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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
By September, 1775, the crusader was back in Versailles, and with Vergennes intensified the campaign to draw the King into their dangerous project of largescale aid to the colonies. Beaumarchais wrote masterly letters to Louis XVI, arguing that with timely secret help from France the Americans would win their war and clip Britain’s wings. Vergennes sent an agent, Achard de Bonvouloir, to Philadelphia to sound out Franklin about the prospects of a separation from England and a successful war. These prospects were bleak enough in December, 1775, but Franklin sent Bonvouloir back with such a rosy report that they immediately improved.
France did not wait for the announcement of July Fourth. On May 2, 1776, Louis XVI signed documents committing France to action as a secret American ally, in violation of her treaties with Britain. He contributed a million livres to the colonies’ war chest and his uncle, Charles III of Spain, followed suit. On May 3 Vergennes wrote his royal master that he proposed to call in Sieur Montaudoin of Nantes and entrust him with forwarding funds and arms to America. But Beaumarchais had already outlined his plan for Hortalez & Company in a memoir to the King, and he persuaded Vergennes that this was the perfect device for concealing the Bourbon conspiracy against Britain.
The dramatist became a whirlwind of activity. Louis XVI, preparing for the war with England which Vergennes assured him was inevitable whether or not he aided the Americans, had ordered the Navy rebuilt and the Army re-equipped. This released a great stock of surplus arms for Hortalez to buy up cheaply. The bogus company functioned as a legitimate business house, paying cash for its purchases and keeping its connection with Versailles a secret even from the American leaders.
Athur Lee, who became Congress’ agent in London after Franklin’s departure, had been in conspiratorial relations with Beaumarchais during his visits to England. When the royal nod transmogrified Beaumarchais into Roderigue Hortalez, he wrote Lee over that signature, announcing the formation of his house and his intended shipments to the Cape, to be paid for by remittances of American tobacco.
What thus started as an acknowledged business arrangement was twisted by Arthur Lee into a fantasy which better suited his private purposes, all directed toward immortalizing Arthur Lee. He gave Franklin’s courier a verbal message: due to Mr. Lee’s unflagging labors with the French embassy in London, Versailles had been persuaded to send goods worth £200,000 (Hortalez had said 25,000) to the Caribbean as an outright gift. Later Lee developed this fantasy into a sinister engine of destruction against those he hated.
Franklin and Deane were at the top of that long list. Sitting together in Deane’s hotel while the crowds outside waited for a glimpse of their idol, the two men were already dreading the arrival of Arthur Lee as their colleague. Congress had appointed Jefferson as the third commissioner, but he had declined to serve because of his wife’s illness, and the Adams-Lee bloc in Congress rushed their man in as substitute.
For a complication of reasons the Massachusetts cousins, John and Samuel Adams, had formed a close alliance with the Virginia brothers, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee. They were sure that the men who were shouldering the executive functions of a nonexistent Administration were in the wrong: Washington, Franklin, Morris, Deane, John Jay, and their hardheaded allies. John Adams once remarked that while Washington was to be respected as a private individual, in Congress “I feel myself to be superior to General Washington.” He objected to the commander being allowed to name his own generals and thought Congress should carry on every function of war except shoot down redcoats.
The two Lee brothers in Congress saw that their brothers in London were put in posts of influence. Arthur was installed in the place where he could counteract Deane and “that wicked old man,” as R. H. Lee called Franklin. William Lee was appointed joint commercial agent for France to checkmate Robert Morris’ brother. This move had been made after Franklin left Philadelphia, and the bad news would not reach Paris for months. But Franklin and Deane knew what to expect from Arthur Lee.
He was the dark personality of the family: a paranoid constantly haunted by the most fantastic suspicions of the people around him; a captious, hypercritical man who never married or made a simple friendship; a man with inflated notions of his own Tightness and genius who suffered tortures of jealousy of anybody above him. His jealousy of Franklin, which grew into a nightmare for Americans on two continents, had begun in 1770 when Massachusetts appointed Franklin its agent in England, and Lee his inactive deputy to replace him if he left England or if he died. Almost consciously Lee longed for that consummation.
Meanwhile Arthur Lee and his younger brother William joined the floating malcontents who supported the flamboyant John Wilkes and helped elect him lord mayor of London late in 1774. William Lee was rewarded with office as alderman of the city, a title which he did not relinquish until the war was almost over and he knew which side would win. Arthur Lee was rewarded by memories of turmoil, which he loved and which he was expert in creating.