Unlikely allies, p.15

Unlikely Allies, page 15


Unlikely Allies

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  It was an ingenious argument, worthy of the playwright who made aristocrats laugh at themselves: France should support America, not because Americans loved France, but because either an independent America or an America restored to the mother country posed a greater threat to France. In reality there was little evidence that the British or the Americans lusted after the sugar islands. It is unclear whether Vergennes really believed that Britain threatened France’s Caribbean possessions. Other sources of intelligence would have cast doubt on Beaumarchais’s assertions of British intentions. Vergennes was astute enough to appreciate when Beaumarchais was playing him, and the sugar islands were already well prepared to defend themselves from attack. If Vergennes were truly worried that the British might attack, he could have merely sent additional reinforcements.

  On the other hand, Vergennes probably recognized that Beaumarchais offered him an argument that might persuade the reluctant Louis XVI to take action now.

  ON MARCH 2, 1776, the Secret Committee gave Silas Deane his secret commission to go to France and acquire all the supplies for an army of 25,000 men. Only six days later, Deane began his circuitous journey from Philadelphia by pilot boat to Chester, Pennsylvania, on the Delaware Bay. There he boarded a large merchant brig that set sail, but adverse winds repeatedly forced it back to shore and damaged the vessel beyond repair. For several frustrating weeks, he waited near Cape May, New Jersey, while another “Leaky & sickly” sloop was being outfitted in Maryland. In the meantime, Congress sent a guard of twenty soldiers to protect Deane from capture by Loyalists.

  While Deane waited, events were moving rapidly toward a full-scale war. The Continental Army had sat helplessly in Cambridge all winter, camping in muddy squalor, while across the Charles River, Boston remained under the firm hand of British general Sir William Howe and his men. Since the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen the previous spring, the Continental Army had little to cheer about. Colonel Arnold had sent all the guns and ammunition stored by the British at Ticonderoga to assist the army. But moving the heavy artillery from Ticonderoga across hundreds of miles of forest and mountains was slow and difficult.

  Washington’s artillery commander, Colonel Henry Knox, a rotund twenty-five-year-old bookseller from Boston, showed remarkable fortitude and ingenuity, transporting the cannons from Ticonderoga by boat across Lake George and then by ox-drawn sled over the snowy Berkshire Mountains. It took until February to drag all the artillery 200 miles south and east to Cambridge. Under cover of night on March 4, the guns were deployed on Dorchester Heights, from which vantage point Washington aimed them menacingly at the British fleet anchored below in Boston Harbor. Washington could now command an attack at any time on the British forces in Boston, while the British guns could not strike Washington’s position. When the sun rose the next morning, General Howe saw no option but to retreat. On March 17, the British troops withdrew to Nova Scotia, along with one thousand Loyalists, who, fearing reprisals, immigrated to Britain. The guns of Ticonderoga had proved decisive.

  From Canada, Deane’s friend General Benedict Arnold wrote to Deane from his camp on the Plains of Abraham, just below Quebec. Arnold reported that the American forces which Congress had sent to “liberate” Canada were hopelessly outnumbered and lacked basic supplies. Arnold complained that “we have never had more than seven hundred effective men on the ground, and frequently not more than five hundred.” Moreover, the New England troops had contracted smallpox and “not one-quarter” were fit to serve. “Our Surgeons are without medicine; our Hospitals are crowded, and in want of almost every necessary.” The Canadian invasion proved to be a colossal failure, despite Arnold’s heroism and bold maneuvers.

  To make matters worse, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, who was despised among the colonists as a “bloody butcher” for offering freedom to slaves who joined the Loyalists and for encouraging Indian tribes to attack Virginians, was now menacing the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, British general Henry Clinton was sweeping down the coast, and 2,500 British troops were reportedly en route from Ireland. It looked likely that the British would be able to take New York City. By the time Deane’s ship was outfitted, the British navy might be too close to outrun.

  More than a month passed in Cape May before Deane could climb aboard the Betsy. The sloop was loaded with a cargo of salt pork, which Deane intended to trade for hard currency in France. Ten days later, the Betsy landed in Bermuda, where Deane was delayed again by an argument with the customs house. The customs officer compelled Deane to sell the pork in Bermuda at a lower price than he had anticipated receiving in France. From Bermuda, Deane had to sail to Grand Turk Island in the Caribbean, and then on to Jamaica to obtain more cargo to sell in France. Another month passed before the Betsy finally set out across the open water for France.

  IT WAS NOW MARCH, and sitting on Vergennes’s desk alongside Beaumarchais’s memorandum was the recent memorandum from Bonvouloir, the secret envoy to Philadelphia who had met with Franklin and the Secret Committee in December. Bonvouloir’s wildly inflated numbers of American troops bolstered Beaumarchais’s claim that the Americans were well prepared to take on the British forces. But Bonvouloir did not necessarily have much credibility in Vergennes’s eyes. After all, Vergennes did not know or trust Bonvouloir and had only reluctantly agreed to dispatch him to America at the urging of Ambassador Guines, whom Vergennes had since fired.

  While neither Bonvouloir nor Beaumarchais had conclusive evidence to support their claims, the two reports together seemed to buttress the proposition that the Americans might actually succeed in their struggle with Britain. Vergennes was less interested in whether the Americans would succeed than he was in the ability of the Americans to prolong the war. He was probably persuaded by Beaumarchais that France’s objective should be to entangle Britain in a long and costly war that would weaken them militarily and economically. In addition, Vergennes might have hoped that if the Americans ever won their independence, they would be more inclined to open their markets to France.

  Vergennes would have to convince the other cabinet ministers—and the excessively cautious Louis XVI—that Beaumarchais’s plan to arm the colonists could succeed without entangling France in another disastrous war with Britain. The foreign minister prepared a memorandum to the cabinet, outlining the costs and benefits of aiding the Americans. He used Beaumarchais’s argument that the French sugar islands were threatened by Britain. He pointed to the advantage to France from prolonging Britain’s troubles in North America. Vergennes argued that this was France’s opportunity to revenge all the humiliation that Britain had inflicted on France. By encouraging American resistance, France would drain Britain’s economic and military power, while at the same time France would continue to rearm against Britain. He was not arguing in support of independence or representative government. Supporting the Americans were merely a useful gambit by which France could restore the balance of power on the Continent. Vergennes proposed that France provide secret arms and funds to the rebels while maintaining the appearance of neutrality.

  Obviously, Vergennes was not bothered by the moral niceties involved in violating France’s treaty commitments. On the one hand, he denounced the British for their “habitual breach of good faith, violation of treaties, and disregard of that observance of the sacred laws of morality which distinguish the French.” On the other hand, without a trace of irony, he recommended that France should continue to mislead the English with respect to their true intentions. Although Vergennes’s memorandum did not mention Beaumarchais by name, it is clear that he had adopted Beaumarchais’s plan as his own.

  The French minister of war, Claude Robert, the Comte de Saint-Germain, a tough old soldier, responded enthusiastically, “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you wish for peace, prepare for war”). The more cautious comptroller-general, Anne-Jacques-Robert Turgot, the baron de l’Aulne, waited several weeks before venturing the opinion that France co
uld not afford war with Britain. Turgot, a brilliant economic reformer, was convinced that the Americans would succeed without France and that the cost of supporting the Americans and possibly being dragged into a full-scale war with Britain would ruin the economic reforms he had envisioned. In fact, Turgot’s judgment proved accurate. The staggering cost of the American Revolution would eventually push France into bankruptcy and thereby necessitate the excessive taxation that sparked the French Revolution. Turgot’s opposition to aiding the Americans was particularly ironic because, unlike Vergennes, the liberal-minded Turgot was actually sympathetic to the principles of the American revolutionaries. The other ministers were generally supportive of Vergennes’s plan.

  Vergennes responded to Turgot’s arguments for fiscal prudence by blaming England for “the impoverishment, humiliation, and ruin of France.” By favoring the colonies, France would take commerce away from Britain for itself and thus increase its own wealth. Vergennes warned that whether Britain retained or lost her colonies, unless weakened, Britain would attack the French West Indies. War was inevitable, and therefore, it would be preferable to make common cause with the Americans.

  Louis XVI had no sympathy for American colonists opposing monarchy, and he felt deeply conflicted over France betraying its treaty obligations. Even more, he feared leading his country into a war it was not prepared to win. But the king relied on Vergennes as his mentor and trusted his judgment above that of others. He found Vergennes’s arguments persuasive, and he also now regarded Beaumarchais as a faithful agent who could conduct the smuggling operation in secret.

  After a few weeks of hesitating, Louis XVI agreed to set aside his objections to supporting the American colonists. France was finally prepared to exact revenge on Britain for the punitive terms of the peace treaty that d’Eon had negotiated ending the Seven Years’ War. The king ordered Turgot to supply Beaumarchais with one million livres to finance his smuggling operation. Turgot’s reluctance to support Vergennes’s proposals helped to convince the foreign minister that the comptroller-general Turgot must go, and by late spring the king dismissed Turgot.

  France had found a way to stab Britain in the back. Not to make America independent, but to bleed Britain dry. And Vergennes would ensure that the hand that held the knife would be Beaumarchais’s.



  Philadelphia and Paris, March-July 1776

  Deane left Philadelphia on March 8, and after about two months of delays, he set out on the Betsy for France in late April. Though Deane owned a schooner and had prospered from trade with the West Indies, he had never sailed on the ocean before. He missed the luxuries of home and the comfort of the familiar. For six weeks he suffered the deprivations of life at sea—the blustery damp wind, the nauseating odors belowdecks, the dark cramped cabin, the coarseness of the seamen, the salty overcooked food, and the daily monotony broken only by violent storms.

  Deane had no way of knowing whether his family was safe, or whether he would reach Paris before the British crushed the Continental Army. He worried that at any point they would be stopped and boarded by the British navy. In the event he was seized by the British, he kept among his papers a letter from Captain William Hunter, a British officer captured by Benedict Arnold at St. John in New Brunswick, Canada. Hunter was being held prisoner at Wethersfield under the supervision of Deane’s brother, Barnabas. Hunter wrote to any British officer who might capture Deane to treat him with “as much Politeness” as the British officers had received from Deane’s friends.

  On June 6, 1776, after three months at sea Deane sailed into the Bay of Biscay and arrived in Bordeaux, having evaded the British navy’s watchful eye. Now his mission began in earnest.

  Deane had never seen a place as old or as lively as Bordeaux. Along the banks of the Garonne he was jostled by wealthy wine merchants and sweaty dockworkers rushing from ship to ship. The old city, surrounded by a medieval wall and dotted with spires, was one of Europe’s leading ports. Shops and stalls crowded the Basilica of St. Michel with merchants offering their wares in a strange tongue. The noise of the stone cutters and the smell of the tanneries overwhelmed Deane’s senses. He spent a few weeks in Bordeaux, hoping to purchase cloth, blankets, and other essentials for the army. He found some English-speakers among the prosperous merchants, especially in the Chartrons quarter, but generally, he avoided Englishmen. Goods were far more expensive than he expected, and he decided to wait until he reached Paris before procuring supplies. He wrote to Franklin’s contacts in France and England to inform them of his impending arrival in Paris.

  The three-hundred-mile journey by coach from Bordeaux to Paris took two weeks. The road was slow and bumpy and often crowded with peasants and soldiers. He passed majestic stone châteaux that glowed pink with the setting sun, and fields of gnarly vines submerged in a green sea of ripening grapes. The summer air seemed almost intoxicating. Each day, Deane’s excitement grew with the anticipation of meeting the French monarch and his court. As the coach lumbered north he watched peasants in the field bent over their crops, tending animals, and carrying firewood to their modest cottages. Deane’s carriage crossed a bridge over the clear rushing water of the Loire and entered the ancient Gallo-Roman city of Tours, where he stayed overnight. He saw the splendid gothic Cathedral Saint-Gatien in the center of town. The enormous stone façade seemed too massive to hold itself up. Inside, the damp cool air offered a welcome relief from a hot June afternoon. The scent of incense, the chanting of monks, and the gaudy display of gold and silver were unlike anything he had ever experienced. No Yankee Congregationalist could imagine praying in a church like that. Just outside the cathedral stood the skeletal ruins of a Roman fortress—a reminder of the impermanence of empires. For a man who had lived his whole life within the narrow circumference of colonial Connecticut surrounded by fellow Congregationalists, it must have felt both exhilarating and lonely to be in a place so remote and exotic.

  Finally, the moment came when Deane could make out a dark line at the horizon. “C’est-ça. Paris,” the coachman shouted. To the son of a Connecticut blacksmith who was once thrilled by the romantic notion of New Haven, Paris was mythic. As the coach approached the city, the road improved considerably. The clatter of wheels rumbled louder on stone pavement. The thin dark line at the edge of the horizon grew taller and wider. Spires soared overhead. The road widened and then narrowed as the carriage rumbled across a bridge.

  After nearly four months of travel, Deane at last arrived at the Porte d’Orlean gate to Paris on July 6. He had no idea that Congress had declared independence just days before, and that he was now the sole foreign representative of a new government. Not comprehending any French, he watched in puzzlement as the rude customs officials poked his few small bags with poles, searching for contraband. They did not discover his secret instructions hidden in a hollowed-out volume. He had left Philadelphia in a hurry with only the clothes he had brought with him to Congress the previous September. There had been no time to be fitted for a new suit in which to present himself to Louis XVI. Once inside the city gates, Deane continued to the Hôtel du Grand Villars at 31 rue Saint-Guillaume.

  Neither New York nor Philadelphia could rival the density or beauty of Paris. The street sounds of horses, carriages, church bells, and street hawkers enveloped him. The foul smell of humans living in close quarters mingled with the sweet aromas of bakeries and vegetable stalls. The city was glorious, filthy, refined, and disordered. The magnificent palaces and the elegance of the gardens contrasted markedly with the people he saw on the streets. Hungry men, women, and children stretched out their hands to passing carriages. Occasionally, Deane might glimpse through the window of a passing coach the profile of a woman powdered white as a ghost with a tower of hair adorned by gold brooches, diamond pins, feathers, or even small birds. Splendor took no notice of despair. Aristocrats seemed to inhabit another city entirely.

  Deane passed his first few days there in wonder, g
lorying in the magnificence and the strangeness of Paris. He took long walks, marveling at the strange foods and customs. He stammered a few phrases in French; merchants stared back, uncomprehending. He found a wine merchant and ordered one bottle of every varietal, curious to sample everything. (After a few weeks, he ordered only Burgundy.) He crossed to the Ile Saint-Louis and gazed at the boats as they passed under the arch of the Pont Neuf. The Seine was not nearly as broad or as fast-moving as the Connecticut River. He stood for a time admiring the rose window of Notre Dame and wished he could share this experience with someone.

  Deane found himself in peculiar circumstances, which, he thought “no man now living in Europe or America, and but few in any nation or age of the world, ever found themselves in.” It was not just that he lacked any rudimentary knowledge of French or diplomatic etiquette; he was an unofficial representative of a nonentity asking the French monarch for support against the British crown. Unaware that Congress had already declared independence, he felt obliged to state that he was a loyal subject of George III. “I could not therefore solicit for the aid which I was commissioned to procure from the court of Versailles on the ground of our having declared ourselves independent,” he later wrote, nor could he even suggest “our intentions to do so.” Instead, he was compelled to argue that no sovereign had the right to tax his subject without their consent and that the colonies had resorted to arms solely “to enable us to bring the King and Parliament of Great Britain to recede from these their unwarrantable claims, and to accede to reasonable terms of accommodation.” The awkwardness of this argument was apparent: the French king was unlikely to agree that discontented subjects had a natural right to rebel against their sovereign.

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