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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by James Parton

Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.

 

Part 5

Chapter VII.

            How France Came to Help America.

 

            THERE is in the heart of old Paris an extensive edifice called the Hotel de Hollande, which was built in the reign of Louis XIV, for the residence of the Dutch embassador. In August, 1776, this building, which had been for some time unoccupied, was observed, by the frequenters of the Rue Vieille du Temple, to exhibit the usual signs of again being inhabited. Not that any embassador’s carriage rumbled under the sculptured gateway into the ancient court-yard. It soon became evident to the most careless passer-by, that this Hotel, wherein had been represented the majesty of Holland in Holland’s palmy days, had been taken by a mercantile firm as a house of business. It was formerly an affectation of great commercial houses in Europe to occupy insignificant edifices, and to dispense with all but the most unobtrusive signs. The firm who had taken the Hotel de Hollande had apparently escaped the domination of a pride so intense, and seemed desirous of even parading the fact, that the new occupants were no other than the great Spanish house of RODERIQUE HORTALEZ AND CO.

            Spanish the name was certainly; but, if any observant Parisian had ventured into the rooms of the Hotel appropriated to business, he would have recognized the clerks as Frenchmen and fellow-citizens; and if any Spaniard had asked to see the head of the House, he would have been most politely, but most positively, informed that the Señor Hortalez was not then in Paris. The Señor Hortalez never was in Paris. Whoever called, whatever the urgency of business, no Señor Hortalez was ever known to appear in the office of the Hotel de Hollande. It is only with the representative of that great man that we have to do. In an inner office, furnished with heterogeneous elegance, that representative was often to be found; a tall, slender, fresh-complexioned man of forty-four, who conveyed to strangers the impression that he was in reality a fop and man of pleasure, who, for some reason or other, was playing the man of business. This impression would have been confirmed if the visitor had observed that, among the ledgers and other apparatus of the counting-house, there were play-books, billet-doux, riding-whips, music, and musical instruments. The air of the place, the manner of the man, were all that is comprehended in the word, so terrible in the haunts of commerce -- "unbusiness-like." It was nevertheless true, that this incongruous person represented the whole dignity, and wielded all the power and resources of the imposing firm of Roderique Hortalez and Co.

            To the gay world of Paris no name was more familiar than that of the individual we have described. It was Caron de Beaumarchais, who, last year, had brought out at a Paris theatre one of the most successful of modern comedies, the Barber of Seville, still familiar, through Rossini's music, to all Europe and all America. This was the man who, in August, 1776, in a parlor of the Hotel de Hollande, relieved the monotony of business by trying new airs on the harp, or noting down ideas for scenes in a comedy, and gave audience, by turns, to men of business and men of fashion.

            It belongs to our subject to show why M. de Beaumarchais, the dramatist and courtier, had transferred his services to a counting-room, and what was the nature of the business transacted by a firm that had every appearance of being "eminent," but which no merchant in Paris knew any thing about.

            Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, born in 1732, was the son of a Paris watchmaker of no great note. He was himself brought up to the same vocation, and worked in his father's shop till he was twenty-four years of age, when he washed his hands, changed his clothes, became a frequenter of the court of Louis XV., and, of the king's four daughters, a kind of associate. This startling change of condition was effected by Beaumarchais acting upon that silver rule of morals, Never to submit to a wrong while there is left one honorable mode of redress. The gallant observance of this maxim brought him all the good fortune he ever enjoyed. At the age of twenty, being, like his father, an enthusiast in his craft, and most eager to excel, he invented an improvement in escapements, by which it became possible to make watches of extreme minuteness, as well as of superior accuracy. In the joy of his discovery, he communicated the new principle to a neighbor, a watchmaker of great repute, who immediately used the invention in a clock which he was making, and announced it in a newspaper as an idea of his own. The youthful inventor was upon him straight. In a letter to the same newspaper, written with equal spirit and modesty, the youth related the story of his invention and of his imparting the secret. A contest arose between the watchmaker, famous and rich, and this unknown lad, who had only the advantage of being in the right, and of being able to say so in an engaging manner. Beaumarchais humbly referred the dispute to the Academy of Sciences, apologizing for his audacity in having succeeded in doing what so many older and abler watchmakers had attempted in vain. "Instructed I have been by my father," he said, "from the age of thirteen in the art of watchmaking; and animated by his example and advice to occupy myself seriously in endeavoring to perfect the art, it will not appear surprising that, when only nineteen, I tried to distinguish myself in it, and to entitle myself to the esteem of the public. Escapements were the first objects of my attention. To do away with their existing defects, simplify them, and perfect them -- such was the aim which excited my ambition. My enterprise was doubtless a rash one: so many great men, whom the application of an entire life will probably not render me capable of equaling, had worked at it without ever arriving at the point so much desired, that I ought not to have flattered myself I should ever succeed. But youth is presumptuous; and shall I not be excusable, gentlemen, if your approbation crowns my work ?" (1)

            The Academy decided in his favor. The contest had attracted attention, and the sympathies of all were on the side of the ingenious youth. One of the results of his victory was, that he was appointed watchmaker to the king.

            Now, this Beaumarchais, who knew so well how to assume the air of modest, injured innocence, had, in reality, a most excellent opinion of himself. He was one of those who, from an inch of opportunity, gain an ell or a mile of advantage. He made a watch upon his new principle for the king, which he was allowed to present in person, and the idle monarch was pleased with his new toy. Quick to improve his opportunity, he soon completed the smallest watch in existence, which he affixed to a finger-ring, and presented to the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Her approving smile made it the fashion at court to order a watch of the new construction, and the young "artist," as he styled himself, was perplexed with the multitude of orders. Nor did the favor of Pompadour exclude him from the presence of the king's daughters, for whom he made ingenious clocks and watches, and who were pleased with the vivacity, the wit, the assurance, and the agreeable countenance of the young watchmaker. One of them even took lessons from him in his art; a fact of some interest in view of Louis Sixteenth's taste for making locks. Watchmaking, we may remark, has always ranked very high among the trades of Paris; no Parisian could regard with indifference the most elegant and skillful watchmaker of his time.

            The retinue of a French king, under the old regime, consisted of several thousand persons, a large number of whom bought their places, and with their places the rank of noble. Montesquieu says: "The king of France has no gold mines like the king of Spain, his neighbor, but he has far greater wealth in the vanity of his subjects, which is more inexhaustible than any mine. He has been known to undertake or continue a war without any resources but the titles of honor which he had to sell, and, owing to a miracle of human conceit, his troops were paid, his towns fortified, and his fleet equipped." It would not, therefore, have been difficult for Beaumarchais to turn courtier -- watchmaker that he was. He had but to save a few thousand francs, and buy the place of shoe-buckler-in-ordinary to his most Christian Majesty, to be set up for life in that noble profession. But the entrance of Beaumarchais into the court of Louis XV. was effected in a manner more romantic. The beautiful wife of a controller of the king's kitchen fell in love with him, brought him a watch to mend, blushed, and caused the susceptible artist to claim the honor of bringing home the watch as soon as he had repaired it. The result was, that in the course of a few months the aged husband of this amorous lady, in consideration of an annuity guaranteed by the father of Beaumarchais, resigned his office in favor of the young man. He died soon after, and Beaumarchais married the widow, who had some fortune. The duty of his office was to march with his sword at his side, "before his majesty's meat," and place it on the table. The salary was three hundred dollars a year; but the chances which the post afforded to a man like Beaumrchais were worth a million. It gave him all he needed – access to the court. Audacity, talent, accomplishments, were his already.

            His first success was in winning the marked favor of the king's four daughters, who were glad of any thing that could relieve the tedium of their hopeless magnificence. Beaumarchais, from childhood, had been so devoted to music, that his father, fearing he would never become proficient in the noble art of watchmaking, had often threatened to deprive him of his musical instruments. The terrible threat was not executed, and the youth learned to sing well, to compose tolerably, and to play admirably on the flute, the violin, and the harp. The harp, which was then little known in France, becoming at length his favorite instrument, he acquired a certain celebrity in court and city circles by the force and elegance of his playing. The princesses, who studied every thing, and played all instruments from the jews-harp to the French horn, desired to hear perform the young man, from whom already they had heard expositions of the mysteries of clockwork. He played before them. They asked him to give them lessons. He conducted the weekly concert which they were accustomed to give to the king and queen and a few friends. He became the indispensable Beaumarchais, director-general of the pleasures of the princesses, enjoying the favor and, in a certain sense, the intimacy, of the whole royal family. And all this, not as the paid servant, but as the fine gentleman, and gallant, devoted, disinterested courtier.

            He bore his new honors not too meekly, it appears. He had enemies, but he knew how to meet and baffle them. A courtier, who had boasted that he would disconcert the protégé of the princesses, met him one day as he was leaving their apartment, arrayed in his court suit, and handed him a valuable watch, saying, "Sir, as you understood watch-making, I wish you would have the kindness to examine my watch; it is out of order." A considerable number of courtiers were within hearing. Beaumarchais, with the utmost calmness, replied, "Sir, since I have ceased to practice the art, I have become inexpert." "Oh, sir," continued the gentleman, "do not refuse to look at my watch." "Very well," said Beaumarchais; "but I give you notice that I have become very awkward." He then took the watch, and raising it in the air as if to examine it, let it fall to the floor. Bowing low to the proprietor of the watch, he said, "I warned you, sir, of my extreme awkwardness," and walked away, leaving the discomfited nobleman to pick up the pieces. Another coxcomb of the court put upon him an affront for the avowed and contrived purpose of compelling him to fight. Beaumarchais met him in the field, and ran him through the body, inflicting a fatal wound. The dying man, whom Beaumarchais hastened to succor (for they fought without seconds), confessed his fault, and refused to disclose the name of his antagonist. The favor of the four princesses, in an indirect manner, made the fortune of our gallant adventurer. One of Madame de Pompadour's most assiduous friends was the great banker, Paris Du Verney; and one of their joint projects was the founding of a military college for the education of young officers. Under Du Verney's management, and Pompadour's patronage, the school attained a certain importance; but as the influence of the royal mistress declined, the interest of the king and court in the military school diminished. For nine years, we are told, M. du Verney tried in vain all courtly arts and artifices to induce the lazy monarch to bestow upon his school the eclat of a royal visit; until, at length, he took Beaumarchais into his confidence and asked his aid. The young courtier, like a man who understands the heart of man and woman, first prevailed upon the princesses to visit the school; plainly telling them why he desired it, and assuring them that if he could but contrive to gratify the old banker, his fortune was made. With their usual good nature they entered into his scheme, and, upon their return from the school conversed much in the hearing of the king upon what they had seen. The curiosity of the king being aroused, he visited the school of his own accord, merely to enjoy a new pleasure, and thus secured the prosperity of an establishment which is to this day one of the most important in Paris. Such was the ancient regime!

            M. du Verney, as well to repay this service as to procure others of the same kind, resolved to put his young friend into a way of acquiring wealth. He gave him a share in some of his speculations, lent him money for projects of his own, advanced him eighty-five thousand francs for the purchase of letters of nobility, instructed him in the arts of finance, and gave him a taste for the class of operations which employ capital by the million. We see him, for example, offering to provision the whole Spanish army, and to supply all Spain with white bread. Some years of prosperity he now enjoyed, during which he entertained at his own handsome abode his father and sisters, and granted to each of them an annual allowance. To the public he became, in some degree, known by the production of his two serious dramas, one of which achieved a moderate success, and the other was a failure.

            Then followed seven years of calamity, which ended in his becoming one of the poorest, and quite the most popular man in France, and, next to Voltaire and Rousseau, the most famous name in Europe. His patron, Du Verney, died, leaving their account unsettled, which involved Beaumarchais in a series of lawsuits with Du Verney's heir. First, he won his cause. His adversary then appealed to the judicial body, derisively called the Manpeou Parliament, abhorred of all France, as a new device of despotic power. The judge to whom this cause was specially referred was blessed with a wife, whose character may be inferred from a remark which she was once heard to make. "It would be impossible," said this worthy help-meet, "to live decently upon what we get, but we know the art of plucking the fowl without making it cry out." Beaumarchais she had indeed the art to pluck; only she found it impossible to keep him from crying out. On the contrary, he cried so loud and long that all Europe heard him. A few days before the cause was to be reported upon, Beaumarchais received a hint, that a gift of two hundred louis d'ors to that virtuous lady was the surest way of getting a just judgment. He sent her forthwith money and diamonds to the amount required. She sent back a promise to restore the property, if her husband should decide against Beumarchais; but she wanted fifteen louis more for her husband's secretary, and this sum would in no case be returned. The money was sent. The judge reported against Beaumarchais, which utterly ruined him in character and estate. The two hundred louis were promptly returned, but not the fifteen. The fowl had been plucked. Unquestionably, two fowls had contributed to feather the nest of this faithful wife; but the plumage of Du Verney’s heir had afforded better picking than that of Du Verney's protégé.

            Beaumarchais learned that the judge's secretary, to whom he had himself given ten louis, had heard nothing of the fifteen. Irritated at once by the loss of his cause and the petty thieving of the woman, he wrote to her demanding the restitution of the fifteen louis. The gods, bent on the destruction of the woman, of her husband, of the Manpeou Parliament and the French monarchy, were pleased to infuse into her mind the madness of the doomed. She denied having received the money; accused Beaumarchais of an attempt to bribe; and induced her husband to denounce him to the parliament as one who had first endeavored to corrupt a judge's wife, and through her a judge, and then to destroy the good name of both. The chances were all against poor Beaumarchais. His property had been seized; he was not in good repute; his princesses had become estranged from him through the evil arts of his adversary; his family was not influential; his friends were few, poor, and powerless. The parliament, moreover, before whom, with closed doors, he was to be tried, could not but regard with extreme aversion a man who had tried to render them more odious by showing that they deserved odium. Death or the galleys threatened the man who had tuned the harps of princesses, and ridden to see his own plays in his own chariot.

            But this Beaumarchais happened to be the most irrepressible man in France. In these alarming circumstances, he resorted to the expedient which had served him so well when the villainous watch-maker had stolen his escapement; that is to say, he invoked the power, slumbering in France, but about to be supreme, the power of Public Opinion. No advocate dared plead his cause; he became his own advocate. The tribunal before which he was to be tried was secret; he appealed from its undelivered but inevitable decision, to all reading France. His first "Memorial" called forth replies from the adversary, and he was engaged in a warfare of the pen which attracted universal attention. The "Memorials" of Beaumarchais are still spoken of by French authors as among the classics of French literature. "What a man!" wrote Voltaire to one of his fine friends, "he unites every thing -- humor, seriousness, argument gayety, force, pathos, every kind of eloquence, and he seeks for none, and he confounds all his adversaries, and he gives lessons to his judges. His naïveté enchants me." Indeed, nothing more entertaining or more convincing can be imagined than these unique productions, which contain narratives the most strange and eventful, and retorts the most telling and happy. But, at the time of their appearance, they were read with far more than a mere literary rapture. As the affair proceeded, Beaumarchais, with infinite prudence but deadly force, assailed the Manpeou Parliament itself, and thus, from being the defendant in a private cause, became the spokesman of liberal France -- that heaving, eager France, which was within twenty years of the taking of the Bastille. Add to this the amiable pleasure we all take in seeing impaled on the nibs of a brilliant pen, persons whom we are first made to believe deserve impalement.

            Beaumarchais' triumph was glorious, though tardy and incomplete. The judge lost his place, and his wife was compelled to restore the fifteen louis; but Beaumarchais was also censured and deprived of civil rights. If, however, the intense applause of all France, if social ovations in the most distinguished houses, if the admiration of literary Europe could console him for the loss of fortune and the disruption of his career, he was consoled.

            One of the readers of his Memorials was the bad old king Louis XV., who, as a man, enjoyed their perusal, but, as a king, disapproved the audacity of appealing to Public Opinion. He first silenced Beaumarchais, then suspended the effect of his sentence, and, finally, determined to employ his talents in secret service. This potentate, then under the dominion of Madame du Barry, his last mistress, was in sore tribulation in 1773, through the devices of a French villain in London, who had written and threatened to publish a Life of Du Barry, under the title of "Memoirs of a Public Woman." For eighteen months, we are told, the King of France had striven to suppress this man and his work with the strong hand, desirous to avoid the ignominy of paying black mail. The channel and the British constitution still baffling the king, the swift Beaumarchais was dispatched to try his dexterous hand. A few days sufficed to complete the affair. Regarding the unpublished book merely as a piece of merchandise to be bargained for and bought, he procured a copy and brought it to the king, who authorized him to make the best terms he could. Twenty thousand francs down, and an annuity for life of four thousand francs a year, well secured, was the price paid by Beaumarchais for the privilege of burning the edition of three thousand copies. But, at the same time, he engaged the author to serve the King of France in the congenial capacity of spy. "He was an audacious poacher," wrote Beaumarchais to the head of the French police. "I have made him an excellent game-keeper."

            Upon returning to Versailles to receive the reward of his success, he found the king dying, and Madame du Barry prepared to fly. May 10th, 1774, Louis XV. died, and Louis XVI., twenty years of age, and Marie Antoinette, nineteen, ascended the throne. Beaumarchais was not unknown to the young king. The queen, it appears, had read his Memorials, had pitied his misfortunes, had given him gracious smiles, perhaps had expressed her sympathy in words. The susceptible Beaumarchais, in common with all susceptible France, was full of enthusiasm for the youthful sovereigns, who were expected to usher in the millennium.

            A court or a man that pays black mail once, may as well make an annual appropriation for the same purpose for the rest of his life. In the first month of the new reign, the king received tidings of the forthcoming in London of a pamphlet, entitled, "Notice to the Spanish Branch on its right to the Throne of France in Default of Heirs." It was a trivial production, but in absolute governments things the most trivial are frequently invested with supreme importance. This royal pair had been four years married, and there was yet no heir to the French throne. The subject of the pamphlet was the very last which the queen could be willing to have publicly discussed, since it kept the public in mind of a circumstance which diminished her importance in the state, and disappointed the hopes of two dynasties. Beaumarchais offered his services, and the king accepted them. He demanded a commission written and signed with the king's own hand. The minister hesitated to propose such an unprecedented measure. "How can it be feared,” urged the persistent Beaumarchais, "that I shall compromise the name of the king? This sacred name will be looked upon by me as the Israelites regarded the supreme name of Jehovah, the syllables of which they dared not pronounce except in cases of supreme necessity…. The presence of the king, it is said, is worth fifty thousand men to the army: who knows how much his name may spare me in guineas?" The minister still hesitated. "If the work sees the day," Beaumarchais again wrote, "the queen, justly indignant, will soon know that it might have been suppressed, and that you and myself had undertaken to suppress it. I am as yet nothing, and can not fall from very high; but you! Do you know any woman who forgives an insult? 'They could stop,’ she would say, 'the work which calumniated the late king and his mistress; by what odious predilection have they allowed this one to circulate?’” That was a line of argument which few cabinet ministers could resist. The invincible man obtained the king’s autograph, which, with refined ostentation, he wore in a locket of gold, where lovers usually wear the miniature of their beloved. He gave the king this information in these words: "A lover carries round his neck the portrait of his mistress; a miser fastens his keys there; a devotee his reliquary; as for myself, I have had a gold box made, large, oval, and flat, in the form of a lens, in which I have inclosed your majesty's order, suspending it by a little gold chain to my neck, as the thing which is most necessary for my labors and most precious to myself." (2)

            Wonderful adventures now befell him. Two editions of the pamphlet had been printed, one in London, another in Amsterdam; both the property of a Jew. Fourteen hundred pounds sterling induced the Jew to abandon his speculation, and Beaumarchais had the pleasure of assisting in the destruction of both editions. Well pleased with his success, he permitted himself to live at Amsterdam in the manner of a tourist. Suddenly the news reached him that the speculative son of Abraham had gone to Nuremburg with fourteen hundred pounds in his pocket, and a copy of the pamphlet, which he intended to reprint at that city. Beaumarchais instantly prepared to pursue. "I am like a lion," he wrote to the minister, M. de Sartines; "I have no more money, but I have diamonds and jewels; I am going to sell every thing, and, with rage in my heart, I must recommence traveling like a postillion. I shall travel day and night, if I do not drop from fatigue on the road. Woe to the abominable man who forces me to go three or four hundred leagues further, when I thought I was about to repose. If I find him on the road, I shall strip him of his papers and kill him, for the pain and trouble he has caused me." (3)

            He started. Close to Nuremberg, at the beginning of a forest, he descried the Jew, trotting comfortably along on a pony, evidently thinking himself beyond danger. Beaumarchais sprang from his post-chaise, pistol in hand. The Jew, recognizing the man he had betrayed, galloped into the wood. The branches retarding his progress, Beaumarchais soon came up with him, seized him by the boot, twisted him off his horse, and found in his valise the pamphlet and the money, which he seized and bore off. Before he regained his carriage he was attacked by two robbers, with whom he had a fierce combat, and was only saved from death by the timely arrival of assistance. He reached the next inn bleeding from two wounds, and almost beside himself with fatigue and excitement. Still fearing his discomfited Jew, he pushed on to Vienna, made his way to the very presence of the empress, Maria Therese, mother of Marie Antoinette, told his story, and asked the arrest of the Jew. The empress took the zealous agent for an adventurer, and kept him a month in confinement. Satisfied, at length, of the genuineness of his mission, she released him with the gift of a thousand ducats, which the indignant Beaumarchais returned. In October, 1774, he reached Paris, and addressed to the king a narrative of his adventures, written with all the sparkle and vivacity of his famous Memorials. There are many reasons for believing that the queen, from this time, regarded with peculiar favor the man who had shed his blood in her service. Nothing is more certain than that Beaumarchais had some very powerful friends at court, and was himself powerful. Mr. Adams records in his French Diary, that "the confidential friend of M. Beaumarchais at court was the queen's treasurer. I was introduced to him as a personage of great power and respectability, and, with great solemnity, informed that he was the treasurer of the queen, and the intimate friend of M. Beaumarchais." We perceive, also, that Beaumarchais wrote to the king with frequency, at great length, and quite in the manner of a minister; and the ministers wrote to him in the tone of the vizier to the favorite. Neither his celebrity as a writer, nor the favor of the aged Maupertas, is sufficient to account for the great influence which he exerted in the councils of France during the next few years. A score of minute circumstances lead me to the conclusion that the cabinet of France were aware that Queen Marie Antoinette desired M. de Beaumarchais to be honored, employed, and enriched. (4)  For the rest, he was himself the most audacious, indefatigable, and pushing man in the world.

            During the next twelve months he was much in London, in the secret service of the king -- service of a character similar to that in which he had been last employed. Many times he crossed the channel; voluminous and entertaining were the reports he wrote. In the midst of his career as secret negotiator, he found time to bring out the Barber of Seville, which had a "run" of several weeks, and greatly enhanced his reputation.

            One of the houses frequented by Beaumarchais in London was that of John Wilkes, just then doubly triumphant, having been elected Lord Mayor of London, and having secured his seat in the House of Commons, from which he had been four times expelled. The Mansion House of the new Lord Mayor was the special resort of the Americans, and of the politicians who favored their cause. There Beaumarchais met the man who was to embitter his existence for twenty years, Arthur Lee, of Virginia. There he heard the wildest misrepresentations of the state of things in England, and heard them distorted into the French language, for he spoke no English. There he met Americans fresh from the colonies, surcharged with patriotic feeling, and full of confidence in the success of their cause. The impression made on the hasty mind of Beaumarchais was, that England, the 'natural enemy of France,' was in imminent danger of falling to pieces. Convinced of this, he secretly left London in September, 1775, and went to Paris for no other purpose than to impart to his king the startling intelligence, which, he said, was "too important and too delicate to be intrusted to any courier."

            "Sire," he wrote, "England is in such a crisis, such a state of disorder within and without, that it would be almost on the point of ruin if her neighbors and rivals were themselves in a state to occupy themselves seriously about her. I will set forth faithfully the position of the English in America; I received the particulars from an inhabitant of Philadelphia, who had lately arrived from the colonies, and had just been present at a conference with the English ministers, who were thrown in to the greatest trouble, and struck with terror by his recital. The Americans, determined to suffer every thing rather than give way, and full of that enthusiasm for liberty which has so often rendered the little nation of Corsica redoubtable to the Genoese, have thirty-eight thousand effective men, armed and resolute, beneath the walls of Boston; they have reduced the English army to the necessity of dying of hunger in this town, or of seeking for winter quarters elsewhere, which it will do forthwith."….  “I say, sire, that such a nation must be invincible, above all, when it has at its back as much country as it can possibly require for retreating, even if the English could make themselves masters of all their seaboard, which they are far from having done. All sensible persons, then, are convinced, in England, that the English colonies are lost to the mother-country, and that is also my opinion."

            But this was not all: "The open war which is taking place in America is less fatal to England than the intestine war which must yet break out in London; the bitterness between parties has been carried to the greatest excess since the proclamation of the King of England which declares the Americans to be rebels. This absurdity, this masterpiece of madness on the part of the government, has renewed the strength of all men of the opposition, who have united against it. A resolution has been taken to come to an open collision with the court party during the first sittings of the Parliament. It is thought that these sittings will not pass without seven or eight members of the opposition being sent to the Tower of London, and that is just the appointed time for sounding the tocsin. Lord Rochford, who has been my friend for the last fifteen years, in conversing with me, said these words, with a sigh: 'I am much afraid, sir, that the winter will not pass without some heads being brought down, either among the king’s party or the opposition.’ On the other side, the Lord Mayor Wilkes, in a moment of joy and liberty, at the end of a splendid dinner, said to me publicly the following words: 'The king of England has long done me the honor of hating me. For my part, I have always rendered him the justice of despising him. The time has come for deciding which of us has formed the best opinion of the other, and on which side the wind will cause heads to fall.'

            "…. The least check which the royal army receives in America, by increasing the audacity of the people and the opposition, may decide the affair at London at a moment when it is least expected; and if the king finds himself forced to yield, I say it with shudder, I do not think his crown more secure on his head than the heads of his ministers upon their shoulders. This unhappy English nation, with its frantic liberty, may inspire the man who reflects with true compassion. It has never tasted the sweetness of living peaceably under a good and virtuous king. They despise us, and treat us as slaves because we obey voluntarily; but if the reign a weak or bad prince has sometimes caused a momentary evil to France, the licentious rage, which the English call liberty, has never left an instant of happiness and true repose to this indomitable nation." (5)

            So wrote Beaumarchais to the King of France, in September, 1775. He merely advised the king, however, to keep out of the broil, and hold the strength of France and Spain in reserve to profit by what might befall.

            The winter passed, Beaumarchais still flitting between Paris and London. His acquaintance with Arthur Lee ripened into intimacy; and affairs across the ocean did not stand still. In February, 1776, we find him again addressing a solemn memorial "TO THE KING ALONE," on the breach between England and the colonies. He no longer advised the king to observe a neutrality between the belligerents. On the contrary, he now endeavored to convince the king that the sole safety of France lay in secretly aiding the colonists. The arguments used by him in maintaining this position were preposterous in the extreme, but we now know that they were the arguments which decided the French government to espouse the cause of the colonists. Those arguments were the following.

            "Either England will have the most complete success in America, during the campaign, or the Americans will repel the English with loss.

            "Either England will come to the determination, already adopted by the king, of abandoning the colonies to themselves, or parting from them in a friendly manner; or the opposition, in taking possession of the government, will answer for the submission of the colonies on condition of their being restored to the position they were in in 1763.

            "Here are all the possibilities collected together. Is there a single one of them which does not instantly give you the war you wish to avoid? Sire, in the name of God, deign to examine the matter with me.

            "First, if England triumphs over America, she can only do so by an enormous expenditure of men and money. Now, the only compensation the English propose to themselves for so many losses is to take possession, on their return, of the French islands, and thus make themselves the exclusive venders of the valuable supply of sugar, which can alone repair all the injuries done to their commerce, and this capture would also render them forever the absolute possessors of the advantages derived from the contraband commerce carried on by the continent with these islands.

            “Then, sire, there would remain to you nothing but the option of commencing at a later period an unprofitable war, or of sacrificing to the most shameful of inactive peaces all your American colonies, and of losing 280 millions of capital, and more than thirty millions of revenue.

            "2. If the Americans are victorious, they instantly become free, and the English, in despair at seeing their existence diminished by three quarters, will only be the more anxious, the more eager to seek a compensation, which will have become indispensable, in the easy capture of our American possessions; and we may be certain that they will not fail to do so.

            "3. If the English consider themselves forced to abandon the colonies to themselves without striking a blow, as it is the secret wish of the king they should do, the loss being the same for their existence, and their commerce being equally ruined, the result for us would be similar to the preceding one, except that the English, less weakened by this amicable surrender than by a bloody and ruinous campaign, would only derive from it more means and facilities for gaining possession of our islands, which they would then be unable to do without, if they wished to preserve their own, and to keep any footing in America.

            "4. If the opposition takes possession of the government, and concludes a treaty of reunion with the colonies, the Americans, indignant with France, whose refusal will alone have caused them to submit to the mother-country, threaten us from the present moment to unite all their forces with England in order to take possession of our islands. They will, indeed, only reunite with the mother-country on this condition, and heaven knows with what joy the ministry, composed of Lords Chatham, Shelburne, and Rockingham, whose dispositions toward us are publicly known, would adopt the resentment            of the Americans, and carry on against you without cessation the most obstinate and cruel war.

            "What, then, is to be done in this extremity, so as to have peace and preserve our islands?

            "You will only preserve the peace you desire, sire, by preventing it at all price from being made between England and America, and in preventing one from completely triumphing over the other; and the only means of attaining this end is by giving assistance to the Americans, such as will put their forces on an equality with those of England, but nothing beyond. And believe me, sire, that the economy of a few millions at present may, before long, cost a great deal of blood and money to France.

            "Believe me, above all, sire, that the necessary preparations for the first campaign will alone cost you more than all the assistance you are asked for now; and that the wretched economy of two or three millions will certainly make you lose, before two years, more than three hundred.

            "If it be replied that we cannot assist the Americans without wounding England, and without drawing upon us the storm which I wish to keep off, I reply in my turn that this danger will not be incurred if the plan I have so many times proposed be followed, that of secretly assisting the Americans without compromising ourselves; imposing upon them, as a first condition, that they shall never send any prizes into our ports, and never commit any act which shall tend to divulge the secret of the assistance, which the first indiscretion on the part of Congress would cause it instantly to lose. And if your majesty has not at hand a more clever man to employ in the matter, I undertake and answer for the execution of the treaty, without any one being compromised, persuaded that my zeal will supply my want of talent better than the talent of another could replace my zeal." (6)

            Such reasoning as this, repeated by every courier, urged with the confidence which results from shallowness and conceit, and with the vehemence of a needy man who would provide himself with profitable employment, gradually wore away the scruples of M. de Vergennes, who, at length, laid before the king a memorial of his own, which was little more than a repetition in moderate, official language of Beaumarchais' prognostications, inferences, and advice. The young king, totally unable to grasp the subject, demanded the written opinion of M. Turgot, Minister of Finance; the last hope of the French monarchy, the greatest and noblest statesman of his day, if not of any day.

            If M. Turgot had left no trace of his too brief public life but the paper which he wrote in reply to Beaumarchais' fantastic reasoning, we should be justified in pronouncing him an extraordinary man. He showed, first of all, that the American colonies, whatever the issue of the pending struggle, must, in the nature of things, become independent. If the English succeeded for a few years in holding them in subjection, England would have her hands full, and would not provoke a war with France. If England should fail, she would be exhausted and crippled, and so leave France alone. If the Americans succeeded, as they probably would, it was safe to augur from their prudence and intelligence, that they would give to their government a solid form, and, as a consequence, seek peace with all nations. He then showed (one century in advance of his age) that England would not be essentially injured by the loss of her colonies, and that no nation was benefited by holding colonies in subjection, and compelling them to trade only with their mother-country. "When America is independent," said he, "then the illusion which has lulled our politicians for two centuries will be dispelled; it will be seen that power, founded on monopoly, is precarious and frail, and that the restrictive system was useless and chimerical at the very time when it dazzled the most." Consider the immensity of the intellect which, in 1776, could have achieved such opinions as these. "Wise and happy," he continued, "will be that nation which shall first know how to bend to the new circumstances, and consent to see in its colonies allies, and not subjects."

            Finally, M. Turgot pronounced in favor of perfect neutrality; "first of all, for moral reasons," and, then, for reasons of interest. The King of Spain, he said, was not prepared for war, and had not the means of preparing. "As for us," he concluded, and how prophetic the words! "the king knows the situation of his finances; he knows that in spite of economies and ameliorations already made since the beginning of his reign, the expenditure exceeds the receipt by twenty millions….  For a necessary war, resources could be found; but war ought to be shunned as the greatest of misfortunes, since it would render impossible, perhaps for ever, a reform, absolutely necessary to the prosperity of the state and the solace of the people."

            "Perhaps for ever!" It proved to be "for ever," if by those words he meant the for ever of the French monarchy.

            The king leaned to Turgot's side, for the instincts of this ungifted monarch were sound and noble; it was only capacity that he lacked. But Beaumarchais, De Vergennes, the queen, the court, the philosophers, the salons, and Arthur Lee, exerted an amount influence which only a great king or an obstinate one could have resisted. The great Turgot was dismissed, and the system of Beaumarchais prevailed. Aid should be sent to the Americans, but with a thousand precautions for keeping it secret.

            Beaumarchais hastened to tell the news to Arthur Lee, who immediately dispatched Mr. Story with it to Congress. In communicating the intelligence to Congress, Mr. Lee exaggerated his own influence, and, probably, Beaumarchais' promises. Mr. Story was directed to tell the Committee of Secret Correspondence, that Arthur Lee had had several conferences with the French embassador (a cipher of rank), who had communicated the same to the French court, and, in consequence thereof, the Duke de Vergennes" had sent a gentleman to Arthur Lee, with the information that the French government could not think of entering into a war with England, but that it would assist America by sending from Holland, that autumn, two hundred thousand pounds' worth of arms and ammunition. The supplies would be sent to one of the French West India islands, the governor of which would be in the secret, and deliver them to any agent of the Congress who should inquire for Monsieur Hortalez.

            Beaumarchais, to the end of his life, asserted that he had never delivered a message of this purport to Arthur Lee. Nevertheless, we now know that the first plan meditated by the French government was to send aid to the colonies as a free gift, through a government agent. The probability is, that Beaumarchais, in the exultation of success, said more to Arthur Lee then he afterwards found it convenient to remember, and that Lee announced to Congress as certain, that which Beaumarchais merely hoped was certain. Nowhere, however, do I find any indication that the French government contemplated sending so large a sum as two hundred thousand pounds.

            In the French diplomatic correspondence of that year, we find the following letter from M. de Vergennes to the king, dated May 2d: "Sire, I have the honor of laying at the feet of your majesty the writing, authorizing me to furnish a million of livres for the service of the English colonies. I add, also, the draft of an answer I propose to make to the Sieur Beaumarchais. I solicit your approbation to the two propositions. The answer to M. de Beaumarchais will not be written in my hand, nor even in that of either of the clerks or secretaries of my office. I shall employ for that purpose my son, whose handwriting cannot be known.  He is only fifteen years old, but I can answer in the most positive manner for his discretion. As it is important that this operation should not be suspected, or, at least, imputed to the government, I entreat your majesty to allow me to direct the return of the Sieur Montaudoin to Paris. The pretext for that proceeding will be, to obtain from him an account of his correspondence with the Americans, though, in reality, it will be for the purpose of employing him to transmit to them such funds as your majesty chooses to appropriate to their benefit, directing him, at the same time, to take all necessary precautions, as if, indeed, the Sieur Montaudoin made the advance on his own account. On this head I take the liberty of requesting the orders of your majesty. Having obtained them, I shall write to the Marquis de Grimaldi, (7) inform him of our proceedings, and request his co-operation to the same extent."

            The king signed the document ordering the royal treasurer to place a million livres at the disposal of the Count de Vergennes. He also sanctioned the proposed application to the government of Spain. The answer to Beaumarchais, in the handwriting of the son of M. de Vergennes, was probably the letter which furnished the basis of Lee’s message to the Secret Committee.

            Returning to Paris in May, Beaumarchais found the conservative, or, rather, the timorous influence prevailing at court. M. de Vergennes now regarded the direct transmission of aid as too bold a measure; he demanded new precautions against the vigilance of the English embassador. The plan finally adopted was one of the most ingenious pieces of state craft ever devised. The idea of giving aid to the colonies was abandoned, and the scheme was formed of founding a great commercial house in Paris, for the sole purpose of selling to Congress the warlike stores they needed, on long credit. The capital of this house was to be furnished by the allied kings of France and Spain, each contributing a million francs, which sum, it was expected, would be sunk in doing business on such unbusiness-like principles. In addition to this aid in money, the French government agreed to permit the House to take from the royal arsenals cannon, muskets, and ammunition, to be replaced or paid for at its convenience. This plan, besides being so well calculated to deceive the English embassador, was far better for America than a gift of money and arms. Two millions or ten millions of francs were a trifling boon compared with the privilege of buying unlimited supplies, on terms with which Congress could comply; for not merely was the House to give long credit, but it was to take payment in tobacco, indigo, and rice, a whole crop of which lay spoiling in southern warehouses. To the French government the scheme had the additional advantage of affording an opportunity of rewarding its zealous servant, Beaumarchais, since he was to constitute the new commercial House. It was certainly an odd choice. Nevertheless, it was a good choice; probably, no man in France could, in the very peculiar circumstances, have managed the affair better than he did. A mere merchant could not have done the business at all; it required just such a mixture of courtier, politician, man of genius, man of business, and man of pleasure as Caron de Beaumarchais was.

            The delicacy of the task he had undertaken appears from the minister’s own explanation of the scheme. "The operation," said M. de Vergennes to the House, "must, in the eyes of the English, government, and even in the eyes of the Americans, have the appearance of an individual speculation, to which the French ministers are strangers. That it may be so in appearance, it must also be so, to a certain point, in reality. We will give a million secretly, we will try to induced the court of Spain to unite with us in this affair, and supply you on its side with an equal sum; with these two millions and the co-operation of individuals who will be willing to take part in your enterprise, you will be able to found a large house of commerce, and at your own risk can supply America with arms, ammunition, articles of equipment, and all other articles necessary for keeping up the war. Our arsenals will give you arms and ammunition, but you shall replace them or shall pay for them. You shall ask for no money from the Americans, as they have none; but you shall ask them for returns in products of their soil, and we help you to get rid of them in this country, while you shall grant them, on your side, every facility possible. In a word, the operation, after being secretly supported by us at the commencement, must afterward feed and support itself; but, on the other side, as we reserve to ourselves the right of favoring or discouraging it, according to the requirements of our policy, you shall render us an account of your profits and your losses, and we will judge whether we are to accord you fresh assistance, or give you an acquittal for the sums previously granted." (8)

            Such work as this was not to be executed by an ordinary merchant.

            On the tenth of June, 1776, Beaumarchais received a millions francs from the French treasury, for which he gave the afterwards famous receipt in these words: "I have received from M. Duvergier, conformably to the orders of the Count de Vergennes, dated the 5th instant, which I have remitted to him, the sum of one million, of which I will render account to said Count de Vergennes. CARON DE BEAUMARCHAIS." (also 8)

            Two days after he sent Arthur Lee, with whom he constantly corresponded, a distinct enough intimation of the change of plan: "The difficulties I have met with in my negotiations with the ministry have made me decide to form a company, which will send the ammunition and powder to your friend as soon as possible, in consideration of tobacco being sent in return to the French cape." They continued to correspond in the most confidential manner for several weeks more, sometimes in cipher, sometimes over fictitious signatures. Lee, for example, sent Beaumarchais in this very month of June, an exact account of Lord Howe’s fleet, and urged the French government to dispatch a fleet to America to destroy it; a suggestion that may have been creditable to his zeal, but not to his knowledge of European politics.

 


 

Notes

 

1.  "Beaumarchais and his Times," by M. de Lo[u]ménie, chap, ii. VOL. II. -‑ 8.

2.  Beaumarchais and his Times, by M. de Loménie, chap. xiv.

3.  Beaumarchais and his Times, by M. de Lomenie, chap. xiv.

4.  Thomas Paine, who had the best means of knowing, confirms this opinion. He says: "It is both justice and gratitude to say, that it was the Queen of France who gave the cause of America a fashion at the French Court." -‑ Rights of Man.

5.  Beaumarchais and his Times, by M. de Loménie, chap. xvii.

6.  Beaumarchais and his Times, by M. Loménie, chap. xvii.

7.  Prime Minister of the King of Spain.

8.  Beaumarchais and his Times, by M. Loménie, chap. xvii.

 
 

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