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The French Connection
Rakehells, men of good will, adventurers, and bunglers were all in the glittering pageant when the Old World came to help out the New
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
There was a soldier of fortune present at that dinner at Metz who knew the importance and the intricacy of this strategic situation—de Kalb, a Bavarian soldier long in the service of France, a man of great experience in all the arts of war, specializing in logistics and fortification—who had already spent time in America reconnoitering the situation. A tough professional of excellent judgment, he was as confident of France’s opportunities as de Broglie and as eager for action as young Lafayette.
And there were scores of soldiers, aristocrats like de Broglie, scattered throughout the garrisons of France, longing and praying for revenge and rejoicing in the American opportunity. England’s espionage system was admirable, and her diplomats were alive to the threats, but what should French policy be? Vergennes, the foreign minister, wanted war so long as Spain was a committed ally; but Spain was vulnerable both in America and in the West Indies, and to persuade Spain took time. In any case France needed time to reflect. Also Louis xv, an aging roué, gave his ministers little encouragement; his death in 1774, however, revitalized the administration and strengthened its resolve. Nevertheless for many years the French government had been playing its own war game, plotting and planning how to get a military advantage over Britain. It had sent its master spies and agents to London—the bisexual Chevalier d’Eon, who dressed and lived as a woman, and Beaumarchais, the creator of The Marriage of Figaro , whose contacts were complex and far-reaching. They planned possible invasions of England. They listened to the radicals and tested the opposition to Lord North’s policy. They learned of the weaknesses of the British army, the unpreparedness of its navy. Their reports, always optimistic, flowed into the Quai d’Orsay. Aware of their activities in general, if not always apprised of their detailed information, the British government, through its Ambassador Stormont in Paris, thrust out its jaw, telling the French bluntly that aid to the American rebels would mean war. By the accession of Louis xvi the momentum of involvement was mounting, although Louis xvi and his advisers still hoped to avoid a direct confrontation with Britain. But they were no longer complete masters of the situation. Games became realities.
As soon as it became a shooting war, the Americans needed France desperately; they could manufacture gunpowder but little else. And their financial resources were ludicrously small. America’s urgent needs at first made the French government even more reluctant, for they did not wish to commit themselves to a lost cause and have to confront an armed Britain that might take a quick revenge. And as great nations are wont to do in such circumstances, they tried to make the best of both worlds—give largescale succor to the colonists but protest their neutrality to Britain. What could the king do if idealistic boys like Lafayette chartered ships and sailed as knights errant to America? What could the king do if his subjects sold arms and ammunition or even made loans to the colonists? How could he prevent soldiers of fortune, such as de Kalb—after all, a German—from seeking fame, glory, and riches with Washington’s army?
Naturally armaments were the first necessity and the prime preoccupation, not only of Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin, but also of Beaumarchais, who was as creative in action as in writing. Two million francs were to be given by the French and Spanish governments to his cover company Hortalez & Cie. This money was to be used to buy from the royal arsenals up-to-date weapons that were to be shipped to America. After the governments had paid over the money, the waters became murky and never have wholly cleared. Working as it did under a shroud of secrecy, Beaumarchais’ company became the object of a good deal of suspicion. There were accusations of sharp dealing among the principals involved. At one time Congress was divided over the question of whether it should pay for the military aid that got through, and Beaumarchais became involved in an arduous controversy over payment that was not settled in his favor until thirty-six years after his death. Nevertheless essential supplies got to America—the rifles, the guns, the shells—without which there could have been no victory. Deane played a complicated game, Franklin was careless about secrecy, and Beaumarchais’ ebullient exhibitionism bordered on the suicidal. At Le Havre, incognito in order to expedite a ship loaded with armaments, he appeared at its theatre to rehearse his play The Barber of Seville . It is not surprising that the British knew exactly what aid was being sent to America. But so slow were communications, so leisurely the reaction to military intelligence, that Beaumarchais’ vessels mostly got through.