The part taken by Beaumarchais in furnishing assistance to American patriots is a picturesque chapter in our early history, while the treatment he received from the people he befriended is not a thing of which we can be proud. There was little in Beaumarchais's career that was not picturesque; he was dramatic in life as in literature; whether he produced comedies or transacted affairs of state, be was always amusing and not always high-minded. The morality of Figaro was very nearly the morality of the creator of Figaro.
It was by a devious route that Beaumarchais reached the position of a great contractor, the representative of the French government in giving aid to a struggling republic. His father was a respectable jeweller, by the name of Caron, who made watches and practised his trade with much credit and moderate pecuniary success. He seems to have been an intelligent man; in his letters be expresses himself with justness and sometimes with felicity. To his intellectual qualities the father joined an unusual virility; he married a second time at the ripe age of seventy-seven, and espoused his third wife when eighty-six.
The famous author was born in 1732 in his father's shop in the rue Saint-Denis. He learned the trade of a watchmaker, and learned it well. When only twenty years of age, he invented an improvement in escapements which brought him some prominence in his craft. Others sought to reap the benefit of the invention, but the young Caron early showed skill in litigation ; he prosecuted the offenders with success, and the Academy of Sciences declared that the invention belonged to him (Louis de Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, i, 19.)
Soon he made still more important progress, and succeeded in selling some of his watches to Louis XV and others of the court. Accordingly he styled himself "Watchmaker to the King," and in the strangely compounded assemblage at Versailles, where those of every rank and occupation often jostled one another, Caron had the entree; he not only sold watches to courtiers, but he became in a certain way a member of the court, where his good looks and, still more, his agreeable conversation made him welcome. The ladies, we are told, were pleased, not only by his "lofty stature and his slender and elegant figure," but still more by the "ardor which he exhibited on their appearance." Versailles was in some of its features curiously democratic, and the young watchmaker, though he did not meet great officials and nobles of long descent as an equal, at least had an opportunity to meet them. Presently he found a way to render his position somewhat more assured, by buying one of the innumerable offices which, if they were of little worth otherwise, obtained for the holder the right to figure as a regular member of the court. Beaumarchais bought the office of controller of the pantry of the king's household ; in that capacity he marched with the procession that carried the meat to the royal table, had the honor of placing some of the dishes before the King with his own hands, and then stood watching the repast with sword at his side. If his duties were not weighty, at least they were as important as those of the Cravattier in ordinary, or the Captain of the Greyhounds of the Chamber.
The controller of the pantry made another step forward when he married a rich widow older than himself; and he took the name of Beaumarchais from a small fief belonging to his wife. M. Caron borrowed his name from one of his wives, wrote an enemy some years later. In 1761 M. de Beaumarchais, as he was now called, bought for eighty-five thousand francs the office of secretary to the king, which imposed no duties but conferred the rank of nobility (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, i, 91. ) When later he was taunted with being a plebeian, he replied that he could easily prove his nobility, he held the parchment which conferred it and a receipt for the money he had paid for it. No aristocratic prejudices kept the author of "Le Mariage de Figaro" from sympathizing with republicans across the Atlantic.
In his new surroundings Beaumarchais abandoned the humble trade of watchmaker, and his active mind led him into varied employments. He gave lessons on the harp to the daughters of Louis XV, four exemplary and somewhat insipid princesses, and organized concerts which were sometimes honored by the presence of the King himself. Such relations flattered his vanity, but did not fill his pocket, for he received no pay from these august pupils. But he had a taste for speculation, and Paris Duverney, the famous contractor, initiated him, said Beaumarchais, "into the secrets of finance." (lbid., 115.) Opportunities to get into enterprises "on the ground floor" could be found in the reign of Louis XV, as well as on Wall Street to-day. Beaumarchais profited by such and made money; some of it he spent and some of it, like many a modern speculator, he lost in other ventures.
He continued his varied career, and burst into fame by a lawsuit with one of the judges of the new courts created by Chancellor Maupeou. It is not often that one gains literary distinction by legal pleadings, but Beaumarchais's pleas, which be prepared himself, were read all over Europe; they excited the admiration of Goethe and Voltaire, and by the time the lawsuit terminated in a judgment that deprived him of all political rights and declared him infamous, he had acquired an international reputation, and was one of the most popular men in France. "It is not enough to be declared infamous," said a friend, who feared Beaumarchais's head would be turned by flattery, one must also be modest."
Beaumarchais's fame as a writer did not diminish his taste for speculation, nor his eagerness for work in connection with the court, and all these passions were gratified by the part he was allowed to take in the dealings with the United States. It was during a stay in England that he first became interested in American matters. His errand illustrated the carelessness and recklessness of the closing years of Louis XV's reign. The Treaty of Paris stripped France of a large part of her colonial empire, and it was not strange that patriotic Frenchmen should devise plans of revenge. Yet it was strange that such schemes should receive the written approval of the French King, and be placed in the hands of diplomatic agents as a guide for their conduct. Such, however, was the case. Louis XV was too indolent to attend to the active duties of his position, but he sought amusement in playing at politics. He had a little body of secret advisers, and carried on, by their means, a personal diplomacy, which had no practical effect except occasionally to embarrass the official representatives of the state.
One of these advisers was the Comte de Broglie, and he prepared an elaborate plan for the invasion of England. Officers were sent to England who investigated places of landing, means of subsistence, positions for camps, and all the detail of an invasion, with as much precision as if an army were ready to embark. This might have been a harmless diversion, but the plan was submitted to the King, who endorsed upon it his written approval, with as little consideration as he would have given to granting a pension to one of his sultanas, and then intrusted it to the Chevalier d'Eon, one of his agents in England (Duc de Broglie, The King's Secret, ii, 80-87.) Eon subsequently gained extensive notoriety by the controversy excited over the question whether he was a man or a woman. This became a favorite subject of wagers with the frequenters of White's, and enormous sums were staked upon it. Eon himself declined to solve the problem, and after wearing the garb and leading the life of a man and an officer of dragoons for almost fifty years, he donned petticoats and for twenty years passed as a woman.
If it was uncertain whether the chevalier was a man, there was no doubt that he was a rogue; he quarrelled with the French minister and was presently discharged from employment, very much out of pocket, and the possessor of a document containing a plan for the invasion of England and bearing the written endorsement of the French King, which members of the English opposition would gladly buy at any price. They had criticized the terms of peace made with France; they declared that the ministry had failed to profit by victories won on sea and land, had neglected to complete the work Pitt had begun and thus cripple for all time the dangerous power of France. What force would be added to such charges, if they could produce a plan for the invasion of England, formally approved by Louis XV, when the ink was hardly dry on the Treaty of Paris! Not perfidious Albion, but perfidious Gaul would be exposed to the contempt of mankind.
Having rashly intrusted so compromising a paper to a most untrustworthy agent, Louis was now in great distress lest the existence of this scheme should be disclosed, not only to the English, but to his own ministers. The King was somewhat afraid of the wrath of Chatham, and much more afraid of the rebuking look of Choiseul; and Eon knew the value of the document he held; he would not surrender it; he would not expose himself to the dangers of a return to France; he intimated that his needs were great and the project of an English invasion would not be surrendered at the French King's command, but only in exchange for the French King's money.
It was a delicate problem to deal with a rogue who was also half crazy, and the King's advisers in these foolish schemes now added to his alarm. "Is it not to be feared," wrote the Comte de Broglie (Duc de Broglie, The King's Secret, ii, 137.), speaking of the possibility of Eon revealing his secrets, "that the sacred person of your Majesty would be compromised, and that a declaration of war on the part of England would be the inevitable consequence ?" After great disquiet the King made his peace with his dangerous subordinate by promising him twelve thousand livres per year, and this payment was made with greater regularity than Louis observed in dealing with many more meritorious creditors.
Eon kept his peace during the remainder of Louis XV's life, but he did not surrender the compromising papers. While Louis XVI and his ministers were not responsible for these, they knew enough about them to be sure that their publication would cause disagreeable complications. It was decided to secure them if Eon would agree to any reasonable terms, and Beaumarchais was selected as the best man for this negotiation. He had already proved his fitness for such a task. In the days of Louis XV, he had been sent to London to negotiate for the purchase of all the copies of a book purporting to give a history of the early career of Madame du Barry. A large sum of money had to be paid in order to prevent the publication of anything that might cast a shadow on the fair fame of that lady, but Beaumarchais performed his errand in a manner that secured the good-will of his employer. He had again been employed in securing the suppression of a libel on Marie Antoinette, and he was now deemed well qualified to deal with a blackmailer of another sort. Beaumarchais was superior to Eon in adroitness and his equal in freedom from scruple, and he was sent to England to obtain the incriminating documents at the lowest possible figure.
Accordingly in 1775 be visited London and at last made terms with the culprit. Though the chevalier was as erratic as he was dishonest, his business qualities were well developed. Before turning over the documents which it was his duty to return, he demanded twelve thousand livres a year in rentes, and to this Beaumarchais agreed (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, i, 419.) In addition, Eon received a liberal sum for the payment of his debts, but to the contract were annexed some singular stipulations. The chevalier agreed that as a condition of his return to France he would assume the dress of a woman, and continue to wear this for the remainder of his life.
Beaumarchais, with less acuteness than he usually displayed, was convinced that Eon was a woman. "I assured this lady," he writes Vergennes, "that if she were wise, modest, talked little, and bore herself properly, I could probably obtain some further advantages for her." Eon was wise enough to demand at once two thousand crowns to buy a lady's wardrobe, and this was granted. On the whole the chevalier got the best of the bargain, but still the incriminating papers were obtained, and the French government was glad to get them back at any price.
This curious errand, in its indirect results, exercised a large influence upon Beaumarchais's future career, and was not without importance to the thirteen colonies that were about to renounce their allegiance to the English King. Beaumarchais's visits to England led to his action in behalf of England's rebellious colonies. He met intimately some of the men prominent in the opposition to Lord North, and he heard their opinions on American questions; naturally enough he formed views as to English sentiment that were not always accurate. He was also brought into relations with some of the colonists, who were intimate with his English friends. Wilkes, then Lord Mayor of London, was an ardent advocate of the American cause. Americans were welcome and frequent visitors at the lord mayor's, and among them was a young man whose acquaintance Beaumarchais was unlucky enough to make (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 113.)
Arthur Lee was a member of the famous Lee family of Virginia, and was then studying law in England. He possessed a restless desire for prominence, and either from natural exuberance of imagination, or from a willingness to pervert the facts to suit his taste, he was reckless in his statements to an extraordinary degree. It is hard to say whether he lied intentionally or from mere inability to tell the truth, but his looseness of statement made him a dangerous associate. Beaumarchais was not the most cautious of men in his talk; when he and Lee discussed the affairs of their respective governments, probably each deceived the other, and from this intercourse sprang in the future many serious complications. Beaumarchais believed all of Lee's rosy statements as to the strength of the insurgents, and Lee was persuaded that France stood ready to assist their cause to the utmost of her power.
Lee sent home a report that, as a result of his labors, he had an assurance that France would furnish five million livres' worth of arms and ammunition as a free gift to the United States (lbid., ii, 115.) Beaumarchais was a fervent talker, but he could not have made such a statement as this. Lee reported this fable, partly from his eagerness to make himself prominent as one who had extracted great promises of aid, and partly, doubtless, deceived by his own heated imagination.
At all events, Beaumarchais suggested to the French government the advisability of lending aid to the colonies, and when Beaumarchais had undertaken a cause, he gave his whole soul to it. Even if he overestimated the strength of the insurgents and the weakness of England, he saw more clearly than many statesmen the opportunity which France had to injure her ancient rival, and he manifested an interest in the cause of America that was then felt by few Frenchmen. The creator of Figaro must be counted among the earliest friends of the American Republic, and the services he rendered were by no means inconsiderable.
The American cause excited in Beaumarchais a genuine enthusiasm, though doubtless his zeal for liberty was increased by his desire to take an active part in the relations between the French court and the patriots. His dealings with the Americans exhibited that mixture of motives which is found in the actions of most men. He was eager to take a part in politics, and he found pleasure in the intrigues and secrecy in which plans for assistance to the colonists were involved; he did not disdain the possibility of pecuniary gain from his labors, but in addition to this he was sincerely eager for the success of the colonists, and one of the first to feel a strong sympathy with the young nation struggling for independence.
In September, 1775, having returned to Paris, he submitted to the King a formal memoir in which he predicted the triumph of the colonies. The Comte de Vergennes was inclined to favor the insurgents, but he hesitated before taking any overt action. Beaumarchais, therefore, devoted himself to arousing Louis XVI and his minister to activity; the task was not an easy one, but nothing discouraged his patriotic zeal. England, he wrote, was in such a state of disorder within and without, that her ruin was near at hand, if her rivals would seize their opportunity. The resources and the virtues of the insurgents were then depicted in a manner that the facts did not wholly warrant. The Americans, wrote Beaumarchais, would suffer all things rather than yield; they were not only full of enthusiasm for liberty, but thirty-eight thousand men, resolute and well armed, were ready to defend the cause, without taking one workman from the factory or one tiller from the soil. "Every fisherman," he continued, "reduced to poverty by the English, has become a soldier and vows he will avenge the ruin of his family and his country's liberty."
From this glowing picture, which was partly due to Arthur Lee's heated imagination, Beaumarchais declared the Americans to be invincible, while so grievous was England's strait that the King was not sure of his crown and the ministers were not sure of their heads. "This poor English people," he writes, "with its frantic liberty, inspires compassion in every reflecting mind. Never has it known the pleasure of living tranquilly under a wise and virtuous king." (Memoir, Sept. 21,1775; Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 92-96.) Beaumarchais's eloquence was rarely without some personal end. He drew as a moral from the situation that the French ministry was ill informed, that it was delaying important action, and that the services of an active, intelligent man were absolutely required in London.
Though Louis XVI was a wise and virtuous king, his mind worked slowly, and all this eloquence did not make him a convert to the American cause. Beaumarchais was not a man to brook delay. This letter was written on September 21, and on the next day he wrote again, complaining to Vergennes that the Council had taken no action. "All the wisdom of the world," he wrote, "will not enable a man to decide on the policy be should pursue, if he receives no answers to his letters . . . Am I an agent who may prove useful to his country, or am I a deaf and dumb traveller?" (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 98.)
Beaumarchais's usefulness might be questioned, but it was certain that he would not remain a mute. Though he complained of delay and bewailed the loss of time, his suggestions were followed with considerable promptness, and on the following day, September 23, he was again on his way to London. His activity had already excited the suspicions of the English ministers, and he was now given the nominal errand of buying old Portuguese piastres, which were to be sent to some of the French islands and there used as currency. In fact, he was commissioned as an agent to investigate the condition of English feeling, to ascertain the strength of the American colonists, and to make suggestions that might be valuable to his government, but he was strictly warned that he must do and say nothing that could be embarrassing to the French King. "Let your Excellency be at ease," he wrote Vergennes; "it would be an unpardonable folly in such a matter to compromise the dignity of my master or his minister . . . To do one's best is nothing in politics; it is by doing the best possible that one distinguishes one's self from the ordinary run of public servants."
In December, 1775, he addressed another long communication to the sovereign, who thus far had received his suggestions with silent disapproval. "There are plans of such importance," he now wrote, "that a zealous servant must present them more than once." His suggestions, so Vergennes informed him, had been rejected, "not because they possessed no utility, but from the delicate conscientiousness of the King."
Delicate scruples did not appeal to the creator of Figaro, nor, for that matter, to the diplomats of that age. Beaumarchais insisted that Louis must rise to the heights of political expediency, where the first law was to do the best for one's self, though this should, indeed, be accomplished with the least possible wrong to other governments. National policy, he declared, differed wholly from the civil morality which governed individuals. Starting with this moral principle, he reached the conclusion that Louis owed it to the French people, whose father he was, to weaken England, their eternal foe. "Such," he said, after expounding England's wickedness in the past, "is the audacious, unbridled, shameless people you will always have to deal with . . . Have the usurpations and outrages of that people recognized any limit but their own strength? The most solemn treaty of peace is to this usurping nation merely a truce demanded by an exhausted people; and yet your Majesty is so delicate and conscientious as to hesitate." Were men angels, he added, the devices of politics could be disdained, and earth would be a celestial abode; but while men were men, and the English were wicked, one must profit by their troubles. The English had chased the French from three quarters of the globe, they had seized the ships of the French King in time of peace and forced him to destroy his finest harbor, a humiliation which made the heart of every true Frenchman bleed; the King must not be deceived by the sophisms of a false sensibility, but must find in England's necessity France's opportunity. "May the guardian angel of the state incline the heart and mind of your Majesty," was the pious sentiment with which Beaumarchais ended his long appeal, which was zealous almost to impertinence (Beaumarchais to Louis, Dec. 7, 1775; Doniol, i, 251.)
Two months later the untiring agent sent another long communication, in which be again urged that aid be given to the Americans. The quarrel between America and England, he said, with just foresight, was to divide the world and change the system of Europe, and every person should consider how the impending separation would work to his own gain or loss. And then he proceeded to show that it was for the interest of France to aid the insurgents; that the Americans must be helped, was the proposition he sought to demonstrate (Same to Same, Feb. 29, 1776; Doniol, i, 403-407.)
His letter discloses how far his mind was influenced by the exuberant promises of Arthur Lee, the man who was destined to be the cause of Beaumarchais's financial ruin in his dealings with the United States. "A secret representative of the colonies, in London," so he wrote, "discouraged by the failure of his efforts through me to obtain from the French minister supplies of powder and munitions of war, said to-day, 'Has France absolutely decided to refuse us all succor, and thus become the victim of England and the laughingstock of Europe? . . . We offer France in return for secret assistance a treaty of commerce which will secure to her for a certain number of years after the peace all the benefits with which for a century we have enriched England.'"
If the ministers desired to avoid a war with England, this could only be done, so Beaumarchais declared, by furnishing secret aid to the Americans which would enable them to maintain the contest; otherwise England, after subduing her colonists, would send her victorious fleets to despoil France of her remaining possessions in the West Indies.
To secure the advantages which the situation offered, Beaumarchais proposed a scheme which was a agreeable to himself. It was possible, he wrote, to aid the colonists without involving France in war; they might receive succor which could not be shown to come from the French government; and he added: "If your Majesty has not a fitter man to employ, I will undertake the enterprise and no one shall be compromised. My zeal will better supply my lack of capacity, than the ability of another could replace my zeal."
In May, 1776, Beaumarchais returned to Paris, and on the day of his arrival he sent post-haste to Vergennes to demand an audience. " At three o'clock in the morning," he wrote, "my servant will be at Versailles for your levee. He will return in time for mine. I hope he will bring the tidings which I await with the utmost impatience, and that is, permission to go and assure you of my devotion." (Doniol, i, 483.)
So eager an emissary could not long be delayed. The plan of operations was acceptable to Vergennes, and in May the minister wrote the French ambassador at Madrid that, although the government was not ready to make any combination with the Americans, and that even to furnish them with arms and munitions of war might be proceeding too openly, yet the King had decided to lend them a million livres with which they could buy what they needed. All, he added, would be done in the name of a commercial firm which would color its zeal by the appearance of desiring to take a great part in American trade, when this should become possible (Doniol, i, 375.) The uncertainty of any repayment seems to have been recognized, for Vergennes adds that the company would furnish securities, "to tell the truth, not very binding." In this plan the Spanish King had agreed to join, and he was therefore to send a million livres to be used in the same way.
Beaumarchais had convinced Vergennes, if not the King, and he now formed the imaginary house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company, to carry into effect his scheme. The taste for Spanish literature which he showed in his plays appeared in the title which he selected for the mythical firm; it was Spanish, high-sounding, and fictitious. In the name of this house supplies were to be sent to the insurgents, the government furnishing as much money as it was willing to advance, and supplying munitions of war from the royal storehouses. How far the advances of the French King were to be repaid was left in obscurity. If Beaumarchais could obtain payment from the Americans, he was to do so; if he failed in this, it seems doubtful whether the French government intended to press its claim. It was evident that the enterprise would require considerable sums of money above any supplies furnished by the state, and to this extent, at least, Beaumarchais contemplated a speculation on his own account which might prove profitable, but was certain to be attended with risk; his ships might be captured by the English, or their contents might never be paid for by the Americans; but he feared the danger of loss as little as he feared the judgment of a court.
On June 10, 1776, the French government made an advance of one million livres (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, i, 439), and Beaumarchais executed a receipt for the money, adding, "Of which I am to render an account to the said Sieur Comte de Vergennes." On August 11, 1776, the million livres arrived from Spain, and this also was given to Beaumarchais through the medium of the French government, and for this he executed a similar receipt, saying, "The use of which I am to account for to his Excellency M. le Comte do Vergennes." The second receipt did not figure in subsequent transactions, but a reference to the first advance of a million livres was subsequently made by the French government in stating the moneys it had furnished to the colonies, and caused Beaumarchais untold woe. Whether any of this money was ever repaid does not appear, but we can safely assume that it was not. Doubtless Beaumarchais used the two millions in the purchase of supplies for the Americans, and in the course of his transactions with them. For that purpose the money was given him, and Vergennes never found any fault with his administration of the fund.
In the meantime a new actor appeared on the scene. in July, 1776, Silas Deane arrived in Paris with a commission from Congress to purchase supplies, which were to be paid for by the proceeds of cargoes of produce shipped from this country. Vergennes was ready to assist the colonists if he could do so without being found out, and he suggested to Deane that he had best apply to Beaumarchais, who was prepared to deal with such matters on a large scale. Beaumarchais met these overtures with alacrity, and at once offered to ship merchandise on the credit of Congress, to the amount of three million livres (B. F. Stevens, Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives relating to America, no. 890.) The American representative felt, however, a certain distrust of Beaumarchais's ability to perform this agreement, he being known, so says the report, "as a man of more genius than property"; but Vergennes replied there need be no fear. "That a man," Deane writes to the Secret Committee, "should, but a few months since, confine himself from his creditors, and now on this occasion be able to advance half a million, is so extraordinary that it ceases to be a mystery "; and the explanation was, as Deane adds, that "everything he says, writes or does, is in reality the action of the ministry." (Deane Papers, i, 183, 217.)
Beaumarchais admitted that his resources for aiding the colonists were by no means as great as he desired, and, therefore, he must have prompt returns in order to continue his advances; but, he adds, "I desire to serve your country as if it were my own, and I hope to find in the friendship of a generous people the true reward of a labor that I consecrate to them." (July 22,1776; lbid., 158.)
A contract was promptly entered into, which was plainly within the authority Deane had received from Congress, and Vergennes gave his assurance that Beaumarchais would be properly supported, and be able to fill his engagements on the most advantageous terms. By this contract Beaumarchais was authorized to procure the supplies desired and ship them to America, and these were to be paid for by the proceeds of tobacco and other articles, which would be shipped by Congress as fast as vessels could be provided. Twelve months, it was said, would be the longest credit required, and it was hoped that considerable remittances would be made within six months (Deane Papers, i, 153.)
The fact that these supplies were to be paid for was specified with frequency and clearness in the contract with Deane, and Congress hardly seems justified in assuming later that they were not to be paid for, merely because Arthur Lee said so. In the instructions given to Silas Deane, requesting him to obtain clothing and arms for twenty- five thousand men, the Committee said: "We mean to pay for the same by remittances to France"; while as to linens, woollens, etc., they were to be settled for at once and no credit asked ( Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Francis Wharton, editor, ii, 79. Cited hereafter as "Wharton.") In conformity with these instructions Deane promised prompt payment to Beaumarchais's house, and reported to Congress the purchase of the goods, and also that he had certified to the merchants "that the Congress would pay for whatever stores they would credit them with." He adds further on that he is negotiating for purchases from Beaumarchais on a credit of eight months from the time of delivery. "If I effect this, as I undoubtedly shall, I must rely on the remittances being made this fall and winter without fail, or the credit of the Colonies must suffer." (Wharton, ii, 113-120.)
Beaumarchais himself was equally explicit, when he reported this transaction to the Secret Committee. He speaks of the cargoes that were to be sent in return and says, "I request you, gentlemen, to send me next spring, if it is possible for you, ten or twelve thousand hogsheads, or more if you can, of tobacco from Virginia, of the best quality." (Wharton, ii, 129.) It should be said that the Secret Committee never sent a reply to any letters of Roderigue Hortalez and Company; but that unlucky firm could hardly regard this as signifying that their offer of supplies was accepted, while their request for payment was declined.
It was agreed that two hundred brass cannon and arms and clothing for twenty-five thousand men should be provided, and more if they could be procured. If Beaumarchais's anticipations had been verified, very much larger quantities would have been supplied. In February he had submitted a further letter to the King, by which he showed that if money to the amount of a million livres could be furnished Hortalez and Company, and tobacco be promptly received in payment and sold at the satisfactory figures that Beaumarchais anticipated, by the time the King had invested for the second time the profits of the operation, the Americans would receive two millions in gold and seven millions in powder, and this would continue to increase in geometrical progression, using three as a multiple: "If the first million produced three, these three employed in further operations, on the same theory, ought to produce nine, and these nine, twenty-seven, etc., as I think I have sufficiently demonstrated." (Deane Papers, i, 110-115) Unfortunately, the demonstration of Beaumarchais was not realized, any more than that of Deane showing the immense return the French would enjoy from America's commercial favor.
All shipments were to be made in the name of the mythical house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company. The French King could do nothing himself towards providing the insurgents with contraband of war, but it was correctly assumed that his officials would wink very hard when Beaumarchais was smuggling such articles out of the country to be sent to America.
The task of furnishing these supplies was beset by difficulties of every kind, and had it not been for Beaumarchais's indefatigable zeal, it is doubtful whether the much-needed powder, guns, and clothing would ever have reached the American army. The first embarrassment arose from the jealousy of those who wished to take part in the work and found themselves superseded. Dr. Dubourg regarded himself as the unofficial representative of the colonies, and was greatly displeased when he found that Beaumarchais had been selected as the person to furnish them aid. His vanity was injured, and probably he honestly believed that a man of Beaumarchais's erratic character was ill adapted to the business of obtaining coats, powder, and second-hand guns, and shipping them over to America. Accordingly he wrote Vergennes, protesting against this selection. "He likes splendor," said the doctor; "it is asserted that he maintains young ladies at his expense; in short he passes for a prodigal; in France there is no merchant . . . who would not hesitate very much to transact business with him." (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 120.)
This accusation, it is feared, amused Vergennes, instead of alarming him, and he forthwith transmitted it to the culprit. Beaumarchais at once sent a characteristic reply. "How does it affect our business, if I like pomp and splendor, and maintain young ladies in my house? The ladies . . . are your very humble servants. There were five, four sisters and a niece . . . Two of the girls have died, to my great sorrow. I now keep there only two sisters and a niece ... But what would you think of it, if ... you had been aware that I carry the scandal so far as to support . . . two young and pretty nephews, and even the miserable father who brought such a scandalous person into the world? As to my splendor, it is still worse . . . The best black cloth is not too good for me, sometimes I even push my recklessness so far as to wear silk when it is very warm, but I supplicate you not to report these things to the Comte de Vergennes. You would entirely destroy me in his opinion." (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 120-125.) "Deliver us," he writes again, "from this blundering and fatal agent, this cruel babbler, this doting doctor."
Having made his contract, Beaumarchais undertook its execution with characteristic ardor. He rented in the Faubourg du Temple an enormous house known as the Hotel de Hollande, in which the Dutch ambassadors had formerly dwelt; there a great force of clerks and employees were installed, and there the famous author was himself to be found early and late, overseeing the operations of the house of Hortalez and Company with an energy that, to some extent, compensated for deficiencies in business methods and ignorance of commercial affairs. Undeterred by opposition, Beaumarchais proceeded to fulfil his part of the agreement with zeal, though not always with discretion. He announced his purpose to the Secret Committee of Congress in the extraordinary language which the imaginary Hortalez generally used in his business correspondence. "The respectful esteem which I have toward that brave people who so well defend liberty under your guidance, has induced me to form a plan of concurring in the great work by establishing an extensive commercial house solely for the purpose of serving you in Europe and supplying you with necessaries of every kind . . . Your deputies, gentlemen, can find in me a sure friend, an asylum in my house, money in my coffers, and every means of facilitating their operations." The King of France, he said, and his ministers, must manifest opposition to anything that carried the appearance of violating treaties with foreign powers. "But," he added, "I promise you, gentlemen, that my indefatigable zeal shall never be wanting to clear up difficulties, soften prohibitions, and facilitate the operations of a commerce which your advantage, more than my own, has made me undertake." (Wharton, ii, 129.)
It must be said that his performance very nearly equalled his promise. He ransacked the government storehouses in order to obtain arms; he purchased clothes and chartered vessels. A fevered activity pervaded the Hotel de Hollande, where tranquil Dutch ambassadors had formerly smoked and dozed. Complications constantly arose from the desire of the French government to avoid any responsibility for what Beaumarchais was doing. There was an abundance of brass cannon in the armories, but the arms of France were stamped on them; if any of these were captured by the English it would be apparent that they had been furnished by the French King. In view of this, Vergennes said the arms must be erased, if it could be done without weakening the cannon too much, and if this was not possible, then new guns must be cast (Narrative of Bancroft; Deane Papers, i, 182.) But Beaumarchais obtained, mostly from the French arsenals, over two hundred cannon, twenty-five thousand guns, two hundred thousand pounds of powder, twenty or thirty brass mortars, and clothing and tents for twenty-five thousand men, and these he loaded on boats which he himself provided.
The work was necessarily attended with much publicity, and the report of it soon came to the ears of the English ambassador. At this period Lord Stormont haunted Vergennes's chamber with complaints, almost always well founded, of the assistance France was giving the rebels, in violation of all principles of neutrality, and he now protested with special vigor against allowing these ships to sail, laden with contraband of war for the use of the American insurgents.
Vergennes maintained the farce of neutrality, and directed them to be stopped. He was perhaps the more ready to do this because the affairs of the colonists were at this time in very unpromising condition and it seemed probable that their struggle for independence would result in entire failure.
Beaumarchais was indefatigable in his efforts to get the boats off, but was not always equally judicious. He went to Havre on this errand, and Kalb, with good reason, complained of his conduct. It was important that his presence should not be known, and he accordingly assumed the name of Durant. But, wrote Kalb, there was little gain in that, when he occupied any leisure hours in superintending the representation of one of his comedies, and drilling the actors at the rehearsal (Deane Papers, i, 433.) There were inconveniences in purchasing powder and clothing from a man of genius.
At last, however, in December, 1776, the Amphitrite, one of Beaumarchais's boats, actually set sail. But the exultation over its departure was soon turned to sorrow. There sailed on it an officer named du Coudray, one of the numerous French volunteers whom Deane employed in the service of the United States, and whose misdeeds had much to do with the ill-favor into which he later fell in his own country. Du Coudray insisted that his services would be invaluable to the colonies, and Deane took him at his own estimate. By the contract made with him, be was to be a major-general and command the engineer corps, with power to fill all vacancies. He was to have horses and carriages, at the expense of the colonists, in going from one place to another, and at the end of his service he was to be retired on an "honorable annual stipend."
The employment of this man was an instance of the lamentable lack of judgment which finally involved Deane, a well-meaning and, at the beginning, an honest man, in utter ruin. He wrote of du Coudray that he was "a plain, modest, active, sensible man." (Wharton, ii, 124; Deane Papers, i, 220.) Of all the undesirable foreign recruits who sought their own advantage under the guise of coming to our assistance, du Coudray was perhaps the least entitled to be designated by any of those adjectives. He soon showed the manner of man he was. The accommodations on the Amphitrite were not to his taste, and he accordingly ordered her to return, and in January the boat sailed back into port.
Both Deane and Beaumarchais were in despair (Wharton, ii, 252.) "The devil is in our affairs," wrote Beaumarchais, and with good reason he poured reproaches on du Coudray, and directed him to turn over the command to another officer. Two other boats were ready to sail, and Beaumarchais gave Vergennes no rest until the prohibition upon their departure was revoked. If this was not done openly, it was done secretly; and, at last, thanks to the connivance of the French government, the three boats set sail for America, carrying much desired provisions and a considerable number of officers. Some of these proved less valuable than the powder and cannon, but among them was Steuben, and his virtues atoned for the deficiencies of many others.
Beaumarchais was indefatigable as a correspondent, and embellished the details of warfare with the flowers of rhetoric. He sent over a recommendation of Steuben in which he wrote: "The art of making war with success being the fruit of courage combined with prudence, intelligence and experience, a companion in arms of the great Frederick, who was with him during twenty-two years, seemed to us all a man most fit to assist Monsieur Washington."
Beaumarchais's ships escaped the perils of the sea and the vigilance of British cruisers. They reached Portsmouth and landed greatly needed supplies in time to be used against Burgoyne. Many a soldier who marched in that campaign wore shoes on his feet, a coat on his back, and carried a gun on his shoulder, which came from the magazines of Louis XVI, and had been procured and furnished by the author of the "Barbier de Seville." Several more ships, loaded by Beaumarchais, were allowed to sail from France and in due time reached their destination. By September, 1777, he had shipped munitions of war to the value of five million livres.
But the shiploads of tobacco and American produce, the proceeds of which were to pay for all this, did not make their appearance; he did not even get a letter acknowledging the arrival of the boats and the receipt of the supplies. In October, he wrote in characteristic tone: "There is no news from America, and no tobacco either. This is depressing, but depression is a long way from discouragement." (Deane Papers, i, 318.)
His troubles grew largely out of the indefatigable and pernicious activity of Arthur Lee. Lee was one of the most suspicious, the most atrabilious, and the most cantankerous persons whom the Revolution produced, and he excited in those with whom he had to deal a degree of irritation difficult to describe. He was eager to take a prominent part, and jealous of those who were preferred to him; believing all men to be liars except himself and possibly John Adams, with an extraordinary power of hating, an endless fund of acrimony, and an exhaustless capacity for lying, he did an amount of evil out of all proportion to his very moderate ability. When he found that Beaumarchais was dealing with Deane instead of with him, he took steps which proved very disastrous to the creator of Figaro.
Lee wrote Congress that these munitions of war were not to be paid for, but were the free gift of the French King. "M. de Vergennes," he said, "has repeatedly assured us that no return was expected for the cargoes sent by Beaumarchais. This gentleman is not a merchant, he is known to be a political agent employed by the Court of France." If the latter assertion was true, the former was the reverse of the truth. Vergennes had said nothing of the sort, and Lee's statement was an unblushing lie. The French court had furnished Beaumarchais with one million livres, and Spain as much more, and while be was instructed to get pay for all the supplies, it is not probable that the advance of the two millions was regarded as a business transaction. But the material furnished by Beaumarchais absorbed much more than the two millions, and for all over that amount he had advanced his own money and that of his associates, or pledged their credit. He now asked for payment as agreed. Lee said nothing was to be paid, and intimated that the demand was in fraud of the French government, and intended to fill the pockets of Beaumarchais and Deane with illegal gains. Congress knew not what to do, and in its perplexity was inclined to do nothing. When it was difficult to pay debts of unquestioned legality, it was easy to delay payment of claims which perhaps were not debts at all.
So no tobacco was sent, and the enterprising firm of Hortalez and Company soon found itself in financial distress. Beaumarchais applied to Vergennes for relief, and succeeded in extracting another million to help him out, but there still remained a large balance. He repeatedly asked for payment. Lee as repeatedly assured Congress that these demands were either part of a commercial comedy and not intended to be answered, or rascally attempts to cheat Congress and defeat the liberal purposes of the French King (Wharton, i, 402,494.) It was in vain that Beaumarchais wrote that be had exhausted his money and his credit. Congress insisted upon regarding him as a generous benefactor, who, representing the French King, was sending goods from love and asking pay for amusement.
At last one small cargo of rice and indigo reached France, and even this the American envoys said belonged to them. Beaumarchais got possession of the cargo, but it was worth only one hundred and fifty thousand livres. "You will see," he wrote his agent in America, "that there is a great difference between this drop of water and the ocean of my debts . . . I am contending with obstacles of every nature, but I struggle with all my might, and I hope to conquer with patience, credit and money. The enormous losses to which all this puts me appear to affect no one; the minister is inflexible, even the deputies at Passy claim the honor of annoying me, - me, the best friend of their country." (Beaumarchais to Francy, Dec. 20,1777; Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 147.)
All this seems to be strictly correct, and it is sad to know that the ships laden with tobacco, in visions of which Beaumarchais indulged in this letter, never appeared on the horizon. Yet it is not remarkable that Congress thought him a merchant of so strange a type that it could hardly be believed he was selling them goods in the expectation of payment; for, after lamenting his woes, he continued in his letter: "Through all these annoyances, the news from America overwhelms me with joy. Brave, brave people, their warlike conduct justifies my esteem and the noble enthusiasm felt for them in France. Finally, my friend, I only wish some return from them in order to meet my engagements, and be able to serve them anew."
His relations with the colonies still rested upon the agreement signed by Deane. He had delivered large quantities of supplies and received small remittances in return, and he therefore sent one Franey to the United States, to see if he could not obtain some settlement of past accounts, and make satisfactory arrangements for the future. "Be like me," he writes his agent, in a tone that certainly is not often assumed by merchants, "despise small considerations ... and small resentments. I have enlisted you in a magnificent cause. You are the agent of a man who is generous and just. Remember that success is due to fortune, that the money owing me is at the hazard of a great combination of events, but that my reputation is my own, and that you to-day are the artisan of your own good name. Let it be always good and all will not be lost, whatever may happen to the rest." (Beaumarchais to Franey, Dec. 20,1777; Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 147.) "After what I have done," he added, "I hope that Congress will not doubt that the most zealous partisan of the Republic in France is your friend Roderigue Hortalez and Company."
It seems immaterial whether or not Deane had authority to contract with Hortalez and Company: the guns and powder, the coats and shoes had been shipped, they had been received and used by American soldiers. But any further transactions were put upon a still surer basis, as a result of Franey's negotiations. In April, 1778, a contract was executed between the commissioners of Congress and the adventurous house of Hortalez and Company. It recited that the house had already shipped considerable quantities of arms, ammunition, and clothing, which had been received by the agents of the United States, and that they were willing to continue furnishing supplies if satisfactory assurance were given for payment at a just price. It was therefore agreed that the cost of the shipments already made should be fairly stated at current prices; that orders thereafter given should be filled at not higher figures, adding only the usual mercantile charges at the places whence they were exported; that the agents of Congress should be allowed to inspect all goods, and reject those which they should judge too dear or unfit for use. It was further agreed that bills might be drawn on the house of Hortalez and Company for the accommodation of Congress, to the amount of twenty-four millions of livres, payable during the ensuing year. In consideration of this the committee promised that cargoes of merchandise should be shipped to Hortalez and Company, who would credit our government with the proceeds of the sales; that they should be allowed 6 per cent interest on advance, together with a commission of 21 per cent on the amount of invoices, freight, and moneys paid and disbursed by them for the account of the United States; and that remittances should be made to them from time to time in produce or money until the entire indebtedness should be discharged. This agreement was signed by Ellery, Forbes, Drayton, and Duer as the committee of the American Congress (April, 1778. John Durand, New Materials for the History of the American Revolution, from Documents in the French Archives, 119 -126.)
Notwithstanding this formal contract, the accounts of the firm remained unliquidated, and Arthur Lee still insisted that most, if not all, of the supplies furnished were the free gift of the French government, for which there could be no liability. Congress decided that the only way to solve this dispute was to ascertain the facts from the French government itself. Accordingly the American commissioners at Paris were instructed to seek information from Vergennes, and to inquire how far these supplies were the free gift of the French King, and how far they were property furnished by Hortalez and Company for which payment should be made. "You will observe," so ran the instructions, "that their accounts are to be fairly settled, and what is justly due paid for, as, on the one hand, Congress would be unwilling to evidence a disregard for, and contemptuous refusal of, the spontaneous friendship of his Most Christian Majesty, so, on the other, they are unwilling to put into the private pockets of individuals what was graciously designed for the public benefit. You will be pleased to have their accounts liquidated, and direct, in the liquidation thereof, that particular care be taken to distinguish the property of the crown of France from the private property of Hortalez and Company, and transmit to us the accounts so stated and distinguished. This will also be accompanied by an invoice of articles to be imported from France, and resolves of Congress relative thereto. You will appoint, if you should judge proper, an agent or agents to inspect the quality of such goods as you may apply for to the house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company, before they are shipped, to prevent any impositions." (Letter of Sept. 10, 1778; Durand, New Materials, etc., 127-131.)
The commissioners submitted these instructions to Vergennes, and then proceeded with their inquiries. "We are under the necessity of applying to your Excellency upon this occasion," so they wrote, "and of requesting your advice. With regard to what is passed, we know not who the persons are who constitute the house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company; but we have understood, and Congress has ever understood, and so have the people in America in general, that they were under obligations to his Majesty's good will for the greatest part of the merchandise and warlike stores heretofore furnished under the firm name of Roderigue Hortalez and Company. We cannot discover that any written contract was ever made between Congress or any agent of theirs and the house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company; nor do we know of any living witness, or any other evidence, whose testimony can ascertain for us who the persons are that constitute the house of Roderigue Hortalez and Company, or what were the terms upon which the merchandise and munitions of war were supplied, neither as to the price, nor the time or condition of payment. As we said before, we apprehend that the United States hold themselves under obligations to his Majesty for all those supplies, and we are sure it is their wish and their determination to discharge the obligations to his Majesty as soon as Providence shall put it in their power. In the mean time we are ready to settle and liquidate the accounts according to our instructions, at any time, and in any manner which his Majesty and your Excellency shall point out to us." (Durand, New Materials, etc., 129-131.)
Nothing could seem fairer than this letter, but its promises were not fulfilled in the subsequent conduct of the American Congress. Vergennes did not answer directly, nor could he. He could not acknowledge any responsibility for the. doings of Hortalez and Company, whose action in furnishing supplies to the Americans when France and England were at peace was, nominally at least, without the knowledge or sanction of the French government. He wrote the newly appointed French minister to the United States, and said: -
"M. Franklin and his colleagues would like to know what articles have been supplied by the King, and those that have been supplied by M. de Beaumarchais on his own account, and they insinuate that Congress is persuaded that all, or at least a large portion, of what has been sent, is on account of his Majesty. I am about to reply that the King has not furnished anything; that he has simply allowed M. de Beaumarchais to provide himself with what he wanted in the arsenals, on condition of replacing what he took; and that, for the rest, I will gladly interpose in order that they may not be pressed for the payment of the military supplies."
Apparently this statement was regarded as satisfactory, and in January of 1779 Congress extended its formal thanks to Beaumarchais for his efforts in behalf of the colonies. Nothing could have been handsomer than their expression of regard.
"Sir: The Congress of the United States, sensible of your exertions in their favor, present you with their thanks and assure you of their regard.
They lament the inconvenience you have suffered by the great advances made in support of these States. Circumstances have prevented a compliance with their wishes; but they will take the most effectual measures in their power to discharge the debt due you.
The liberal sentiments and extensive views
which could alone dictate a conduct like yours are conspicuous
in your actions and adorn your character. While with great talents
you served your Prince, you have gained the esteem of this infant
Republic and will receive the united applause of the New World.
JOHN JAY, President."
(Durand, New Materials, etc., 134.)
Doubtless this gave great pleasure to its recipient, who cared more for public applause, not to say public notoriety, than ever he did for money. But this expression of gratitude was neither accompanied nor followed by any remittances on account. Arthur Lee had been recalled from Paris, and his activity with members of Congress was quite sufficient to prevent any settlement of the claim. It may be said that Congress was in such pecuniary straits that it was prone to seize any excuse for postponing the claim of a creditor, but it must also be said that it showed no eagerness to pay for supplies which were certainly of great value. The fact is that our country at that time was in the condition of a needy personage constantly asking and frequently receiving the bounty of those better off in the world. The receipt of pecuniary assistance is apt to be demoralizing. When much is given, the recipient naturally thinks that all should be given; the desire to pay to every one his legal dues is apt to be blunted in those who are in a condition of chronic impecuniosity. The members of Congress were evidently little distressed by the possibility that their country owed Beaumarchais not only thanks but cash.
Probably Beaumarchais hoped for gain as well as glory from his dealings with the Americans. It is quite possible that in his accounts he neglected to credit the sums which had been advanced him from the French and Spanish treasuries, and of which, apparently, no repayment was expected by those governments; but certainly be was interested in the cause, and continued to furnish supplies when a prudent merchant would have delayed further shipments until he had been settled with to date. Not only had he received practically nothing on his great advances in excess of the money furnished by the French King, but war was now declared between France and England, and fresh perils awaited any ships which hazarded the long journey across the Atlantic.
Beaumarchais was undeterred by the danger that his merchandise would never reach the other side, or by the still more serious danger that even if it were received, it would never be paid for. In December, 1778, he despatched a new fleet laden with arms and supplies. The vessels sailed at his own risk, and this was certainly serious in time of war, when the ocean was patrolled by English cruisers. He writes: "Congress will not be obliged to pay for cargoes it does not receive, which may have been lost on the passage from Europe." His zeal for the cause was unabated by past troubles, though the remissness of Congress might well have discouraged a less enthusiastic friend. He treated the United States as he did others whom he assisted.
In the same letter he writes: "Remember me often and kindly to Baron Steuben. According to what I hear from him I congratulate myself on having sent so fine an officer to my friends the free men, and for having compelled him, in a certain way, to enter upon such a noble career. I am not at all uneasy about the money I lent him for an outfit. Never have I made a more satisfactory use of money, for I have placed a man of honor where he ought to be. I learn that he is inspector-general of all the American forces! Tell him that his fame pays the interest of his debt, and that I have no doubt of its payment in this way at usurious rates." (Durand, New Materials, etc., 140.)
This was apparently the only payment ever made, for at the inventory taken of Beaumarchais's assets after his death in 1799 there appears an advance made to Steuben and his nephews in order that they might go to America. The claim is entered with the accuracy with which Beaumarchais kept his accounts, and which contrasted with the liberality with which he advanced his money and the carelessness with which he allowed it to remain unpaid. 5995 frs. 2 sols 7 deniers was the amount of the advances to Steuben, as they appear in Beaumarchais's books, and if the interest on the debt was paid by Steuben's fame, the principal remained wholly unliquidated.
Beaumarchais not only equipped ten merchant ships, but he fitted out at his own expense a man-of-war named the Fier Roderigue, and sent it forth to guard the merchantmen. The result of this enterprise was gratifying to his pride and costly to his purse. The little fleet came sailing along, when d'Estaing was about to engage Admiral Byron. Discovering that the man-of-war belonged to Beaumarchais, d'Estaing compelled the Fier Roderigue to join his fleet and take part in the battle. She acquitted herself with great credit, but the captain was killed, and the ship suffered more severely than any other of d'Estaing's command (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 164.) She had to be refitted at great expense, and the convoy came to grief. Beaumarchais suffered ruinous losses, though he finally obtained two million livres as indemnity. Even this payment was so delayed that he received the last installment seven years later, on leaving the prison in which he had been thrown for using impertinent language.
The United States at last made some payment on account, but with hardly less deliberation. They did not send cargoes of tobacco, which could at once have been turned into money, but remitted two million and a half livres, in bills payable three years in the future. Such obligations of a government whose existence was still at stake could not be discounted on favorable terms, and even when the time for payment came round, Robert Morris suggested to Franklin that they might as well be left unpaid. But Franklin said they were in the hands of the bankers and must be met for the country's credit, and paid they accordingly were.
Beaumarchais not only furnished supplies to the United States, but be undertook similar operations with Virginia and South Carolina. These were no more successful than his dealings with the general government. He sent to these states two cargoes of supplies, and received his pay in paper money which was worth little or nothing by the time it reached him.
It illustrates the character of the man, that, undisturbed by all these embarrassments and undeterred by all these losses, be entered on various other commercial speculations in the West India Islands. Lomenie, who went over Beaumarchais's accounts from 1776 to 1783, the period of his commercial career, says that they disclosed expenditures of twenty-one million livres, and receipts exceeding this great amount by only the beggarly sum of forty-eight thousand livres (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 204-205.) It is safe to say that when all the accounts were in, the balance was on the other side. What Beaumarchais wrote his confidential agent Francy about his private expenses, was true as to his great commercial operations. "When I try to arrange my expenses in part, I am mortified to hear that every one about me is wasting my money . . . Live simply and do without the things that are unnecessary ... I am robbed on every side on account of the lack of order by which they all profit . . . I have three coachmen who are leagued together to pillage me . . . Where is confusion, there is robbery. I wish in the future to live in the greatest simplicity."
There was equal confusion and probably much more robbery in the affairs of the great house of Hortalez and Company, and when we add the fact that its chief debtor declined to settle, the financial distresses of the great dramatist are easily understood.
At last, even Beaumarchais's zeal failed, or, what is more probable, his finances were exhausted. He had obtained assistance from various persons; the names of some great nobles are found in the list of those who took a share in his ventures; but if his statement can be credited, they were less indulgent towards their creditor than he was with his American friends. At all events, he decided to send no more supplies until be could obtain a settlement for what he had already furnished. It is unpleasant to reflect that the difficulties he had met with and overcome in obtaining and shipping supplies to the United States, were much less than the difficulties which he was unable to overcome in getting his pay. The adjustment of Beaumarchais's claims extended over a period of almost half a century.
In 1781 Silas Deane undertook the settlement of Beaumarchais's accounts. He had made the original contract, and he was more familiar with this intricate affair than any other representative of the United States. Notwithstanding all the slanders poured upon him by his enemies, there is nothing to show that in his relations with Beaumarchais he acted corruptly, or even negligently. Deane had always insisted that Beaumarchais was to be paid for the supplies he furnished. Such had been the express wording of the contract which Deane executed, and he constantly bore witness to Beaumarchais's activity and good faith. In November, 1776, be wrote Congress: "I should have never completed what I have, but for the generous, the indefatigable and spirited exertions of Monsieur Beaumarchais, to whom the United States are on every account greatly indebted; more so than to any other person on this side of the water; he is greatly in advance of stores, clothing, and the like, and therefore I am confident you will make him the earliest and most ample remittances." (Deane Papers, i, 378.)
Deane now went over the accounts and found there was a balance due Beaumarchais of three million six hundred thousand livres. But in the meantime Deane's own affairs were involved in hopeless complications. Not only Lee, but Paine and many other rancorous opponents, pronounced him a monster of corruption. Adams and his associates looked upon Deane with distrust and dislike. His conduct had been indiscreet, Congress was mistrustful of him, and his adjustment of Beaumarchais's accounts was formally declared to be without authority.
In 1783 Mr. Barclay, then consul-general at Paris, undertook a new examination of the records. Beaumarchais declared his accounts had already been settled. Barclay said that Congress would not pay him a cent unless they were again examined. The unlucky creditor was forced to submit; but before any decision could be reached a new incident added new confusion, and resulted in the postponement of any settlement until many years after Beaumarchais had been in his grave.
In 1783 a memorandum had been signed between Franklin and Vergennes as to the advances made by the French government to the United States. In this it was stated that three million livres had been given to our government prior to the treaty of alliance in 1778. At the time no question was raised as to this figure. But three years later Franklin, for the first time, seems to have awakened to the fact that he had only received two million livres in money from the French government prior to the treaty. In addition to this he had received a million as an advance from the French farmers-general, which was to be repaid in produce, though our government, dealing with the farmers-general much as it did with Beaumarchais, had sent them tobacco to the value of only one hundred and fifty- three thousand livres. With a business-like spirit that, though doubtless commendable, was certainly unusual when proceeding from a nation that had been the recipient of boundless charity, it was now suggested to the French government that perhaps the three millions included the money supposed to be advanced by the farmers-general, and if so, the farmers-general must at once pay for the tobacco they had received. It might have been suggested that if the French government had not furnished the million which the farmers-general advanced eight years before, it might be well for the United States to think about paying the eight hundred and fifty thousand livres which they still owed. No such suggestion, however, was ever made.
The question put to Vergennes was very embarrassing. It was doubtless by inadvertence that the amount given the United States was stated at three million instead of two million livres, for the other million had been turned over to Beaumarchais, and for it he was to account. Vergennes was reluctant to admit publicly that he had given Beaumarchais money to buy military supplies while France was still at peace with England, for he had often assured the English that he was doing nothing of the sort. He was unwilling also further to embarrass Beaumarchais, who had already been for years trying to get a settlement of his accounts with the United States. At all events, the Americans were informed that the French King had nothing to do with the advances made by the farmers-general, and that this million was paid from the treasury in June, 1776. Grand, acting for the United States, asked for a copy of the receipt, but the French government declined to furnish it.
From all this the American Congress decided that Beaumarchais had received the million, in which they were entirely right; that he ought to turn this million over, in which they were wrong; and that they would pay him nothing until the matter was cleared up. Vergennes had repeatedly declared that the French King had nothing to do with the supplies furnished by Beaumarchais, and if his word were to be credited, Beaumarchais was entitled to be paid. If Beaumarchais had had dealings with the French government, manifestly, in view of the position taken by that government, it was for us to settle with our creditor, and for him to settle with his creditor. If a portion of his claim represented supplies furnished by France, there was no reason that the United States should insist this was intended as a gift, in the face of the declaration of the French minister that it was not a gift. Presumably, if Beaumarchais had received supplies from France and was paid for them by the United States, he would pay to the French government whatever was its due; and even assuming that he had omitted to credit the money advanced, and that it was a just credit, there still remained a large balance due to Hortalez and Company. But Congress would do nothing and would pay nothing until the mystery of the million was cleared up.
In 1787, when the account was now ten years old, even Beaumarchais's good-nature failed him, and he wrote the President of Congress: "What do you suppose is the general opinion here of the vicious circle in which you have involved me? We will not reimburse M. de Beaumarchais until his accounts are adjusted by us, and we will not adjust his accounts, so as not to pay them! With a nation that has become a powerful sovereign, gratitude may be a simple virtue unworthy of its policy; but no government can be relieved from doing justice and from discharging its debts. I venture to hope, sir, that, impressed by the importance of this matter and the soundness of my reasoning, you will oblige me with an official reply stating what decision the honorable Congress will come to, either promptly to adjust my accounts and settle them, like any equitable sovereign, or to submit the points in dispute to arbiters in Europe with regard to insurances and commissions, as M. Barclay had the honor of proposing to you in 1785, or, finally, to let me know without further shift that American sovereigns, unmindful of past services, deny me justice. I shall then adopt such measures as seem best for my despised interests and my wounded honor, without lacking in the profound respect with which I am, sir, the very humble servant of the general Congress and yourself." (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 192.)
A creditor who during ten years had been in vain asking for a settlement of his accounts could hardly be charged with any impropriety in thus presenting his claim, but Congress regarded this language as impertinent and unseemly and resolved to discipline the offender. Accordingly it voted to adjust Beaumarchais's account and referred it to Arthur Lee to settle the amount due. This was equivalent to saying that it would pay nothing. Lee was Beaumarchais's bitter enemy. He insisted that all articles furnished by Hortalez and Company were gifts from the French government, and that the entire claim was a fraud. He now promptly reported, not only that the United States owed nothing to Beaumarchais, but that Beaumarchais owed the United States almost two million francs. How this result was reached does not appear. Probably Lee's process was a simple one. All the supplies furnished by Hortalez and Company were gifts from the French government; any shipments of produce from this country, which by any possibility came into the bands of that firm, were charged against them. In other words, Beaumarchais's account contained no credits, and consisted solely of debit items.
Thus the matter remained for five years longer, until, in 1793, Congress ordered a new examination to be made by Alexander Hamilton. The financial ability of the investigator, his integrity and his standing, made it certain that his report would be just to all parties. It seemed also that a statement by Hamilton of the amount due should carry conviction to Congress, and that if Beaumarchais could obtain an award at his hands, his troubles would be over. This was far from being the case. Hamilton examined the claim, decided that Lee's decision was wrong, and fixed the sum justly due from the United States to Beaumarchais at two million two hundred and eighty thousand francs. The question of the million he left open, saying, that further inquiry should be made by the French government, and if it appeared that the United States was entitled to the credit, that sum should be deducted. It is probable that this decision came as near the truth as it was possible to reach in this intricate matter. It was, however, of no benefit to Beaumarchais. Congress declined to pay the award of its own arbitrator. It still insisted that the million furnished by the French government should be applied on the debt, and decided that, as it was uncertain how much ought to be paid, the safest way was to pay nothing.
In the meantime the French Revolution involved Beaumarchais in financial ruin. He fled from France and sought refuge in Hamburg, where he lived in great poverty in a garret. Not long before his death in 1795, he prepared a memorial in behalf of his daughter. The style is flowery and effusive, but it is not a paper that any American can read with pleasure. Whatever were Beaumarchais's faults, he had given useful aid to a country struggling for existence. Even if the exact amount due him was uncertain, it was certain that the sum was large. The struggling republic had now become, not perhaps a rich and powerful nation, but prosperous, fully able to pay its debts, and with infinite possibilities before it. The creditor who had waited for twenty years was old, poor, sick, broken in health and fortune. Thus he writes: -
"Americans, I served you with untiring zeal. I have thus far received no return for this but vexation and disappointment, and I die your creditor. On leaving this world, I must ask you to give what you owe me to my daughter as a dowry. When I am gone she will, perhaps, have nothing, on account of other wrongs against which I can no longer contend. Through your delay in discharging my claims Providence may have intended to provide her with a resource against utter destitution. Adopt her after my death as a worthy child of the country! Her mother and my widow, equally unfortunate, will conduct her to you. Regard her as a daughter of a citizen . . . Americans ... be charitable to your friend, to one whose accumulated services have been recompensed in no other way! Date obolum Belisario." (Durand, New Materials, etc., 154; Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 196.) To this appeal no answer was given.
Beaumarchais died unpaid, and thirty-six years passed before his heirs obtained a settlement. Various French ministers interested themselves in behalf of Beaumarchais's family, but their efforts were in vain. Talleyrand did not put the case unfairly in his letter to the French minister at Washington. "Opposition is made to M. de Beaumarchais's heirs on account of a receipt he gave June 10, 1776, for one million francs, paid to him by order of M. de Vergennes, and it is pretended that this sum should be credited on the supplies which he furnished to the United States. As the payment and purpose of this million related to a measure of secret political service ordered by the King, and immediately executed, it does not seem either just or proper to confound this with mercantile operations, later in date, carried on between Congress and a private individual ... A French citizen who hazarded his entire fortune to help the Americans, and whose zeal and activity were so essentially useful during the war which gave them their liberty and their rank among nations, might unquestionably pretend to some favor; in any event he should be listened to when he asks nothing but good faith and justice." (Lomenie, Beaumarchais et son Temps, ii, 198.)
Many years later the American government again asked the question which it had been putting from time to time for over thirty years: Would the French government say that the million given Beaumarchais had nothing to do with the supplies which Beaumarchais had furnished the United States? The Duc de Richelieu was then minister of foreign affairs, and he promptly made the required statement (Ibid., 200.) In one sense it was untrue, for the money had been used by Beaumarchais to buy supplies. In another sense it was true, for Beaumarchais was accountable for this sum to the French government alone, and it was none of our business. But at all events, having asked the question of the French government, it would have been courteous to accept its answer as true. Nothing of the sort was done. Beaumarchais had now been dead for almost twenty years, and his heirs still continued their efforts to obtain a settlement of the claim. Opinions sustaining its justice were obtained from American lawyers, but they availed nothing.
In 1822 Beaumarchais's daughter, then his only surviving heir, once more submitted her case to Congress, and truly said that all she asked was justice. Among other authorities to support the claim were the opinions of the two attorneys-general, Rodney and Pinkney, and the daughter adds: "After having paid some attention to the aforesaid documents, you will wonder, no doubt, that justice has been asked for without success so many years. Will it be refused to me again? As a reward for the devotion of Beaumarchais to your cause, shall his daughter be deprived of her fortune, and finish her life in vain and cruel expectation, as her father did, whose existence was shortened by troubles and sorrow? Till the last moment of his life be begged you to decide upon his claim. He said to you: 'My proceedings towards you were zealous and pure; my letters, my commercial conventions attest it; they are in your hands; they have been thoroughly examined: examine them again.' The proofs which those frequent examinations have established are warranted by illustrations and unexceptionable testimonies, among which I find, with pride, those of some of your countrymen: their veracity could not be questioned. Decide, in your own cause, with equity and impartiality! Or, at least, be pleased to appoint special commissioners to settle that discussion, to end the unequal struggle, and I will accept them from you with confidence as my judges: but I beg that a speedy decision may take Place." (Durand, New Materials, etc., 267.)
In 1824 she came to Washington and solicited payment of the claim in person. Eleven years more passed before the matter was closed. In 1835 the heirs were at last informed that they could have eight hundred thousand francs, if they would execute a receipt in full. Fifty-seven years had passed since the claim accrued. With interest at three per cent the settlement represented an original indebtedness of three hundred thousand francs. This was not one seventh of the amount which Alexander Hamilton had decided was due, not one fourth of the amount which he reported should be paid, even after deducting the million francs advanced by France, for which it was insisted Beaumarchais was not entitled to payment. It was a settlement at twenty-five cents on the dollar, after a delay of half a century, made by a rich and prosperous nation, with the heirs of a man who had furnished our ancestors with assistance when our national existence was in doubt, who had lost much by the perils of war and had risked losing all if we had failed to achieve our independence. It cannot be regarded as a liberal settlement, but after fifty years of hope deferred, the claimants were not inclined to wait longer; they took what was offered, but they had no reasons to feel any gratitude (The history of Beaumarchais's relations with the United States is very fully and very fairly related in Lomenie's valuable and agreeable work, Beaumarchais et son Temps.)