The United States Congress – clearly convinced it should begin as it meant to go on – blew off its debt to Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais in 1794, calling it a gift from France to the U.S. and basically telling the little Frenchman he could go whistle.
Beaumarchais, an old hand at government intrigue, was cynical about just about everything, but if there was one model of virtue still close to his heart, it was the fledgling country he had worked so hard to help during the American Revolution.
It was a great disappointment and he wrote ‘America! I have served you with indefatigable zeal and have received …only bitterness as a reward, I die your creditor…’
To the tune of more than 2 million francs, about 3 and a half million dollars (though there were no dollars at the time) and if my math comes even close, the equivalent of more than $40 million today.
The story of how one of our earliest debts came to be is long, rich with detail and certainly one of the most fascinating aspects of our break with England. I highly recommend Improbable Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger (University Press of New England) for the whole picture.
Unger’s story takes place on both sides of the Atlantic, painting a picture of the ill-equipped ragtag colonial troops nearly overwhelmed by a professional British army, while in the halls of Versailles the little watchmaker from the provinces - who worked his way up the social scale to become a close advisor to the king’s ministers – ultimately prevailed upon his government to provide the Americans with munitions.
Silas Deane – Beaumarchais’ contact in the arms deal
He began as Pierre-Augustin Caron, taking his second wife’s title of de Boismarché and making it a bit classier. He came to Versailles on the strength of his invention of a miniature timepiece that could be worn on the wrist – he had created the first escapement – and Louis XV was entranced.
Beaumarchais was not just a courtier – he was also a writer, performer and bon vivant. He created an unforgettable rascal named Figaro and lived lavishly off the proceeds of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro.
But like his hero Voltaire – whose works he would publish at great personal expense – he was often in prison, either as a result of the whims of nobility or the dangerously provocative speeches of his characters.
In the end, Beaumarchais barely escaped the Reign of Terror, spent two years in exile, and lived the last few years of his life trying to rebuild his fortune for the sake of his wife and daughter.
Exactly how and why he became an arms dealer is crisply told by Unger, but there’s no denying we owe the little watchmaker a great debt – it’s estimated he provided nearly 80% of the gunpowder used by Americans during the Revolution.