America’s Best Friend About Whom You’ve Never Heard: Beaumarchais

Beaumarchais

Beaumarchais

Students of the American Revolution learn of the indispensable aid that the colonists got from France’s King Louis XVI and his men: Lafayette, Rochambeau, and deGrasse. But we never hear of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. And that, mes amis, is une scandale. Without the tireless, entrepreneurial work of the fascinating M. Beaumarchais, we might still be drinking tea and saying “shedule.”

Master Spy

History shows that France formally entered an alliance with the Americans after the army of Horatio Gates defeated the redcoats of John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga. The books don’t tell that our boys were wearing uniforms and firing guns delivered by 20 French ships manned by sailors organized and paid by the firm of Roderigue, Hortalez and Company. That company was a front, set up by Beaumarchais, which would have made the CIA proud.

Secretly backed by the governments of France and Spain, Roderigue, Hortalez purchased and shipped to America: 200 cannon; mortars; 25,000 firearms and ammunition; 200,000 pounds of gunpowder; and uniforms and camping equipment for 25,000 men.

The whole thing was done without the British ambassador to France catching wind of it. King Louis XVI had wanted to support the Americans against the Brits, but he wanted to do it clandestinely. Beaumarchais got the cooperation of admirals and factory owners by issuing many orders in Louis’ name, orders that the king never knew about. When he heard the news of the American victory at Saratoga, Beaumarchais sped off for Paris in a carriage to tell the king, and he suffered a serious injury in an accident along the way.

Stiffed by the “Grateful” Yanks

Silas Deane

Silas Deane

Beaumarchais had to borrow the money to finance the arms shipment. He was to be paid in tobacco, according to his deal with Silas Deane of Connecticut, who was then acting as agent for the Continental Congress. Deane was a slippery character. He didn’t keep his financial records in order, for whatever reason, and was eventually fired from the job in France and replaced by John Adams. Deane ended up advocating for the British cause and living in Europe.

John Jay

John Jay

Beaumarchais was never thanked by the Americans and never got paid for his troubles. Three and a half years later, he received a nice letter from John Jay. It promised that soon the Continental Congress would pass measures to pay up – it didn’t – and went on to say Beaumarchais had “gained the Esteem of this Infant Republic and will receive the merited applause of a new world.”

Merci beaucoup, Chief Justice. Show me the money!

Forty years on, Beaumarchais’ daughter had fallen into poverty. She petitioned Congress to pay the 2.25 million francs that America still owed her father, according to books originally compiled by Alexander Hamilton. Congress told her to take one-third of the amount, or nothing.

The American nation is not the only one that owes M. Beaumarchais its thanks. So do opera fans and literature buffs of all nations. He wrote the plays that eventually made into The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Guilty Mother. He also went into the publishing business in Germany and printed many of the works of Voltaire, which were banned in France. Without Beaumarchais’s publishing ventures, unprofitable though they were, we might not know much at all of that great author Voltaire.

Smooth Operator

How did Beaumarchais, son of a middle-class provincial watchmaker, achieve all that he did in and around the royal courts of France? It took a brew of talent, native intelligence, hard work, and a knack for bettering himself through networking and marrying rich women.

Madame de Pompadour

Madame de Pompadour

Watches were unreliable and worn mostly for ornamentation back then. At age 20, Beaumarchais invented an escapement for the internal works; the escapement made his watches much more accurate. He also designed a watch mounted on an elegant ring. The watch was for Mme de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV. That was his entrée to the court at Versailles.

Beaumarchais became a harp instructor to Louis XV’s daughters. He married a second time, bought himself a title and coat of arms, and collaborated with some big French wheeler-dealers on ventures like the building of the Royal Military Academy. He also tried to be named the exclusive exporter of slaves to the French colony of Louisiana.

Countess du Barry

Countess du Barry

He fell out of favor when his wealthy patron Joseph Paris Duvereney died, and he got embroiled in a sensational lawsuit known as the Goezman affair. Both Beaumarchais and his opponent tried to bribe the judge, whose name was Goezman. Beaumarchais’s writings about the case were popular, scandalous faire. The verdict was basically a tie, and Beaumarchais ended up losing his civil rights.

He earned those rights back by going to England as Louis XV’s secret emissary. His task: to buy off a blackmailer who was threatening Countess du Barry, another mistress, with a defamatory book named Les mémoires secrets d’une femme publique. He succeeded brilliantly, getting 3,000 copies of the book burned. He persuaded the author to become a valuable informant for the French.

Later on, during the French Revolution, Beaumarchais made big money by supplying the City of Paris with water. He had to flee for his life and spent a couple years in Germany before returning and living out the rest of his days. He married a total of three times, and his enemies accused him of poisoning his first two wives in order to gain access to their money. Whether he ever did so was never proven. But one thing was certain: he did have a talent for wooing wealthy ladies.

Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais deserved more than the mere esteem of this infant republic. We should be including him in any serious accounts of how the American colonies were able to win their war of independence. Belated applause too, please!

And come on now – admit it. Isn’t history just fascinating?

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