[6 July 2010]
PopMatters Features Editor
It’s 1776. The smell of black powder hangs over Boston—the revolution is on. Alas, the Continental Army is a sorry lot. Lacking supplies and men, General Washington retreats his way across the northeast. His only hope is that France, the colonies’ common enemy against England, will come to their aid. France’s intentions are obscure, however, as French king Louis XVI dithers for months over the issue…
Most students of US history learn that at this point, Benjamin Franklin, America’s first international superstar, caught the next boat to Paris and coaxed and beguiled the French court into backing the revolution. That’s sort of true, but as always, what really happened was far more complicated and arguably much more interesting.
Unlikely Allies is about the strange and star-crossed little cabal that brought France over to the side of the American Revolution before Ben Franklin showed up to hog all the credit. In essence, the feat of procuring enough arms and troops to turn the tide of the Revolutionary War was managed by an American dry-goods salesman working secretly with an infamous French playwright who had been kicked out of Versailles for blackmailing his former king. That in itself ought to make a decent story, but throw in a wily, cross-dressing Dragoon captain, a spiteful American land speculator, a few dozen British spies, a crazy Scottish arsonist and the absurdities of French aristocracy, and you’ve got a great historical tale.
The narrative centers on Silas Deane, a Connecticut lawyer who married into the mercantile trade in 1761 and parlayed his newfound wealth and status into a career in colonial politics. Swept up in the revolutionary fervor of the day, Deane found himself tasked by the Continental Congress to diplomatically represent his unrecognized new country before one of the most powerful nations in Europe, one which happened to have one of the most inscrutable and fickle political systems ever devised. His mission was to secure, on the questionable credit of the colonies, enough supplies and troops to beat back the formidable British military.
Deane reluctantly paired himself with Caron de Beaumarchais, whose career up to that point included designing the guts of the modern wristwatch, writing The Barber of Seville and intriguing on behalf of (and sometimes against) Louis XV. Beaumarchais had already made and lost a couple of fortunes by the time he hooked up with Deane and had just gotten back into the graces of the French court by persuading a gender-confused spy to relinquish plans France had made to invade England after their defeat in the Seven Years War.
Beaumarchais’ partnership with Deane seems doomed at every juncture, and yet the two somehow manage to elude the British Secret Service, navigate the insane whims of the French monarchy and send some 40 ships laden with crucial materiel across the Atlantic. One of those ships arrives just in time to provision American rebels for their first major victory at Saratoga.
The true-life plot is potentially confusing, but author Joel Richard Paul handles the action well, laying a solid biographical foundation for each of his main characters and then fastidiously re-creating the scenes that send them through their adventures. Paul presents a vision of the revolution that is astounding yet wholly believable, leading one to conclude that the founding of America was one of the most improbable historical oddities of all time.
The more well-known figures of the American Revolution make appearances, but they’re treated as background characters, an approach that puts the focus of events on the workaday revolutionaries we’ve left off the pedestal. Tom Paine comes off as an asshole, Thomas Jefferson a brooding opportunist. Ben Franklin is portrayed as an irascible and vain old coot who likes to hang out in gay bathhouses and skirtchase noblemen’s wives. The Continental Congress of Silas Deane’s day makes the current U.S. Congress look almost functional, and the intrigues of the founding fathers seem just as petty and ridiculous as those stirred up by today’s pols.
In the end, the true heroes of Unlikely Allies end up ruined and forgotten (and perhaps even murdered in the case of Silas Deane) while their contemporaries are lauded to this day. Ain’t providence grand?