Unlikely Allies, page 11
Vergennes’s first priority was to rebuild the navy. He knew that France needed a navy to counter British aggression and restore the balance of power in Europe. Louis XV’s predatory ambitions had destabilized Europe and undermined French security by alienating potential allies against England; Louis XVI would have to expand French influence by renouncing territorial ambitions. Vergennes doubted the intentions of Austria, but he knew that Marie Antoinette would oppose any shift away from the alliance with her native country.
Vergennes argued that while France maintained the alliance with Austria and honored the peace treaty with Britain, France should also reaffirm the Bourbon Family Compact with the Spanish king, Charles III. That would not be easy. The Family Compact was a series of treaties by which the two Bourbon powers, France and Spain, had pledged to resist Austria and Britain. Each country promised to regard any attack on the other sovereign or its colonies as an attack on itself. Moreover, relations with Spain were complicated by Spain’s territorial ambitions in Gibraltar and South America and its obsession with Portugal. Spain also felt that it had already paid too high a price for its alliance with France during the Seven Years’ War: Britain had forced Spain to surrender Florida.
Spain’s most pressing concern was preserving her colonies in South America against encroachments by Portugal, a British ally. Spain’s King Charles III thought this was the right moment to strike Portugal, while the British were tied down fighting the Americans. Charles III expected France to join him against Portugal. The Spanish foreign minister, the Marqués de Grimaldi, wrote Vergennes in 1775 proposing a preemptive war against Portugal. He argued that a quick, small, local war now against Portugal could prevent a much larger war later, saving lives and money while restoring honor to the Bourbons. Though it might seem odious to us that a great power would propose an alliance for the purpose of launching an unprovoked attack on a smaller country in the name of preemption, diplomacy in the eighteenth century was far less civilized than in our own time. Weaker states were, in the words of a Spanish minister, “sliced like Dutch cheeses.”
Vergennes knew that “une petite guerre” might quickly draw in other European powers and become a much wider war. He responded to Grimaldi sympathetically, but he was not ready to risk French soldiers in a war in which France had little to gain. Vergennes wrote to the Spanish ambassador Aranda that the mere possibility that Portugal might attack Spanish possessions at some point in the future could not justify a preemptive strike. A preemptive war would “soil oneself with a notorious injustice, which would be invincibly repugnant to the feelings and principles of the two monarchs.” An unprincipled attack on a sovereign state would antagonize other European powers and undermine France’s long-term interests in maintaining the balance of power. The argument for preemptive war was as tempting as it was dangerous. A wise leader would never commit his country to a foreign war in the name of preemption when no imminent threat existed.
Vergennes warned that “The spirit of revolt, wherever it breaks out, always gives a dangerous example.” Revolution in North America threatened monarchy everywhere. Vergennes reassured England that France would not “take advantage of the difficulties which England faces with respect to her American colonies. . . .” Privately, Vergennes may have hoped for a long, drawn-out, indecisive war that would preoccupy Britain, expend her blood and treasure, and ensure that the colonies remained defiant and hostile to British interests—when and if they ever gained independence. He certainly was not prepared to help the Americans in any way to win independence. That would be a violation of France’s treaty with Britain. It would be tantamount to a declaration of war, and France had neither the will nor the capacity to fight Britain.
BEAUMARCHAIS RETURNED to Versailles on September 20, 1775, to meet with Vergennes about d’Eon. But d’Eon was not the only subject Beaumarchais was interested in discussing. The talk around Lord Mayor Wilkes’s table in London was all about the coming war in North America. Restless with ambition, Beaumarchais hoped to expand his portfolio to advise Vergennes about policy toward the American colonies. Since August, when George III issued a royal proclamation declaring that the colonies were in open rebellion, war between Britain and her colonies appeared unavoidable. Beaumarchais reported all this to Vergennes and impressed upon the foreign minister the necessity for France to take action to sustain the American rebels. Since the French king was about to leave for his hunting retreat at Fontainebleau, Beaumarchais drafted a report overnight that summarized his observations.
Beaumarchais reported that he had heard from an American who recently arrived from Philadelphia that the rebels had a well-armed and disciplined army of 38,000 men surrounding Boston and another 40,000 men scattered around the colonies. (In reality, Washington had at that time no more than 13,000 poorly trained and mostly unarmed soldiers who were compelled to return periodically to their farms to tend their fields.) Beaumarchais wrote that “All sensible people are therefore convinced in England that the English colonies are lost for the mother country.” The opposition Whigs were calling the government’s colonial policy a “masterpiece of folly.” The opposition believed that the king’s ministers could hold on to power only if they threw seven or eight members of Parliament into the Tower. Beaumarchais’s good friend Lord Rochford, the Secretary of State for North America, told him that “winter will not pass without a few heads rolling, either in the King’s party or in the Opposition.”
Beaumarchais argued that France faced the possibility of war no matter what the outcome in America. He claimed that both the present British government—even the opposition Whigs, if they gained power—intended to steal the very profitable French sugar islands in the Caribbean. The French sugar islands, particularly Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Kitts, produced a vast share of the sugarcane consumed in Europe and yielded enormous profits for France.
Beaumarchais stopped short of recommending any particular course of action to Louis XVI, but it was clear that he was arguing that France should intervene on behalf of the Americans. It was also clear that Beaumarchais was strategically leveraging his influence with the king, who needed Beaumarchais’s help now to clear up the problem with d’Eon. What is less clear is whether there was any genuine threat that Britain would seize the French Caribbean islands. Most probably Beaumarchais concocted, or at the very least exaggerated, any threat in the hope of inducing Louis XVI to aid the Americans. Beaumarchais cautioned that “Our ministers, poorly informed, look stagnant and passive on all those events that couth our skin.” Beaumarchais obliquely criticized the French ambassador to Britain and urged the king to appoint someone better suited to the position: “A superior and vigilant man would be indispensable in London today.” There was no question what man Beaumarchais had in mind for this job, yet it was folly for him to think that Louis XVI would appoint him as ambassador.
At this point, Vergennes would not consider recommending any action on the war in North America. Vergennes knew that Louis XVI was cautious and idealistic and believed that France should focus its energies on improving the lives of its citizens and respecting its treaties with Britain. Moreover, Vergennes feared that any involvement in the British colonies risked sparking a war that could only end in defeat and humiliation for France. He had already received a report on the matter from Ambassador Guines, who had replaced Ambassador Guerchy at the French embassy in London after Guerchy was accused of trying to poison d’Eon. Ambassador Guines had reported that the Americans were well armed, which was entirely untrue. Guines’s opinion mattered little to Vergennes, who thought the ambassador was a fool. But if Guines was correct, then the Americans did not need France to beat the British.
Beaumarchais waited in Paris for a reply from Versailles to his report. Days passed without a response. He did not know what to do. “All the sagacity in the world cannot help someone who remains without an answer about what he must do,” he wrote to Vergennes. “Must I wait for your reply here, or must I leave without any? . .
Three weeks before Beaumarchais arrived at Versailles, Vergennes had dispatched a secret agent to meet with the Continental Congress. While Beaumarchais returned to his Amazone in London, thinking that he had failed, Vergennes was waiting for a report from Philadelphia, hoping it would confirm Beaumarchais’s optimistic appraisal of the Americans’ prospects.
A SECRET LIAISON
Philadelphia, December 1775
It was the time of the winter solstice, and the sun could not set soon enough for Benjamin Franklin. He watched the sunlight withdrawing behind the shuttered windows of the Pennsylvania State House as the other delegates droned on ceaselessly. Since the battles of Lexington and Concord the previous April, Congress, sitting in Philadelphia, was still dithering on the question of independence. In October, George III, addressing Parliament, had in effect declared war on the colonies, but still the delegates hesitated to sever their ties to Britain. Instead, the delegates bickered over the minute details of governing the colonies, endlessly postponing the overarch ing question of independence. The issue before them now was how much Congress should spend on clothing for prisoners of war. Franklin listened with growing impatience. Another hour passed as the candle at his desk melted into a waxy puddle. The last seven months in Philadelphia had been a mere prelude. Franklin knew what must be done, and he wondered whether this night could change history’s course. When, at last, Congress adjourned for the day, Franklin’s restlessness turned to anticipation.
As they filed out of the State House into the cold night, Franklin exchanged glances with another delegate, who nodded and walked away quickly. He then dined with a few friends, but he could not keep his mind on the subject of the conversation. After dinner, telling no one where he was headed, Franklin quietly slipped down Chestnut Street, his walking stick lightly tapping the cobblestones. He had been in London for most of two decades, and despite his worldwide fame, he would not be recognized by most Philadel phians. At Third and Chestnut, Franklin entered the first floor of Carpenters’ Hall, the meeting place for the local trade guild.
There he was met by four other delegates who were members of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, which Congress had appointed to negotiate secretly for recognition and support from Europe. These delegates included John Dickinson, John Jay, Thomas Johnson, and Benjamin Harrison. Three of them, Dickinson, Jay, and Johnson, were well-educated distinguished attorneys. Dickinson, forty-three, also from Pennsylvania, had, like Franklin, spent time in London, where he studied law at the Inns of Court. He was one of the richest men in Congress and the eloquent author of Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which set out the colonists’ grievances with Britain. Dickinson doubted the colonies would be able to achieve independence without foreign allies to support their struggle. Jay, representing New York, was, at twenty-nine, one of the youngest and most able delegates. Though New York was a strong-hold of Tory sentiment, Jay was firmly committed to independence. Johnson served in the Maryland Assembly, where he distinguished himself as a leader opposing British taxation. In his mid-forties, Johnson was relatively quiet, but was an unshakable supporter of independence. Harrison, fifty, of Virginia, was a patrician farmer who had defied the royal governor by opposing the Stamp Act. Harrison must have regarded Franklin, the man who tamed lightning, with a special awe: he had the misfortune of losing both his sisters and his father to a freak lightning bolt. Of these five men, only Franklin and Dickinson had any experience abroad or knowledge of foreign politics. Franklin and Dickinson were also members of the Secret Committee, which was responsible for purchasing arms, and even members of the Secret Committee sometimes confused it with the Committee of Secret Correspondence, resulting in overlapping responsibilities.
Just days before their meeting, Franklin had received an intriguing message from Francis Daymon. Daymon was a Frenchman living in Philadelphia, and he had tutored Franklin in French and worked as the librarian for Franklin’s Library Company, which occupied the second floor of Carpenters’ Hall, where the first Continental Congress had met. Without knowing of the existence of the Secret Committee, Daymon informed Franklin that a French visitor had arrived in Philadelphia with a message for him from the French king. Some months earlier, Daymon had been approached by that Frenchman, the Chevalier Julien-Alexandre Archard de Bonvouloir. Bonvouloir was an ambitious French military officer from a noble family. He had heard that Daymon ran a French school in Philadelphia where the sons of wealthy Americans studied. Bonvouloir had a vague sense that Daymon could introduce him to the right people and that somehow Bonvouloir might serve as a liaison between the French government and the American colonies. Bonvouloir stayed with Daymon for a brief time before hurrying back to France.
Bonvouloir had now returned to Philadelphia for a second visit. He claimed that he was representing the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, on a secret mission and asked Daymon to arrange a meeting with Franklin. In fact, Bonvouloir had never met Vergennes. Bonvouloir was a former officer in the French army’s elite Regiment du Cap. After leaving the army, he had visited America and Britain. In London, he had impressed the new French ambassador to Britain, the Comte de Guines, as someone with important connections in America. (In truth, his only connection was to Franklin’s employee, Daymon.) Ambassador Guines wrote to Vergennes, recommending that he send Bonvouloir as an observer to report back on the circumstances of the Continental Congress and the American rebels.
Vergennes thought Ambassador Guines a flamboyant and supercilious buffoon. Stories circulated that Guines wore trousers so tight that he needed the assistance of a ladder and two valets to hoist him in, and then he was unable to sit down. Nevertheless, Ambassador Guines had been clever enough to curry favor with the French queen, Marie Antoinette, who found Guines amusant. Over Vergennes’s strenuous objection, Louis XVI had appointed Guines as ambassador to London in order to placate his headstrong wife.
Despite his misgivings, Vergennes assented to Bonvouloir’s mission to America, but he insisted on keeping him on a tight leash. He instructed Bonvouloir to make clear that he was not an official representative of the French government. Bonvouloir should try to gather as much information as possible to assess the Americans’ intentions and military strength. He should express France’s sympathy for the cause of independence; however, he should not offer any substantive military support. The French could not be seen as interfering with British colonial policy. After France’s humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War, France had pledged to stay out of North America and to maintain peaceful relations with Great Britain. If Britain knew that France was even discussing relations with the rebels, it could provoke a war for which France was unprepared.
For the delegates even to meet with a representative of a foreign government to discuss independence and military alliances against the British could be punishable as treason. Franklin knew there was a risk that Bonvouloir could be a spy for the French, or, worse, for the British. His sudden appearance in Philadelphia raised suspicion. Bonvouloir arrived with no credentials—not even a letter of introduction. Was it a mere coincidence that the name of this messenger translated as “goodwill,” or was it an alias? Jay and Franklin agreed that they needed to know where France stood and that under the circumstances they had no choice but to meet with the mysterious visitor. However, they needed to take every precaution to keep the nature of their meeting secret and unofficial. They would not tell Congress. They would make no commitments, and they would be careful to avoid disclosing too much.
The second floor of Carpenters’ Hall was divided between Franklin’s laboratory, filled with his equipment and notebooks, and the Library Company, which Franklin had incorporated in 1731 as the first subscription library in America. Glass cabinets filled with books lined the walls of the reading room. The library
Franklin’s French teacher, Francis Daymon, who served as translator, welcomed the committee members and introduced Bonvouloir. Bonvouloir described himself as a military officer, which was true, and a businessman from the West Indies, which was not. Though he could not speak for the French government, he indicated he had “valuable acquaintances” in Versailles who might listen to him as a supporter of the American cause.
The four men were perplexed by their mysterious visitor. He claimed to be the twentysomething son of a French aristocrat, yet he did not appear to be wealthy, well-bred, or even young. Jay later described him as “an elderly, lame gentleman, having the appearance of an old, wounded French officer.” In reality, Bonvouloir was a twenty-six-year-old unemployed veteran living in London and hoping for a pension that would never come. He walked with a limp, not from combat, but from a childhood injury. Perhaps Bonvouloir was wearing a disguise, or perhaps Jay, who was excessively worried that British spies might intercept his private papers, was trying to mask Bonvouloir’s identity.
The men warmed themselves around a table set near a fireplace. Their faces were half cast in shadow, and candlelight reflected off the glass cabinets, adding to the sense of intrigue. No one at the meeting was permitted to take notes. The only record of their conversation is a report written days later by Bonvouloir. The meeting lasted several hours, and two more meetings were held the following week. The five delegates asked if France would support independence for the colonies. Bonvouloir replied obliquely, “Possibly she might,” but he “could not tell at all.” He assured the delegates that France would act “on just and equitable conditions.” He could only commit to carry their requests to certain unnamed friends. He could “promise, offer and answer for nothing.” Bonvouloir ventured that “France was well-disposed towards them,” but he cautioned that asking for assistance was “a ticklish step.” Bonvouloir thought that France might be willing to trade arms for crops, like tobacco. So long as they did not attract too much attention to their trading, “France would shut her eyes.”