By Carolyn See
Friday, December 11, 2009
How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution
By Joel Richard Paul
Riverhead. 405 pp. $25.95
The story starts a little while before the American Revolution, with King Louis XV of France writing a series of indiscreet, wishful-thinking letters about his desire to invade England. (This comes after the Seven Years' War, in which England had trounced France and would have been more than happy to have a go at it again.) The king had written these letters to an accomplished spy, the Chevalier d'Eon, who was in London, holding down a precarious diplomatic position. Later, when the crown was desperate to get these scandalous letters back, d'Eon began playing hardball to maintain his position.
Something about this wily diplomat was iffy -- so iffy that the London populace was placing bets on whether he was a man or a woman. This enraged d'Eon so much that he showed up one day in March 1771, at a coffeehouse called Jonathan's, where he threatened a group of "well-dressed bankers, merchants, and stock traders" and told them to stop betting on his gender. He offered to fight the whole lot of them, but they were too shocked to do anything, so he left in a gigantic huff, neither his first nor his last. He also absolutely refused to go home to France, to give up his diplomatic position or to yield up the letters of Louis XV.
Over in Paris, more than a little distraught about many things, the French foreign minister called upon a disgraced citizen who had already gone through a couple of lifetimes of adventure. Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais had written "The Barber of Seville" (upon which Rossini later based his opera), married and lost a rich widow and carelessly earned and then squandered a fortune or two. For some reason, the foreign minister decided that Beaumarchais was just the person to send to London to persuade d'Eon to give back those incriminating letters.
Meanwhile, over in the American colonies, the citizenry was getting more than a little fed up with the taxes that George III was levying on the populace. So fed up that the Continental Congress decided to send a naive dry-goods merchant from Connecticut over to France to see if he could persuade that government to cough up enough supplies and armaments to underwrite a revolution. Never mind that Silas Deane couldn't speak a word of French and didn't have the first clue about international diplomacy. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Beaumarchais, having basically failed to get d'Eon to cooperate, returned to Paris. He somehow considered himself uniquely qualified to advise the French foreign minister on Franco-American affairs. He started up a semi-bogus export-import business and began to assist Silas Deane in putting together vast amounts of military supplies to further the cause of the American Revolution.
Benjamin Franklin soon showed up, and he and Deane got along famously, even though Beaumarchais went into a bit of a sulk because he wasn't included in their social life. Then a third American, Arthur Lee from the already celebrated Lee family of Virginia, appeared, but he turned out to be a world-class pill, paranoid and creepy. The author of this wildly entertaining history, Joel Richard Paul, who teaches at the University of California Hastings College of Law, describes Lee as feeling deeply aggrieved throughout his life and wallowing in self-pity. Later, John Adams wrote that Lee's "Countenance is disgusting, his Air is not pleasing, his Manners are not engaging, his Temper is harsh, sour and fierce, and his Judgment of Men and Things is often wrong." Yes, but what did Adams really think?
These three Americans, together with Beaumarchais, hammered together an American foreign policy toward France, and collected -- against overwhelming odds -- enough arms to secure the success of the revolution. Several events were proceeding like gangbusters. Stock traders in London were still betting on whether d'Eon was a woman or a man, Deane and Beaumarchais were hustling up supplies, Ben Franklin was giving sumptuous dinner parties, Arthur Lee was left out of everything and groaning mightily, and the entire Parisian landscape was strewn with British spies. "Unlikely Allies" is a nonfiction account, but it reads like a Monty Python movie.
You can tell it's nonfiction, though, because the bad guys prosper and most of the good characters stop having fun. Soon, it no longer mattered whether d'Eon was male or female. S/he ended up an uncared-for old person. Beaumarchais became quite rich, but guess what? His mansion was just a few blocks from the Bastille. He loved the French Revolution, but it didn't love him back. And poor Silas Deane, who came into this whole enterprise as a wealthy, cheerful, handsome businessman with a nice family, lost everything -- most heartbreakingly the goodwill of his former friends Ben Franklin, George Washington and John Jay. Deane was, in fact, probably murdered by a spy, and Lee, with all his vile ways, died a rich man.
How they sinned, those revolutionaries we were taught to revere! What gigantic whoppers they told. (I was especially disillusioned by Tom Paine.) They lied and cheated and routinely went back on their word. They had a pretty good time, though, even Arthur Lee, until they got old and sick and died. The wonder is, our great country came out of such undignified scheming.
See reviews regularly for The Post.
This Sunday in Outlook
-- The oystermen's livelihood is clamming up.
-- A fresh look at the short-story master Raymond Carver.
-- Four generals consider the future of the army.
-- Larry Bird and Magic Johnson look back on their game.
-- And discover the best books of the year in a special pull-out issue of Book World.