Unlikely allies, p.17

Unlikely Allies, page 17


Unlikely Allies

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  Dr. Bancroft arrived by coach at his townhouse at number 4 Downing Street on July 26. Deane would have been surprised by the elegant lifestyle that Bancroft enjoyed in London. Bancroft’s expenses far outstripped his income as an author or physician, so he supplemented his income by “stock-jobbing,” or speculating short-term in stocks. Through his friend Samuel Wharton, a very successful American financier, Bancroft had been involved in a number of speculative adventures with varying success. A few days after he returned to London, Bancroft saw Wharton and mentioned to him that perhaps some of the information provided by Deane about the progress of the Americans’ cause could be useful to Wharton’s investors. Wharton, indeed, thought that Bancroft’s intelligence on the negotiations between France and America could be a source of profit, and he agreed to pay Bancroft for this inside information.

  Bancroft also contacted his former patron from Guiana, Paul Wentworth. Bancroft thought that perhaps his information could be useful to Wentworth as well. Wentworth was very interested to hear Bancroft’s news of the arrival of Silas Deane and the willingness of the French to aid the Americans, and he had news of his own: Wentworth had taken a plum job in the foreign ministry, with a promise of a baronetcy, a seat in Parliament, and a position on a government board—if he performed well. Wentworth, who spoke flawless French, would be working for the British ambassador in Paris and hoped to see Bancroft there.

  A few weeks after Bancroft’s visit, Wentworth invited him to a private meeting with the British secretaries of state, Lords Weymouth and Suffolk. At the meeting Bancroft told them everything he knew about Deane’s commission and Deane’s meetings with Vergennes. He had written down a precise narrative of all his dealings with Deane, which he handed to the secretaries, who were delighted to receive a detailed account of the discussions between the American emissary and the French foreign minister. The precise dates and times of Deane’s meetings with Dubourg and Vergennes, as well as the substance of the conversations, were all recorded in Bancroft’s fluid hand. Bancroft said he was acting out of loyalty to the crown with no expectation of any financial reward. Lord Weymouth encouraged Bancroft to maintain his contacts with Deane, and he was prepared to pay him a generous salary for providing regular information on Deane’s activities. Bancroft cheerfully accepted. His British code name would be “Edward Edwards.”

  Thus, Edward Bancroft became a double agent. While Deane had agreed to pay him 300 pounds annually for information about British politics, the director of the Secret Service, William Eden, eventually offered Bancroft 500 pounds—later increased to 1,000 pounds annually (about $185,000 today) to report on Deane. Living well in London did not come cheap.

  Though Deane and Franklin always believed that their friend Bancroft was a true American patriot, they should have read to the end of his novel. At its conclusion, the hero, Charles Wentworth, vows never to revisit his native country. He declares, “I boast of no patriotism, which at best is but an extended selfishness.”

  With no genuine loyalty to any country, Bancroft was happy to spy for both the Americans and the British. His relationship to Franklin and Deane had created an opportunity for Bancroft both to profit personally and to determine the course of Anglo-American history. He was now the one person ideally situated to destroy Deane and prevent France from arming the Americans.



  Paris, July-August 1776

  Over the next six months, Deane and Beaumarchais would move heaven and earth to load eight ships with cannons, guns, ammunition, saltpeter, powder, cloth, blankets, shovels, tents, belt buckles, and boots. Wary that some of this cargo might be captured by the British, Deane exceeded his original instructions to supply 25,000 men and increased the amount by twenty percent. To hoard this quantity of supplies without directly raiding the French military or arousing too much suspicion required Rodriguez Hortalez to engage in a staggering number of small transactions. In Bordeaux, Beaumarchais purchased ships and some armaments from the nearby arsenal at Château-Trompette, but the French War Ministry objected, and it took many visits to Bordeaux to persuade them to release the guns. The 200 cannons Beaumarchais procured could not be shipped until the king’s coat of arms was carefully removed from each so that they could not be traced back to the French armory. The frustration of trying to obtain large quantities of military supplies without attracting attention tore at Beaumarchais. He complained that he was “sick at heart when I see how everything is going, or rather not going at all.” He was repeatedly forced to cancel contracts; find new suppliers; unravel one day’s work and start fresh. Exasperated by French bureaucracy, he fumed, “How quickly harm is done, how slow good is!”

  By August, Rodriguez Hortalez had purchased 200 tons of cannon powder, 20,000 guns, and an indeterminate number of brass mortars, bombs, cannonballs, bayonets, plates, cloth, linen, and lead. To add to the difficulty of moving this quantity of supplies from various locations to the ports at Le Havre and Nantes, they were hounded by British spies and French police every step of the way. Beaumarchais cautioned Deane that they must “slip between everyone’s fingers and not cause anyone to squeal.”

  Vergennes had warned Deane that he was being watched. Deane noticed when a gentleman followed him too closely along the quay or if a customer at his favorite wine merchant’s shop strained to overhear his conversation. Dr. Dubourg suggested that Deane disguise himself and change his name, but Deane thought that would only make him more suspicious. As a merchant he appreciated the importance of trading on one’s reputation. He could not expect other merchants to trust him if he appeared to be hiding something. It was not in his nature to suspect others or to behave suspiciously.

  Meanwhile, Vergennes vacillated under the stern warnings of the omnipresent British ambassador in Paris, Viscount David Murray Stormont. A commanding Scotsman with a mercurial temperament, Lord Stormont complained repeatedly to Vergennes that the peace between France and Britain was threatened by Frenchmen seeking to aid the American rebels. Vergennes vigorously denied any French involvement. The British ambassador knew that Vergennes was lying, but he presented no evidence to support his accusations, because he did not want to disclose his sources of information. Bancroft kept Stormont well informed about Deane’s relationship to Beaumarchais, and Beaumarchais’s well-financed new trading company. Stormont also suspected that Wilkes was somehow involved in the initial effort to establish the smuggling operation, and he probably knew of Arthur Lee’s involvement as well from Lee’s close friend Paul Wentworth. For the time being, Stormont thought it was useful to allow France to believe it had deceived Britain about its involvement with the Americans. “I must not appear to have the least suspicion since it is evidently wise to dissemble our knowledge of the duplicity of France,” Stormont wrote to the British secretary of state, Lord Weymouth. If he revealed all he knew, France “might at once throw off the mask which in the present Circumstance might have dangerous Consequences.” Stormont had resolved to meet France’s “deceit and artifice” with “seeming Credulity.”

  Beaumarchais went to great lengths to create the appearance that Rodriguez Hortalez was a serious trading company, while at the same time maintaining his own career as a playwright. He leased one of the grandest mansions in the Marais, at 47 rue Vieille-du-Temple, the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande. The magnificent baroque structure, built in 1660, had once been home to the Dutch ambassador. When Huguenots, like Beaumarchais’s family, were forbidden to worship in France in the early 1700s, the Dutch ambassador welcomed hordes of Protestants into his home to attend church services there. The sculptor Thomas Regnaudin carved the imposing outer doors with a terrifying head of Medusa, representing a shield against evil. Jean-Baptiste Corneille painted the rich murals in the main gallery that recounted the story of Psyche’s marriage to Cupid. The windows were modeled after the royal palace at Fontainebleau, and the inner doors were adorned by the sculptor Jacques Sarazin. No one would question the financial resources of
the firm of Rodriguez and Hortalez.

  Beaumarchais’s life was divided between his often frantic efforts to help the Americans and his life as a dramatist. He ran the arms business downstairs, in his ornate public rooms, while upstairs he found time to write a sequel to The Barber of Seville. In his new comedy, The Marriage of Figaro, a comte covets the fiancée of his servant Figaro. The wily Figaro outwits the comte by disguising another man as his fiancée. At one point the hapless comte, recently appointed ambassador to London, admits to his wife that “We men think we know something of dissimulation, but we are only children.” Women would make better diplomats, the comte concedes, because they are so much better at “the art of controlling their demeanor.” (Beaumarchais may have been poking fun at the Chevalière d’Eon; Beaumarchais knew from personal experience just how effective a woman could be as a cross-dressing emissary.)

  Deane and Beaumarchais felt increasingly isolated and dependent on each other. Deane knew that spies might at any moment seize or murder him. Indeed, Ambassador Stormont had already proposed to Lord Weymouth that the British should kidnap Deane. He avoided all English-speakers—they might be British agents—yet he could barely speak any French. “[H]e is the most silent man in France, for I defy him to say six consecutive words before Frenchmen,” Beaumarchais joked to Vergennes. With Beaumarchais’s secretary acting as their translator, the two partners conferred regularly in Beaumarchais’s elaborate dining room over a simple lunch of fish soup. While Deane worried for his physical safety and liberty, Beaumarchais worried about his rapidly depleting finances. What could Beaumarchais tell the French government when it demanded repayment of its loan, which had grown to three million livres? Beaumarchais unburdened himself to Deane: “[P]ray the wind to blow toward us over a few tobacco loads, for I shall be broke.”

  The two men became good friends over the succeeding months. Both were hard-working and ambitious entrepreneurs endowed with sufficient charm to rise past their social betters. Though Deane could not understand French dialogue, he would have appreciated Beaumarchais’s literary talent. Beaumarchais, in turn, respected Deane’s character and appreciated his business and political acumen. Beaumarchais and Deane both understood that each needed the other to vindicate themselves in the judgment of their respective governments. Most important, they shared a passionate commitment to a single purpose: American independence.

  AMONG OTHER OBSTACLES in both men’s way stood Dr. Dubourg. He continued to object to Beaumarchais’s involvement with the Americans and spread rumors that Beaumarchais was amoral and unqualified to handle business matters. Beaumarchais accused Dubourg of trying to profit from the Americans and warned Vergennes that Dubourg was a “deadly scatterbrain,” whose bumbling indiscretions jeopardized the secrecy of the whole operation. He even threatened to punch the venerable doctor. When Dubourg wrote to Vergennes, accusing Beaumarchais of living beyond his means with several much younger women, Beaumarchais retorted sarcastically:

  The women I’ve been keeping for twenty years . . . I have only three to keep now, two sisters and my niece, which is still quite an extravagance for a fellow like myself. But what would you have said, if, knowing me better than you do, you had been aware that I was scandalous to the point of keeping men as well—two pretty young nephews and even the poor father of so scandalous a pimp? And my ostentation is even worse. For the past three years, believing lace and embroidery to be too paltry for my vanity, I have been arrogant enough to adorn my wrists with the finest plain muslin!

  Vergennes’s secretary, Gérard, decided to intervene and invited Dubourg, Deane, and Beaumarchais to a meeting in Versailles. There Gérard made it plain, on behalf of Vergennes, that Deane could rely on whatever Beaumarchais said. Dubourg was chastened, and Beaumarchais was satisfied. At the same meeting, Gérard warned both Deane and Beaumarchais that Arthur Lee had disclosed too much about Beaumarchais’s operations to Comte de Lauraguais, who was notoriously indiscreet. It was reported that the unreliable Lauraguais had been back in Paris asking people about Deane and had returned to London to share this information with his friends. After this meeting, Deane wrote to Lee to warn him against any further dealings with the loose-lipped comte. Deane explained that he was now working with Beaumarchais and that the French foreign minister was concerned by Lee’s involvement with Lauraguais.

  Arthur Lee was furious. Beaumarchais and Lee had an arrangement; how was it possible that Beaumarchais was now working exclusively with Deane? Beaumarchais had written using Lee’s pseudonym, “Mary Johnson,” several times in June and July to confirm the details of the smuggling operation, and yet behind Lee’s back he was dealing with this Connecticut shopkeeper. Deane’s letter triggered Lee’s fury. Lee wanted to rush to Paris and confront Beaumarchais, but he was afraid that if he left London suddenly, he would arouse further suspicion. Lee wrote to Deane, whom he did not know, and directed him to arrange at once for a private flat—not one of those public hotels, where he might be noticed. He would be traveling under the pseudonym “Mr. Johnson.” (Apparently, like her friend d’Eon, “Mary Johnson” switched her gender when necessary.) Deane knew that all Englishmen and Americans were carefully watched from the moment they arrived in France. Using an assumed name would only serve to confirm in the mind of the British ambassador that Lee was acting strangely.

  Lee was a slave to his own neuroses. He spotted enemies in every corner. He kept a list of prominent Americans, including members of the Continental Congress, whom he suspected of disloyalty to the American cause. He had only recently added to this list Paul Wentworth, in whose home Lee had lived for some time in London and in whom Lee had almost certainly confided all the details of his relationship to Beaumarchais. He was so confident of his own righteousness that anyone who disappointed or slighted him must assuredly be a traitor to his country.

  Lee’s overreaction to Beaumarchais’s reneging on their deal was a sign of what was to come. Something in Lee’s mind had snapped. “The scale is coming so near to a ballance that a little treachery may turn it to our destruction, and the ruin of public Liberty,” Lee warned darkly in a letter to Deane.

  Deane was a tolerant man. (After all, he even forgave his colleague Roger Sherman for all the trouble he had caused Deane in Congress.) But nothing offended Deane more than Lee’s accusations against the men Deane had served with in Congress. Without evidence—or even a particular allegation—Lee asked Deane to write to Congress to inform them that certain delegates were traitors to the American cause. Lee’s allegations were reckless and untrue, but if they were believed, these delegates might be hung for treason. Struggling to control his outrage, Deane informed Lee plainly that he would not become “a second hand accuser of men of Character.” When he received this response, Lee inferred that Deane, too, must somehow be part of a wider conspiracy. Lee came to view Deane either as a mere creature of Dr. Franklin’s nefarious designs or as the cat’s paw of the French government.

  Deane had little patience or time to worry about Lee’s feelings. Though he had not received any formal instructions from the Continental Congress for months, he was still the sole emissary representing Congress, and he was compelled to mediate his way through the exotic politics of Versailles while seeking financial assistance from other European governments. At the same time, he had a long list of items to purchase, not merely arms, but all the pots and pans, flints, matches, tents, shovels, linen, blankets, shoes, socks, caps, buttons, and handkerchiefs that an army requires. To complicate matters further, he was still charged by the Secret Committee with buying goods for trade with the Indian tribes, and he had his own trading business with Robert Morris to juggle. On the same day that Deane was buying and shipping saltpeter and sulfur to Washington’s army, he was also importing flour to Portugal, exporting cloth for the Indians, and sending large orders of oil, capers, olives, and claret to Morris’s customers in Philadelphia. All these exchanges were recorded in the same account books, so that Deane could disguise his secret mission, as he ha
d been instructed by the Secret Committee.

  Deane made sure that if his account books ever fell into the hands of the British, they would not be able to untangle the web of transactions that he was weaving. That was the beginning of his undoing.



  Paris, August-October 1776

  July 1776 passed with no word from Congress since the May 15 resolution. Deane was worried by the progress of the war, and he was unsure how to conduct himself. No one in Europe yet knew that the Americans had declared independence. The Secret Committee had not yet received word that Deane had reached Paris, so the delegates had no idea that already there were plans to send six ships loaded with supplies in the coming months. Deane tried to focus his mind to the task of persuading France to form an alliance with the Americans. To that end, he drafted a long and thoughtful memorandum on the commercial opportunities for France that would follow from diplomatic recognition and a military alliance. In truth, Deane was improvising while he waited for a ship to arrive with some message from Congress.

  On Saturday, August 17, Beaumarchais had a dinner at his home for Deane, Deane’s newly hired personal secretary, the American William Carmichael, and two French military experts, Colonel Tronson du Coudray and General Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval. The Paris newspapers were finally reporting that the Continental Congress had declared independence from Great Britain. Unable to read French himself, Deane would have been among the last in Paris to hear that he was now the de facto emissary of a new country. Though he had long anticipated this moment, Deane was dumbstruck. He had not received any instructions or news from the Secret Committee since his arrival six weeks earlier. Now his situation had become even more awkward. Shouldn’t he have informed Louis XVI personally? He did not even have the text of the Declaration to deliver to Versailles. Was it possible that Congress had forgotten him? Or was another emissary en route to replace him?

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