6. The French military was ordered to declare materials as surplus
In 1775 French arsenals were renowned for manufacturing the finest gunpowder in the world. It burned more thoroughly than the powder of British manufacturers and was thus less corrosive to gun barrels. An officer of engineers, Major du Coudray, was assigned to tour the arsenals of France and identify items considered surplus. Coudray found an improbable amount of surplus gunpowder, as well as cannon, cannon balls and shells, and muskets. Hortalez et Cie offered, on paper, to relieve the French Army of the surplus munitions with which the latter was burdened. Payment was with cash. The company was free to sell the munitions to any customer.
Over 160 years later the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, used a similar ruse to sell war materials to the British. FDR had fifty American destroyers declared surplus and sold them to the British and Canadians, while the United States remained neutral in the early days of World War II. He did the same with airplanes and small arms, selling them back to their manufacturers, who then sold them to the British, at least on paper. In both instances, the respective governments involved violated neutrality laws in effect at the time. In 1940 the United States did not have enough rifles to arm all of its regiments, yet it declared a large number surplus. In 1775-76 the French faced the same situation with muskets.
7. Hortalez et Cie acquired its own ships and crews
Getting the goods to the Americans required ships, and the French government could not allow war materials sent to the Americans in French warships. Nor could ships of the French East India company (nor those of the Dutch) be used, since they were connected to the governments of their respective countries. Hortalez at Cie acquired its own ships, which was accomplished via outright purchase or charter. Nor could the ships carry war materials to American ports. To do so was a violation of neutrality laws. Another neutral country was needed as a trading partner. It was provided by the Dutch.
War materials were shipped primarily to the Dutch port of St. Eustatius. Officially the Dutch colony was neutral in the war and could sell the materials to anyone. Unofficially, Hortalez et Cie established trading partners on the island, which acted as the broker between French and Spanish ships and those of the American colonies in rebellion. The port was also well defended by Fort Orange, a deterrent to British intervention. There were also no customs inspections, nor were duties charged in the free port established by the Dutch. During the American Revolution, almost half of the international assistance sent to support the American cause passed through St. Eustatius.
8. French and Spanish aid was in full swing by the autumn of 1776
In November, 1776, an American armed brig (a two-masted sailing vessel) arrived at the harbor of St. Eustatius. It was flying an up-to-then unseen flag in the Dutch port. The brig, Andrew Doria, was commanded by Isaiah Robinson, who ordered a salute to the Dutch colors flying over Fort Orange. Robinson’s thirteen gun salute (one for each of the American states) was answered by eleven guns fired by the Dutch. It was the first international recognition of the flag of the newly declared independent United States. Andrew Doria then loaded supplies from the Dutch warehouses and returned to the United States to deliver them to American supporters of the Continental Army.
The ports of Spain and France, as well as those of the Dutch, crawled with British spies. The British were not long in learning of the trade in armaments with the Dutch free port of St. Eustatius, though there was little they could do to stop it. Short of war, which Britain could ill afford, interference with trade between neutral nations was illegal. Britain, for all of its vaunted naval strength, was unable to interdict most of the shipping between the American states and the Dutch port. American captains simply flew the British flag, or an ensign of another neutral nation, while at sea. Even if they sailed under the new American flag, the British simply could not intercept them all.
The American Congress created a Committee of Secret Correspondence in 1776, tasked with communications with Spain, France, and the Netherlands. The committee quickly made the decision to keep its activities private, recognizing that some members of the Congress had difficulties keeping their mouths shut. In summer of 1776 the committee sent Silas Deane to be its representative in Paris. The rest of Congress was not informed of the nature of his mission. Upon arrival Deane presented his credentials to Benjamin Franklin, the head of the official Congressional delegation to the French government. Through the usual political machinations, in which everyone maneuvered to cover their own interests, Deane was presented to Beaumarchais.
Within weeks of passage of the Declaration of Independence, Deane and Beaumarchais arrived at a deal which gave the American Congress one year of credit on goods purchased from Hortalez et Cie. Essentially the terms were 1 year the same as cash, and payment could be made through specie or American produce. The form of payment was left to the Americans, an unusual business arrangement in which the customer dictated the form of payment after taking delivery of the goods. The primary American product expected by the French was tobacco, which could be sold profitably throughout Europe.
10. Deane relayed the need for clothing, and Beaumarchais moved to address it
Silas Deane, besides negotiating one of the best trade deals in history, also pressed on Beaumarchais the problem of inadequate clothing available for Washington’s troops. Beaumarchais in turn met with Jacques-Donatien le Rey le Chaumont. Chaumont was a member of the Court of Versailles and a favored advisor to Louis XVI. He was also responsible for providing the uniforms for the French Army. Beaumarchais made him a partner in Hortalez et Cie, in return for a line of credit for 1 million livres. The credit was used to purchase uniforms and shoes, which in turn were sold through the Dutch traders in St. Eustatius.
The uniforms of the French Army at the time were white coats, with facings colored to indicate the regiment to which the wearer belonged. Those sent to the Americans were dyed brown. Chaumont was an immensely wealthy man who contributed a significant amount of his personal fortune to the American cause, absorbing the cost of uniforms provided by his factories. He also owned shipyards. One of them converted a French Indiaman into a warship at his expense, and was given to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin assigned the ship to an American naval officer, John Paul Jones, who named the vessel Bonhomme Richard.
11. Beaumarchais and Hortalez et Cie collected an impressive amount of supplies in just six months
Between June 1776 and December of that year Hortalez et Cie gathered in the ports of France a staggering amount of war materials for the American cause. From the French arsenals the company purchased 200 field pieces, over 300,000 musket flints, thousands of muskets, and over 100 tons of the finest gunpowder known to the western world. All had been declared surplus by the French engineer assigned to the task. The massive movement of so much military supply to the ports of Le Havre and Toulon were impossible for the British to miss. The British minister to Versailles noted the movement and reported it to Lord North’s cabinet.
Protests to the French government were answered with the papers of a private company going about its legitimate business. It was a subject over which the British government had no jurisdiction. Simply put, to the French government it was none of London’s business. Beaumarchais, by December 1776, had in his inventories complete uniforms, weapons, pairs of shoes, knives, bayonets, cartridge boxes, and other items sufficient to fully outfit 30,000 men. As ships were loaded, supposedly with supplies needed in the French West Indies, the British minister protested to Vergennes, who answered with a Gallic shrug. He also observed that as a royalist he had no interest in supporting the Americans.
12. The British Minister to France attempted to prevent the execution of Beaumarchais’ plan
The British Minister to France at the time was David Murray, Viscount Stormont. He was experienced in the intrigues of European courts, having previously served as minister in both Warsaw and Vienna. Vergennes’ claims of complete ignorance of the business conducted by Hortalez et Cie did not persuade him of the innocence of the French court. He continued to protest, urging Vergennes to curb what appeared to him to be covert aid to the Americans. He did not go so far as to threaten hostilities between Britain and France, but he threatened to break diplomatic relations. He also reminded Vergennes of the power of the British Navy and the remoteness of the French Caribbean colonies.
Vergennes responded with the passage of several trade regulations which impeded the ability of Beaumarchais to move martial goods to the Americans. When Beaumarchais protested to the French minister, he was reminded that the nature of his business was covert. Essentially Beaumarchais was told to break the law, but that he did so at his own risk. The risk included the threat of severe punishment if he was caught, necessary to avoid embarrassing Louis XVI. Beaumarchais’ operations were also threatened by the parade of French and other foreign officers in Paris. Their loose talk while they awaited travel arrangements to carry them to America nearly upset the entire scheme in November, 1776
13. A French officer nearly revealed the entire scheme in November, 1776
In late 1776 Paris was inundated with officers soliciting commissions for service in America. Many of them idled in the cafes and salons of the city, gossiping over the ranks acquired and the means of traveling to the United States. Three ships of Hortalez et Cie were fully laden in Le Havre, awaiting a favorable wind to sail. Many such officers (including Major Coudray, who had accepted a general’s commission) spread the word around Paris that the ships were going to America. Vergennes had already informed Stormont that the vessels were bound for the West Indies. Embarrassment loomed for His Majesty.
When he arrived in Le Havre, Coudray, obviously proud of his new rank, informed Beaumarchais that he would command the expedition, including the decision of when and to whither it would sail. Beaumarchais refused to allow it and Coudray returned to Paris to demand the support of St. Germain. The ships could not sail until Coudray returned, and Beaumarchais protested his absence to Vergennes. Coudray was ordered to return to Le Havre, where he boarded one of the loaded transports, L’Amphtrite. Beaumarchais, triumphantly then attended rehearsals of The Barber of Seville in Le Havre, a play which he had written in 1773. It was nearly the undoing of the whole enterprise.
14. Beaumarchais nearly exposed the involvement of the French government
Because he was well-known throughout Europe, as well as Britain, as a close associate of King Louis XVI, Beaumarchais masked his activity with Hortalez et Cie through an alias. All documents involving the company and his activities identified him as Monsieur Durand, and it was with that name that he signed them. Upon attending rehearsals of his play, he took an active role in the production, identifying himself as the writer. The true identity of Durand revealed, and the connection of Durand with the king known, Lord Stormont demanded that the ships laden with military supplies be prohibited from sailing. He wanted their true mission identified, as well as the nature of the French government’s involvement.
Vergennes had little in the way of options if he wanted to avoid an international incident which was a casus belli for war. He ordered the ships not to sail. By the time his order reached Le Havre, L’Amphtrite was already at sea. It sailed as far as L’Orient, where it entered port under Coudray’s orders, he having taken over command of the ship from the hapless captain. There it remained for a month, with the other ships waiting out events in Le Havre. Stormont was temporarily pacified, and after winter storms eased, the three ships departed, eluded British patrols, and arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in April, 1777.
15. The direct shipment to New Hampshire aided in the victory at Saratoga
Washington’s army was in the vicinity of Philadelphia through most of 1777. The bulk of the supplies which arrived in New Hampshire went to the Northern Army under the command of Philip Schuyler and later Horatio Gates. The army under Gates’ command was well supplied and clothed during the Saratoga Campaign, supported by excellent artillery provided by the French. It was the most visible support during the period of covert French aid, under the guise of Hortalez et Cie. Washington’s army also benefited, through supplies routed by the company through St. Eustatius. He was encouraged to mount an offensive action at Germantown.
Washington’s attack at Germantown failed, but it led to a change in official French policy. That the Americans carried out two major campaigns during the summer of 1777 impressed the French, particularly Vergennes. The surrender of the British Army at Saratoga, coupled with Washington’s aggression at Germantown, was enabled by the French supplies routed to America through Hortalez et Cie. It is often said that Saratoga was the turning point of the war because it encouraged the French to enter it on the side of the revolutionaries. In truth, France was in the war from its inception. Saratoga encouraged them to shift to overt support, and recognize American independence.
16. Hortalez et Cie continued to ship military supplies to the colonies after the French entered the war
The French shell corporation continued to purchase and ship supplies to the Americans through the crucial summer of 1777 and the following year. In fact, Beaumarchais continued to play a role in supplying the Americans after the Treaty of Alliance was signed in February, 1778. France was not fully ready for war, having depleted its own armaments through its covert support of the Americans. Throughout the summer of 1777 ships of the company arrived in the West Indies and American ports with supplies for the Continental Army. Scholars have estimated up to 90% of the cannon ammunition and gunpowder used during the Saratoga campaign were provided by the French.
French recognition of the United States did not stem the tide of supplies. The machinery established by Beaumarchais was simply too efficient to replace. It provided a vehicle for payment, though little payment was made. Congress simply had no money. American crops were for the most part absorbed by the contending American and British armies, and its own population. Several French fortunes, large before the war, were exhausted by the long support of the American cause. In 1779 Vergennes convinced the Spanish to enter the war. The Dutch recognized the United States, but did not declare war. The port of St. Eustatius continued to operate as a free port, shipping French and Spanish munitions to America.
17. Beaumarchais assisted in the commissioning of European officers for American service
By 1777 the number of officers from throughout Europe lobbying for service in the Continental Army was problematic. Europe had been at peace for nearly two decades. Officers from Prussia, France, Poland, Sweden, some of the German provinces, and even Austria presented themselves to the American emissaries in Paris. Nearly all of them bore hereditary titles, or so they claimed, and nearly all of them demanded high rank. A notable exception was the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette offered to serve with no rank, at his own expense. Beaumarchais was asked by the Americans to help screen some of the officers for service in America.
When Friedrich von Steuben presented himself to Vergennes, the latter sent him to Beaumarchais. Von Steuben had never been ranked higher than a captain, but Beaumarchais purchased for him the uniform of a major general of the Prussian Army. So dressed, von Steuben paraded himself around Paris. He was accompanied by a military aide and a secretary, both of whom were paid by Beaumarchais, who also bore the cost of their lodgings. When Franklin prepared a letter for Washington introducing von Steuben, it included a brief resume created by Beaumarchais. He also lent the faux general the funds to pay for his trip and cover his expenses in America. He was never repaid.
18. Beaumarchais bankrupted himself through Hortalez et Cie
By the end of 1777 Beaumarchais had spent over 15 million livres for goods shipped to America. During the same time frame, he received absolutely nothing in payment from the Americans. His investors saw nothing in return for the substantial sums they had paid. Before the end of 1777 he petitioned Vergennes three separate times for loans from the royal treasury to prevent bankruptcy and allow him to continue operations. All three times Vergennes complied, with personal loans which drove the formerly wealthy Beaumarchais deeply into debt. Yet he continued to send goods to the Americans.
When Silas Deane could not explain his country’s reticence to make any form of payment Beaumarchais sent Theveneau de Francy, a close personal friend, to America to investigate. What Francy discovered was a raft of issues, some of which were Congress had no money, no authority to tax, and little interest in resolving the issue. It could not levy the crops which could be accepted as payment. It could not levy anything. Congress could borrow money, but it had so little that it couldn’t pay its troops. The situation was so dire that Congress simply ignored the obligations owed to Beaumarchais. The lack of money was however, not the only reason the Frenchman was not paid.
19. Some attempts to pay Beaumarchais were made, though they were futile
During the summer of 1777, some vessels laden with tobacco, a commodity in demand in France, sailed for French ports. They were intercepted by British cruisers. Francy learned of the difficulties which Congress faced. He also learned Congress had not been informed of the deal established between Silas Deane and Beaumarchais, at least not formally. The Committee of Secret Correspondence had taken their name literally and the deal remained secret. Deane’s agreement with Beaumarchais remained a private deal between gentlemen. When Francy informed members of Congress of the need for payment, the matter was brought before the legislative body.
Congress debated, but no action was taken, in part due to the maneuverings of Arthur Lee. Lee had been cut out of Hortalez et Cie, for reasons unknown. He was angry over his being left out of the scheme. Lee informed Congress, through a letter, that the French government was in fact paying for the materials sent to the United States, and Beaumarchais was not owed anything. “The Minister has repeatedly assured us, and that in the most explicit terms, that no return is expected for these subsidies”, he wrote. The minister to whom he referred was Vergennes. Congress listened to Francy’s pleas, but in the end did nothing. Beaumarchais’ fortune was spent to arm America. He received nothing from America in return during his lifetime.
20. The United States did pay for French aid with tobacco and other products
Once the alliance with France was established, American tobacco was shipped to French ports in exchange for munitions and other aid. The American financier Robert Morris arranged the shipping through a complicated arrangement of loans and financial underwriting. Congress guaranteed the loans would be paid to the tobacco growers who sold their crops to American agents. The tobacco arrived in France and was sold by agents who paid the royal treasury. Hortalez et Cie, no longer needed, ceased to operate. Beaumarchais remained involved in the shipping of goods to America, but he was no longer part of the financial arrangements.
His investors sued for repayment, which his financial situation rendered impossible. For the rest of his life Beaumarchais fought a losing battle with the American government for reimbursement of the huge fortune he spent supporting their cause. Frustrated by the Americans, he devoted his energies to the creation of an improved system of supplying drinking water to the city of Paris. It restored his fortunes financially. He also returned to writing plays. When Voltaire died in 1778, Beaumarchais republished many of his works, some of which had been banned by the government. They sold well, contributing to the restoration of his fortune, but earned the displeasure of the royal court.
21. Beaumarchais was forgotten in America once the French alliance took hold
In 1779, in response to a letter from the Frenchman, the President of the Continental Congress, John Jay, wrote an acknowledgement of the financial debt owed to Beaumarchais. Jay promised the debt would be paid. In 1782, Beaumarchais sent American financier Robert Morris an itemized list of all the cargoes which had been purchased and sent to the Americans, including the costs of shipping. Following the adoption of the Constitution the new Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, investigated the case. He acknowledged the United States owed a debt to Beaumarchais of 2,280,000 French francs, which was significantly less than what the Frenchman claimed.
22. Beaumarchais’ estate was finally paid a partial settlement
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais died in Paris in May, 1799 at the age of 67. He was survived by his third wife, and their daughter. Both of his earlier wives had died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, leading to rumors among French society that he had poisoned them, after marrying them for their money. The subject remains a matter of debate to this day. At the time of his death, the debt owed him by the United States remained unpaid. His widow petitioned the American Minister to France for remuneration in 1801. The minister, Robert Livingston, relayed the petition to the American government in Washington. President Jefferson assigned his Attorney General to look into the matter.
Jefferson, who had served as Minister to France, knew Beaumarchais well, and was sympathetic to his fellow polymath’s case, but nothing was done. In 1807 the Jefferson administration acknowledged the United States was indebted to the late Beaumarchais. Five years later the Madison administration came to the same conclusion, but no payment was made. While Beaumarchais rested in his grave at Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery, his descendants continued to petition the United States for payment. Finally, in 1835, Beaumarchais’ descendants were offered a payment of 800,000 francs in a take it or leave it offer. They took it, and the United States considered the debt paid in full.
23. Hortalez et Cie shipped far more than war materiel
When the American colonies went to war against the mother country in 1775, they lacked virtually everything necessary to prosecute it successfully. Only about one-third of the population actively supported the war, another third opposed it, with the rest neutral. The lack of a majority mandate severely weakened Congress, which further weakened itself through its own legislation. The most vital of all military supplies, money, was simply not available, and Congress tried to create it through the issuance of paper money. Paper money not backed by gold or silver was valueless. Hortalez et Cie tried to rectify the situation by shipping gold and silver to the Americans.
One of the greatest ironies of the entire operation was that Congress could not pay the company which in turn shipped gold to it, allowing it to pay for other necessities. Gold was purchased from the French and Spanish treasuries by Beaumarchais and his investors, and sent to America both directly and via the West Indies. Silver coin, mostly in the form of Spanish dollars, was also sent, and for the next two decades the Spanish dollar was the most commonly found coin in circulation in the United States. It was known as the piece of eight, and often chopped into eight bits, with two bits equaling a quarter of a dollar.
24. Beaumarchais is all but forgotten to American history
The hidden activities of Beaumarchais saved the American Revolution. Without just the gunpowder his ships provided the war would have been lost, let alone all of the other supplies. Yet he is forgotten in America, history textbooks scarcely mention his name. There is a reason for that. He made many political enemies during his lifetime, counting among them John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Arthur and Richard Henry Lee, and even Lafayette, who lost a small fortune by investing in Hortalez et Cie. The shameful behavior of the American government over its benefactor also helped his role in the revolution to be covered up.
Few men in history ever did another country a greater service, though Beaumarchais never set foot in America. When Hortalez et Cie was officially dissolved in 1783, its books revealed over 21,000,000 livres (French pounds), equivalent to approximately $4 billion today, was sent by company ships to the United States either directly or via St. Eustatius and other West Indies ports. The victory won by Washington and the Continental Army, with the aid of the French Army and Navy, was financed through the unseen maneuvers of a wily French polymath. And yet he is forgotten. How he would feel about that can be surmised from what he wrote in the play The Barber of Seville. “I quickly laugh at everything, for fear of having to cry”.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: