The French name most associated with the American Revolution is Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, of course. Dozens of places around the U.S. bear that name, and rightly so. La Fayette crossed the ocean and joined the Continental Army, commanding troops in several battles. He was present at Yorktown when the British army finally surrendered.
But there is another French name that Americans should remember: Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais.
Beaumarchais was born in 1732, the son of a Parisian watchmaker. Growing up, he showed a talent for his father’s trade and eventually invented a device for watches that greatly increased their accuracy. His invention was stolen by Jean-Andre Lapaute, the royal clockmaker who claimed it as the “Lapaute system” in a letter to the French Academy. Although only 20 yeas old, Beaumarchais wrote a letter to Le Mecure de France pointing out the theft. An investigation by the Academy confirmed Beaumarchais’ story and vaulted him into the headlines and the conversations of high society Paris.
The story foretold much of the way Beaumarchais would live his life — full of bold strokes, creativity, controversy, and headlines.
Beaumarchais became a favorite of King Louis XVI and performed a number of missions for him — even spying for him in England. He also designed a watch set inside a ring for the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour
Beaumarchais’ talents went beyond politics and court life. He was an accomplished musician, tutoring the daughters of Louis XV on the harp. He was also a playwright and among other works wrote The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. These two comedies might have been completely forgotten today except for the fact that musical greats Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Gioachino Rossini used them to produce two of the best known operas of the age.
Through all of the ups and downs of his life, Beaumarchais was incessantly upbeat and good-humored, even when being challenged to a duel by the husband of one of his many mistresses. His memoir, published in 1774, drew favorable reviews from the literary giants Voltaire and Goethe.
When the rumblings of revolution grew in the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s, the French did not take much convincing about where their sympathies should lay. They hated the English, not just because they had been soundly defeated during the recently completed Seven Years War but also because the English had continued to humiliate them with their naval and military strength. The French quickly recognized that the unrest in America could offer them opportunities to weaken the English without provoking them directly into war.
The Americans understood this situation, too, and wasted little time in exploiting it. Informally, the French government had set up a shell company that funneled money, clothes, munitions, supplies and arms to the Americans. The head of this company was Beaumarchais.
Beaumarchais, though no republican, had been charmed by the American idea of breaking away from England and saw that eventually it would happen. Even the might of the British could not keep American in the Empire’s fold if it really wanted to leave. “All sensible persons are convinced in England that the English colonies are lost to the mother country,” he wrote in 1775 during a visit to London.
In 1777, the Americans defeated the invasion of New York led by British commander John Burgoyne at Saratoga, a series of battles that resulted in the surrender of the British force under Burgoyne. The supplies that the Americans had received from Beaumarchais’ company were instrumental in that defeat, and Beaumarchais was elated. The battle had demonstrated that they could defeat the British, and that demonstration convinced the French government to openly support the rebellion.
Beaumarchais had invested part of his private fortune in the rebellion as well as brokering public funds. Unfortunately, the Americans did not treat him as well as he treated them, and they never compensated him for what he had done for them.
When revolution broke out in France in 1789, Beaumarchais supported the republicans but was not above criticizing their excesses. While out of the country on a business trip in 1793, he was declared an enemy of the state and had to remain in exile until 1796. He was finally able to return to Paris safely, and he died there in 1799.
Beaumarchais lived a remarkably adventurous life. He was once described as a man who “oozed through keyholes.” His importance to the American Revolution has never been properly recognized.
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