Unlikely Allies, page 14
Lee, who tormented himself with suspicion of nearly everyone he encountered, and who never hesitated to accuse innocent men of being spies, did not immediately reveal Wentworth’s bribe to Congress or abandon his friendship. Instead, while Lee secretly conspired with Beaumarchais to smuggle arms, he continued to confide in his friend Wentworth, oblivious to the fact that Wentworth had already betrayed him to the British government. Wentworth gave Lee access to the highest reaches of the British government. For all his ability and enthusiasm for independence, Lee was always guided by naked self-interest. But he never questioned his own motives. As one historian noted, Lee “might have played a fine part in the American Revolution if his self-esteem had not been in vast excess of his public spirit.”
From the outset, Lee’s relationship to Wentworth compromised the secrecy of the conspiracy to smuggle arms. The British government knew that Lee and Beaumarchais were plotting to smuggle French aid to the Americans even before Versailles or Philadelphia knew.
London and Paris,
November 1775-January 1776
November brought miserable weather to London. The city suffocated in a thick fog of coal dust that hung in the damp air for days. A bronchial epidemic swept through the city, and Beaumarchais was sick for weeks. On November 4, Beaumarchais and d’Eon finally signed their contract, which they referred to as “the Transaction,” and d’Eon gave Beaumarchais the iron coffer filled with documents. D’Eon celebrated the completion of the Transaction by purchasing a black silk gown, which years later remained one of her favorite outfits. Nursing a cough and high fever, Beaumarchais headed back to Paris with the coffer containing the king’s precious papers still sealed. D’Eon gave Beaumarchais a worn copy of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. The book was hollowed out and contained a secret compartment into which d’Eon had stuffed Louis XV’s instructions to her as an agent of the king’s Secret network. (Twenty years before d’Eon had used the same book to carry into Russia the king’s correspondence to Empress Elizabeth.) Beaumarchais wasted no time before claiming his prize: he wanted Vergennes to provide him with the money he needed to smuggle arms to the Americans.
At Versailles, Beaumarchais was greeted warmly by Vergennes and his friend, Antoine de Sartine, who had been elevated from Paris police chief to minister of the navy. They congratulated Beaumarchais on the return of the damaging correspondence and assured Beaumarchais of the king’s gratitude. Beaumarchais could now expect that the king would restore his status at Versailles, but he wanted more. As he and Lee had agreed, Beaumarchais proposed that the king loan him one million livres to set up a phony trading firm with Lee to provide financing, arms, and ammunition to the Americans. The firm would appear to be acting on its own, without involving the French government, so that the English could not hold France responsible. First, he would exchange half a million livres for Portuguese gold pieces. The gold would be sent to Congress to finance the issuance of its own paper currency. The other half-million livres would be used to purchase gunpowder secretly from the French armory at a discount. The Americans would cover the one million livres by sending tobacco, which Beaumarchais hoped to resell for three million livres. He would use the profit from tobacco sales to purchase more supplies for the Americans. By this geometric progression, Beaumarchais hoped to triple the amount of aid available to the Americans with each transaction. Beaumarchais suggested to Vergennes that it would be a nice twist to pay for the initial one million livres by taxing British imports.
Vergennes reacted coolly. While there is some evidence that he considered aiding the Americans, he knew that the king would be unwilling to take any action, even covertly, that would jeopardize the peace with Britain. The king felt morally and legally obligated to respect the spirit and the letter of the 1763 peace treaty. He was resolutely opposed to aiding the Americans.
Beaumarchais would not take no for an answer. He could not. He begged Vergennes for an audience with the king, confident that in “15 minutes” he could persuade Louis XVI of “the certainty of succeeding, and the immense harvest of glory and peace that must result for his reign from the smallest seed so timely sown.” When Vergennes refused, Beaumarchais returned to the Jouy Hotel. With characteristic temerity he wrote a strongly worded memorandum directly to the king. The fact that Vergennes passed Beaumarchais’s memorandum to the king indicates that Beaumarchais had acquired access to the king through his role in settling the d’Eon affair. Perhaps it also suggests that Vergennes, himself, was quietly becoming convinced of the value of aiding the Americans.
In Beaumarchais’s memorandum he argued that the king’s highest duty was not to follow his personal morals; the highest duty of the sovereign was to “look at himself as a stranger to any other people and a father to his own [nation].” Politics was inherently amoral, he counseled, and so the king must accept the responsibility to use whatever means in his power to punish Britain for humiliating France.
If men were angels, no doubt, one would have to despise, even hate politics. But if men were angels, they would have no need for religion to enlighten them, kings to rule them, for magistrates to restrain them, for soldiers to subdue them, and earth, instead of being a living picture of hell, would itself be a heavenly place.
Despite Beaumarchais’s impassioned appeal, Louis XVI was unmoved. In frustration, Beaumarchais wrote to the king several more times, expressing his disappointment and impatience. He warned the king that “you will one day recognize my views were right, when all that is left to us is to regret bitterly not to have followed them.” A few days later he complained to the king that “from now on ask someone else to do this job which brought me neither thanks, nor honors, nor profit.” He chastised Louis XVI for ignoring “my reports, after I have met with all kinds of unpleasantness to spare them to everyone else.” What kind of man would write a letter like that to his monarch and expect to be rewarded? Beaumarchais’s reputation for speaking his mind was legendary. An Englishman once addressed an envelope simply, “To Beaumarchais, the only free man in France,” and the post knew exactly to whom to deliver it.
The French monarch was unaccustomed to being addressed with such audacity, yet the king remained silent. Beaumarchais had already proved his value, and Louis XVI could not afford to slam the door on him. Close inspection of the contents of d’Eon’s iron coffer had revealed that certain incriminating letters were missing, and Beaumarchais was needed to continue negotiations with d’Eon to obtain the balance of the papers. The king’s continued reliance on Beaumarchais gave him some future leverage, but he also felt that the king was not listening to him. After lingering in Paris and Versailles for several weeks, he returned to London in a huff, dejected and annoyed, but determined to retrieve d’Eon’s documents and to persuade Louis XVI of the urgency of aiding the Americans.
BACK IN LONDON the d’Eon affair was quickly unraveling. Beaumarchais’s friend Charles Morande leaked to the newspapers word that d’Eon was about to reveal her gender. Morande himself had bet that d’Eon was female and hoped to improve his winnings. One London paper reported the exact terms of the Transaction and promised its readers that “it is absolutely decided that she is a woman, and intends very soon to take the habit of her gender.” As a result, betting on d’Eon’s gender reached a frenzy in London. In a fit of indiscretion d’Eon posted a notice that the public was being scammed by people who knew d’Eon’s real gender and that “he would never manifest his sex until such time as all policies shall be at an end.” D’Eon also hinted that she had reached a settlement of sorts with Louis XVI. These public statements were inconsistent with the terms of the Transaction, and they only sparked greater interest in the betting.
D’Eon began to suspect Beaumarchais’s role in the renewed betting. It’s unclear whether Beaumarchais did in fact wager on d’Eon’s gender. There is at least one letter that reported to Vergennes that Beaumarchais had bet as much as 100,000 pounds (approximately $18.5 million today)
Sometime in late December, d’Eon was invited to a dinner party at the home of Charles Morande. D’Eon had mixed feelings about associating with this infamous blackmailer, but Morande was a good source of gossip, which was his stock in trade. Morande told d’Eon that while Beaumarchais was visiting Paris earlier in the month the playwright had informed people that he intended to marry d’Eon. At various soirées Beaumarchais even entertained guests with love songs he wrote for the captain of the dragoons. Morande’s gossip was soon confirmed when d’Eon began receiving letters from friends in Paris asking her if it was true that she was really female and intended to marry Beaumarchais.
In a fit of pique, d’Eon stormed off to Lord Ferrers’s estate, Staunton-Herald in Leicestershire, about one hundred miles northwest of London near the center of England. From there she mailed Beaumarchais a series of angry letters. “[A]s to our approaching marriage,” she wrote, “according to what I hear from Paris, it can only be regarded by me as mere persiflage on your part.” It was unclear whether d’Eon objected to Beaumarchais announcing their “approaching marriage” before she had agreed to reveal she was female, or whether she had never agreed to marry him at all. “If you have made a serious matter of a simple pledge of friendship and gratitude,” she wrote, “your conduct is pitiable.” In any case, she expected more discretion from him: “A woman of Paris, however much she might submit to the morals in fashion,” would not have pardoned this offense; “even less a woman whose virtue is as uncivilized as mine, and whose spirit is so haughty when the good faith and sensibility of her heart are wounded.” Though it is uncertain if Beaumarchais actually announced their engagement in Paris, he did not deny to her either that they were engaged or that he had made such an announcement.
Beaumarchais wrote to d’Eon, alternately pleading and threatening. He was desperate for her to return to London and declare herself a woman, as required by the Transaction. Until she complied, there was still the risk of her blackmailing Louis XVI with the missing letters. Beaumarchais gave her a week to calm down and apologize, or he would be “compelled to leave and break off all relations with you.” Beaumarchais seemed wounded by her behavior: “My only sorrow will be to go back to France carrying the cruel conviction that your enemies knew you better than your friends.” He warned her that if she did not honor all the terms of the Transaction by turning over all sensitive documents and publicly disclosing her gender, “it is with the most painful sorrow that I would force myself to change titles from your defender to your most implacable prosecutor.”
D’Eon sent a fiery reply. Beaumarchais could not complain about her failure to produce all the documents; how would he know what secret documents existed? No one but d’Eon could know if any documents were missing; not even the foreign minister had records of her secret communications with the king. The Transaction depended upon her “good will,” and she would comply with it only if she were treated fairly. He had abused her trust and taken advantage of her sex. He had made her “look ridiculous” by telling everyone in Paris they were engaged and performing love ballads to her in salons. She had placed in him “blind trust,” and had found in him “the master of my sex.” She had regarded him as “the most virtuous of men” who had persuaded her that he “has some respect for my position,” but he had mocked their relationship.
Why did I not remember at that moment that men are only good in this life to deceive girls and women? Alas, there are injustices that are so wounding and outrageous when they come to us from those to whom we are the most sincerely attached that it forces even the most prudent person to lose control. . . . I thought only of acknowledging your merit and of admiring your talents and your generosity. There’s no doubt that I loved you! But I was so naive about this situation.
She accused him of covering her with “shame.” Among other outrages, she alleged that Beaumarchais had contracted a venereal disease in London that he had spread all over Paris. Yet she was ready to forgive. She now demanded that the king pay for her new feminine wardrobe. If the king would agree to buy her a new trousseau as her “dowry,” then “harmony will be restored between us.” She was prepared to forgive Beaumarchais and promised to “return to London to embrace you.”
There were no more tender embraces. Beaumarchais had had enough. He decided he could no longer deal with d’Eon, and he asked Morande to continue the negotiations on his behalf. It must have seemed more than a bit bizarre for Morande, who had himself blackmailed Louis XV, to approach d’Eon on behalf of Louis XVI. Yet, d’Eon set aside her own disdain for the slimy Morande and invited him to dinner at her flat in early April with a few friends. D’Eon was famous for serving her guests large quantities of Burgundy and at some point in the evening, perhaps under the influence, Morande blurted out that he and Beaumarchais had indeed gambled a large sum on the question whether d’Eon was a woman.
D’Eon’s worst suspicions were now confirmed, and she refused to negotiate further with either of them. Instead, she wrote to Vergennes, expressing her outrage that a “virtuous maiden” like herself should be expected to negotiate with scoundrels like Morande and Beaumarchais. When Morande threatened to publish an article about her secret, d’Eon challenged Morande to a duel, and when he refused to fight a woman, she brought a libel suit against him before Lord Mansfield, the same distinguished jurist who had heard her claim against Ambassador Guerchy for poisoning her. Though the suit was later dismissed on the grounds that she was equally guilty of libel, the rupture among d’Eon, Morande, and Beaumarchais was now irreparable. It would take another year of cajoling and threats by Beaumarchais and Vergennes before d’Eon would agree to honor the Transaction.
THE KING MUST DECIDE
London, Paris, and Philadelphia,
That winter was one of the coldest anyone could remember. Temperatures plunged below zero degrees Fahrenheit, freezing the lake in St. James’s Park and transforming the Thames into a glacial plain with shrieking winds. Starving animals struggled to claw through layers of granitic snow and ice, vainly searching for grass, and birds dropped, lifeless, from icy limbs. In Sussex a flock of sheep disappeared for a fortnight under a deep blanket of snow, until the astonished animals were miraculously rescued by a vigilant sheepdog. Humans, too, suffered terribly, shivering in their drafty quarters and listening to the wind’s mournful howls. With Thames traffic halted, food was scarce. Prices soared, and there was a shortage of coal for heating and cooking. Those who plied their trade on the water—ferrymen, sailors, fishermen—had no work for a month and were reduced to begging. Ashes were scattered over the icy streets of London to make walking less treacherous, and coal dust settling on snowdrifts imbued the city with a funereal hue.
Since Beaumarchais’s return to London in January, he and Arthur Lee continued to meet regularly, often over dinner with Wilkes, who became so embroiled in the conspiracy that he, too, ran the risk of committing treason. The Secret Committee in Philadelphia wrote Lee, asking for his advice on how it could communicate secretly with America’s friends in England. Lee interpreted this to mean he had been appointed the secret agent for Congress, which was not the case. Lee and Beaumarchais discussed what could be done to persuade the French government of the urgency of providing arms to the Continental Army. Lee warned that if France denied the Americans any help, France would “become the victim of England and the laughing-stock of Europe.” Beaumarchais wrote a long memorandum to Vergennes, reporting on his discussions with Lee. Beaumarchais recounted that the Americans were willing to “offer France, as a price for secret aid, a treaty of commerce which would let her enjoy, for a certain number of years, all the profits” that had once enriched England and a guarantee to defend the French sugar islands
Lee’s offer to help France defend its Caribbean colonies was, of course, preposterous: the Americans did not have the firepower, ships, or men to defend the French sugar islands, and Congress would hardly be prepared to fight for French colonialism in its own hemisphere. Most probably, Beaumarchais cooked up this argument. He felt that if they could somehow convince Louis XVI that the real prize Britain coveted was the French sugar islands, Louis XVI would help the American rebels.
Beaumarchais laid out four possibilities for Vergennes to consider. First, if England defeated the colonies, it would be saddled with a huge war debt, and the easiest way to repay the debt would be to steal the French possessions and “become in this manner the exclusive merchants of the precious commodity of sugar.” In the second scenario, if the Americans won, their standard of living would be so diminished without British trade that they would be motivated to seize the French West Indies to support themselves. Alternatively, if the English granted independence to the colonies, they would “be more able to grab our islands which they will no longer be able to do without, if they want to keep a foothold in America.” Or, fourth, if Wilkes and his friends took power in England and made peace with the colonies, then the Americans would likely join England against France to appropriate their islands and punish France for denying them aid for independence. Thus, there was no point in trying to avoid war with Britain. Beaumarchais concluded that “the fine precautions that you were taking to keep your possessions were the very same ones that were to deprive you of them forever.” Instead, the only way to keep the peace, Beaumarchais argued, would be to aid the Americans just enough “to balance their forces with those of England, and nothing more.” In other words, Beaumarchais was arguing that the longer France could prolong a bloody struggle between England and her colonies, the more France could drain England’s strength and better protect her own possessions in America.