They say timing is everything. Many words could be used to describe Pierre Beaumarchais. Playwright and arms merchant are just a few. Scoundrel, watchmaker, revolutionary, entrepreneur and murderer could also be used.
His first two wives died mysteriously and despite having penned the three plays – Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro, and La Mère Coupable in the 1760s, Beaumarchais was in deep legal and financial trouble in 1775 and needed a way out. France was still smarting from its defeat in The Seven Years War which ended in 1765 and the Comte de Vergennes, Charles Gravier was the foreign minister and looking for ways to get back at Great Britain.
The American Revolution and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais provided an opportunity. Beaumarchais had approached him with an offer to help Louis XVI in return for what amounted to a pardon. He had already taken on a mission to England to track down a French diplomat who attempted to blackmail Louis XVI.
Beaumarchais created a shell company called Rodrique Hortelez and Company chartered in both France and Spain. It had a “business” relationship with two Americans, Silas Deane and Thomas Morris, brother of the American financier Robert Morris, who helped fund the American Revolution. Deane was a member of the Connecticut delegation to the Continental Congress and later, part of Benjamin Franklin’s delegation to France. He was the Comte de Vergennes contact.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, the munitions were flowing from France and Spain through the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean. It was enough materiel to keep the Continental Army clothed and equipped in 1776.
When the Treaty of Alliance was signed, Beaumarchais was given his full civil rights back. He was an early supporter of the French Revolution and while out of the country, his enemies had him labeled a loyalist. It took him two years to clear his name and he returned to Paris where he died in 1799.
All did not end well for Deane even though the American Revolution succeeded. The British were gone but one of Deane’s associates, Arthur Lee was not happy. He had spent the war in both France and the U.K. and helped negotiate the Treaty of Alliance with France and felt “cut out.” Lee engineered the recall of Deane to the U.S. based on the accusations that not all of the contracted equipment arrived in the U.S. and vowed neither Deane nor Beaumarchais would be paid.
Deane was allowed to go back to Paris to collect his business records but by then most of his investments had failed and the merchant ships he owned had been captured by the British. He spent the rest of his life trying to clear his name.
Almost broke and ill, Silas Deane died in 1791 on a ship that was to bring him back to the United States. Philura Deane Alden, Deane’s granddaughter continued the fight to clear his name and receive compensation. In 1841, the Congress awarded her – $37,000 (~$1,097,730 today) and issued an apology stating the way her grandfather was treated was a gross injustice.