Unlikely allies, p.2

Unlikely Allies, page 2

 

Unlikely Allies
 



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  Deane’s lively intellect quickly impressed his tutors. He excelled in all subjects, but was especially distinguished in Latin. At his graduation, in 1758, he won a fellowship to continue his studies at Yale toward a master’s degree in theology, which he completed in 1760. Unlike many of his classmates, Deane chose not to pursue a career as a clergyman. Greek, Latin, and metaphysics all interested him, but “there should be a due Limit set to these Inquiries,” as one of his textbooks counseled. “[A] Genius of active Curiosity may waste too many hours in the more abstruse Parts of these Subjects, which God and his Country demand to be apply’d to the Studies of the Law.” Deane embraced this advice and decided to read for the bar.

  While studying the law, Deane earned a living as a schoolteacher in Hartford, the bustling capital of the colony. Hartford was growing rapidly as a gateway to western New England. Sloops navigated up the Connecticut River, carrying cloth, spice, saltpeter, tea, molasses, sugar, wine, and slaves, and returned downstream laden with timber, barrel staves, horses, rum, apples, salted fish, pork, flour, corn, and rye, bound for markets in the West Indies and Europe. Rich merchants built large houses along the leafy bank of the Connecticut River, which wound magisterially through town. Deane had never seen so much wealth before. His training in theology had not extinguished a desire for material success. Walking along the river, Deane envied the fine houses of the “River Gods.” The humble life of a schoolmaster could not satisfy his desire for greater wealth and social standing.

  IN 1761, Deane entered the Connecticut bar and opened a law office in Wethersfield, a few miles downriver from Hartford. Wethersfield’s prosperous merchants and farmers needed lawyers to settle debts, transfer property, and draft wills, and there were few other lawyers around. Deane’s law office was centrally located, opposite the commons, in a small wooden building. Just up the street from his law office was a handsome white Congregational meetinghouse recently completed and Joseph Webb’s feed and dry goods store, housed in a large whitewashed building.

  Joseph Webb was one of Deane’s first clients. He lived in the biggest and most stylish Georgian house on the town commons, diagonally across from the store and Deane’s law office. Webb enjoyed a monopoly in town. As Wethersfield grew, so did his dry goods business. Now old and ailing, Webb retained Deane to draft his will, and he died just months later. The will named Deane as executor of the estate, and in that capacity, Deane became a frequent visitor to Webb’s widow, Mehitabel, who had inherited her husband’s profitable business. Mehitabel was five years senior to Deane and looked even older, with an angular face and severe features. At twenty-six, Deane was a well-mannered gentleman of average build, boyishly handsome with flashing dark eyes, auburn hair, a high forehead, delicate features, and a strong chin. The widow Webb found Deane’s confident presence reassuring and welcomed his visits, which gradually increased in length. Despite her plain face, age, and a brood of six children, Silas found much to admire in the rich widow.

  WITHIN A YEAR OF Joseph’s passing, Mehitabel was pregnant with Deane’s child, and they quickly married. Eight months later, Mehitabel bore Deane a son, Jesse. Jesse, who would be Deane’s only child, suffered from several diseases, including rickets, in his infancy, and, as a consequence, developed numerous infirmities throughout his life. His body was contorted and covered with ulcerations. His mind and speech were slow, and he remained dependent on his family throughout much of his life. Life in colonial New England was difficult enough for the able-bodied; a child who was physically and mentally disabled was considered a drain on society, and his disability was often viewed as divine retribution. Surely, a child who did not have the capacity to comprehend Scripture could not be redeemed.

  Deane closed his modest law practice to devote himself to managing the Webb store. The dry goods business operated like a full-scale department store, but without a distribution network, reliable suppliers, or a medium of exchange. The store typically carried a huge assortment of whatever goods were obtainable at a given time. These might include glassware, pewter, furniture, tools, linen, wool, warming pans, baskets, sugar, tobacco, flour, horses, cattle, books, lumber, seeds, feed, lanterns, saddles, and wigs. Hard currency, such as gold or silver coins, was scarce, and the colonial economy largely depended upon barter. Deane’s customers would often buy items on credit. All these transactions would be recorded in his account books. At a later time, customers settled their accounts by barter. A customer who bought fabric and saddles might pay off his account by exchanging a quantity of tobacco and pork. When someone died or left town, all the merchants would have to reconcile their accounts together—exchanging hats for feed and pigs for wool. It was a cumbersome way to do business that relied on the expectation that neighbors would honor their debts to other neighbors.

  With Deane in charge of the Webb business, it grew quickly. He saw the opportunity to expand it by trading with the West Indies. He purchased his own sloop for importing and exporting goods to the Caribbean. He also invested in marine insurance contracts, betting on the probability that a given vessel would be lost at sea. Soon Deane’s success eclipsed Joseph Webb’s, and he became one of the wealthiest men in Wethersfield.

  AT HOME, his family of nine, plus five slaves, fit comfortably enough in their spacious home, but it still felt like Joseph Webb’s house. Deane wanted a home of his own. He yearned for recognition for his business acumen. After all, he had not simply married wealth; he had expanded and diversified the business. Deane wanted the attention of the River Gods, whose houses he had once envied.

  There was a lot adjacent to Webb’s house, and on it Deane designed an even grander house. Unlike his neighbors’ houses, which were nearly identical Georgian colonials, Deane’s would be asymmetrical, in the style of a French colonial, with an above-ground basement, exterior stairs, and a large front porch. It had a grand entry hall with a ceiling higher than in any private home in Wethersfield, a sweeping staircase, and a fine parlor with a brownstone fireplace. The kitchen was especially large, with a capacious fireplace that could roast several pigs and turkeys at the same time, and a wide sink nearly large enough to bathe in. The adjoining dining room, with its elegantly painted floor, faced the old Webb house across the yard, which Deane kept for the three older children and some of the slaves Mehitabel had inherited. Upstairs was a large library. When the furniture was moved out and the carpets were rolled up, it could be used for dancing. There were cozy bedrooms for the master, the four youngest children, and a few of the house slaves.

  Deane was a gracious host, and he filled his home with warmth and gaiety. Guests enjoyed an abundance of food and drink, lively music, and imported furniture. He developed expensive tastes and dressed fashionably. His reputation in this quiet Congregationalist town grew in proportion to his wealth. Probably, he attracted envy. Perhaps some of the townspeople questioned his extravagance, but none doubted that Deane could afford it.

  MEHITABEL DIED OF CONSUMPTION only four years after they were married, leaving Deane with a booming business and seven young children, six not his own. By then he had assumed a leading role in the town government and church. Membership in the First Congregational Church was highly selective and the process for joining the congregation was both intensely emotional and proba tive. Deane was required to profess his conversion before the congregation and submit to cross-examination by the members who would have to judge if he were one of God’s elect. It was not enough to state that you had accepted Christ or that you performed good acts. Deane was compelled to present convincing evidence that he was destined for the Kingdom of Heaven. Only a truly godly man, a “real saint,” one who was “regenerated,” would be accepted into the congregation and allowed to receive communion at the Lord’s supper. Deane’s admission into the congregation was both a sign of his own deeply held religious convictions and of the congregation’s judgment of his character.

  WITHIN A FEW MONTHS OF Mehitabel’s death, Deane met another recent widow, Elizabeth Saltonstall. She was
a shy, good-natured woman and the granddaughter of the colony’s former royal governor, Gurdon Saltonstall. Her family was well established in New England. Elizabeth was fascinated by this fashionable social upstart with his stylish home and his charming manner. Within the year, Elizabeth wed Silas. With this marriage Deane sealed his social position. He now possessed both wealth and a link to one of New England’s most esteemed families. Deane marveled at all that Providence had bestowed upon him.

  His commercial interests gradually drew him into politics. Merchants like Deane relied on Britain for nearly all of their manufactured products. They exported cheap raw materials like tobacco, timber, and cotton to Britain and imported more expensive products like guns, cloth, and saltpeter. The British had long regulated trade with its colonies through the Navigation Acts, but these acts were only loosely enforced, and the regulations benefited some American producers, while they burdened others. British customs officers often winked at American smuggling. The British recognized that so long as they did not interfere too much in the American colonies, the colonists would remain loyal subjects. This was the policy that Edmund Burke famously described as “salutary neglect.”

  All that began to change after Britain’s victory in the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763. Having pushed France out of North America, Britain now imposed new restrictions on American trade in order to squeeze more profits out of its colonies. Britain prohibited merchants like Deane from purchasing imports of certain commodities, like tea, from any other country, and also required that certain exports, like tobacco, could only be shipped to Britain.

  The other major irritant to American merchants was British taxation. Britain’s victory over France had left Britain with a staggering war debt of about 137 million pounds (roughly $25 billion in today’s money). The annual interest on this debt alone accounted for more than sixty percent of the British government’s total annual budget. Moreover, after the war, the British decided to maintain a permanent military presence in North America. The North American commander-in-chief, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, told Parliament that he would need 10,000 troops to secure the colonies, and the annual cost of this standing army would exceed 300,000 pounds (roughly $56 million in today’s money). British taxpayers were loath to pay higher taxes to protect the colonists thousands of miles across the ocean, and, quite naturally, the British expected colonists to contribute to their own security.

  Parliament enacted a series of new tariffs and taxes on the Americans to increase revenues. First, the Sugar Act of 1764 imposed some new tariffs on sugar, coffee, wine, indigo, and textiles, while tightening customs enforcement to prevent smugglers from evading tariffs. The following year, Parliament adopted the Stamp Act, which taxed all printed materials and most paper. This was the first time Parliament had directly taxed Americans without the consent of the colonial assemblies. Colonists protested that Parliament did not have the authority to impose taxes on them without the consent of the colonial assemblies, and eventually Parliament repealed the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, but it continued to insist it had the power to tax the colonies. Then, in 1767, Parliament adopted the Townshend Revenue Acts, which imposed tariffs on a range of products, including tea, glass, lead, paper, and paint.

  In response to each of these measures, merchants, like Deane, throughout the colonies began organizing committees to protest British taxes and trade regulations. They signed nonimportation agreements pledging to boycott British goods. The nonimportation movement was the first widespread consumer boycott in history, and it was remarkably effective. As a result of the American boycott, the British government raised less than 21,000 pounds in revenue from the Townshend duties, but British businesses lost 700,000 pounds in exports to the American colonies. More importantly, the nonimportation movement united the colonies for the first time in opposition to Parliament, and it brought a new class of American merchants to political prominence.

  Following the enactment of the Townshend duties, the citizens of Wethersfield gathered at the Congregational meetinghouse on the town commons on Christmas Day, 1769. It was the day after Deane’s thirty-second birthday. As the largest merchant in the town, Deane stood up and urged his fellow townsmen to pass a resolution condemning British taxes as “unconstitutional, offensive, and tending to that total subversion of the liberties of his Majesty’s subjects in America.” By an overwhelming vote, the men of Wethersfield agreed. They resolved not to buy any goods from Great Britain until the British measures were repealed, and they appointed Deane to the local Committee of Correspondence to consult with neighboring towns on measures for the defense of their liberties. These Committees of Correspondence formed a resistance movement against oppressive British policies throughout the American colonies.

  Sitting in the meetinghouse that day, Deane must have experienced an enormous rush of pride. He had become a well-respected leader in his community and an elected representative in a movement that had continental ambitions. The possibilities before him seemed intoxicating. As he prepared to enter colonial politics he surely must have recalled an essay he had written years earlier as a sophomore at Yale College. The essay won the Latin prize and was a great source of pride to him. The president of Yale was sufficiently impressed by it that he promised to preserve it in perpetuity in the Yale library. In his elegant script the young scholar began by quoting from one of Cato’s Distichs: “Nulli tacuisse nocet, nocet esse locutum.” (“Silence harms no one; it is harmful, instead, to speak.”) In a democracy Deane argued, men who are tempted to enter politics are fools and a danger to the commonwealth. The wise man should instead beware of “the deceits of the human heart.” For this reason, “True safety lies in silence.” As Deane now assumed a leadership role in Connecticut, his destiny would be an object lesson in the wisdom of this advice.

  CARON DE BEAUMARCHAIS

  Copyright Collections de la Comédie-Française

  Photograph © Patrick Lorette

  Reproduced with generous permission

  from the Comédie-Française

  TWO

  THE PLAYWRIGHT

  Paris, 1767

  The audience began booing before the curtain descended. Angry painted faces with hair stacked like wedding cakes, men and women—stuffed into heavy gold embroidery, silk, linen, ruffles, and lace—snarled like wild dogs. The play, which opened in Paris at the Comédie-Française on January 29, 1767, closed the same night. Despite a talented cast, the first performance of Eugénie was long, overwrought, and too controversial for the audience. One vicious critic hissed that the playwright, a young man named Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, “will never achieve anything, not even mediocrity.”

  That was untrue. Beaumarchais had already written one moderately successful comedy, a short sketch called The Barber of Seville. Eugénie was his first attempt at a serious full-length drama, and the criticism stung him deeply. He had labored for eight years on the script, and he had taken command of every detail of the performance, staging, and lighting. He had even designed and built new equipment for moving scenery. Still, the fact remained that his play was a flop, and at thirty-four, though he had done many things, he had not yet found his true calling.

  Beaumarchais was a man blessed with many talents, but cursed with a restless mind that never found true contentment in any of his accomplishments. From an early age, Beaumarchais, born Pierre-Augustin de Caron, displayed a genius for music, but at thirteen Pierre-Augustin began working as an apprentice to his father, a modest watchmaker on the bustling rue Saint-Denis in Paris. Possessing a sharp mind and the discipline necessary for detailed work, Pierre-Augustin excelled as a watchmaker’s apprentice. With his fine fingers, accustomed to playing viol, guitar, harp, and flute, he had extraordinary dexterity, which enabled him to work on very small watches. The same creative passion that inspired him musically, also sparked his inventiveness. He tinkered with watches, trying to find ways to improve the precision of timekeeping. One might expect that a serious young man obsessed wi
th mastering music and learning the solitary craft of watchmaking would be awkward socially. To the contrary. People quickly took to the young man with his witty conversation, physical grace, and almost feminine beauty.

  At the age of twenty-two, Pierre-Augustin Caron revolutionized timekeeping. He designed a radically new escapement—the device that regulates the movement of a clock. Before Caron, watches were spherical and awkward to strap onto a wrist. Caron’s escapement kept time more accurately and made it possible for a watch to lie flat against the wrist. If he accomplished nothing else in his life, he would be remembered for the Caron escapement, which is still used today.

  The young Caron proudly showed his design to the king’s watchmaker, Jean André Lepaute. Lepaute was impressed enough to submit the design to the French Academy of Sciences as his own. Caron might never have learned that Lepaute had stolen his invention except that the design sparked so much interest that a Paris newspaper, the Mercure de France, reported that Lepaute had invented a new watch. As bold as he was ingenious, the twenty-two-year-old wrote to the Academy and to the Mercure de France, exposing Lepaute’s fraud. The Royal Academy was persuaded by Caron and declared that Caron’s escapement “is in watches the most perfect that has been produced, although it is the most difficult to execute.” He won both the patent and considerable public acclaim for his genius. His bold move pushed Pierre-Augustin Caron onto the public stage for the first time.

  Caron’s defiance and brilliance also won him the attention of Louis XV. In 1754, he was invited to Versailles to meet the king, who was fascinated by the young man and commissioned a watch for himself and the tiniest watch possible for the dainty wrist of his powerful mistress, Madame de Pompadour. For her, Caron disguised her watch within a ring for her small finger. She was delighted. Soon, all of the king’s ministers were ordering watches from Caron, who replaced the disgraced Lepaute as the king’s watchmaker.

 

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