Unlikely allies, p.12

Unlikely Allies, page 12


Unlikely Allies

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  But then Bonvouloir, recalling his instructions from the king, seemed to reverse himself: Congress should not depend on his word, he told the delegates. He warned them that he “was nobody.” With growing frustration after three nights of questions and evasive answers, Franklin asked if the time were ripe to send a representative to France. Bonvouloir discouraged that. It would be “premature, even dangerous, because everything of what was going on in France was known by London.” Of course, Bonvouloir also hoped to maintain his role as the exclusive liaison between Congress and Versailles.

  Bonvouloir had told the delegates nothing they did not know already, and he had learned very little of value from them. Yet both parties came away from these sessions hearing what they wanted to hear. The Americans concluded that France would support the colonies in a war for independence, and Bonvouloir concluded that the Americans were ready to fight and would be victorious. Bonvouloir hurried back to his lodging to write a report to the foreign minister. He drew a wildly exaggerated picture of the Americans and their prospects for defeating the British. He wrote to Vergennes, via Ambassador Guines:

  Everyone here is a soldier, the troops are well clothed, well paid, and well armed. They have more than 50,000 regular soldiers and an even larger number of volunteers, who do not wish to be paid. Judge how men of this caliber will fight. They are more powerful than we could have thought, beyond imagination powerful; you will be astonished by it. Nothing shocks or frightens them, you can count on that. Independency is a certainty for 1776; there will be no drawing back. . . .

  In fact, at the time Bonvouloir was writing, the number of active enlisted men in the Continental Army was perhaps one-tenth the figure he cited, barely 5,000 men. The soldiers had only the arms, ammunition, and training they brought with them. Perhaps Franklin and his committee had overstated the strength of their army, or, more likely, Bonvouloir simply wanted to believe that the Americans could whip the British. By embellishing the state of America’s military preparedness, Bonvouloir was trying to persuade the French government that he could be a valuable source for information.

  In case the report was intercepted by the British, Ambassador Guines had instructed Bonvouloir to write any sensitive material in milk so that when it dried it became invisible. Using milk to disguise secret correspondence was not unusual for diplomats at the time. The recipient would apply a warm object to the page so that the milk would scald and reveal the secret writing. In this instance, however, Bonvouloir forgot the milk and hurriedly wrote his complete report in ink. When the bumbling Guines received the letter he stuck a shovel in the fireplace and then applied it to the envelope so ineptly he scorched the pages. The singed papers were forwarded to Vergennes, who for good reason doubted Bonvouloir’s judgment and hesitated to act.

  Bonvouloir left Philadelphia for London, expecting to see Ambassador Guines. But by the time he arrived, Guines had finally drained the king’s patience, and Louis XVI had recalled him. Bonvouloir waited in London for a few months for further instructions from Vergennes. He received none. Without Guines, Bonvouloir had no access to the foreign minister. In time, Bonvouloir grew tired of waiting for a reply from Vergennes. Unable to support himself, he accepted a commission to serve with the English army in India, where he died after a brief fever.

  Though the would-be diplomat did not persuade France to help the Americans, he nonetheless served an essential function: he had unwittingly convinced the Secret Committee that the time had come to send an American representative to Versailles.



  Philadelphia, January-March 1776

  Franklin and Jay knew the perfect man for the job: Silas Deane. Steadfast in his commitment to independence, energetic, intelligent, and resourceful, Deane commanded respect in Congress. He had practical experience from owning a successful business and could pose convincingly as an anonymous Connecticut merchant purchasing French goods for import. Deane understood maritime shipping, mercantile financing, and the supply needs of the army and navy. Having been recalled by the Connecticut Assembly and no longer a delegate to Congress, Deane could credibly claim to be acting as a private merchant on his own account.

  That was not to say that Deane was an obvious choice to represent the colonies to Louis XVI. Until his appointment as a delegate to Congress, he had never ventured beyond the borders of Connecticut. Despite his Yale education, Deane was a plainspoken man without affectation. He knew nothing about royalty, diplomacy, or European politics. And though he was trained in classical Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, he did not speak a word of French. There were other more prominent men in Congress, like John Jay, Ben Franklin, and John Adams, who had more political experience and influence and came from more important colonies. They were known in Europe, and at least Franklin could read and converse in French. Nevertheless, Franklin thought that Deane was the ideal candidate, in part, because he was such an improbable emissary. The British would never suspect him of being a secret agent for the American rebels.

  SOMETIME IN LATE FEBRUARY, Franklin asked Deane if he would consider serving as Congress’s secret emissary to France. Franklin told Deane about the clandestine meetings with Bonvouloir, who had convinced the Secret Committee that Louis XVI would be receptive to the American cause. Deane deeply admired Franklin, just as Franklin had enormous faith in Deane.

  Having worked for months to purchase ships and military supplies, Deane understood as well as anyone the urgency of French aid. Washington’s army was in desperate need of gunpowder, guns, and artillery, none of which could be manufactured in large quantities in the colonies. There were shortages of food, tools, tents, blankets, uniforms, and boots as well. “Congress have left it in the power of the States to starve the Army at pleasure,” one officer wrote. John Adams described the army as “disgraced, defeated, discontented, diseased, naked, undisciplined, eaten up with vermin; no clothes, beds, blankets, no medicines; no victuals, but salt pork and flour.” One soldier complained that “We were absolutely, literally starved.” The soldier recorded seeing other men “roast their old shoes and eat them.” The men who had rushed off to join the Continental Army came without a change of clothing, outer coat, or blanket. There was no uniformity in their dress, and after several months of hardship, their clothing was tattered and smelly. Soldiers shivered through the cruel New England winter without coats, boots, socks, or hats. Many soldiers lived essentially outdoors without tents, sleeping on snow and mud. As a result of these deprivations, the army was plagued by mass desertions. (Over the eight years of war, nearly a quarter of all enlisted men deserted annually.)

  Shortages were exacerbated by corruption and theft. Soldiers stole goods to sell for cash or drink. To make matters worse, soldiers regularly took their guns and powder when they returned home, as compensation for their service, leaving new recruits without weapons. Washington’s men were forced to cannibalize supplies for different purposes than were intended: blankets were sewn into coats; tents were cut into blankets. Scarcity bred waste: guns that would not fire were abandoned; broken wagons were left behind; shoes that needed mending were discarded.

  Franklin did not need to persuade Deane to accept his commission. Though it meant a long absence from his family and time spent overseas in an unfamiliar place, totally isolated, and at great personal risk, Deane accepted this dangerous mission enthusiastically. More than anything, he wanted to be useful to his country.

  On March 2, 1776, the Secret Committee issued Deane’s commission “to transact such business, commercial and political, as we have committed to his care in behalf and by the authority of the Congress of the thirteen united colonies.” Specifically, the committee authorized Deane to acquire in France all the arms, uniforms, and equipment for an army of 25,000 men on credit. The committee instructed Deane to travel to France “in the character of a merchant.” Congress wanted to win support from the Indian tribes, which had been valuable allies to the French against the British in the French a
nd Indian War. For this purpose, the committee gave Deane $200,000 in Continental paper currency to buy gifts in France for the Indian tribes. (It was roughly equivalent to $4.9 million today, but the Continental dollar quickly lost most of its value.)

  It was essential to the success of Deane’s whole mission that he continue to conduct his own private trading business as a cover. For this purpose, Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, offered Deane a position as export agent for his firm, Willing and Morris. Morris and Deane had developed a close friendship in Congress. Morris became a critical figure in financing the American Revolution, and Deane was pleased to form a business relationship with him.

  In addition to agreeing to pay Deane’s expenses, the Secret Committee promised to pay Deane a five-percent commission on all purchases he made on behalf of Congress. That would be the only compensation paid by the government for Deane’s services as diplomat and arms broker. Beyond that, Deane would depend on his work for Morris to support himself for however long he would be abroad. In this way the committee unwittingly created the possibility of a conflict of interest between Deane’s public responsibilities and his private dealings. Though later many critics and historians would accuse Deane of commingling his private business with the government’s procurement, Deane used the same books for both accounts in order to conceal his arms purchases.

  Franklin gave Deane letters of introduction to two French friends who were sympathetic to the American cause, Comte de Chaumont, a wealthy aristocrat, and Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg, a respected physician who could arrange a meeting with Vergennes. Franklin instructed Deane that in exchange for French aid he should offer the foreign minister a preferential trade relationship. Franklin suggested that if Vergennes seemed reluctant, Deane should give him time. Once Deane established a relationship with Vergennes, he should inquire whether France would be willing to recognize the Americans and sign treaties of commerce and alliance if the colonies declared independence. Franklin stressed that Deane was not simply a messenger. He urged Deane to be an advocate for independence and to respond “to the several calumnies thrown out against us” by the British. If the colonies declared independence, Congress would rely upon Deane alone to secure French recognition and support.

  The importance of France’s recognition cannot be overstated. Without some acknowledgment of their legitimacy, the colonies were merely rebels, traitors, and pirates; recognition would transform them from criminals to statesmen, diplomats, and privateers. Other European powers would quickly follow French recognition. It would afford the Americans opportunities for trade relations, loans, and alliances throughout Europe that were essential to securing and maintaining independence.

  Franklin also suggested that Deane contact one of his American friends in London, Dr. Edward Bancroft. Coincidentally, Bancroft had been one of Deane’s pupils when Deane was a schoolteacher in Hartford. Deane also knew Bancroft’s stepfather, David Bull, who owned the Bunch of Grapes tavern in Hartford, where the Committee of Correspondence often met. Bancroft supported the American cause and could provide Deane with intelligence about the British government from his contacts in London. Deane was no doubt delighted and relieved to have someone familiar to him only a few days’ travel from Paris.

  SILAS DEANE WROTE to Elizabeth informing her of his decision to leave for France at once. There was no time to return to his family. Washington’s army needed arms and ammunition as quickly as possible. As Deane sat down to write Elizabeth, he knew that the trip to France posed many dangers and deprivations. He did not know when, if ever, he could return. If his ship were captured by the British, or if he were discovered by British spies in Paris, he could be imprisoned and hung as a traitor. He would be traveling alone, knowing no one and unable to converse in French. He had no way of knowing how the French government would receive him, if at all. Without any way of proving his bona fides, he was expected to purchase arms, gunpowder, and uniforms for an army of 25,000 men, all on credit, and he would need to arrange for this massive shipment without arousing suspicion by the British. Finally, without any diplomatic training and scant instructions, he was expected to negotiate treaties on behalf of a country that did not yet exist.

  Meanwhile, how would his business in Wethersfield fare during his long absence? And how would he support himself in France with pocketfuls of rapidly depreciating Continental currency, especially if the European banks would not give him credit? Congress promised to reimburse his expenses, but when and with what, as Congress was already in debt? Even if he did manage to return to Hartford, what would he return to? The war might soon spread throughout New England. The British had threatened to burn the rebels’ homes. Elizabeth and his son, Jesse, were both frail and might not survive the deprivations of the war. All these anxieties crowded his mind.

  Elizabeth had not seen him all winter, and now she learned he was leaving on a risky voyage to France without returning home first to see her. Recognizing the need for secrecy, he cautioned Elizabeth, “It will be no purpose to write to me, until you hear from me, and then not a word of politics.” Deane felt compelled to contain his genuine sentiments. “You will not imagine I am unfeeling on this occasion,—but to what purpose would it be to let my tender passions govern, except to distress you?” Hardly what Elizabeth hoped to hear from her departing husband. He recognized the risks he faced. He assured her that he would be careful, but if he fell into the enemy’s hands, “I am prepared even for the worst, not wishing to survive my Country’s fate, and confident, while that is safe, I shall be happy in almost any situation.” He regretted “the pain I must give you by this adventure,” and thanked her for being “one of the best of partners and wives, while on my part, by a peculiar fatality attending me from my first entrance into public life, I have ever been involved in one scheme and adventure after another.” He gently explained that he could not bear to say goodbye in person. “The present object is great. I am about to enter on the great stage of Europe and the consideration of the importance of quitting myself well, weighs me down, without the addition of more tender scenes.”

  Only a few months earlier he had written to her that “[h]e that has the least to do in public affairs stands the fairest chance of happiness.” Now, he was prepared to sacrifice even his family’s happiness to the nation’s interests: “I wish as much as any man for the enjoyments of domestic ease, peace, and society, but am forbid expecting them soon.” It would be “criminal in my own eyes, did I balance them one moment in opposition to the Public Good and the Calls of my Country.”

  In closing, Deane questioned the ironies of political life.

  . . . [A]re not the ways of Providence dark and inscrutable to us, short-sighted mortals? Surely they are. My enemies tho’t to triumph over me and bring me down, yet all they did has been turned to the opening a door for the greatest and most extensive usefulness, if I succeed; but if I fail,—why then the Cause I am engaged in, and the important part I have undertaken, will justify my adventuring.

  Providence would prove more inscrutable than Deane could have imagined.



  London, October-November 1775

  Beaumarchais and d’Eon were in a celebratory mood when their coach drew up to Mansion House on the evening of October 25. As usual, she was dressed smartly as a man in her captain’s uniform. It was the night before the traditional opening of Parliament, and Lord Mayor Wilkes had invited a glittering circle of friends to toast a momentous confrontation that was about to take place.

  For months Wilkes had been fiercely defending the Americans. He had bitterly denounced the king’s proclamation that Massachusetts was in open rebellion, and now his rhetoric had reached a fever pitch. Just days before this gathering, Wilkes, who still retained his seat in Parliament, had delivered his most virulent speech on the floor of the Commons, describing the British military occupation of Massachusetts as “unjust, felonious and murderous.” King George III and his g
overnment were incensed. All London was holding its breath, waiting to see if Wilkes had finally gone too far. A crowd of Wilkites was planning to disrupt the king’s address to Parliament the following morning. Wilkes hoped to provoke a parliamentary crisis that would topple Lord North’s corrupt government and sweep Wilkes to power, but the plan was risky. Lord North had already arrested Wilkes’s associate Stephen Sayre and other members of Parliament on questionable charges of treason. Wilkes’s guests at Mansion House all wondered if Wilkes would be arrested next.

  But for a man who might reasonably anticipate spending the following night in the Tower, Wilkes seemed remarkably upbeat. There was a sense that history was about to be made. As things turned out, Wilkes and his dinner guests were on the cusp of a historic moment, but not for the reasons they imagined.

  Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, was built in the grand Palladian style. Lord Mayor Wilkes presided over a lavish dinner evoking a Roman banquet in the gilded Egyptian Hall. In addition to d’Eon and Beaumarchais, Wilkes’s guests that evening included, among others, London alderman William Lee and his younger brother, Arthur Lee. The Lee brothers were frequent guests of Wilkes and outspoken supporters of his political machine, the Bill of Rights Society, which, despite its name, was organized for the express purpose of paying Wilkes’s debts from his legal troubles rather than advocating for any specific freedoms.

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