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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

Peter Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais


was not yet proclaimed, and already the committee charged by Congress "to correspond with friends in England, Ireland, and other parts of the world," had made inquiry of the French government, by roundabout ways, as to what were its intentions regarding the American colonies, and was soliciting the aid of France. On the 3d of March, 1776, an agent of the committee, Mr. Silas Deane, started for France; he had orders to put the same question point blank at Versailles and at Paris.

The ministry was divided on the subject of American affairs; M. Turgot inclined towards neutrality. "Let us leave the insurgents," he said, "at full liberty to make their purchases in our ports, and to provide themselves by the way of trade with the munitions, and even the money, of which they have need. A refusal to sell to them would be a departure from neutrality. But it would be a departure likewise to furnish then with secret aid in money, and this step, which it would be difficult to conceal, would excite just complaints on the part of the English."

This was, however, the conduct adopted on the advice of M. de Vergennes; he had been powerfully supported by the arguments presented in a memorandum drawn up by M. de Rayneval, senior clerk in the foreign office; he was himself urged and incited by the most intelligent, the most restless, and the most passionate amongst the partisans of the American rebellion--Beaumarchais.

style="text-align: justify;">Peter Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, born at Paris on the 24th of January, 1732, son of a clockmaker, had already acquired a certain celebrity by his lawsuit against Councillor Goezman before the parliament of Paris. Accused of having defamed the wife of a judge, after having fruitlessly attempted to seduce her, Beaumarchais succeeded, by dint of courage, talent, and wit, in holding his own against the whole magistracy leagued against him. He boldly appealed to public opinion. "I am a citizen," he said; "that is to say, I am not a courtier, or an abbe, or a nobleman, or a financier, or a favorite, nor anything connected with what is called influence (_puissance_) nowadays. I am a citizen; that is to say, something quite new, unknown, unheard of in France. I am a citizen; that is to say, what you ought to have been for the last two hundred years, what you will be, perhaps, in twenty!" All the spirit of the French Revolution was here, in those most legitimate and at the same time most daring aspirations of his.

French citizen as he proclaimed himself to be, Beaumarchais was quite smitten with the American citizens; he had for a long while been pleading their cause, sure, he said, of its ultimate triumph. On the 10th of January, 1776, three weeks before the declaration of independence, M. de Vergennes secretly remitted a million to M. de Beaumarchais; two months later the same sum was intrusted to him in the name of the King of Spain. Beaumarchais alone was to appear in the affair and to supply the insurgent Americans with arms and ammunition. "You will found," he had been told, "a great commercial house, and you will try to draw into it the money of private individuals; the first outlay being now provided, we shall have no further hand in it, the affair would compromise the government too much in the eyes of the English." It was under the style and title of Rodrigo Hortalez and Co. that the first instalment of supplies, to the extent of more than three millions, was forwarded to the Americans; and, notwithstanding the hesitation of the ministry and the rage of the English, other instalments soon followed. Beaumarchais was henceforth personally interested in the enterprise; he had commenced it from zeal for the American cause, and from that yearning for activity and initiative which characterized him even in old age. "I should never have succeeded in fulfilling my mission here without the indefatigable, intelligent, and generous efforts of M. de Beaumarchais," wrote Silas Deane to the secret committee of Congress: "the United States are more indebted to him, on every account, than to any other person on this side of the ocean."

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