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Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance
Adapted from her new book, The Secret War of Independence , Behind the benevolent smile lurked the master of intrigue, skillfully maneuvering the vacillating courts of Europe
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The Reprisal was carrying a cargo of indigo worth £3,000 which was intended to pay the early expenses of the Paris mission. Pliarne and Penet undertook to sell the indigo, meanwhile giving Franklin a small cash advance—and that was about the last the mission got of the indigo money. Robert Morris’ alcoholic half brother Thomas had just been appointed by Congress as its commercial agent for all of France. When he arrived at Nantes Penet kept him drunk and hostile to the Paris commissioners. Congress was shipping them tobacco, furs, and other valuable products to buy war supplies and ships, but Tom Morris and Penet claimed every cargo arriving in France. Robert Morris had arranged Tom’s appointment under the delusion that the youth had reformed during a long stay abroad and was to be trusted with the public business. It was a delusion that cost him and the country dear and brought no profit to Tom Morris.
Franklin’s arrival in Paris set off an extraordinary wave of public excitement that bordered on hysteria. In his plain dress, still wearing his comfortable fur cap, he was the natural man Rousseau had taught the French to revere, and a symbol of Utopia. France, wretchedly poor at the bottom of its society and jaded and apprehensive at the top, was rushing towards its own revolution, and the violent emotions which would ruin the French Revolution were tripped off in wild demonstrations of welcome.
Hoping to calm down the furor, Franklin appeared in public as little as possible. He closeted himself with Silas Deane, who had now been in France for six months on a dual mission for the two secret committees and had a tremendous budget of news. The two men had been on fairly close terms in Congress, where Deane had sat from the first day as a delegate from Connecticut. As a fellow commissioner, Deane’s prodigious energies and devotion to Franklin would help to pull them both through the stormy year ahead.
As far as brains and ability went, Deane belonged in the first rank of the men doing the hard immediate tasks of the Revolution. He understood not only the practical mechanics of business but the direction it would take after the war; his economic thinking was often bold and creative. He was a smaller copy of Robert Morris and aspired to become a great international merchant like his friend. At the same time he yearned to be a statesman like Franklin.
The trouble with Silas Deane was tragically simple: he was never quite sure who he was. People he loved and admired had far too much influence on him. A blacksmith’s son, he had worked his way through Yale and had started to practice law when he married the daughter of a great merchant family. That switched him to the Caribbean trade. His first wife soon died and he married the daughter of a great political family—and switched to politics. He did extremely well in these successive careers, and now at forty held a position of high honor.
On the surface Deane’s rapid rise might seem the result of clever opportunism in marrying and winning the friendship of the right people. But somehow, even when he acted in a cheap way, Silas Deane was not cheap. His emotional balance was precarious. He had never outgrown some early drive to make the blacksmith’s son a great gentleman. His background was no more humble than Franklin’s, but his friend could dress like a Quaker while Deane amassed a huge wardrobe of velvets and satins and drained his private purse entertaining his new French acquaintances. He was overimpressed with titles and high connections and had made the serious blunder of sending a stream of idle young aristocrats overseas to serve under Washington. Most of them were of no earthly use to the Commander in Chief and drained an impoverished Congress of money and patience.
However, Deane had already made a magnificent contribution to the Revolution in helping France to help America. He had a vital part in transforming the flow of war supplies from a too little, too late dribble into a steady stream which insured an American victory. Many of the vessels loading up in French ports with arms for Washington were the private ventures of merchants whom Deane had inspired with confidence. But his most important work was with the new firm of Hortalez & Company, which really meant the House of Bourbon.
Franklin had no doubt guessed, when the courier returned from Europe in September with news of tremendous shipments of arms by “Monsieur Hortalez,” that the real name of this mysterious friend was France. For diplomatic reasons, he always pretended a vast ignorance of Hortalez & Company—a feat like hiding an elephant in a hat.
The celebrated dramatist Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais now cast himself in his own best role, which he played without applause. If he had written the true story of his life as a drama no audience would have believed it. One of his parts was acting as confidential agent for the King, for his circumspection was as profound as Franklin’s. However, Beaumarchais put his whole soul into his character as friend of the American Revolution. For all his enjoyment of high life and high-level intrigue, he was a seismograph about social upheavals and an intellectual who understood their necessity.
During 1775, in London on a royal errand, he was in close touch with the American patriots. A year before the Declaration Beaumarchais wrote Vergennes that he was leaving for Flanders on a political mission, and that he had something tremendous to impart later. He was evidently buying arms and setting up a smuggling base in the Low Countries.