Everyone knows that Benjamin Franklin was our first diplomatic envoy in Paris and that he almost single-handedly forged the alliance with France that provided the arms that clinched the American Revolution. Or, well, we thought so, anyway. In fact, long before Ben Franklin set foot in France the Franco-American alliance was nearly a fait accompli.
In December, 1775, even before declaring Independence, the Continental Congress decided to send a secret agent to Louis XVI to negotiate for arms and eventually an alliance. Franklin knew the perfect man for the job: Silas Deane. Deane was a shopkeeper, who had lived his entire life in Connecticut, could not speak a word of French, and knew precisely nothing about diplomacy. Franklin thought that Deane was such an improbable spy that the British would never suspect him.
Deane set out in January, 1776, and did not arrive in Paris until July. He had no idea that Independence had already been declared. Though Congress sent him a copy of the Declaration to present to Louis XVI, it was lost in the mail - along with his diplomatic instructions. So for nearly six months Deane had to improvise on his own as the first American representative sent to Europe.
Pursued by British spies and undercut by jealous rivals back home, Deane nevertheless succeeded with the help of two men. The first was Caron de Beaumarchais, the comic playwright who penned "The Marriage of Figaro," and "The Barber of Seville." Beaumarchais was a dashing and brilliant bon vivant of many talents. He invented the wristwatch, designed the modern harp, built the Paris water system, spied for the French King - and traded arms. Beaumarchais adopted the American cause as his own and thought he could do good and do well by selling them arms on credit.
Together Deane and Beaumarchais smuggled all of the guns, cannon, ammunition, uniforms, hats, boots, tents, blankets, and handkerchiefs for an army of 30,000 men on board ships bound for New England. And all this loot arrived just in the nick of time as 9,000 well-armed British regulars were preparing one final assault against the remains of Washington's ragged army at Saratoga.
Armed with the supplies sent by Deane the Continental Army swelled with new recruits and fought valiantly under General Benedict Arnold. The Americans won the day and captured the entire British Army including its commanding General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne.
There was one other improbable hero of our Independence. Deane and Beaumarchais could not have won the support of Louis XVI without the leavening influence of the former French ambassador to Britain, the Chevalier d'Eon. D'Eon was a wily diplomat, decorated soldier, and spy, who had tried to blackmail Louis XVI. In 1775, just as Deane was en route to France, Louis XVI sent Beaumarchais to London to dissuade d'Eon from his threats.
To Beaumarchais' astonishment, d'Eon revealed that he was in fact a woman who had spent the first 40 years of her life pretending to be male. Dressed as a boy d'Eon had shown remarkable athleticism and bravery. She won military honors and acclaim as a fencing champion and a wily diplomat. Under Beaumarchais' seductive power, d'Eon reluctantly agreed to "come out" as a woman, perhaps in the hope of marrying the playwright. Beaumarchais had in effect neutralized the threat to Louis XVI, and he was rewarded by the King with enough arms to save the Americans.
Thus, what we should celebrate this Independence Day isn't the genius of Franklin's steady diplomacy, but the fortuitous intervention of a Yankee shopkeeper, a French playwright, and a cross-dressing spy.
Joel Richard Paul is a professor and associate dean at the University of California Hastings Law School and author of Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright and a Spy Saved the American Revolution.
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