Unlikely allies, p.25

Unlikely Allies, page 25


Unlikely Allies

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  This blunder could have cost Gates victory were it not for the fact that Arnold was too audacious to be bullied by his commanding officer. Nearly all the general officers signed a petition asking General Arnold to stay, and so he did even though Gates had dismissed him. On the morning of October 7, as the British began their attack, General Gates was at breakfast. Arnold asked for permission to advance, and Gates refused him. As the battle unfolded Arnold raced to the front line, shouting at the men to follow him. Gates sent a messenger ordering him to return to camp, but Arnold ignored the order and drove his men right through Burgoyne’s line. The British beat a hasty retreat. Arnold would not quit. He charged forward in a storm of grapeshot with his men close behind. He was only stopped when his horse was shot and collapsed on him, breaking his leg. He had been shot and was bleeding heavily. By then the British forces were entirely surrounded, and the battle was over. Ten days later Burgoyne and nearly 6,000 British and Prussian troops surrendered with 42 cannons and nearly 7,000 muskets. Burgoyne was taken prisoner and later exchanged for 1,000 American prisoners of war.

  When he returned to London Burgoyne was harshly criticized for his military leadership, but, he found a more receptive audience in the theater. Like Beaumarchais, Burgoyne eventually triumphed as a comic playwright. The critic Horace Walpole wrote that “Burgoyne’s battles and speeches will be forgotten; but his delicious comedy of ‘The Heiress’ still continues to the delight of the stage.”

  SARATOGA WAS the Americans’ single greatest victory and the turning point of the Revolutionary War. After Saratoga, the Revolutionary War effectively ended in the northern states, and the British were confined to the South. Without the armaments sent from France, it would never have happened.

  The stunned commissioners wasted no time sending a message to Vergennes announcing the capture of Burgoyne and his army. They hoped that this was the moment that might finally persuade France to form an alliance. While the commissioners composed a letter asking Vergennes to meet with them as soon as possible, Beaumarchais took care of some personal business. He rushed back to Paris in his two-horse carriage apparently with the intention of profiting by dumping British bonds on the Paris stock exchange before the British defeat became widely known. Traveling at a reckless speed, the carriage hit a rock and overturned, nearly killing Beaumarchais. He suffered a serious concussion and lost so much blood that he was confined to bed for several days. Recuperating at home, Beaumarchais would not let the chance to influence the foreign minister pass. He wrote Vergennes that “The charming news from America spread a balm on my wound.” And he was now more hopeful that France would do the right thing: “[S]ome God whispers in my ear that the King will not let such auspicious events to be marred by a total desertion from the true friends of America.”

  Vergennes was listening to the same God. He sent his secretary Gérard to meet with the commissioners at Valentinois to discuss the possibility of an alliance, just forty-eight hours after Austin’s surprise announcement. The commissioners responded with two draft treaties based partly on the drafts submitted by Deane the previous year. First, there was a treaty of commerce to establish trade relations between the two countries. Second, there was a treaty of alliance pledging to provide military aid to the Americans. To avoid detection by the British, the commissioners met Vergennes a few days later at a private house outside Paris. The foreign minister warned them that France still would not act without Spain, and that they would require at least three weeks to send an envoy back and forth between Versailles and Madrid.

  The commissioners did not want to wait. They despaired that Spain could be persuaded to act and feared that the moment would pass if France did not commit itself at once. But at this moment luck favored the Americans.

  The British agent Paul Wentworth reentered the scene with a secret message for Silas Deane from the British foreign minister. Wentworth wrote to Deane that his hackney coach would be waiting for him the next morning at the gate to Passy. If Deane did not arrive there, Wentworth would look for him at the exhibition in the Luxembourg Gallery, and if they did not meet there, he would be waiting at the Poitevin Baths that evening at six. He would leave a note with the number of his room at the bathhouse. Deane hesitated. Although Franklin thought the bathhouse an ideal location for secret diplomatic negotiations, the venue was a bit too furtive for Deane’s tastes. Besides, Lee had forewarned him that Wentworth could not be trusted, and the British ambassador had already discussed the possibility of kidnapping Deane. With Franklin’s blessing, Deane responded that he would be at the flat he used in Paris at the Hôtel de Coislin, on the corner of the rue Royale and the Place Louis XV at ten the following morning and would be “glad to see anyone that has Business with Him” then.

  Wentworth and Deane met at least twice in Paris, but he made sure that Franklin and Lee were aware of these meetings. On one occasion Wentworth met Deane at the Café St. Honoré, where Deane was having breakfast with Lee and Franklin. Deane excused himself and left with the British agent. There was no question that Deane was behaving openly in front of his colleagues. Wentworth told him that the British government was ready to negotiate to restore the status quo ante 1763, allowing the Americans a full measure of home rule under the king. Wentworth offered Deane personal inducement—money, a title, and a government position—if he would help to effect an armistice to end the Revolution.

  Though Deane was undoubtedly offended by Wentworth’s clumsy attempt to buy his honor, he shrewdly played along—again, with Franklin’s blessing. Franklin also agreed to talk to Wentworth so long as he understood that Franklin would not entertain any offer of personal gain. (Wentworth didn’t even consider talking to his former roommate Lee.) Wentworth’s subsequent discussion with Franklin was not productive, and Wentworth was surprised by the intensity of Franklin’s bitterness toward Britain. He wished that he had a better read on what the commissioners were really thinking and how close they were to an agreement with France, but his sources were engaged elsewhere. Wentworth’s chief spy, Bancroft, was himself in London at this moment, trying to unload his government bonds before news of a Franco-American alliance was made public.

  It was fortunate that Bancroft was away. He might have warned Wentworth that Deane and Franklin were engaged in a clever deceit. They knew that wherever they went, Louis XVI had spies watching them. Louis would surely know that they were negotiating with the British. France did not want to act without Spain’s participation, but the commissioners expected that Spain would not act without France. The only way to induce the French to act was to convince them that the opportunity for defeating Great Britain was passing. Deane and Franklin were feigning interest in a negotiated settlement in order to spur France to action. Deane made sure that Beaumarchais dutifully informed Vergennes of the commissioners’ meetings with Wentworth. Beaumarchais urged Vergennes to act quickly before the Americans succumbed to negotiations with Britain.

  The ploy worked. Worried that the Americans were on the verge of a settlement, Vergennes persuaded his government to sign the treaties immediately in exchange for a promise that the Americans would never make a separate peace with Britain.

  Then, on the eve of the meeting of the French Cabinet to approve the two treaties, a new wrinkle appeared: Versailles learned that the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian Joseph, the duke who ruled Bavaria under the Holy Roman Empire, had died. There was no chosen successor, and the Austrian Hapsburgs now claimed Bavaria. Frederick the Great, the emperor of Prussia, was prepared to go to war to stop Austria. The Austrian emperor, Joseph II, brother of Marie Antoinette, expected his ally France to join with him in a war against Prussia at exactly the moment that France was committing to fight Britain.

  As usual, Louis XVI wavered. The king felt pulled by his obligation to his Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, and his ally Austria. Moreover, Austria could offer France a healthy slice of Flanders as a tempting inducement to fight Prussia. Britain hoped that France would indulge its natural appetite
for Flanders and be drawn into a costly war with Prussia, rather than form an alliance with the Americans.

  Vergennes, however, resisted temptation. Instead, he proposed that France mediate the dispute between Austria and Prussia. The Austrian emperor might have objected to mediation, except for the fact that he was now facing the risk of war with Russia as well. The Russian empress, Catherine the Great, sided with Prussia and sent 30,000 troops into Galicia to compel Austria to negotiate. As a consequence, Austria and Prussia agreed to mediation; the resulting peace agreement at Teschen averted war on the Continent and ensured that France could devote its full attention to defeating Britain in America.

  Once Louis XVI approved the alliance, Vergennes proceeded swiftly to conclude treaties of alliance and commerce with the commissioners. The terms of these treaties were very close to Deane’s original proposal in 1776. The treaty of commerce gave both countries the right to export goods to the other on the most favorable terms. The secret treaty establishing a military alliance provided that if France went to war with Britain, the two parties would not negotiate separately with Britain. France specifically agreed to renounce any future claim to Canada, while the Americans agreed to respect French sovereignty over the sugar islands in the West Indies. In addition, the French agreed to loan the Americans another three million livres (approximately $23 million today).

  The treaties were signed by all three commissioners on February 6, 1778, at a quiet ceremony in the foreign ministry at the Hôtel de Lautrec. Franklin put aside his customary brown jacket to wear a slightly threadbare blue velvet coat to the ceremony. Deane thought it odd that Franklin did not dress formally for the occasion and asked him about the worn jacket. Franklin explained that when he was the agent for Pennsylvania in London, he had worn the same coat on the day he was subjected to a humiliating inquiry by the British Parliament. Franklin explained that he wore the coat now “[t]o give it a little revenge.”

  The French intended to keep both treaties secret until they were ratified by both parties. It would take at least until late spring for the ratified treaties to be returned from America. (The ratified treaties were eventually exchanged at Versailles on July 17.) No matter what rumors circulated about these two treaties, the French government would deny everything. Still, the French had an obligation to inform their closest ally, Spain. The Spanish foreign minister, Floridablanca, was visibly angered when he learned that France had acted unilaterally. The British government learned about the treaties almost immediately, courtesy of Bancroft.

  Though the three commissioners signed the treaties, Lee was deeply conflicted about the treaties and showed it. First, he complained bitterly that Deane and Franklin had left him out of the negotiations, which was probably true. Later, he claimed that he had negotiated them essentially on his own. At the signing ceremony he squabbled with Deane. Lee insisted that he should sign the treaties twice—as the commissioner to Spain as well as France. Vergennes’s secretary Gérard settled the matter: one signature would be sufficient. Even after the signing, Lee was troubled. He secretly wrote to his close friend Lord Shelburne, a member of the prime minister’s cabinet, informing him about the treaties, in violation of the pledge to keep both treaties secret for the time being. Lee wrote to Shelburne that “If the old one [Britain] wishes to preserve some interest it should act without delay.” Apparently, Lee hoped that Shelburne would offer the commissioners a negotiated settlement with Britain to spare America from entering into an entangling alliance with France. By disclosing the treaty in this manner, Lee risked sabotaging the alliance at the outset.

  Deane realized that Lee and his allies in Congress might try to undermine the alliance with France. Seizing the opportunity, Deane pressed the foreign ministry to make the treaty public as a way of putting Britain on notice and making it harder for the Lee-Adams Junto to reverse course. On March 10, 1778, the French ambassador to London, Noailles, officially informed Lord Weymouth, the British secretary of state, of the treaty of commerce with the Americans. Even though Weymouth already had the complete texts of both treaties, he vented his outrage. France, he fumed, had insulted Britain by interfering in the American colonies in violation of treaty commitments. George III declared that the treaty was an act of aggression and recalled Ambassador Stormont from Paris. That was precisely the response that Vergennes had hoped to elicit from the British king, and he breathed a sigh of relief to be rid of Stormont and his incessant demands. Stormont left so quickly he had no time to pack all of his household goods. Instead, he placed an advertisement in the Paris papers, listing all the items for sale, including “A large quantity of table linen, which were never used.” The French joked that the thrifty ambassador had never used his tablecloths because he never fed anyone.

  Now that the treaty of commerce was no longer secret, Louis XVI felt that he could formally acknowledge the American emissaries. On the first day of spring, 1778, the commissioners arrived at the king’s apartments at Versailles. Deane and Lee wore the prescribed formal dress for the occasion; Franklin, however, insisted on wearing his trademark brown coat and white blouse to make a statement to the French monarch about American democratic values. Louis XVI, however, was even more casually attired than Franklin: the king received the commissioners in his dressing room at Versailles with a small circle of his ministers. The king did not look like he was ready to receive foreign dignitaries. His hair hung down undressed to his shoulders. In this intimate setting, the king told the commissioners, in French, that “I shall be very happy that Congress be assured of my friendship,” and then he left. The commissioners were somewhat bewildered by this display of informality. Lee was especially offended by the lack of dignity accorded to the Americans, but Franklin and Deane shrugged it off. Afterward, Foreign Minister Vergennes led the Americans past a cheering crowd to a formal luncheon in his apartments at the palace.

  For Silas Deane, this day was the crowning achievement of years of solitary and anxious effort. It was, he wrote to an associate, “a glorious day for America.” The alliance was secure. The French would soon be fighting side by side with the Americans. The Revolution would survive.



  Paris, March-April 1778

  Unfortunately, Deane could not linger long on his moment of triumph. A fortnight before the commissioners’ reception at Versailles, Deane had received a letter dated December 8 from the Committee of Foreign Affairs informing him that he was being recalled to Philadelphia. Congress had appointed John Adams to take his place. Deane showed the letter to Franklin. There was no explanation. None was needed. It was clear to Deane and Franklin that his recall was the consequence of Lee’s unrelenting attacks on Deane contained in Lee’s letters to his brothers and the growing influence of the Lee-Adams Junto in Congress. Neither Franklin nor Deane bothered to inform Lee that Deane had been recalled; they would not give Lee the satisfaction of knowing he had vanquished his rival.

  Ten days before his dressing-room audience with the king, Deane personally informed Vergennes’s secretary, Gérard, of his recall. Gérard was sorry to see Deane recalled, and he worried that the Lee-Adams Junto would try to undermine the alliance. Deane seized the opportunity to ask the foreign ministry to give the American navy ships to replace dozens of vessels lost to the British navy. After some discussion, the French Cabinet agreed to make the Americans a gift of an entire fleet of ships under the command of Vice-Admiral Comte d’Estaing. The fleet would bring Deane home triumphantly with an additional gesture of France’s recognition—the first French minister plenipotentiary to the Americans, Vergennes’s own secretary, Conrad-Alexandre Gérard. By sending Deane home with the French ambassador and a fleet of powerful warships, France was making a bold gesture of support for Deane in recognition of his singular role in forging the alliance.

  When Deane informed Beaumarchais of his recall, the Frenchman bitterly blamed Lee. Beaumarchais wrote to Vergennes that Lee had been jealous of Deane from the outset. From the first
time Beaumarchais had met Lee over dinner at the Lord Mayor’s mansion, Lee had made it clear that “His design has ever been to choose between France and England the power that would more surely promote his fortunes.” To that end, Lee needed to “dispose of a colleague so formidable, because of his intelligence and his patriotism, as Mr. Deane.”

  Beaumarchais also wrote to Congress in support of Deane. “I certify that if my zeal, my money advances and shipments of munitions and merchandise have been agreeable to the noble Congress, their gratitude is due to the indefatigable exertions of Mr. Deane throughout this commercial affair.” In the same letter, Beaumarchais exposed the inconsistencies in Lee’s allegations against Deane. First, Lee alleged that all the arms were a gift from France to America. Beaumarchais wrote Congress that he had coded letters in which Lee had first negotiated with Beaumarchais to send supplies to the Americans in exchange for top-quality Virginia tobacco. Second, Lee charged that Deane had abused his power by commissioning military officers over Lee’s objections. But Beaumarchais responded that Lee had written to Beaumarchais from London asking him to send engineers and military officers to aid the Americans. Beaumarchais’s conclusion was that Lee was simply lying to discredit Deane.

  Once Deane received Congress’s order to return to Philadelphia, both Deane and Franklin greeted Lee with silence. Franklin knew that Lee had conspired against both of them and wanted nothing to do with Lee. In response, Lee accused Franklin of trying to hide Deane’s recall from Louis XVI by not disclosing it prior to the king’s reception at Versailles. (Lee did not know that Deane had already been to see Gérard.) Franklin tried ignoring Lee, which agitated Lee even more. Lee blamed Franklin for keeping him in the dark about Deane’s recall, and even accused Franklin of intentionally misleading him. “Had you studied to deceive the most distrusted and dangerous enemy of the Public,” Lee wrote to Franklin, “you cou’d not have done it more effectually.” Lee insisted he had a right to know and that Franklin’s continued silence was an “indignity” and one of the “many affronts of this kind which you have thought proper to offer me.”

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