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Improbable Patriot

The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution

Harlow Giles Unger

Publication Year: 2011

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was an eighteenth-century French inventor, famed playwright, and upstart near-aristocrat in the court of King Louis XVI. In 1776, he conceived an audacious plan to send aid to the American rebels. What's more, he convinced the king to bankroll the project, and singlehandedly carried it out. By war's end, he had supplied Washington's army with most of its weapons and powder, though he was never paid or acknowledged by the United States.

To some, he was a dashing hero--a towering intellect who saved the American Revolution. To others, he was pure rogue--a double-dealing adventurer who stopped at nothing to advance his fame and fortune. In fact, he was both, and more: an advisor to kings, an arms dealer, and author of some of the most enduring works of the stage, including The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville.

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. v


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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Preface & Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xv

In 1853, Professor Louis de Loménie of the Collège de France on the Left Bank in Paris described following one of Beaumarchais’s grandsons up to the attic of a house on the rue du Pas-de-la-Mule, which runs into the boulevard Beaumarchais. Indeed, the corner of rue du Pas-de-la-Mule and the boulevard...

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1: We Must Help the Americans

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pp. 1-18

As 1776 neared its end, the news from America sent British King George III into paroxysms of joy. His army had routed the heralded George Washington and his so-called Continental Army. The American Revolution was all but over. Once numbering more than 30,000, Washington’s ragtag rebels...

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2: Gold by God! The Fuel of Life!

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pp. 19-35

Ma jeunesse était si gaie, si folle, si heureuse, Beaumarchais recalled, describing his youth as a mixture of gaiety, craziness, and happiness.1 Born a genius, he easily transformed his natural gifts into wealth, becoming one of France’s youngest men of money — and certainly its happiest. A respected merchant and judge...

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3: Last Night Poor, Wealthy Today!

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pp. 36-56

Not everyone at Versailles turned their envy of Beaumarchais into insults or injury. The great financier Joseph Pâris-Duverney had made a fortune with his two brothers as arms merchants to the French army during King George’s War between France and England from 1740 to 1748...

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4: So You Mistreat Some Poor Devil . . .Till He Trembles in Disgrace!

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pp. 57-73

Beaumarchais languished in prison for a month, scratching out letters to de La Vrillière protesting his arbitrary and unjust incarceration. The Captain General ignored the letters, insisting that Beaumarchais was “too insolent” for a commoner and deserved a lesson in humility. Beaumarchais appealed...

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5: I’m the Busiest, Cleverest Fellow I Know

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pp. 74-94

Within days of Sartine’s suggestion that Beaumarchais await an opportunity to serve the new king, a scandalous document appeared mysteriously — indeed, miraculously — under Sartine’s door at Versailles. It was entitled Avis à la branche espagnole sur ses droits à la couronne de France,...

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6: Plotting and Pocketing

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pp. 95-110

In the course of his encounters with d’Eon at the Wilkes salon, Beaumarchais formed his first friendship with an American — a superbly educated Virginian, who seemed more English than American. A member of the storied Lee family, Arthur Lee had been born at the family’s eastern Virginia estate...

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7: I Wish to Serve Your Country as if It Were My Own

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pp. 111-130

In mid-January 1776, when the Beaumarchais scheme was still under consideration at Versailles, America’s portly commander of artillery, General Henry Knox, waddled into Cambridge at the head of an exhausted column. He and his men had just completed an improbable 300-mile journey to Fort Ticonderoga...

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8: Figaro Here, Figaro There . . .

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pp. 131-155

When Beaumarchais learned of the Amphitrite’s return to port, he sent his trusted confidante Francy galloping to Lorient, where he confronted du Coudray, handing him a letter from Beaumarchais, who called du Coudray’s conduct inexplicable. “As the real owner of the vessel ‘Amphitrite,’”...

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9: Bright People Are So Stupid

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pp. 156-181

Although lesser nobles at Versailles still scorned him, Beaumarchais had, in fact, become all but indispensable to the comte de Vergennes and other ministers. Ignoring — and all but mocking — the sneers, stares, and unvented fury of envious sinecures, sieur de Beaumarchais strutted into the palace...

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10: What Did You Do to Earn So Many Rewards?

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pp. 182-200

The day after the Paris mob stormed the Bastille, Lafayette, the hero of the Battle of Yorktown, took nominal control of the local militia and reestablished a semblance of order. It was difficult. Unlike American militiamen, who had returned to their farms after their revolution, demobilized French troops...

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11: Tout finit par des chansons / Everything Ends in Song

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pp. 201-205

Beaumarchais spent a total of two years in Hamburg — exiled from his native France and, sadly, from most of the many French émigrés in Hamburg. As they had when he first set foot in the palace of Versailles as a clockmaker’s son, exiled courtiers in Hamburg refused to include commoners...

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12: All of Which Proves That a Son of a Clod Can Be Worth His Weight in Gold

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pp. 206-212

As might be expected, Beaumarchais wrote his own epitaph, insisting that he lived his life with “gaiety and bonhommie”: I have had enemies without number. . . . It was natural enough. I played every instrument, but was not a musician. I invented good machines, but was no engineer...

Appendix: Works by Beaumarchais

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pp. 213-214


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pp. 215-224


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pp. 225-228


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pp. 229-236

E-ISBN-13: 9781611682168
E-ISBN-10: 1611682169

Page Count: 260
Publication Year: 2011