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from The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin

by James Parton

Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864.


Part 5




            MR. ARTHUR LEE had now done all the useful work he was destined to do for his country in Europe.

            Almost on the very day on which Beaumarchais received the million francs from the French treasury, Silas Deane arrived at Bordeaux. Disappointment awaited him there; for the cargoes of fish, rice, and tobacco which the Secret Committee had dispatched after him, and upon the proceeds of which he was to live and operate, had not arrived. He waited three weeks at Bordeaux, but they did not come. Ship after ship, laden with these products, was sent to sea by the committee, only to be pounced upon by British cruisers before the capes were cleared; and, to add to Mr. Deane’s discouragement, ill news had preceded him, such as the failure of the assault on Quebec, the subsequent loss of Canada, the mighty armament that had sailed under command of Lord Howe, and the increase of the war party in England.

            He reached Paris about the first of July, and waited immediately upon Dr. Dubourg. He arrived just as that zealous gentleman was beginning to doubt the integrity of the merchant, Penet, who had not yet succeeded in getting his papers from Rotterdam; and who, like Mr. Deane, depended absolutely upon the expected cargoes. Upon the credit of tobacco to arrive, Penet, aided by Dr. Dubourg, had bought, and even got aboard ship, a large quantity of powder, saltpeter, and muskets. The contagious zeal of the doctor and the universal enthusiasm for America had brought the affair so far; but there it had stopped. The bad news from Canada, the failure of the ships, doubts of the solvency and authority of M. Penet, all combined to discourage merchants, and the stores remained in port. In the nick of time Mr. Deane appeared upon the scene, with ample credentials, with letters to Dr. Dubourg, with proofs of the genuineness of M. Penet’s contracts, with fresh testimonials of the determination of Congress and all America to resist to the death. Arrangements were quickly made, by virtue of which M. Penet succeeded in getting off a quantity of stores.

            In a few days, through the good offices of Dr. Dubourg, Mr. Deane and the doctor were closeted with the Count de Vergennes. The Count could not speak English, nor Mr. Deane French; they were obliged to converse through the translations of M. Gerard, chief secretary in the French foreign office. On this occasion, as on all  other occasions of intercourse with Americans, M. de Vergennes spoke with perfect frankness and truth. To the English he could lie with the calm assurance of a practiced diplomatist of the ancient regime. John Adams, who was the most undiplomatic man that ever figured in public life, used to maintain, in his pugnacious, vehement way, that because the French government had deceived England, they were extremely likely to attempt to cheat America also. It did not follow. The Celt, unlike the Saxon, does not object to a lie per se; against an enemy, he can employ falsehoods with as little remorse as cannon-balls; while his sense of honor binds him to act with most scrupulous fidelity to a friend. And, theorizing apart, nothing is now more certainly known, than that the French government, from the time of this first interview with Silas Deane, to the close of the war, acted towards America with candor and sincerity. Recent investigation of original papers, in the archives of the three nations concerned, has established this beyond all reasonable, or even unreasonable doubt.

            The Count de Vergennes told Mr. Deane, in the course of their two hours’ conference, that the "good understanding" which existed between France and England would prevent his openly encouraging the exportation of arms to America, but that no real obstruction would be given to it. A hint should be promptly passed to all the chief officers of the customs, and if any of them should not happen to take the hint, Mr. Deane has only to inform the Count de Vergennes of the circumstance, and he would make it clear to the understanding of the officer. With regard to independency, and the recognition of it by France, that belonged to the future, and would be duly considered at the proper time. Meanwhile, Mr. Deane was requested to consider himself under the immediate protection of the Count de Vergennes, to whom he should always have access on applying to M. Gerard. Not a word was said, during this long interview, nor an allusion made, to M. de Beaumarchais or his million livres.

            Mr. Deane and Dr. Dubourg returned from Versailles to Paris well pleased with what had occurred there, and with one another. To Deane the worthy doctor explained the negotiations with Du Coudray, the peerless general of artillery, giving him to understand that scarcely any thing he could do for his country would be so great a boon as the engagement of that officer and his train of subordinates. Mr. Deane, however, was still without resources, and could neither buy his Indian goods, nor advance money to peerless officers of artillery. Credit was pressed upon him; the mercantile world was eager to supply the illustrious Congress of Republicans but, alas! all the offers of credit were accompanied with the fatal condition, that the notes given by Mr. Deane for stores purchased should be indorsed by one of the great Paris banking-houses.

            While Mr. Deane and Dr. Dubourg were sadly revolving this apparently insurmountable obstacle in their minds, M. de Beaumarchais, the predestined comforter of anxious patriots, appeared to them, bearing in his hand a letter from the Count de Vergennes. The letter introduced Beaumarchais as one "commissioned by the ministry to assist Dr. Dubourg and Mr. Deane by his intelligence and to undertake the entire and particular direction of all the commerce, exports as well as imports, either of munitions of war or of the usual productions of France, to the united colonies, and of the colonies of France." Dr. Dubourg was grieved and alarmed at this intelligence. Besides having himself expected to take the lead in the American business, he sincerely questioned the commercial ability of Beaumarchais. He at once endeavored to dissuade him from "taking all this immense traffic upon himself," and thus "excluding people who had gone to so much expense, suffered so much fatigue, and run so many risks during the year in the service of Congress." Beaumarchais, with an unsuspected million in his pocket, replied perhaps too warmly, and an altercation arose between them; which ended with the doctor’s saying, with unauthorized positiveness: "Mr. Deane, sir, will not and cannot undertake any thing with you." Beaumarchais, conscious of his million and sure of his minister, took his leave and went to Versailles. Dr. Dubourg immediately sent to Count de Vergennes a letter of remonstrance. "No one," he wrote, "does more justice than I to M. de Beaumarchais’ rectitude, his discretion, and his zeal for all that is good and great. I believe him to be one of the most fit men in the world for political negotiations, but perhaps, at the same time, one of the least fitted for negotiating in a mercantile sense. He likes splendor; it is asserted that he maintains young ladies at his expense; in short, he passes for a prodigal; and in France there is no merchant nor manufacturer who is not of this opinion, and who would not hesitate very much to transact the least business with him."

            The minister mischievously handed this letter to Beaumarchais, who replied to it with all his wonted humor. "How does it affect our business," he asked the artless doctor, "if I like pomp and splendor, and maintain young ladies in my house? The ladies in my house, who have been there for twenty years, sir, are your very humble servants. They were five in number, four sisters and a niece. During the last three years two of these girls have died, to my great sorrow. I now only keep three, two sisters and my niece, which is, however, display enough for a private individual like myself. But what would you have thought if, knowing me better, you had been aware that I carried the scandal so far as to keep men too – two nephews, very young and rather good-looking, and even the miserable father who brought such a scandalous person into the world." (1)

            All this was true, for Beaumarchais fulfilled the obligations of kindred with affectionate exactness. The Count de Vergennes ended the controversy by sending for Dr. Dubourg and Mr. Deane, and informing them that M. de Beaumarchais was indeed the inevitable man and that he was not less able than willing to supply Congress with all it desired.

            Beaumarchais and Deane soon came to a perfect understanding. Dr. Dubourg still served America to the best of his ability, but only a private gentleman. Beaumarchais, deeming Silas Deane the veritable representative of Congress in Europe, dropped Arthur Lee – to that gentleman’s extreme and lasting disgust. And now it was, August, 1776, that the Hotel de Hollande cheered the passers-by with the appearance of being inhabited, and informed the neighborhood, in the usual manner, that it had been taken by the firm of RODERIGUE HORTALEZ AND Co. Beaumarchais, by residing awhile at Madrid, some years before, had acquired the taste which made him select for his comedies Spanish subjects, and for his House a Spanish name.

            These preliminaries settled, the next step of our dramatic merchant was to write the only comic letter which appears in the nineteen volumes of the Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution. It was a letter to the Secret Committee, signed Roderigue Hortalez and Co., but written in the first person singular, as though from the Head of that eminent House. "The respectful esteem," began the imaginary Hortalez, "which I bear toward that brave people who so well defend liberty under your conduct, has induced me to form a plan concurring in this great work by establishing an extensive commercial house, solely for the purpose of serving you in Europe, there to supply you with necessaries of every sort…. Your deputies, gentlemen, will find in me a sure friend, an asylum in my house, money in my coffers, and every means of facilitating their operations, whether of a public or private nature. I will, if possible, remove all obstacles that may oppose your wishes from the politics of Europe."

            These brave words would have puzzled the grave Congress, if the name of Hortalez had not been mentioned by Mr. Thomas Story in a  manner which prepared them to believe him merely the almoner of the French king. How natural their conclusion, that the writer was merely playing merchant; and this impression every succeeding paragraph must have strengthened. "At this very time," continued Señor Hortalez, "and without waiting for any answer from you, I have procured for you about two hundred pieces of brass cannon, four-pounders, which will be sent to you by the nearest way, two hundred thousand pounds of cannon powder, twenty thousand excellent fusils, some brass mortars, bombs, cannon balls, bayonets, platines, clothes and linens for the clothing of your troops, and lead for musket balls. An officer of the greatest merit for artillery and genius, accompanied by lieutenants, officers, artillerists and cannoneers, whom we think necessary for the service, will go for Philadelphia, even before you have received my first dispatches. This, gentlemen, is one of the greatest presents my attachment can offer you. Your deputy, Mr. Deane, agrees with me in the treatment which he thinks suitable to his office." Poor Deane! that sentence helped to ruin him. In truth, he had scarcely any thing to do with the sending of Du Coudray and his troop of followers. Dr. Dubourg began it, at the suggestion of a member of the French Cabinet; Beaumarchais took the affair out of Dr. Dubourg's hands and pressed it upon Deane with his usual resistless ardor. Deane merely did not veto it.

            Señor Hortalez continued his epistle to great length, and in a strain of the highest absurdity. Such sentences as these occur: "The secrecy necessary in some part of the operation which I have undertaken for your service requires also, on your part, a formal resolution, that all the vessels and their demands should be constantly directed to our house alone, in order that there may be no idle chaffering or time lost -‑ two things that are the ruin of affairs." ….  "I request of you, gentlemen, to send me next spring, if it is possible for you, ten or twelve thousand hogsheads, or more if you can, of tobacco from Virginia, of the best quality."….  "However well-bottomed my house may be, and however I may have appropriated many millions to your trade alone, yet it would be impossible for me to support it, if all the dangers of the sea, of exports and imports, were not entirely at your risk." He concluded with these modest words: "Every thing that passes in your great assemblies, is known, I cannot tell how, at the court of Great Britain. Some indiscreet or perfidious citizen sends an exact account of your proceedings to the palace of St. James. In times of great exigency, Rome had a Dictator; and in a state of danger the more the executive power is brought to a point, the more certain will be its effect, and there will be less to fear from indiscretion. It is to your wisdom, gentlemen, that I make this remark; if it seems to you just and well planned, look upon it as a new mark of my ardor for your rising republic."

            Such was the fantastic letter of Beaumarchais to the Secret Committee. So certain were the committee that it was merely part of the game of deceiving the English; so far were they from supposing that there was any reality whatever in the House of Hortalez and Co., that they never thought of answering the letter; a neglect that surprised and wounded the writer thereof.

            Beaumarchais now plunged into activity, drawing after him the bewildered and admiring Deane -‑ they two the most noted men of the season. The veil of secrecy which was thrown over their proceedings was of the thinnest. Mr. Deane still gave out that he was a merchant from Bermuda, and Beaumarchais insisted on being regarded as the representative of the great House of Hortalez; but every one in Paris who knew any thing, including the British embassador, knew well enough who they were and what they were doing. As a specimen of Beaumarchais' mode of combining business with pleasure, take this fragment of a report of a chief of police to the minister concerning one of his business journeys to a seaport: "I think that M. de Beaumarchais' journey has done more harm than good: he is known by many people, and he has made himself known to the whole town by having his comedies played, and by hearing the actors repeat their parts, so as to play them better. All this has rendered his caution of concealing himself under the name of Durand perfectly useless." The man must have felt himself strong at court to dare to act in a manner so ridiculous.

            Nevertheless, the work proceeded with creditable expedition. His own account of his exploits this year wears the air of exaggeration, but it is in reality not far from the truth.

            "From a Frenchman that I was, I became an American merchant, a politician, and a writer. I imparted my warmth to honest but timid minds, and formed a society under a name unknown. I gathered together merchandise and warlike stores in all our ports, always under fictitious names. Your agent was to have provided vessels to transport them to America, but not one could he find; and it was still I who, with double zeal and labor, succeeded in procuring them for him at Marseilles, Nantes, and Havre, paying out of my own pocket two-thirds of the freight in advance, and finding security for the remainder.

            "The most severe orders everywhere thwarted my operations. What I could not accomplish in the open day, was executed in the night. If government caused my vessels to be unloaded in one port, I sent them secretly to reload at a distance in the roads. Were they stopped under their proper names, I changed them immediately, or  made pretended sales, and put them anew under fictitious commissions. Were obligations in writing exacted from my captains to go nowhere but to the West India Islands, powerful gratifications on my part made them yield again to my wishes. Were they sent to prison on their return for disobedience, I then doubled their gratifications to keep their zeal from cooling, and consoled them with gold for the rigor of our government. Voyages, messengers, agents, presents, rewards – no expense was spared. One time, by reason of an unexpected counter order, which stopped the departure of one of my vessels, I hurried by land to Havre twenty-one pieces of cannon, which, if they had come from Paris by water, would have retarded us ten days.

            "Thus, I scattered money everywhere to surmount the obstacles which constantly came in the way, and thinking it injurious to the nation which I served to doubt of her gratitude, or of her being fraught with the generous sentiments which actuated myself, I regarded as straw the money I distributed for her, happy in the power at such a price to procure her speedy assistance." (2)

            Which being interpreted signified that, within a period of twelve months, he succeeded in dispatching to America eight ship loads of warlike stores, valued by himself at more than six millions of francs. The capital which enabled him to achieve this great result, was composed, first, of the million received from the French treasury in June, 1776; secondly, the million granted by the Spanish government, which Beaumarchais received in September of the same year; thirdly, another million from the treasury of France in 1777. The stores taken from the royal arsenal were equivalent, perhaps, to a fourth million, and the rest may have been furnished by friends and speculators. Beaumarchais lived, meanwhile, in the style which he supposed became a man who dealt in royal millions. A little later in the war, he mentions in one of his letters that he kept ten horses and three coachmen. Even his head clerk was a man of three horses.

            The position of Mr. Silas Deane, during the first six months of his residence in Paris, was immensely difficult, and he was by no means a man of great powers. Such abilities as he had, however, he appears to have faithfully employed in the service of his country. Left without orders from home, and living amid scenes and circumstances dazzlingly novel to a Connecticut school-master, he committed some errors, but also performed a great deal of real service. All Paris was on the qui vive with regard to America and the secret movements of France on her behalf, and the war with England to which those secret movements pointed. Every officer in the French army seemed eager to go and share the campaigns of Washington. "I am well nigh harassed to death with applications of officers to go out to America," he writes in one letter. "Had I ten ships here," he says in another, "I could fill them all with passengers for America." He was even offered troops from Germany and from Switzerland. Merchants of all descriptions tormented him with offers of merchandise on impossible terms. Occasionally, too, a true friend of his country and of mankind, like M. Ray de Chaumont, offered him an admissible credit. M. de Chaumont, without knowing that Congress would ratify the bargain, sold him a million francs’ worth of powder and saltpeter on unlimited credit. Chaumont was an army-clothing contractor of great wealth and the highest character, whose whole heart was with America in her struggle for independence.

            In all difficulties, Mr. Deane found Beaumarchais a powerful friend. He praises continually, in his letters home, the address, the assiduity, the fertility of resource, the rapidity, the generosity, and the ever hopeful courage of that incredible personage. To Beaumarchais, indeed, he was indebted, at last, for mere subsistence money; for all his own resources were exhausted long before he obtained any help, or even tidings from America. I attribute to Baumarchais, also, such hints as this, which occur in the official correspondence of Mr. Deane: "The queen is fond of parade, and, I believe, wishes for war, and is our friend. She loves riding on horseback. Could you send me a fine Narragansett horse or two? The money would be well laid out. Rittenhouse’s orrery, or Arnold’s collection of insects, a phaeton of American make, and a pair of bay horses, a few barrels of apples, walnuts, cranberries, and butter-nuts, would be great curiosities." (3) It was Beaumarchais, however, who urged Deane into the great error of sending over so many officers of extravagant pretensions; a measure which both of them considered necessary for the furtherance of their greater objects at court and in the cabinet. But if Du Coudray and his train of forty or fifty artillery officers were a nuisance merely, let us also remember that it was Silas Deane who commissioned Lafayette, De Kalb, and Steuben.

            In the course of the autumn Mr. Deane had a taste of Arthur Lee’s sweet and confiding disposition. He received a letter from that gentleman desiring him to inform Congress, that Joseph Reed of Philadelphia, military secretary to General Washington, and John Langdon, member of Congress from Connecticut, "were dangerous persons." Mr. Deane being the intimate acquaintance of both the accused, declined doing so unless the charges were explicitly stated and evidence furnished. a few weeks later, Mr. Lee being closeted with Deane in Paris, "I entreated him to inform me on what grounds he had gone in his information respecting Mr. Reed and Mr. Langdon. He told me that as to Mr. Reed, he really knew nothing more than that he formerly corresponded with Lord Dartmouth, and that his brother-in-law, M. de Burdt, was actually intimate with his lordship. But for Mr. Langdon, he said there could be no doubt, as he was the last winter in London, and frequently with the ministry. I replied, that as to the latter, I had spent the last winter with him in Philadelphia; and as to the former, I could not think that such vague and inconclusive circumstances were sufficient to authorize sending general charges to Congress; for, that charges of such a complexion, and coming from such a person as himself, must forever damn the reputation of those accused thereby, and alarm and embarrass the public. To this Mr. Lee said he knew that a person of the name of Langdon had been in London the last winter, and therefore he wrote, supposing him to be Mr. John Langdon of Portsmouth; that he believed that he was too suspicious at times, and was glad that I had not sent forward his letter." (4)

            And so the year wore away; the embarrassments of the American agents not diminishing as events moved onward. With Mr. Deane, the darkest hour was just before the dawn. At the beginning of December, 1776, there were few men in Europe who had a practicable faith in the American cause, and the French government itself began to despair. Beaumarchais had been to the coast to dispatch two of his vessels, but by consorting with actors and bringing out his plays, as before referred to, had betrayed the secret of his presence, and of his connection with the ships. Lord Stormont, the British embassador, thundered remonstrance with all the force of the British lion. The Count de Vergennes sent orders to stop all the ships loaded and loading for America, and either was or affected to be deeply offended with his dramatic agent. Beaumarchais was understood to be in disgrace, and every thing was in extremity. Deane, oppressed by labors, for he had no secretary, tortured by anxiety, for he was still without news from home, responsible for millions, yet dependent upon a stranger for his subsistence, representing a Power that might have ceased to exist, and inhabiting a country whose policy might at any moment demand his expulsion, his great ally and friend in disgrace, only one ship really off, and half a dozen others eating themselves up in port, England exulting, France giving up – we cannot wonder that he was ready at times to despair. He had written, a month before, asking Congress to send over one of its own members to help him, little supposing that help was near.

            In the evening of December the seventh, the overburdened envoy received a note from Nantes, which lifted a mountain load of care from his heart, and sent him to bed a happy man.




1. "Beaumarchais and his Times," chap. xviii.

2. Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, i., 484.

3. Lafayette also, fifty years after these events, told Lady Morgan that the queen favored the American cause, though without understanding any thing about it. See "Lady Morgan’s Diary," American edition, p. 112.

4. "Deane Papers," p. 26.


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