America's First Ambassador


THE influence of the Lee and Adams families extended far beyond the borders of America. Eight months before the Declaration of Independence their policies had reached London and Paris and were profoundly affecting European diplomacy. In November 1775, Congress chose its Committee of Secret Correspondence for the purpose of sounding foreign governments and obtaining foreign aid, a body that, presently transformed into the Committee on Foreign Affairs, was the beginning of the American State Department. It selected, as its secret agent in London, Arthur Lee, who thus became the first diplomatic representative of the American nation.

Not that Arthur was emblazoned to the world as an American ambassador. He was embarking on a ticklish business, in which silence was the main necessity. That French genius subsequently associated with Arthur Lee catalogued as indispensable talents for delicate negotiation ‘a head, a heart, arms and no tongue,’ and Benjamin Franklin’s instructions to Lee in his mission in England emphasized the same points: ‘It would be agreeable to Congress to know the disposition of foreign powers toward us and we hope this object will engage your attention. We need not hint that great circumspection and impenetrable secrecy are necessary. The Congress rely on your zeal and abilities to serve them and will readily compensate you for whatever trouble and expense a compliance with their desire may occasion. We remit you for the present £200. Whenever you think the importance of your dispatches may require it we desire you to send an express boat with them from England, for which service your agreement with the owner there shall be fulfilled by us here.’

Arthur’s real task, as he understood, was to obtain the sympathy and cooperation of the Bourbon governments of France and Spain in the transatlantic Rebellion. This might seem quite a responsibility to place on a man of thirty-four. What possible interest could the two great autocracies of Europe, both of them possessing colonies that might readily emulate the example of successful revolution, have in giving this enterprise their blessing and helping it with the materials of warfare? Merely to state the problem would seem to show its absurdity. Sons of Liberty, Revolution, Republicanism — how could these ideas appeal to powers that for centuries had upheld and practised absolutism in government? The spirit of Machiavelli was an active force in European politics, however, and, according to his teachings, any means were justified that served the purpose of the state. Americans are still too much inclined to look upon their Revolution as an isolated event, peculiar to America; the minds directing French and Spanish policy saw in the uprising an opportunity of realizing ambitions in no way identified with freedom and democracy.

The new French king, Louis XVI, was nephew of the Spanish monarch, Charles III; for fifteen years, since 1761, these two branches of the House of Bourbon had been united in the celebrated ‘Family Compact,’ as important an influence in the European politics of the day as was the Triple Alliance before 1914. This Family Compact existed for one purpose; the mainspring was jealousy and hatred of England, and the object in view was the humiliation of the ancient foe and her destruction as dictator of Europe. While Spain had reasons enough for an anti-British attitude, the fires of hatred burned with even greater intensity in France. The humiliation suffered by France in 1763, at the hands of Great Britain, can be paralleled only by the indignities heaped upon her by Germany in 1871. In 1763, as in 1871, France accepted the inevitable with a soul burning for revanche and for reëstablishment as the great continental nation. The outlook, however, was not encouraging. So far as European alliances and resources were concerned, there seemed little chance of regaining the prestige enjoyed under Louis XIV. England’s wealth and sea domination precluded any hopes in that direction.

But the outbreak of troubles between Britain and her American colonies opened a new vista. In no place did the Stamp Act of 1765 arouse such delight as in France; in no place did the repeal of 1766 spread such gloom. England’s fatuousness in starting troubles anew in 1767, the storm that rapidly ensued, the Continental Congress — all these events put new heart in French statesmen.

And why did France identify her own resurgence with the separation of England from her colonial empire? The Foreign Ministers, first Choiseul and afterward Vergennes, believed that. England’s wealth, and consequently her power, depended upon this new Britain that was growing up overseas. Strip Albion of her vigorous children, these statesmen argued, and the haughty foe would sink into a minor kingdom, stranded in the North Sea, while France would ascend to new glory on her ruins.

In 1766, the British foreign trade amounted to £4,000,000 a year, three fourths of which was with America. This figure looks small to-day, but in the period before the great industrial age it was really huge. No other nation had any source of economic strength comparable with it. From this trade had developed the great British merchant marine, and from this, in turn, that mighty British navy, now the unquestioned mistress of the seas. By 1775 this transatlantic trade had grown to £7,000,000, and, with the amazingly rapid increase in the American population, no one could foresee its limits. So long as the American colonies remained a part of Britain, Choiseul and Vergennes believed, there was no hope of displacing her; France and most of Europe must remain under the British heel. It is therefore apparent why the independence of America seemed to these despairing statesmen like the sunrise, and why monarchical distaste for rebels and republicanism was not sufficient reason for thrusting aside the opportunity Heaven had placed in royal hands.

This is one reason why the Declaration of Independence was a consummate act of statesmanship, for that gave France and her associates the argument they needed for assisting the cause. Even before the Declaration, Congress had taken a step that virtually implied the same thing. Here again the statesmanlike strategy of that Continental Congress appears in high light. Up to April 1776, Great Britain had enjoyed a monopoly of the American trade. Under that mercantile system which still held economists spellbound, all American products went to England, in British ships; and Americans could purchase manufactures and other supplies in no country except Great Britain and the British possessions. But Congress changed all that: by a stroke of the pen it closed all American ports to British trade, thus ending the monopoly which, Chatham maintained, was the source of England’s commercial ascendancy, and at the same time opened them to other nations.

Here was another consideration in the eyes of French statesmen for American independence; obviously this new system of free trade could not endure if the colonies were suppressed. It is therefore evident that when the Secret Committee, on November 30, 1775, selected Arthur Lee as a confidential negotiator and sounder-out of Bourbon propensities, it did not leave his hands empty of persuasive arguments. Not only was the atmosphere of Europe friendly to colonial success, but he presently had material advantages to dangle before the covetous eyes of Europe.


By this time Arthur Lee and his brother William had both attained established positions in London. The sacrifice t hey were called upon to make for the colonial cause was a serious one. Arthur, called to the bar in April 1775, had quickly become identified with important cases, and had before him an eminent and lucrative career. In March 1775, Benjamin Franklin, agent for Massachusetts, sailed home; this important office, for which Arthur had been acting as deputy for several years, now became his own. In the prevailing situation, this post was one of great dignity, for the Massachusetts agent served virtually as ambassador between Congress and the British court.

William Lee had also prospered. He not only had become one of the most successful tobacco traders in London, but had entered on a unique political career. From 1773 to 1774 he served as one of the two sheriffs of London; and, in May 1775, he was elected alderman for Aldgate ward, in succession to John Shakespeare. That an American, a citizen of one of Britain’s most rebellious colonies, should have been chosen to this high post, a month after the battle of Lexington, not only indicates the popular respect entertained for the new incumbent, but displays the incongruous state of popular opinion at the time towards America.

Arthur enjoyed not only the sedate companionship in the country houses of Shelburne and Chatham, but also the animated society that gathered in the Mansion House, under the genial hospitality of the immortal demagogue, John Wilkes. A French writer described the evening parties there as soupers libertins; unquestionably they had a free, Bohemian character quite new to that solemn establishment. Wilkes assembled not only the writers, actors, men about town, and politicians of London, but the most enlivening visitors from overseas. One of these was that most astonishing character of an astonishing age, the Chevalier d’Éon — or Chevalière, for speculation on this person’s sex was as widespread as that concerning his occupation in England. At certain periods of d’Éon’s life he — for there is no mystery to-day about his sex — appeared in woman’s garb, ‘smoking, drinking and swearing like a German trooper,’ as one observer remarked, and the fact which rendered this disguise especially strange was that it had been assumed at the command of the French king, who would not let the man appear in France otherwise garbed. It was d’Éon’s activities that brought to London, and immediately to the Wilkes coterie, another Frenchman who became the bosom friend of Arthur Lee.

This new recruit labored under one serious disqualification: of the English language he knew only one solitary word — that ‘ Goddam ’ which, he said, was constantly echoing in his ears, and which, he protested, must be the foundation of English speech. This observation, introduced into the traveler’s most famous play, created a new species of human race, — those ‘Goddams,’ — a word which, in France, now became the accepted name for Englishmen. Manifestly a’ man with so restricted a vocabulary — especially as he had so much to say, incessant conversation being the rule of his being — would join hands with an acquaintance who spoke such excellent French as Arthur Lee. The discovery was quickly made that the two new friends had more in common than a means of communicating ideas; their ideas on most outstanding subjects, above all the one that was filling Arthur’s time, were invariably in agreement.

This new arrival bore a name — not his by birth — which is one of the glories of French literature. His two most celebrated plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, still hold their place in classic French repertoire, and, embellished by the music of Rossini and Mozart, are performed constantly to-day in all the opera houses of the world. Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was now in his forty-third year; in that comparatively brief career he had crowded all the excitements, public disputations, transitions in fortune, duels, imprisonments, exiles, and sentimental adventures that made up the career of so many French characters in the latter part of the eighteenth century — the age that produced Cagliostro, Mesmer, the Cardinal de Rohan, and Voltaire. In variety of life and trade the man bears a strong resemblance to that gentleman of endless resource and many occupations, his own Figaro. Watchmaker, musician, song writer, dramatist, author of ‘Memorials’ that set all France in an uproar, courtier, man of fashion, financier, industrial promoter, publisher, shipowner, filibusterer, secret agent of French kings and their mistresses, pamphleteer — all these trades Beaumarchais had followed. In addition, he had spent more than one term in jail, had had to meet whispered accusations of poisoning three wives, — here there was a little slip, for he had had only two, and the charge, even in this amended form, was never regarded seriously by French public opinion, — and had actually been convicted of forgery and of attempting to bribe a French judge, through his wife, into a favorable verdict,

Beaumarchais, said Henri Martin, ‘ loved everything — renown, money, philosophy, pleasure, and, above all, noise.’ It was his genius for self-exploitation that gave the man his start, for Beaumarchais did not begin life in circumstances presaging so romantic a career. Born the son of a watchmaker, Augustin Caron — for such was his baptismal name — had little schooling. Apprenticed as a boy of thirteen to his father’s trade, he lifted the ancestral firm to eminence by the invention of a new escapement — a contraption that made possible the production of watches of minute size. Soon these dainty timepieces were the rage of Paris, and were presently adorning the bracelets of Madame de Pompadour and dangling on the necklaces of the Du Barry.

In time Caron became horloger duroi, and a person of interest to the court. He won the friendship of a lady of rank and fortune, several years his senior, whom he married on her husband’s timely death; her influence secured a position as comptroller of the royal pantry; and presently the youthful Caron, having abandoned his trade, appeared in magnificent vesture bearing the plate containing the king’s meat. The post was not a menial one, but was usually reserved for a member of the aristocracy; in order to qualify, Monsieur Caron purchased — with his wife’s money — a title of nobility, deriving his style from one of her family’s more obscure estates, adding to his name that de Beaumarchais which he was destined to make immortal. When a haughty court noble twitted Caron upon his sudden elevation, the youngster replied: ‘I know I am an aristocrat, for I have the parchment conferring nobility and a receipt for the money it cost me.’ There was no stopping a man like that.

But Beaumarchais was more than a hanger-on of courts; he was a man of intellect, profoundly interested in human institutions, a commentator, both in his plays and in his more formal writings, on the sordid aspects of the time. The raciest man of a racy epoch, his pen was courageously to uncover the social and political abuses of contemporary France and do its part in destroying that court in whose favor, as a young man, he so proudly basked. At the moment of his appearance at the Wilkes soupers libertins, however, his fortune was in decline. The greatest dramatist of his time was an outcast before the law: the French parliament had issued against him its decree of blâme; had pronounced him infânte, and deprived him of French citizenship and all civil rights.

In the hope of regaining the favor of Louis XV, and the reversal of his ostracism, Beaumarchais entered royal employment. His duties were not dignified or even, in normal conditions, self-respecting, but they had great consequences for the new United States of America; they brought the author of Figaro to London, to the Wilkes circle, and to the group plotting the American Revolution. A notorious blackmailer named Morande had written the biography of Madame du Barry, under the rather unpleasing title, Mémoires secrètes d’une fille publique. Beaumarchais was sent to England by the king to purchase this scamp’s silence, acquire his manuscript and all printed copies of the book. He succeeded so adroitly in this mission that a classic has vanished from literature; not a copy is in existence to-day. Probably Beaumarchais would have received his reward — restoration to civic rights — except for one thing: Louis XV died immediately on his return from the victorious quest.

But Figaro promptly entered into similar engagements with Louis XVI. Now followed his most famous embassy, the one that brought him into association with Arthur Lee and the American cause. This concerned that same Chevalier d’Éon who had long been an ornament of the Wilkes entourage. This man for years had been a thorn in the side of the French court. For he also had literary gifts: in addition to an extensive correspondence, his published memoirs filled seven good-sized volumes. But his epistolary works were what especially interested French statesmen. Precisely what this ‘dynamite’ — as one would call it to-day — consisted of is not known, but it was clearly of a highly explosive character. D’Éon was a more important person than the others with whom Beaumarchais had dealt, for he was a nobleman who had held high posts in the diplomatic service, especially in Russia. His letter file was full of state secrets; if these were made public, so it was said, war would ensue between England and France, and half the courts of Europe would fly at one another’s throats.

It was in May 1775 that Beaumarchais appeared in London on this delicate business. For eight months he kept running back and forth from Paris, the final treaty with d’Éon not being arrived at until Christmas. However, these visits presently assumed another interest, which lifted Beaumarchais to a new plane and brought him, among other things, the quashing of the blâme of ‘infamy’ and restoration of all rights as a French citizen. From the job of quellcr of blackmailers and the status of political outcast Beaumarchais was elevated to secret intermediary between France and those revolting colonies of whose existence French ministers were supposed to be diplomatically unconscious. It was the greatest role in Beaumarchais’s histrionic career — and he made the most of it.


Beaumarchais came to London in August 1775 with two distinct missions. One was to complete the difficult negotiations with d’Éon; the other was to renew an old friendship with Lord Rochford, British Foreign Secretary. Many years before in Spain, Rochford, then British ambassador to His Catholic Majesty, and Beaumarchais, then spending several months in Madrid on a personal mission, became boon companions; both men were excellent musicians and used to while away many hours singing duets. Vergennes now hoped to turn this harmonious association to state account; he encouraged Beaumarchais to resume his duets with the Foreign Secretary, in the expectation that so charming a companionship would have practical results. Rochford, the French minister believed, was not especially keen mentally, and might easily fall victim to Beaumarchais’s musicianship and let drop an occasional state secret. At that time Vergennes had formed no plan for aiding America; it was a matter in which Beaumarchais apparently had little interest; but accurate information on the state of affairs in Great Britain would be useful to France.

Beaumarchais succeeded in reëstablishing relations with Rochford; the reports he sent home, however, indicate that his efforts as an observer were not especially to the point. On September 21 he addressed a letter to Louis conspicuous for its inaccuracy and misinformation. England was pictured as on the verge of revolution; in a few months most members of the cabinet would lose their heads, while the king was to be deposed and driven from the country. England was facing ruin — if her enemies only had the sense to take advantage of her miseries. The Americans had 80,000 men in full arms, and the British forces in Boston were slowly starving. The colonies were already lost and civil war was soon to deluge Britain.

There is nothing in this letter about giving aid to the Americans — who, in fact, seem already to have won their liberties without European assistance — and nothing about the political motives which made such action excellent statesmanship for France. The man who wrote it was far at sea about the British-American imbroglio, to say nothing about the domestic situation in England. The French historian of the participation of France in the American Revolution, Henri Doniol, declares that this memorial is so foolish as not to deserve reprinting; clearly at this time Beaumarchais had not formed any conception of the part in that great proceeding that was to be taken by France.

Three months afterward, however, on December 7, 1775, Beaumarchais again writes the king, in very different spirit; the project of French assistance to the Americans had evidently taken form, the purpose of this memorial being to remove certain kingly scruples that still paralyzed the royal will. In it Beaumarchais gives the youthful Louis XVI a preliminary lesson in the technique of Machiavelli: it is even commendable to break a treaty if such violation of faith will promote the welfare of France! It is a strange, one might almost say an impudent, communication. Beaumarchais at this time was officially an outcast, with no rights of citizenship; yet his letter is almost peremptory in tone, instructing the king in his royal duties, comparing his present spirit most unfavorably with that of Louis XIV, even that of Louis XV.

Encouraged, perhaps, by royal acquiescence, Beaumarchais continued his course. The important document in this correspondence is the famous memorial of February 29, 1776, addressed au roi seul. This is one of the great state papers of history — great, at least, in its consequences, for it is the presentation that drew the family of Bourbon into the American cause. The very first sentence discloses a philosophic insight hardly to be expected from the gay and volatile Figaro. ‘Sire—The famous quarrel between America and England, soon to divide the world and change the European system, makes it necessary for France to examine carefully in what way this event of separation can affect her and either be an advantage or a destructive influence.’ And the examination follows — eloquently phrased, always pitched in dramatic form, for this was the big scene in the life of Beaumarchais, and nobly did he rise to it. The memorial is a plea for French secret aid to the colonies, and the argument was based on precisely those grounds most likely to prove irresistible to the French Government.

It is evident that, between the composition of the ridiculous letter of September 21 and the mature reasoning of February 29, 1776, Beaumarchais’s mind had undergone a change; he had received a sound education in the pending British-American difficulty. Who had been his instructor? The question is unnecessary: only one man could have fulfilled that rôle. Only one man in London was qualified and authorized to discuss American policy with an emissary of the French king; that was the gentleman whom Beaumarchais called ‘Le Sieur Lee, secret representative of the colonies in London.’ The six months preceding February 29, 1776, Beaumarchais had spent in London, with occasional trips to Paris; that he passed much time with Arthur Lee his correspondence clearly indicates.

Arthur’s chambers in the Middle Temple served as meeting place; a third party to the conversations was Lauraguais, as keen a promoter of American interests as Arthur himself. Arthur was an animated talker, full of ideas, impulsive in persuasion, and in Beaumarchais’s correspondence we can almost feel him constantly at the Frenchman’s elbow, now cajoling, now pleading, now demanding. The indomitable man did not even hesitate to employ threats, and the gentle art of bluffing was not to him unknown. This is no exaggeration; for Arthur appears in all these lights in the memorial that worked so powerfully on the king. For the letter is really a little drama, in which the main performers are Arthur Lee and Beaumarchais.

The most interesting part of the dialogue is placed in the mouth of Arthur Lee. Arthur is portrayed as weary of French procrastination and the scruples of the king; after several months of discussion, of writings back and forth, he turns almost ferociously on Beaumarchais with demands for what to-day would bo called a showdown. The time has come when the impatient American resorts to threats. Let France beware! For, if the aid solicited is not forthcoming, her position in the future world economy will be a sad one! Says Figaro: —

‘Le Sieur Lee, completely discouraged by his useless efforts through me to obtain powder and other munitions from the French minister, now declares to me: “For the last time I ask you whether France has absolutely decided not to help us, and thus become the victim of England and the laughingstock of all Europe on account of this incredible torpor? Oblige me with a positive and final answer. I am waiting for yours to give mine. We offer to France, in return for her secret assistance, a secret treaty of commerce by which she will secure for a certain number of years after peace is declared all the advantages with which America has enriched England for the past century, with, additionally, a guarantee of her possessions according to our force. — Don’t you want this?”’

There is a vast amount of guile and statesmanship in these few sentences. The transfer of America’s commerce and trade to France, the guarantee of her sugar islands in the West Indies — clearly America had plenty to offer in exchange for French consideration. That trade, as related above, was regarded by French statesmen — and by British — as the foundation of England’s power. And there is a particular ominousness in Lee’s remark, ‘I await your final answer so that I may give mine.’

‘Come, sir, go to France,’ — thus the dramatist quotes Lee’s final words, — ‘show them how matters stand. I shall retire into the country until you return, so as not to be obliged to give an answer until I receive yours. Say to your ministers that I am ready to follow you there, if necessary, to confirm these declarations. Tell them that I learn that Congress has sent two deputies to Madrid for the same object, and moreover that I can assure you that they have received a satisfactory answer.1 Must the French Council enjoy the glorious prerogative of alone being blind to the fame of its king and to the interests of his kingdom?’

Neither the Massachusetts nor the Virginia statesmen at this time desired an alliance with France. The letters of Richard Henry Lee reiterate a conviction that America’s independence must be her own achievement; Arthur’s constant promptings to Samuel Adams — ‘American liberty must be of American fabric’ — insist on the same determination. John Adams’s unfriendly attitude to French intervention at this early stage is no secret. But France had certain things that the insurgent colonies absolutely needed. Before the Cont inental Congress Adams was pointing out the part that France could play. No political connection, no military expedition; but saltpetre, cannon, stands of arms! Massachusetts had dearly learned the importance of such accessories. Twice, at Bunker Hill, Massachusetts farmers had sent the British redcoats reeling; they would have done so the third and the fourth time except for one thing — the two attacks had exhausted their ammunition. The ordinary materials of war were so scarce in Washington’s army, then before Boston, that Franklin, in all seriousness, advised that the soldiers be armed with bows and arrows. What the revolutionists desired of France at this moment was not recognition and an alliance, but war supplies. What were the demands being made upon the French by Le Sieur Lee at this final interview? Beaumarchais mentions them specifically: ‘Powder and other munitions’ — to be supplied in secret, roundabout fashion.


This last point was the rub. Louis XVI was a gentlemanly sovereign, keenly conscious of the fine honor that should direct the relationships of kings; the idea of surreptitiously arming for rebellion the subjects of a monarch with whom he was openly on terms of friendship was revolting. The thing simply was not done. Royal etiquette forbade it.

Besides, there was the hesitation of Spain. Charles III, king of that nation, was Louis’s uncle; the two countries had been linked in closest alliance for fifteen years; there was no man for whom the French king had such reverence, and whose advice meant so much, as the occupant of the Spanish throne. This was the real reason for the hesitation of Vergennes which made Figaro and Le Sieur Lee so impatient. So long as Charles refused to associate Spain with the plots of Paris and Beaumarchais, the French king remained obdurate. Even the urgings of his queen, Marie Antoinette, who was partial to the braves Américains, did not resolve his scruples. All the finespun arguments of Beaumarchais did not bend this young sovereign, usually regarded as so weak and pliable; the respectful casuistries of Vergennes had not caused his royal master to deviate from his duty; time was pressing, Britain was known to be massing large forces for transportation to America, yet majesty was obdurate. Probably only one person in Europe could have led Louis XVI to behave in the underhanded manner desired; if Charles of Spain would only take his stand!

The secret springs of history are frequently trivial and capricious; who would have imagined that Arthur Lee, all unconsciously, should have been the means of easing the conscience of royal France? In his vehement tirade to Beaumarchais he had referred to two emissaries sent by Congress to the Spanish court — not without success. Whether Arthur, in saying this, was himself a little rusé, or was merely reporting unverified rumor, is not apparent. Vergennes, however, regarded the intelligence as of such importance that he immediately communicated it to Grimaldi, prime minister of Spain. Was Le Sieur Lee’s statement true? Had American envoys already obtained assistance from His Catholic Majesty?

Grimaldi immediately replied, No, it was not true. ‘No one has asked us to furnish help to the revolting colonies, consequently we have not given any.’ This démenti, however, was not the important part of the letter. Spain had given no help, Grimaldi went on, but she was entirely willing to do so. In one cynical sentence, Grimaldi sets forth the attitude Spain pursued then and afterwards toward this international question. The ‘formula,’ as the diplomats say, was sharp and concise. ‘Certainly it is to our advantage that the rebellion of these people be supported. We ought to wish that they and the English reciprocally exhaust each other!’ For Spain hated both England and the colonies: England on historic grounds, also for the dispute then pending between the two countries over Portugal; the colonies because their determination to seize the Mississippi River, then a Spanish monopoly, was already manifest. The more England and her colonies gouged and enfeebled each other, the better for Spain.

Was there anything dishonorable in giving secret aid? Not at all; this was only what England had done on every available occasion. When Spain was at war with Morocco, wrote Grimaldi, England had furnished arms of all kinds to the natives. She had done the same in the war with Algiers. ‘Right and interest should thus persuade us to assist the English colonists; voilà la maxime.’

The only question was how it was to be clone. It must be so managed that, if discovered, it could be immediately disavowed. The Spanish premier was willing to leave these details to the French; they managed such things so much better in France! ‘But the king is ready,’ wrote Grimaldi, ‘and offers to share, within reason, in the expense. . . . His Majesty commands me to tell you that he submits the matter entirely to the decision of the king, his nephew.’

And so Arthur’s remark had had the effect, quite unforeseen, of sounding out the Spanish and obtaining considerable subsidies for the American cause. It may be assumed that Vergennes lost no time in placing this communication before his royal master. It was precisely the argument he had been looking for. Incidentally Grimaldi’s letter shows that the first definite commitment of secret aid to the colonies came from the Spanish court, and not from the French. Grimaldi’s revelation that Great Britain had set the example of secretly assisting subjects revolting against their liege lords helped to quiet the king in his ethical struggle.


Meanwhile Arthur Lee kept up his importunities; he, Beaumarchais, and Lauraguais were constant companions. Their interviews, Beaumarchais says in his letters to Vergennes, lasted from morning to night. And the plea was always the same: ‘We need arms.’ ‘We need powder.’ ‘Above all, we need engineers.’ ‘It is only you who can help us; only you who have an interest in helping us.’

‘But that last article is a great difficulty,’ Figaro would reply. ‘We cannot send men without giving them a commission. Besides, men talk and that compromises us. Dumb help is dumb.’

‘Oh, well,’ Arthur would respond, ‘give us money and we will get engineers from Spain, Sweden, Italy. And you will not be compromised.’

Arthur’s constant demands were clearly not unwelcome. ‘The patriotism of these men,’ wrote Beaumarchais to Vergennes, ‘revives my own. It even seems that the precarious and dangerous situation in which I see myself, because of the suspicions and the severe inquisition which is made of everything I undertake, renders my zeal more ardent!’

In fact Vergennes needed no persuasion. For months he had been a convert to the plan of surreptitious aid, and every day was bringing stronger pressure on the king. The Beaumarchais letter of February 29, 1776, decided His Majesty; and Grimaldi’s message, reaching Paris about a month later, removed all scruples. About this time also Bonvouloir, who had been sent to Philadelphia as an observer, returned to France; he gave most optimistic reports — rather more optimistic than the situation justified — of American success, and of the determined spirit of le conseil privé, as he called the Secret Committee of Congress.

Events now began to move rapidly. On May 2, Vergennes wrote his famous letter to Louis, telling of his plans to forward 1,000,000 livres to Beaumarchais for aid to the Americans. His authorization, said the Foreign Minister, would not be in his own handwriting; the document would be copied by his fifteen-year-old son, which would furnish as complete a disguise as one could ask. This historic paper now reposes in the archives of France; at the bottom appears one word, ‘Bon,’ written in the hand of Louis XVI, king of France, his monosyllabic approval of one of the most fateful enterprises on which the Bourbon dynasty ever embarked. Two days afterward Vergennes wrote the royal treasurer, instructing him to put aside the sum of 1,000,000 livres and hold it subject to his orders. On June 6 this money was transferred to Beaumarchais, that gentleman’s receipt for the amount subsequently becoming one of the most celebrated documents in Franco-American diplomacy. On June 27, Spain, in most roundabout fashion, duplicated the French subsidy. Thus about $400,000 was appointed for the purchase of munitions at a time when the new American Government most sorely needed them.


Meanwhile, on an early day in May, — the precise date cannot be determined, — a momentous scene took place in Arthur Lee’s rooms at No. 2 Garden Court, Middle Temple. The participants were Arthur himself, Beaumarchais, and the inseparable third member of the trio, the Comte de Lauraguais. The purpose of the meeting was to inform Arthur Lee, official agent of the Continental Congress, — the only agent Congress had in Europe at the time, — that the French Government was prepared to aid the new United Colonies to the extent of £200,000 sterling. At least that is the figure appearing in all official documents bearing on the subject — a fivefold exaggeration of the first subsidy. Whether the mistake was the result of Beaumarchais’s exaltation, or his visioning of the not distant future, or whether it was caused by the fact that the details of the interview were not reduced to writing but transmitted by word of mouth, cannot be decided at this late day. For Arthur Lee made no written report to Congress. He was too experienced a gentleman to do anything so foolish as that. This message of Beaumarchais was the greatest diplomatic secret of the time. Its disclosure would have meant war between England and France. Certainly France, if Arthur had put this news on paper, and the letter should have found its way into the hands of British agents, would have ceased all negotiations with the colonies.

Congress, in entrusting this diplomatic post to Arthur, had insisted on ‘impenetrable secrecy.’ Moreover, Congress had sent Arthur an emissary for the transmission of messages; this was Thomas Story, a kind of international Paul Revere, who left America in December 1775 with instructions to get in touch with the agent of Congress. Mr. Story’s experience, immediately on landing in England, was in itself a sufficient warning as to the danger of transmitting the written word. The efficiency of the British secret service, even in this early stage, was a matter of wonder and admiration. The purpose of Thomas Story’s transatlantic migration was perfectly understood; he was stopped by agents of the government, searched, and relieved of a letter to Arthur Lee from Mr. Dumas of The Hague. This happened in April 1776; certainly Arthur would have been an idiot had he entrusted to Story, a month afterward, a written report to Congress telling all about the meeting of the triumvirate at No. 2 Garden Court, and the promised subsidy from France!

Arthur Lee therefore sent a verbal message to the Secret Committee, presently to be metamorphosed into the Committee of Foreign Affairs, with Richard Henry Lee as an additional member. On October 1, 1776, Thomas Story arrived in Philadelphia and delivered his message as follows: ‘On my leaving London, Arthur Lee, Esq., requested me to inform the committee of correspondence that he had several conferences with the French ambassador, who had communicated the same to the French court: that in consequence thereof the Duke [sic] of Vergennes had sent a gentleman to Arthur Lee, who informed him that the French court could not think of entering into a war with England, but that they would assist America by sending from Holland this fall £200,000 sterling worth of arms and ammunition to Saint Eustatius, Martinique, or Cape François; that application was to be made to the governors or commandants of those places by inquiring for Monsieur Hortalez and that, on persons properly authorized applying, the above articles would be delivered to them.’ This paragraph represented Mr. Story’s recollection of a message entrusted to him five months before by Arthur Lee; it contains one or two inaccuracies, such as the sudden elevation of Vergennes from Comte to Duke, and the amount of money involved; but in its essentials it was an accurate repetition of what Beaumarchais had told Arthur in early May, and outlined the programme that was subsequently put into effect.

At the time Mr. Story reached Philadelphia, only two members of the Secret Committee, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris, were in town. These wise gentlemen at once adopted Lee’s policy of secrecy. They made a memorandum and placed it in their most inaccessible files, — the document is now included in the Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution, — but they decided not to make the information known to Congress. The paper solemnly drawn up, explaining the reasons for this reticence, — subsequently formally approved by the signatures of Richard Henry Lee and William Hooper, new members, — shows that the distrust and dissensions of that storm year, 1776, had not subsided. New York, now in possession of the British and their Tory sympathizers, was a danger point; should the news ‘get to the ear of our enemies at New York they would undoubtedly take measures to intercept the supplies and thereby deprive us not only of those succors but others expected by the same route. . . . We find, by fatal experience, the Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets’ — and here Franklin and Morris instance one case of a serious leak. The committee had already made arrangements to receive the supplies at ‘Martinico’ and thought it wise to keep the whole matter from Congress until safe delivery had been made.

In the early part of 1777, three ships, the Amphitrite, the Seine, and the Mercure, sailed from Havre, bearing war supplies for the American army, purchased with this subsidy of two million livres, furnished by France and Spain. Probably no supplies of ammunition ever produced such historic results. For these were the arms, effectively used by the farmers of New England and northern New York, that won the battle of Saratoga in September 1777. This is only another way of saying that they won American independence. Only when one considers this fact can the magnitude of Arthur Lee’s achievement be measured.

Among the myths that have grown up about the Revolutionary War is that this French aid was first obtained by Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin. But both French and Spanish Governments had given their pledges and made their cash payments six weeks before Deane and six months before Franklin had set foot in France. The American diplomatic pioneer whose constant and frequently intemperate promptings exercised such a powerful influence on Beaumarchais, and through him on Vergennes and the French king, was the secret agent of the Continental Congress in London, Arthur Lee.

  1. Italics in the original. — AUTHOR