Beaumarchais, the Chevalier d’Éon, Silas Deane and other major players in the American Revolutionary War

The title of this book, Spies in Revolutionits subtitle: Beaumarchais, the Chevalier d’Éon, Silas Deane and the Secrets of American Independence “. An entire program ! But a more than learned program written by Joel Richard Paul, professor of constitutional law at theuniversity of california and previously to Yale and to Berkeley. Also when one appreciates constitutional law how can one not be passionate about history, all the more so when it comes to that of a country which has always been governed by the same constitutional texts since its independence.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766)
Oil on canvas. Private collection London

For those who are interested in the biography of Pierre Augustin Caron Beaumarchais (1732-1799) (a very nice name) the fact that he was a significant player in American independence, (even if it was more for financial reasons than for moral principles!), does not is not a novelty. His action with Vergennes (1719-1787), then ministers of foreign affairs, and more indirectly on Louis XVI is known and has been studied. The quantities of arms and other military supplies he obtained for the Insurgents are far from negligible and undoubtedly contributed to the final victory of the latter. Just as we know very well that he served as an emissary for the French monarch in order to recover the more than compromising letters that his predecessor had sent to the Chevalier d’Eon whose reputation was, from that time, more than sulphurous.

Chevalier d'Eon American Revolutionary War
Portrait of the Chevalier d’Éon by Thomas Stewart (1792) (after Jean-Laurent Mosnier) wearing his cross of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Louis.
© Philip Mould / Wikimedia Commons.

Well, the author tends to believe that the knight was indeed a woman, whereas the report of the autopsy of his body in 1810 clearly showed that he belonged to the male sex, but it must be said that Éon spent more than 30 years of her life dressed with dresses.

Let’s be honest, Éon’s role in terms of American independence is more than marginal, if not zero. At most, he put Beaumarchais in contact with certain American individuals, sometimes sulphurous, and who had an action, not always positive, at the level of the War of Independence. We are of course thinking of Arthur Lee, the youngest of a rich family of American planters, a lawyer in London, but above all frustrated, paranoid and particularly petty and who will do anything to denigrate the action of Silas Deane in Paris. At most, d’Éon, after his falling out with Beaumarchais, contributed to debunking his former friend, which incidentally did not help him to resolve his financial troubles. Indeed, if the War of Independence put the kingdom of france bankrupt, so did Beaumarchais whose action has not been recognized by the French and even less by the Americans.

Olécio partner of Wukali
Silas Deane American Revolutionary War

Silas Deane (1737-1789) As for him, he is very little known to the French and, if we believe the author, to the Americans alike, while his role in obtaining the support of France against Great Britain is far from negligible. We know more, of course Benjamin Franklin which, moreover, has only benefited, with Arthur Lee (1740-1792), of all the work done by Silas Deane.

The latter, son of a blacksmith, is a former lawyer but above all a merchant who has succeeded, thanks to his two marriages, in building a small fortune. Elected delegate

The latter, son of a blacksmith, is a former lawyer but above all a merchant who has succeeded, thanks to his two marriages, in building a small fortune. Elected delegate of Connecticut from 1774 to 1776 at the Continental Congress, he was quickly noticed because of his firm convictions in favor of independence. A hard worker, he coordinated and financed the attack on fort Ticonderoga (Fort Carillon), which marked the beginning of the War of Independence and created the American Navy. After some setbacks with Roger Shermann (1721-1793), another delegate from Connecticut, he was appointed by Congress as a secret envoy to France, with the mission of obtaining French aid and purchasing equipment for 25,000 combatants. Not speaking French, he had a difficult start, but was able to contact Vergennes who put him in touch with Beaumarchais.

He is a single man, without any contact with his agents and does what is in his power as honestly as possible. He is certainly one of the last to know that there was a declaration of independence. However, with Beaumarchaishe manages to outwit the English spies and obtain supplies for the Insurgents. It was he again who recruited young French officers who covered themselves with glory during the war, like the baron Johann de Kalbone of the best tacticians in this war, and of course the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). His situation seems to improve with the arrival of Lee and Franklin with whom he constitutes the American diplomatic delegation in France. On February 6, 1778, he was one of the signatories of the trade and alliance treaties between the young Republic and the kingdom of France.

However, he was recalled by Congress before which he had to face accusations of financial embezzlement by Arthur Lee. However, as his account books remained in France, he could not exculpate himself and even less try to recover the non-negligible sums he had committed on his property for the benefit of the cause of Independence. It was not until 1842, well after his death, that his family managed to obtain compensation.

It must be said that Dean is the subject of ” dirty tricks », gossip, lies from Lee (who didn’t like Franklin either) and so on. And then, there are within the Congress fault lines between Anglophones and Francophones of which it is somewhat the plaything.

Dean will die in England while returning to his native country. It must be said that after his setbacks with the Congress he was critical of France. Convinced that the war was lost, he ended up saying that the American states had to remain dependent on the English crown.

Benjamin Franklin American Revolutionary War
Signature of the Treaty of Paris 1763
Its three negotiators John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay.
Unfinished painting by Benjamin West (1730-1820)
Winterthur museum and Country Estate

This book illustrates a whole series of twisted tricks, double agents, treacheries. What can be said of the hypocrisy of France, which wants to show that it applies the peace treaties with Great Britain when it wants to wash away the humiliation of the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which had ended the seven years warbut which secretly promotes the smuggling of arms to the insurgents. Either, the French double game, of which the English were far from being fooled, more than contributed to the final American victory, and the author details with a certain greed the meanders of this diplomacy which, in fact, is always news. France was hoping for a long war to weaken its neighbor across the Channel. We can’t do better today!

In this bountiful book, Joel Richard Paul takes us behind the scenes of a period that caused a real earthquake in the history of humanity. We read his book like a spy novel, but everything is true. According to which, history is often much more gripping, much more thrilling than fiction!

Spies in Revolution
Joel Richard Paul
Editions Perrin. 23€90

You want to react to this review
Perhaps you would like to offer us articles
Do not hesitate !


Header illustration: Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine / John Vanderlyn (1775-1852). Oil on canvas 108cm/145. Gilcrease museum. Tulsa. Oklahoma. USA

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.