris, to do this. Beaumarchais agreed, not simply because he wanted to aid the revolutionaries in America but because he would make a fortune from doing dealing in the arms trade.

In order to convince the French to side with America it was necessary to convince them the Americans would win against the British. As communications took months between the continents, Deane had no idea what was happening for long periods at a time, if the revolution was succeeding or not (and it definitely was not for a long time). The strength of the American army was greatly exaggerated to impress the French and so on. Eventually Franklin arrived in Paris and this enterprise ultimately proved to be successful. But it was far more complicated and interesting than this brief account. Deane and Franklin had enemies who tried to harm them, there were British and French spies everywhere, many of the ships transporting arms and supplies were stopped by the British, it was never clear whether the poorly armed Americans would get weapons in time, and luckily they did, just in time to defeat the British at Saratoga, the greatest American victory of the war.

Beaumarchais and Deane, who had done by far the most to bring about the success of the American Revolution, both died as paupers. Deane who had been a very wealthy businessman lost everything, largely because of politics and false charges brought against him that were not corrected until many years later when his family was finally given money that was clearly owed to him by Congress. Beaumarchais, who had lived far beyond his means, was targeted during the French Revolution, fled for his life, lost his estate, was put in debtor’s prison for a time, his business and personal property was confiscated, and he died of a heart attack at 67. The Chevalier d’Eon was most important in all this by making it possible for Beaumarchais to regain position in France and thereby influence Vergennes. Having agreed to admit he/she was a woman, thereafter dress in female clothes, and thus give up her ability to embarrass the King, he/she returned to France, was provided with an expense female wardrobe, but could not adapt to the sedentary life she was forced to live. Eventually she returned to London, the French pension she had been living on was rescinded, she existed by selling off her possessions and, at 60 years of age, giving fencing lessons. At 82 she died peacefully in bed.

If, like me, you found American History as presented in school as unbelievably boring, this book will give you a much better appreciation of it. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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