Unlikely Allies, page 1
Table of Contents
ONE - THE MERCHANT
TWO - THE PLAYWRIGHT
THREE - THE SPY
FOUR - BLACKMAIL
FIVE - FIGARO
SIX - TICONDEROGA
SEVEN - THE CHEVALIER
EIGHT - THE CHEVALIER’S GHOST
NINE - THE JUDGE
TEN - THE LORD MAYOR
ELEVEN - THE FOREIGN MINISTER
TWELVE - A SECRET LIAISON
THIRTEEN - AN IMPROBABLE EMISSARY
FOURTEEN - THE DINNER PARTY
FIFTEEN - THE MIDDLE TEMPLE CONSPIRACY
SIXTEEN - THE BET
SEVENTEEN - THE KING MUST DECIDE
EIGHTEEN - THE BRITISH ARE WATCHING
NINETEEN - THE FOREIGN MINISTER WINKS
TWENTY - THE COUNTERSPY
TWENTY-ONE - A TANGLED WEB
TWENTY-TWO - THE DECLARATION GOES MISSING
TWENTY-THREE - THE FRENCH OFFICERS
TWENTY-FOUR - THE SABOTEUR
TWENTY-FIVE - INVISIBLE INK
TWENTY-SIX - ODD MAN OUT
TWENTY-SEVEN - THE OHIO COMPANY
TWENTY-EIGHT - TURTLE’S PROGRESS
TWENTY-NINE - MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
THIRTY - MADAME D’EON’S TROUSSEAU
THIRTY-ONE - A LITTLE REVENGE
THIRTY-TWO - BETRAYED
THIRTY-THRE - TO OPPOSE A TORRENT IS MADNESS
THIRTY-FOUR - SAFETY LIES IN SILENCE
THIRTY-FIVE - THE SNUFFBOX
THIRTY-SIX - THE DECEITS OF THE HUMAN HEART
THIRTY-SEVEN - THE CROSS
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL,
England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,
Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore
0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd,
24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Copyright © 2009 by Joel Richard Paul
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of
copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada
Photograph of William Johnston’s portrait of Silas Deane (page 4) © Ruth Hanks. Reproduced with
generous permission of the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum.
Photograph of portrait of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (page 20) © Patrick Lorette.
Reproduced with generous permission of the Comédie-Française.
Portrait of the Chevalier d’Éon (page 30) reproduced with generous permission
of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Paul, Joel R.
Unlikely allies : how a merchant, a playwright, and a spy saved the American Revolution /
Joel Richard Paul.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-15103-7
1. United States—History—Revolution, 1775-1783—Secret service. 2. United States—History—
Revolution, 1775-1783—Participation, French. 3. United States—Foreign relations—1775-1783.
4. Deane, Silas, 1737-1789. 5. Beaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de, 1732-1799. 6. Eon de
Beaumont, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’, 1728-1810. 7. Arms transfers—United
States—History—18th century. 8. Arms transfers—France—History—18th century.
9. Saratoga Campaign, N.Y., 1777. I. Title.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers
and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author
assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication.
Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not
assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For Jane, John, Bertrand, and Micky
Perhaps Chance is God’s pseudonym, when He does not wish to sign His name.
In 1776, the lives of three extraordinary characters—a Connecticut merchant, a French playwright, and a cross-dressing French spy—collided to produce the Franco-American alliance. This is the story of how Silas Deane, Caron de Beaumarchais, and the Chevalier d’Eon saved the American Revolution.
They were unlikely allies and improbable heroes. Each rose to prominence at a young age by force of wit and energy, and each enjoyed wealth and social standing as a member of the elite. Deane, the son of a blacksmith, became a leading figure in Connecticut politics and an influential member of the Continental Congress. Beaumarchais, a French watchmaker and musician, achieved fame as the author of The Barber of Seville. D’Eon, a child prodigy whose public life belied a dark secret, was a decorated French soldier, diplomat, and spy. Each risked his career to pursue a grand design, abandoning the comfort of an insider to become a social outlaw. Though each suffered disgrace and poverty, they persevered with ingenuity and moxie.
Before Silas Deane became Congress’s secret emissary to France, he was a merchant and shopkeeper who had lived his entire life in Connecticut and could not speak a word of French. Benjamin Franklin chose Deane for this delicate diplomatic mission because he considered Deane such an unlikely choice that the British spies in France would never suspect him. Months before Franklin got there, Deane arrived in Paris on the eve of the Declaration of Independence. With little cash, few resources, and no friends or family, Deane improvised. He eluded would-be assassins who hounded him; managed the mercenaries, privateers, and saboteurs who sought to help him; and fought off American “patriots” who plotted to destroy him.
Deane succeeded with the aid of the comic writer Beaumarchais. Together they conspired to arm the Americans at a time when the Revolution’s prospects seemed dim. Through their romantic misadventures and uncanny bad luck, they formed a friendship that became the foundation of the Franco-American alliance.
And none of this would have been possible without the leavening influence of the flamboyant Chevalier d’Eon. The chevalier’s disguises, gender confusion, and eccentricity made him notorious. Voltaire once famously called the Chevalier d’Eon “A nice problem for history.” And when he began blackmailing the French king, d’Eon became a problem that only Beaumarchais could resolve. In the end, d’Eon would unwittingly become the catalyst that persuaded Lo
Despite their prodigious intelligence, courage, and spunk, Deane, Beaumarchais, and d’Eon were vain, arrogant, impatient, and at times bad tempered. Their government careers were cut short because they flaunted social convention and challenged authority. Beaumarchais once wrote, “If you are mediocre and you grovel, you shall succeed.” By that measure, they were all prodigious failures.
This is not a conventional narrative of the American Revolution. The conventional story is that Ben Franklin was our first emissary to the court of Louis XVI and that through charm, cunning, and persistence Franklin obtained arms and forged an alliance with France. This is not that story. In fact, Franklin is really an accessory after the fact. Long before Franklin set foot in France, Deane had already formed the foundation of our alliance. Most histories of the American Revolution ignore Deane. If he is mentioned at all, he is usually described as a scoundrel who tried to enrich himself at public expense, a puppet of the British Crown, or a traitor who betrayed the Revolution’s ideals. But Deane is the hero of this story. While he was accused of many crimes, none was ever proved. He gave his wealth, his honor, and his life to his country, and for his troubles he has been either reviled or forgotten, until now.
We are accustomed to reading about the great men who won our Independence. We know that the Revolution was also inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment and realized by mass social movements. While it is true that great men, great ideas, and great movements all influence history, history is never so predetermined. We know from our lived experience the impact of random events, chance meetings, and peripheral characters. So too, the arc of history is often diverted from its intended trajectory. These three intertwined lives tell us much about the power of personality, the complexity of human motivation, and the accidental path of history.
by William Johnston (1732-1772), ca. 1766
Photograph © Ruth Hanks
Reprinted with permission of the
London, September 1789
He certainly looked like a man of no importance. The old man wore a shabby cloth coat and tattered boots as if he had just left debtors’ prison. His clothes hung loosely on his bony frame. Despite the man’s destitute appearance Captain Davis helped him aboard the Boston Packet and showed him around the ship with great deference. Like other packets, the Boston Packet was primarily a mail ship that also carried goods and a few passengers on its regular route between Boston and London. But this ship was built for speed. With good weather it could make the trip to Boston in about four weeks.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 22, 1789, the ship set out from Gravesend, just south of London, its sails filling as it moved swiftly down the Thames. The old man stood on the quarterdeck, looking back toward London. A few minutes later he was talking with Captain Davis. He seemed animated, even excited, then suddenly he turned and stumbled into the captain’s arms. There were shouts as he collapsed on the quarterdeck. He tried to speak, but his words were slurred and incoherent. He appeared to be out of breath. Captain Davis signaled some of his men to carry the passenger below.
They gently laid the old man down on a bed. He looked crazed and smelled bad. His eyes were unfocused and moved rapidly as if he saw things that were invisible. Despite the cool autumn weather he was sweating profusely. One of the hands watched over him as the ship proceeded out into the Strait of Dover, hugging the coast-line as it rounded England. Another passenger, a Mr. Hopkins, knew the old man and waited anxiously by his side. Within minutes the old man became delirious. Soon, his breathing grew rapid and shallow. After an hour he lapsed into unconsciousness. By two o’clock that afternoon, Silas Deane was dead.
When men died aboard ship, burial at sea was customary. But instead Captain Davis brought the ship into the nearest port, Deal, a tiny village on the southeastern tip of England just a few miles north of Dover’s white cliffs. One of the crew gathered up Deane’s personal items. In his single bag, Deane had few personal papers, no jewelry, and very little clothing. Among his paltry belongings the hand discovered a gold snuffbox encrusted with diamonds surrounding a portrait of the French king Louis XVI. His eyes widened; it must have been worth at least a hundred guineas. Was the old man a thief?
Captain Davis disembarked at Deal with Mr. Hopkins and the body. Mr. Hopkins agreed to stay behind to arrange for a pauper’s burial in an unmarked grave at St. George’s churchyard. Mr. Hopkins offered to inform Deane’s family in Connecticut, and the captain gave him Deane’s belongings, including the jeweled snuffbox, to return to the family. Then the captain rejoined his ship and headed back to sea.
When news of Deane’s death reached London, there was a flurry of colorful obituaries. One newspaper reported:
Silas Deane, who died a few days since, at Deal in Kent, is one of the most remarkable instances of the versatility of fortune which have occurred perhaps within the present century. . . . [A]t an early period of the American war, he was selected by Congress as one of the representatives of America at the Court of France. . . . Having . . . been accused of embezzling large sums of money intrusted to his care for the purchase of arms and ammunition, Mr. Deane sought an asylum in this country, where his habits of life, at first economical, and afterwards penurious in the extreme, amply refuted the malevolence of his enemies.
The Gentleman’s Magazine described Deane’s demise with an ironic twist:
Thus lived and died his Excellency Silas Deane, whose name is rendered immortal in the calendar of policy by having ruined himself and family, and deranged France and America with the charming words, Liberty, Constitution and Rights.
When Thomas Jefferson heard that Deane was on his way back to America, he wrote to James Madison in Virginia: “He is a wretched monument of the consequences of a departure from right.”
No one had any reason to suspect that Deane had been murdered.
SILAS DEANE WAS born Christmas Eve 1737, in Ledyard, Connecticut, a sleepy farming town along the Mystic River, near the southern coast of the colony. His father, also named Silas, was a blacksmith who worked hard for little money. Everyone in Ledyard depended on him. The smithy was a noisy hub of activity. The elder Silas forged, repaired, and customized every form of metalwork—tools, pots, nails, spikes, ploughs, hoes, kitchen utensils, sleighs, and horseshoes. As the forge blasted heat and belched smoke, he pounded the hot metal into shape. Local children played around the shop with metal rings shaped from discarded scraps, listening to the incessant clang of hammers and marveling at the shower of sparks bursting into the smoky air. The blacksmith shop was filled with curiosities—betty lamps, tree chisels, and husking pegs. In the summer, farmers waited outside under the shade of an elm while their horses were shod, or their plows fixed. In the winter, customers crowded inside to warm themselves around the charcoal. Patrons drank, sang, and caroused. They traded stories and news of the Indian wars, crop conditions, and local politics.
The younger Silas was a precocious and intelligent child, inclined more toward reading than working with his father and brothers around the forge. As a middle son, he had no hope of inheriting his father’s property. He learned to blend in and to adjust to the expectations of others. He was gregarious, with an easy smile and a ready laugh. His parents foresaw that he might have greater opportunities in life and prepared him for an education. It is not known whether Deane attended a locally funded grammar school, or whether he was tutored by his minister or a private schoolmaster. In any case, by the time he was seventeen, he could read and speak both Greek and Latin.
DEANE’S OPPORTUNITY to escape the smoky labors of the blacksmith’s life came one autumn day in 1754. Deane and his father rode to New Haven, about fifty miles southwest of Ledyard, to seek admission for the boy to Yale College. To enroll at the college, he was examined by Yale’s president, the Reverend Thomas Clap, and some of the faculty,
President Clap required all students to study Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to declaim in one of these languages every Friday before the assembled class. Students were expected to speak Latin even in daily conversation. Deane studied logic, rhetoric, geometry, geography, natural philosophy, astronomy, and metaphysics. He read Homer, Euclid, Livy, Horace, Cicero, Tacitus, Locke, and Newton.
PRESIDENT CLAP WAS a strict Congregationalist who required his faculty and students to adhere to religious orthodoxy in every aspect of the school. Deane’s life at the small college was rigorous and austere. He lived with seventy or so other students in ascetic accommodations in Connecticut Hall. The same building also contained the college’s faculty, library, and classrooms. Deane rose at six to say prayers before a light breakfast of a quarter-loaf of bread. He carried water and firewood to the upperclassmen’s rooms before donning his gown and hat for classes, which ran until dinner at noon. At dinner, the students ate a small portion of meat disguised in a nondescript sauce and served with cold bread and warm beer. They had another three hours of lectures until afternoon prayers at four. For supper the students ate apple pie and drank more beer and continued studying until lights-out at nine sharp. The college forbade any cards, dice, or rowdiness. Most of the other young men at Yale were sons of preachers or prosperous farmers. Some came from families that had founded the Connecticut colony a century before. Deane lacked the social advantages of his classmates, but he was determined to become a gentleman and worked hard at his studies. Life around his father’s forge had taught him how to tell a good story, and his warm personality and high spirits won him friends easily.