One of the arguments for declaring independence in July, 1776 was the hope of encouraging foreign assistance for the war effort. Since local production in America would never meet demand, Congress would have to make alliances overseas that would facilitate an international arms trade. The problem with that was that any country that would engage in such a trade would incur the wrath of Britain and would likely have to go to war with Britain.
|King Louis XVI of France |
Back in March 1776 Congress sent Silas Deane to France to see what he could do about a French alliance, see Episode 83. Deane had been a delegate from Connecticut to the Continental Congress, but did not speak French, and had never been to Europe before. I’m not even sure if he had ever left the colonies. Dean was the son of a blacksmith. He received a good education, well as good as you can get from a local school like Yale College, and became a lawyer. He married the widow of a wealthy trader, which may have given him the opportunity to travel to the West Indies. But he had no diplomatic experience nor much of any idea how he was going to sail across the Atlantic Ocean and convince the King of France to form an alliance and support American independence.
Fortunately for Deane, others had already been reaching out to France and getting the Ministry at Versailles to start thinking about what it could do to make Britain’s situation more miserable in America. Arthur Lee was a Virginian who had lived much of his adult life in Britain, actually much of his childhood too since he got shipped off to British boarding school at age eleven. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and studied law in London. He had been practicing law in London since about 1770.
|Arthur Lee |
(from Stratford Hall)
Arthur had a legal practice in London. He had been an outspoken advocate for colonial rights in the years leading up to the war. He wrote radical articles, not only about colonial rights but also as an anti-slavery advocate. Lee had become involved with the Committees of Correspondence, writing regularly to Samuel Adams in the years leading up to the war, providing information on how London was reacting to colonial resistance. Lee also knew Benjamin Franklin before Franklin returned to America in 1775.
Despite his pedigree, Arthur Lee had a proclivity for paranoia and backstabbing. Part of this may have been from the fact that his older brothers had cheated him out of his inheritance when his father died while he was still a child. Lee still had a working relationship with his powerful and influential brothers, but he developed a cynicism at an early age that everyone is out for themselves, and you should probably screw others before they can screw you.
Although Franklin went out of his way to assist Lee with his career in London, Lee never appeared to trust, nor even respect Franklin. Instead, he seemed to want to trample over Franklin and push him out of the way. Franklin held several colonial representative positions in London that Lee wanted for himself. When Franklin returned to America, Lee took over many of these roles and took an active role courting other Englishmen in support of protecting colonial rights.
In early 1775, Lee had attended a dinner party at John Wilkes’ home. Recall that Wilkes was a radical Whig, on bad terms with the King and strong supporter of colonial rights. He did have a popular following in Britain and was at the time Lord Mayor of London. At Wilkes’ dinner party Lee met the French playwright Pierre-Augustin de Caron, better known by his stage name, Beaumarchais. The party happened shortly after word of Lexington and Concord had reached London. The outbreak of a shooting war in New England was a hot topic of conversation.
|Pierre Beaumarchais |
Beaumarchais had led the life of a french aristocrat wannabe who never quite made it. He had been a tutor to King Louis XV daughters and used that relationship to become close to a wealthy man of influence named Joseph Paris-Duverney. Paris Duverney had been a successful arms merchant. The two men formed a close relationship. Some evidence indicates they were homosexual lovers, even though Paris-Duverney was about 50 years older than Beaumarchais.
After the death of Paris-Duverney in 1770, Beaumarchais found himself the subject of lawsuits and criminal prosecution for fraud. At the time, of course, France did not recognize homosexual relationships. Paris-Duverney had given many gifts to Beaumarchais that were hard to explain outside of such a relationship. Beaumarchais could not reveal such a relationship as homosexual activity was a capital offense in France at the time. As a result, Beaumarchais did not receive any of the estate and actually had to give back many of the gifts he had received. In 1775, he hoped to get back in the King’s favor by helping the King with the transgender spy d’Eon who was in London threatening to release documents that might bring Britain and France into another war. That was how Beaumarchais found himself in London, having dinner with Arthur Lee at the home of John Wilkes.
It was during that effort that Beaumarchais met Arthur Lee in London. The two men immediately began working out a plan to funnel arms covertly from France to America. Neither man seemed concerned with the fact that neither had any authorization from his country to do anything. Lee considered himself a secret agent working on behalf of the Continental Congress. In fact, Congress had done nothing more than send him a letter asking if there were others in London friendly to the cause with whom they should correspond. Beaumarchais only had a very unofficial and covert request from the French ministry to deal with the d’Eon matter before it became a public scandal, nothing more. But unofficially, Lee had close connections with the Continental Congress, and Beaumarchais was an experienced arms dealer with at least some contacts in the French foreign ministry.
|Chevalier D'Eon |
The two men began working out plans to create a private company in France that would purchase arms, then smuggle them across the Atlantic to the Continental Army. America would pay for the arms with Virginia tobacco. Both men also seemed to think they would make a fortune in commissions from these transactions.
Their secret plans did not remain secret very long. Although Arthur Lee tended to be very paranoid, one of the few men he took into his confidence was a man named Paul Wentworth, who seems to have made a living as a con man. Wentworth almost immediately sold information of this deal to the British ministry, meaning London knew about the plot before anyone in Philadelphia or Versailles knew about it. The British did not break up the cabal though. Instead, they continued to use Wentworth as their inside man so that they could keep tabs on what was happening.
For much of the next year, Lee and Beaumarchais continued their talks, hatching plans to covertly trade arms for tobacco, making both of them rich. Beaumarchais began lobbying the French Ministry in Versailles, excited at the idea of getting in on the ground floor of a major covert arms operation. All he had to do was convince his government to start a major covert arms operation and make him the key figure to run it. He began by sending several proposals to King Louis.
Beaumarchais argued that France had a self interest in supporting the colonial rebellion in America. At the time, the rebellion had become a major distraction for Britain. But eventually, one of three things would happen, either Britain would crush the rebellion and then have more time, money, and resources to capture more French colonies in the West Indies. A cash strapped Britain needed these colonies to pay off its debts from the French and Indian War. A second possibility was that Britain and its colonies would come to a settlement, in which case their combined military power could be used to take French colonies in the West Indies. If a settlement with the North American colonies meant Britain could not raise revenue there, they could raise it by exploiting former French colonies in the West Indies. Third, and this was the least likely, the colonies could win independence, in which case they would become a new power in America that could also threaten, you guessed it, the French colonies in the West Indies.
Therefore, it was in France’s best interest to keep the dispute between Britain and its American colonies going as long as possible. This would divert British attention, and resources toward securing the North American colonies and not give it time or resources to think about acquiring others. An extended rebellion lasting years would weaken Britain and improve France's relative position against its age-old enemy.
On the other hand, if Britain found out that France was meddling in this rebellion, it would consider that an act of war. Britain and France would find themselves in yet another expensive war. Britain could use that war as an excuse to seize more French colonies in the West Indies. France really did not want to start another war. But, if they could provide a little assistance in secret, it could keep Britain distracted, which would be to France’s benefit.
|comte de Vergennes|
Even if cautious, Vergennes saw the possible benefits of distracting Britain in an ongoing rebellion. Recall that in late 1775, Vergennes had very quietly sent Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir to Philadelphia to speak very unofficially with the Continental Congress and get an idea what was going on there. I discussed this in more detail back in Episode 71.
Vergennes received inflated reports from both Bonvouloir and Beaumarchais that Washington had amassed an army of nearly 40,000, with thousands more militia available to back him up. Of course, Washington had nowhere near those numbers, but since Vergennes had nothing else to go on, he saw the rebellion as a credible problem for the British.
In March 1776, Vergennes began to raise the issue with the King and other top officials. Small amounts of aid that could not be traced back to the France government might prolong the rebellion and weaken Britain. France had already begun rebuilding its army and navy, but was not ready for war now. At some point, war with Britain was inevitable, but the American distraction could delay that war and could also weaken Britain when war finally came.
Roderigue Hortalez & Company
After some debate, King Louis decided in May to provide some covert assistance. Beaumarchais created a trading company called Roderigue Hortalez & Company. This would be a front for the covert arms smuggling that France was considering. Vergennes had convinced the King that it was in France’s interest to prolong the fighting in America in order to sap the military and economic strength of Britain. France had no interest in American independence, and certainly did not want to promote the idea that it was okay for subjects to engage in armed rebellion against a King if they did not like his policies. But if America became more of a distraction for the British over the next few years, that would be just fine.
The French ministry indirectly gave 1 million livres (about $8 million in modern inflation adjusted currency) to the Roderigue Hortalez & Company. Later, they would get the King of Spain to kick in another million, and would raise a third million from private investors. Beaumarchais would use about half the money to purchase used arms all over Europe and used the other half to establish credit for the Americans. When America shipped tobacco in exchange, the money would be repaid and returned to the various investors.
Deane Arrives in France
All of this was already in play before anyone in Europe even knew that Silas Deane was still slowly making his way across the Atlantic. Congress appointed Dean in March 1776. He did not arrive in France until June. It then took him another month to reach Paris in July. Deane’s cover story was that he was a was a private trader looking for commercial opportunities in France. As soon as he stepped off the ship, British agents began tailing him, suspecting he was up to no good.
|Silas Deane (from Wikimedia)|
Vergennes took the meeting, he moved it away from the main offices of the foreign ministry, to an isolated location where he hoped there would be little attention. The cautious Vergennes did not reveal to any of the men at the meeting that the King had already decided to provide covert assistance. Instead, he told them that France was obligated to remain neutral and could not assist them.
However, Vergennes did suggest that Deane meet with a private merchant named Beaumarchais who now ran the large trading firm of Roderigue Hortalez & Company. Dubourg told Deane later not to contact Beaumarchais, who was mostly known for writing plays like the Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro. He was not a player in the international arms trade, or even known as a merchant at all. So, Deane decided not to speak with Beaumarchais and continue to work with Dubourg.
A few weeks later, Vergennes again suggested Deane speak with Beaumarchais. This time, Deane took the hint and set up a meeting. Of course, Beaumarchais who was secretly financed with the King’s money, offered Deane extremely generous terms of credit and promised boatloads of supplies to be shipped in short order. The two men worked out all the details, with Bancroft acting as translator.
A few weeks after making the initial arrangements and with Beaumarchais busily making purchases and filling up ships to send to America, Bancroft returned to London. Deane offered to pay Bancroft £300 a year to help keep track of what was happening in London and for any intelligence he could provide.
|Edward Bancroft |
Shortly after his arrival in London, Bancroft met with the British foreign ministry and told them everything that Deane and Beaumarchais were doing in France. Bancroft accepted an offer of £500/year from the British government to continue spying on Deane’s activities in France. So, the double agent was collecting a nice salary from both sides. The British had an inside man to everything France was doing to funnel arms to America. However, they could not confront France without jeopardizing their source. For the time being, they would simply collect intelligence and wait for an opportunity to use it.
So despite British knowledge of the arms trade from the very beginning, French assistance began to flow to America. By August 1776, Roderigue Hortelez had purchased 200 tons of gunpowder, 20,000 small arms, and a number of cannon, mortars, and other equipment needed in America. The company had considerable trouble with shipments making it to port, as British spies were informing French police, who had to stop these illegal shipments.
The British Ambassador to France, Lord Stormont, complained directly to Vergennes about the operation. Vergennes of course denied any involvement. He was shocked, shocked, that illegal arms smuggling was going on, and promised to look into the matter. The Ambassador knew Vergennes was lying since he had Bancroft giving him all the details. But because the British were not ready to reveal their source, they kept their complaints vague
Aside from the British, Dubourg, upset about being cut out of the deals, began attacking Beaumarchais as a con artist who was enriching himself without the ability to deliver on his promises. Arthur Lee, who was upset about being cut out of all the arms deals, became even more of a problem. He started badmouthing Deane to his friends and family in the Continental Congress. Lee travelled to Paris to see if he could still get involved in the deals now moving forward.
Among other things, Lee created a list of Americans who he considered disloyal to the Patriot cause, including several members of the Continental Congress. Lee wanted Deane to send this list to Congress. Deane refused, saying he was not going to defame the reputation of good men on speculation without solid proof. For Lee, this seemed to indicate that Deane was part of the conspiracy to destroy the patriot cause.
Despite making enemies though, and despite the efforts of British spies, Dubourge, and Lee, Deane and Beaumarchais began shipping much needed supplies to America.
Next Week: New York City burns, and Nathan Hale gives but one life for his country.
- - -
Next Episode 109: Great Fire of NY & Nathan Hale
Previous Episode 107: Kip's Bay and Harlem Heights
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John Wilkes: http://www.thejohnwilkesclub.com/discover-wilkes/wilkes-timeline
Riggs, A. R. “Arthur Lee, a Radical Virginian in London, 1768-1776.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 78, no. 3, 1970, pp. 268–280. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4247578.
Arthur Lee: http://www.stratfordhall.org/meet-the-lee-family/arthur-lee
Beaumarchais and the American Revolution: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol14no1/html/v14i1a01p_0001.htm
The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane: https://connecticuthistory.org/the-rise-and-fall-of-silas-deane-american-patriot
Silas Deane: Forgotten Patriot, by Elizabeth Covart, Journal of the American Revolution (2014): https://allthingsliberty.com/2014/07/silas-deane-forgotten-patriot
Edward Bancroft: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol5no1/html/v05i1a07p_0001.htm
America’s First Black Ops, by Bob Ruppert, Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 5, 2017:
Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, A Very Helpful Trading Firm: http://w3r-us.org/history/hortalez.htm
Kite, Elizabeth S. “Preliminaries of French Secret Aid - 1775-1778.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 46, no. 2, 1935, pp. 58–67, www.jstor.org/stable/44209191.
(from archive.org unless noted)
Dean, Silas The Dean Papers, Vol. 1, New York Historical Society, 1887.
Hazard, Blanche Evans Beaumarchais and the American Revolution, General Society of the Daughters of the Revolution, 1910.
Homberg, Octave D'Eon de Beaumont, His Life and Times, London, M. Secker, 1911.
Ingraham, Edward D. (ed) Papers in Relation to the Case of Silas Deane, Philadelphia: Seventy-six society, 1855.
Kite, Elizabeth S. Beaumarchais Vol.1 & Vol. 2, Gorham Press, 1918
Lee, Richard Henry Life of Arthur Lee, Vol 1 & Vol 2, Wells and Lilly, 1829
Sparks, Jared The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, N. Hale and Gray & Bowen, 1829.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Dull, Jonathan Diplomatic History of the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1985.
Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.
Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004
Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009 (book recommendation of the week).
Unger Harlow Giles Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution, Univ. Press of New England, 2011.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.