May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
In a sense, to call the Marquis de Lafayette an overrated hero is unfair. He was a hero, and he did fight for the Continental Army at his own expense. His fellow Freemason George Washington, whom the Frenchman idolized, wrote to Congress that Lafayette “possesses a large share of bravery and military ardor.” At Brandywine he took a t. British bullet in the thigh while helping check a British advance, he fought with distinction at Monmouth, and, of course, he lent no small share of moral support during the hardships at Valley Forge. Still, the Lafayette legend is more myth than substance. His record as a soldier was solid but superficial, and according to one of his later, less fawning biographers, Louis R. Gottschalk, he was motivated to fight for the American side less by idealism than by frustration back home and a longing for glory.
Pierre Augustin Caron, better known as Beaumarchais and best known as the creator of the plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro . He was identified by one of his English translators, John Wood, as “at various times or simultaneously, artisan, courtier, musician, financier, diplomat, merchant, ship-owner, army contractor, secret agent, publisher, litigant, and controversialist on a grand scale.”
He managed to send enough arms, ammunition, and equipment to keep twenty-five thousand men in the field, material one biographer credits with being decisive in carrying out the campaign that resulted in the world-changing victory at Saratoga. The cost of the shipments has been estimated as five million livres (or about a million dollars), much of the money coming out of Beaumarchais’s pocket, for which he was reimbursed not one Continental dollar. Not until 1835 did the U.S. government make tardy restitution to the playwright’s heirs, and then only for eight hundred thousand francs, as livres had become. In later years it was discovered that even while in the red he continued to send those he called “my friends, the free men of America” war supplies on credit, all the time working to enlist sympathy and mobilize efforts for the colonies.