Unlikely allies, p.10

Unlikely Allies, page 10


Unlikely Allies

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  DEANE PAID a high price for his support of Putnam. Despite Deane’s effectiveness in Congress, the Connecticut Assembly did not reappoint Deane as a delegate in 1776. Deane was “confoundedly Chagrined at his recall,” according to his Connecticut colleague Eliphalet Dyer, who was also denied reappointment. Dyer expressed his surprise at Deane’s recall, noting that Deane “is really Very Use-full here and much esteemed in Congress.” Ezra Stiles, a Congregationalist minister and future president of Yale College, remarked that the Assembly recalled Deane and Dyer “for this principal Reason that they think Liberty most secure under frequent changes of Delegates & they determine to set an early Example & Precedent.” But Stiles, too, felt compelled to acknowledge that Deane was “a most useful Member in Congress.” In fact, Stiles’s explanation is not convincing, since the Connecticut Assembly continued to reappoint other delegates, including Sherman. Sherman most likely played some role in defeating his two colleagues, as Deane’s friend John Trumbull reported from Connecticut. While there is no record of the reasons the Assembly recalled Deane, the most obvious explanation is that many members of the Assembly wanted to punish Deane for opposing Wooster.

  Deane tried to accept his recall gracefully. He wrote Elizabeth that he was “quite as willing to quit my station to abler men; and who they are, the Colony knows, or ought to know, best.” He was “unfit for trimming, courting, and intrigues with the populace,” and he wondered “how I ever became popular at all. What therefore I did not expect, I have too much philosophy to be in distress at losing.” To his opponents he wished “no other punishment than a consciousness of the low, envious, jealous and sordid motives by which they are actuated.”

  Deane did not seek revenge against Sherman for engineering his recall. He tried to maintain a cordial relationship with the judge, but Sherman remained frosty. In private, Deane confided to his wife his annoyance with “that malevolent prig in buckram, who is secure from my serious resentment in consequence of the supreme contempt I have ever, and still hold him in.” In Deane’s eyes, Sherman had betrayed his country by sacrificing a dedicated public servant for political gain. In public, Deane would not criticize Sherman, and unlike the judge, he was not the sort of man to carry a grudge. More than anything, he pitied Sherman’s lack of social grace. Once, Deane loaned Sherman his coach, and the judge returned it badly damaged without even offering to pay a portion of the repairs. Deane shrugged off the incident and took the opportunity to refit the carriage as a more capacious phaeton. With characteristic magnanimity, Deane wrote to his wife that Sherman was not really at fault; rather, Sherman was “peculiarly unfortunate.”

  Deane knew others were plotting against him in Connecticut and in Congress, but he treated everyone respectfully. When warned that a friend and neighbor in Wethersfield had spoken out against him, Deane replied coolly “that I should sooner suspect my own conduct than his honor and friendship.” Deane concentrated on the cause of independence. His civility and hard work were rewarded with the support and appreciation of nearly all the delegates. Franklin, in particular, continued to be impressed by Deane’s energy and commitment.

  With the encouragement of his colleagues, Deane continued serving in Philadelphia for several months after he was recalled. Congress unanimously appointed Deane to a committee to establish a navy. In late 1775 and early 1776, Deane, with help from Robert Morris, Franklin, and John Jay, planned, acquired, and equipped the first ships to sail under the American flag. During months of frenetic activity, Deane built the navy from scratch. He rode back and forth between Philadelphia and New York City to talk to shipbuild ers and review sketches. He searched for outfitters and chased down suppliers. All this time Deane kept promising Elizabeth he would return to Connecticut as soon as he had completed his work, but Congress’s need for a navy was more urgent than his own family’s need for him.

  Had events turned out otherwise, Silas Deane would have returned to Wethersfield, but Deane’s retirement from politics was postponed indefinitely when a mysterious visitor appeared in Philadelphia.



  London, September 1775

  The first week in September, Beaumarchais and d’Eon were invited to dine with the Lord Mayor of London, John Wilkes, at his official residence, Mansion House. Beaumarchais was curious to meet Wilkes, who was an outspoken critic of the prime minister, Lord North. The Lord Mayor probably invited Beaumarchais as a favor to d’Eon, who was his good friend. Beaumarchais was joined by his personal secretary, Paul-Philippe Gudin de La Brenellerie. Beaumarchais had kept his dealings with d’Eon secret even from Gudin. Once seated at the Lord Mayor’s sumptuous banquet table, Gudin leaned over and asked the Lord Mayor’s daughter, Polly, who was “that man with a woman’s voice?” Gudin was intrigued by the mysterious d’Eon. D’Eon seemed at once aggressive and vulnerable, powerful and feminine. Some time later that evening, d’Eon privately confessed to Gudin in tears that she was, in fact, a woman.

  Gudin had not yet heard all the rumors about d’Eon. Some London newspapers had linked d’Eon romantically to Lord Mayor Wilkes and even reported that d’Eon had given birth to Wilkes’s child in the lobby of the House of Commons. In fact, Wilkes was as unsure of d’Eon’s gender as the rest of the world was. Wilkes’s daughter Polly once wrote to d’Eon, boldly posing the question that all London was asking: “Miss Wilkes presents her compliments to Monsieur the Chevalier d’Eon, and is very anxious to know if he is really a woman, as everybody asserts, or a man.” Years later, after the chevalière had declared that she was a woman, the Lord Mayor continued to welcome her to his home. Unperturbed by this news, Wilkes’s notations in his diary switched from “dined with the Chevalier d’Eon,” to “dined with the Chevalière,” as if it were merely a change in spelling.

  Theirs was a peculiar friendship. The effete, prudish d’Eon had little in common with the populist politician Wilkes. Wilkes was a radical libertine: he was promiscuous, indecent, and heretical. He belonged to the notorious Hell Fire Club, a secret society that ridiculed the Church while conducting sexual orgies in the ruins of an old abbey. The king called him “that devil Wilkes,” and most gentlemen, including Benjamin Franklin, when he lived in London, spurned him. His astonishing popularity with the “middling sort” was a testament to his wit and eloquence. Wilkes was purportedly “the homeliest man in London,” but he joked that he needed only twenty minutes with a woman to “talk away my face.” When John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, remarked that Wilkes would die either of venereal disease or on the gallows, Wilkes fired back, “that depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.” The son of a malt distributor, Wilkes made a career of insulting aristocrats and rousing the rabble. Once when Wilkes was invited to join a card game, he replied, “Do not ask me, for I am so ignorant that I cannot tell the difference between a king and a knave.”

  Wilkes and d’Eon were both unlikely folk heroes, whose eccentric behavior pushed the limits of personal liberty against the constraints of society. Political expediency drew them together. Wilkes hoped that d’Eon would provide him with secret information about the diplomatic negotiations between France and Britain that would embarrass Lord North’s cabinet, while d’Eon hoped to gather intelligence from Wilkes for the French king. Both could profit from exploiting their relationship. When d’Eon feared that the French government would try to assassinate her, Wilkes offered her protection by posting supporters to keep a constant vigil outside d’Eon’s house on Golden Square in Soho.

  Wilkes had launched his political career in 1762 by founding a radical newspaper, The North Briton, which was highly critical of the then-prime minister, Lord Bute. Wilkes’s platform called for extending voting rights to the common man, making Parliament more representative, punishing corrupt politicians, and protecting free speech from government censorship. In April 1763, Wilkes published the famous issue number 45 of The North Briton in which he excoriated the king’s ministers as “tools of despotism and co
rruption.” Soon after, Wilkes was arrested for publishing seditious and treasonable statements against the crown and briefly held in the Tower of London. After his release from the Tower, he was expelled from Parliament and charged with obscenity for a poem he had written years earlier for the Hell Fire Club. Wilkes fled to France, and an English trial court convicted him in absentia of obscenity. He remained in France several years, until he could no longer afford to live abroad and feared his creditors would catch up with him. Wilkes returned to London in 1768 as a hugely popular fugitive. Across London, residents stenciled the number “45” on their front doors as an expression of solidarity with Wilkes and his publication. When he was arrested again, mobs demanding his immediate release took to the streets, chanting, “Wilkes and liberty!” The government was unable to restore order even by force of arms.

  Wilkes remained in King’s Bench Prison for two years. There he inhabited a comfortable ground-floor suite of rooms with a view of St. George’s Field and London Bridge where he received a constant flow of distinguished visitors. During that time he won election to Parliament as a radical reformer four times, and four times the government voided the election on the grounds that a convict could not serve in Parliament. The ongoing battle kept Wilkes in the public eye and ensured that the Wilkites continued to control London’s streets. All over London Wilkes was lauded as a champion of liberty. Pubs were renamed for him. Women sent him love letters. Friends lavished gifts on him: a barrel of Yorkshire ale, 240 bottles of wine, silver, pet turtles, pork, turkey, salmon, forty-five hogsheads of Virginia tobacco, and, on his birthday, a dozen smoked tongues from a certain admiring chevalier. D’Eon enclosed a note with the gift, wishing that “the tongues might have the eloquence of Cicero and the nicety of speech of Voltaire.” After his release from prison, Wilkes won election as Lord Mayor of London and as member of Parliament in 1774.

  Wilkes had begun his political career as a staunch defender of the empire; he even supported taxing the American colonies to pay for British troops. However, as the political winds shifted, so did his view of the American conflict. In 1775, Wilkes repeatedly stood up in Parliament to defend the colonies’ right to representation, and he received a warm response from many Americans who identified his cause with theirs. Americans embraced the mottoes “Wilkes and Liberty” and “Number 45” in opposition to a tyrannical Parliament. When George III proclaimed, in August 1775, that Massachusetts was in rebellion, Wilkes warned that the king “draws the sword unjustly against America.” Wilkes and his friends believed that Britain would be better served by concentrating its resources at home rather than spreading its forces in a remote wilderness. Wilkes declared that the American colonies viewed Britain “as a tyrannical, unprincipled, rapacious, and ruined nation,” while America was a “sure asylum” for liberty. By the autumn of 1775, the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House had become the de facto headquarters of the opposition to British colonial policy. Wilkes gathered around him an unorthodox circle of social and political outlaws operating on the fringe of London society.

  Beaumarchais and d’Eon were frequent guests of the Lord Mayor that season. Since Beaumarchais could not speak English, he often depended upon d’Eon to translate for him. Beaumarchais admired Wilkes’s criticism of British colonial policy. More than a decade earlier, Beaumarchais’s patron, Pâris-Duverney, had implanted in him the idea of avenging France’s defeat by severing the North American colonies from the British Empire. As Beaumarchais moved among Wilkes’s exotic circle of luminaries and iconoclasts, that seed began to germinate in his fertile imagination.



  Paris, September 1775

  Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, had spent a lifetime preparing himself to become foreign minister. His father was the president of the Parliament of Dijon, his uncle was a respected diplomat, and his brother was the president of the French Senate. Before Louis XVI ascended the throne, Vergennes had served Louis XV for more than three decades in various diplomatic posts, including thirteen years in the sensitive position of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

  At fifty-five, he looked like a harmless bureaucrat. His plump face revealed nothing more than a vague sort of pleasantness. But this surface blandness masked a passionate intellect, a wry wit, a penchant for intrigue, and a natural talent for duplicity. Once, while serving as ambassador to Sweden, he engineered a coup that installed a more Francophile government in Stockholm. As foreign minister he would tell the most shameless lies to the British ambassador and later laugh about them. Yet in his private life, he was devoutly religious, scrupulously honest, and, perhaps unique among his peers at the French court, faithful to his wife. Vergennes, though jaded by the cynicism of eighteenth-century diplomacy, still cherished the quiet time he shared with his family and friends.

  Six years before becoming foreign minister, Vergennes had been fired from his post as ambassador to Constantinople by Louis XV’s foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul. The immediate cause of his dismissal was that Vergennes had married without first obtaining Choiseul’s permission. Vergennes’s decision to marry for love was not merely considered peculiar in the court of Louis XV; it was insubordination. Choiseul felt entitled to control the public and private conduct of his ambassadors. The rupture between Choiseul and Vergennes was rooted in class and policy differences. Choiseul, stout, homely, and red-faced, traced his aristocratic lineage back through one of the most elite families in France. He lived in a vast palace near Versailles and amused himself with his own orchestra and troupe of entertainers. He spent obscene sums on trinkets for himself and his statuesque mistress, who towered over him. Choiseul sneered at Vergennes, whose family were relatively obscure petty nobles.

  It wasn’t just Choiseul’s snobbery that offended Vergennes. He objected to Choiseul’s style and policies as foreign minister. Where Choiseul was bellicose and boorish, Vergennes was cautious and discreet. Vergennes questioned Choiseul’s controversial decision in 1754 to reverse French foreign policy and align France with her former enemy Austria. For more than a century, France had defended Poland against Austria’s territorial ambitions. The bitter competition for hegemony between France and Austria had long divided the Continent. Choiseul, however, thought that Britain posed a much greater danger to France. Choiseul believed that an alliance with Austria would counterbalance Britain’s military superiority. To solidify this “renversement des alliances,” Choiseul arranged the marriage of Louis XV’s grandson to Marie Antoinette, daughter of the empress of Austria. Vergennes strongly disapproved of the renversement and believed it threatened both the French monarchy and the peace of Europe.

  Privately, Louis XV shared Vergennes’s doubts about Austria’s intentions, and about Choiseul as well. When the king established the network of spies known as “le secret du roi” (the Secret), Foreign Minister Choiseul knew nothing about it. Vergennes, like d’Eon, was one of the king’s secret agents, quietly working against the policies of Choiseul.

  Choiseul’s tenure as foreign minister was a failure marked by military defeat and a loss of diplomatic influence across Europe. The Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763, shattered the French Empire. Britain forced France to concede all its territory in North America east of the Mississippi. She retained only the port of New Orleans, a portion of the West Indies, and two tiny fishing islands off the coast of Newfoundland. In addition, France lost her military bases in India, effectively conceding the subcontinent to Britain. France was left without a strong navy capable of defending against any future British invasion. Louis XV and Choiseul lusted for revenge against Britain, but France had neither the military strength nor the finances to fight. Meanwhile, the renversement had undermined French influence on the Continent. France watched helplessly as Russia, Austria, and Prussia attacked and carved 80,000 square miles out of Poland. By 1770, Louis XV had had enough of Choiseul, and he dismissed him from office.

  Four years later, in 1774, Louis XVI succeeded to the throne
on the death of his grandfather. (His father had died when he was eleven, and his mother died two years later.) The twenty-two-year-old monarch felt unprepared for the job. “I feel the universe is going to fall on me,” he predicted with startling accuracy. At the urging of his aunt, Princess Adélaide, one of his first decisions was to appoint the Comte de Vergennes as foreign minister. Vergennes tutored the young monarch in the dangers and opportunities posed by France’s adversaries.

  Vergennes’s worldview was shaped by France’s humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War and the partition of Poland. His foreign policy was founded on the fear that France was losing influence on the Continent and was vulnerable to attack by Britain. Certainly, France could not face Britain alone. The alliance with Austria had alienated France’s traditional allies, and France could no longer depend on Spain. The Spanish were too preoccupied by their rivalry with Portugal to care much about the threat Britain posed to the Bourbon monarchs. The French navy was still decimated and could not even defend French shipping or the French West Indies. Louis XVI listened carefully to Vergennes’s advice to strengthen French defenses and restore traditional alliances against Britain, but he did not act. The king seemed timid and equivocal. Vergennes understood that he would have to tailor his policies to fit an indecisive monarch.

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