The Unlikely Spy

by Carl G. Karsch

Intelligence-gathering, also called spying, is vital to the high stakes game of diplomacy. In cards, the more knowledge one has of the opponent's hand, the better the chances of winning. Of course, this is also cheating. Diplomacy knows no such scruples. Facts — whether from satellites, aircraft or agents on the ground — are vital to a diplomat's success.

A former U.S. Secretary of State once remarked that nations have no friends, only interests. This describes precisely the position of France in 1775. As war clouds darkened over the British colonies in North America, King Louis XVI and his cabinet felt they had an ideal opportunity. With a little luck, they could bloody the nose of their traditional rival and perhaps regain some territory lost in 1763 after their defeat in the Seven Years' War. On the other hand, why should France support rebels who advocated democracy? The disease might be catching.

To help decide matters, the cabinet, especially the minister of foreign affairs, the Comte de Vergennes, needed solid information. How strong are the rebels? What about their supplies? The key question: can they win?

During the reign of Louis XV, France routinely infiltrated agents into the colonies. But no longer. Now the only listening post was the French embassy in London; information at best was contradictory. The Comte de Guines, ambassador to the Court of St. James, received his post through the influence of the queen, Marie Antoinette, who said he made her laugh. Unfortunately, his reports reflected the opinion of the last informant. Sometimes he was upbeat on the colonies' chances, alternately he predicted defeat.

The most consistent and brilliantly written reports came from the embassy's secret agent with the imposing name of Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Better known as a successful Parisian dramatist, his works reflected egalitarian influences of the Enlightenment. Two plays were adapted as operas: "The Barber of Seville" (Rossini) and "The Marriage of Figaro" (Mozart). In both works aristocratic traditions receive their comeuppance. For this reason the Austrian monarchy banned performance of his plays in Vienna. Beaumarchais'politics were equally biased. His chief informant was John Wilkes, a close friend of Franklin and pro-American Whig leader jailed by George III. Vergennes and Louis XVI accepted his reports enthusiastically, without even a few grains of salt.

Vergennes, despite an acute dislike of Guines, agreed with him that first-hand information on colonial America was essential. Ambassador Guines came up with just the man, or so he thought. Julien-Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir, wrote Guines, is a gentleman, a retired officer from the Army's elite Regiment du Cap, and recently returned from America where he had excellent contacts in Philadelphia, New York, Providence "and Rhod-Island." Further, Bonvouloir's two brothers are distinguished army officers. Unfortunately, he is lame, the result of a childhood accident, but is up to the assignment. As compensation for the risky venture Guines recommended a commission in the infantry, a gracious message from the King expressing gratitude for undertaking the mission, and payment of 200 livres, a paltry sum considering the risk.

In fact, Bonvouloir was not quite as portrayed to Vergennes. Then 26 years old, he was the black sheep of a family of the minor nobility and had only been a volunteer in the Regiment du Cap. His great ambition was to be a commissioned army officer. Poorly educated and physically handicapped, he wasted his portion of the family fortune and consequently was scorned by his father and brothers. He was eager to make the most of this opportunity of a lifetime for recognition. And he did.

Less than two weeks after Guines handed his dispatch to a royal courier, the reply arrived in London. Both the King and Vergennes approved the venture, the army commission and payment. But there were strict limitations on Bonvouloir's freedom to negotiate. The French were not about to stumble accidentally into a war with England. Above all, Vergennes declared in his instructions, the spy has to understand he could compromise no one but himself. Should he be exposed, there will be no help from France. He may not carry written instructions, which can fall into enemy hands, nor may he present himself as an official emissary. In conversations with Americans he is to follow the following verbal orders: 1. he must obtain the maximum information on the state of affairs; 2. he is to assure them of the profound sympathy of France for their cause and make clear that the French have no desire to regain Canada; 3. he is to offer the Use of French ports for their ships once they have declared independence. Finally, a full report must be dispatched quickly and with utmost security.

Jubilantly, this most unlikely spy boarded a ship bound for Philadelphia and a voyage into an adventure still honored in American, if not French, history books.

While Bonvouloir is suffering through an apparently horrendous Atlantic crossing, let's turn to conditions in this country.

By the fall of 1775, the Second Continental Congress realized defeat was inevitable without arms and supplies from abroad. Many members recalled how in previous wars France encouraged Indian atrocities against Americans, even as Britain was now doing. Despite this ambivalence, France — ever the rival of England — seemed the logical source. Congress appointed a handful of members to two clandestine groups: the Secret Committee and the Committee of Secret Correspondence. Financier Robert Morris and his associates had as their assignment purchasing gunpowder from independent arms merchants in the Caribbean. Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and their colleagues were to begin quiet negotiations "for the sole purpose of corresponding with our friends in Great Britain, Ireland and other parts of the world." Quite an assignment for a far-away group of colonies with few friends and less money. In 1777 the Committee of Secret Correspondence received a new name, the Committee for Foreign Affairs, and as such is credited with being the forerunner of today's Department of State.

Bonvouloir's meetings with the Committee of Secret Correspondence came about through coincidences which from an American perspective border on the miraculous. Finally stepping ashore in Philadelphia, Bonvouloir went to the home of Francis Daymon, a fellow Frenchman he met on the earlier trip. Daymon had been hired by Franklin both as librarian for his Library Company and to teach him French. The Library Company, first established in the State House (Independence Hall), moved into its new quarters on the second floor of Carpenters' Hall when the building was completed late in 1773. Books were housed in cabinets in the east room of the second floor, directly above where the First Continental Congress met a year earlier. Apparatus for electrical and astronomical investigations belonging to Franklin and his scientifically minded colleagues filled the west room, where The Carpenters' Company library is now located.

Franklin quickly accepted Daymon's offer to act as translator for this mysterious stranger, who although claiming no official capacity, appeared to have the ear of the French government. But was he actually a double-agent hoping to expose a conspiracy? Franklin and John Jay, the chief Committee members who conferred with Bonvouloir, felt they had to take the gamble. For the negotiators, that Christmas season must not have been particularly joyful. A prolonged war, assuming supplies would flow from abroad, seemed inevitable. An added burden for Franklin was the death the previous February of his wife, Deborah, while he was still in England. Nevertheless, with Daymon acting as translator, members of the Committee of Secret Correspondence held three lengthy nighttime meetings between December 18 and 27 in the second floor library at Carpenters' Hall. "At our meetings," wrote Bonvouloir in his report, "each one of them took a different route through the darkness to the indicated rendezvous." For obvious reasons, no one took minutes of the meetings; the only record is Bonvouloir's report to Vergennes. Jay, a delegate from New York to the Continental Congress, described Bonvouloir as "an elderly, lame gentleman, having the appearance of an old, wounded French officer." A curious assessment, since at the time Jay was thirty, just four years older than the visitor.

Lest the Committee's actions appear needlessly melodramatic, remember that what they attempted, and ultimately accomplished, was treason. The colonies were in revolt but not yet at war with England. Tory sentiment abounded. Independence would not be declared until the following July.

Bonvouloir lost no time in filing his report, dated December 28, 1775, and dispatching it on a fast boat to Calais. He returned to his friend's home to await word from Guines. It never arrived.

Here are some excerpts from Bonvouloir's report:

As I expected I found this country in an incredible turmoil. The Confederates [rebels] are preparing themselves extensively for the coming spring and despite the severity of the season, they continue the fight. They besieged Montreal, which surrendered, and are presently close to Quebec, which I think will do the same soon... They are well entrenched near Boston... They have an unbelievable eagerness and goodwill: it is true they are led by capable people.

Unfortunately, the agent was wrong on several counts. The British officer at Montreal did withdraw his small force to reinforce Quebec, but anything of military value was destroyed. On New Year's eve, 1775 — four days after the last meeting at Carpenters' Hall — an American force weakened by severe weather and sickness stormed Quebec with disastrous results. Outside Boston, militia units whose enlistments expired at year's end left Washington's army so depleted the British could have lifted the siege had they wanted to leave their warm quarters.

Bonvouloir continued his overly enthusiastic assessment:

Everyone here is a soldier, the troops are well clothed, well paid and well armed. They have more than 50,000 regular soldiers and an even larger number of volunteers who do not wish to be paid. Judge how men of this caliber will fight. They are more powerful than we could have thought, beyond imagination powerful; you will be astonished by it. Nothing shocks or frightens them, you can count on that. Independency is a certainty for 1776; there will be no drawing back...

As a matter of record, however, Washington's army reached its first peak strength with 18,000 in the summer of 1776. It fell to 5,000 by the end of the year, rose to a little more than 20,000 in mid-1778, and then declined.

In his report, Bonvouloir lists three requests from the Committee:

Monsieur de Bonvouloir is begged to examine the following proposition, under the understanding that we are speaking as private individuals to each other:

  1. Can he tell us what the views of the Court of France are in regard to the North American colonies? Are they favorable, and if so, how can we obtain official confirmation of this?
  2. Could we find in France two competent engineer officers, well recommended and reliable? What steps should we take to obtain them?
  3. May we obtain from France arms and other necessary munitions of war in exchange for the products of our country? And may we have free entry into the French ports?

Bonvouloir's answers did not stray from his instructions with one exception: he did think it would be possible to send over French engineer officers, possibly many more than two. Washington was desperate for engineers to design fortifications. When pressed by Franklin on the possibility of an alliance between the two countries, Bonvouloir diplomatically demurred. "They asked me," the agent wrote in his report, "if I thought it was safe to send a Plenipotentiary Representative to France. I answered that I thought it was premature, even dangerous, because everything of what was going on in France was known by London, and vice versa."

Although Bonvouloir never knew it, his report had repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic. The Committee of Secret Correspondence, concluding that France now supported America's struggle, prepared to send Connecticut Congressman Silas Deane to Paris with letters of introduction. But to cross-check Bonvouloir's professions of friendship by France, they also sent a message to Arthur Lee, Pennsylvania's agent in London, instructing him to discover the attitude of European powers to the colonies.

Lee, an eager entrepreneur, had already taken the initiative of exploring the possibility of Beaumarchais acting as a potential arms supplier. The dramatist and secret agent, confident of America's eventual victory, was happy to serve. Lee, Beaumarchais and Franklin were acquainted through meetings earlier in 1775 at the London home of John Wilkes. Oh, the tangled web of diplomacy.

The ship bearing Bonvouloir's report docked at Calais just as a cross-channel vessel arrived with Guines, the spy's employer. Unfortunately, ambassador Guines was now an ex-ambassador, having been recalled by the King in disgrace for a scandalous affair even by 18th century standards. Thus, Guines was in no mood to give the report more than a cursory perusal before forwarding it to Vergennes; he did append, however, a warmly phrased paragraph praising the spy's accomplishments. The hurriedly drafted account from America landed on Vergennes'desk within three days of a masterfully crafted appeal from Beaumarchais to support the colonists' cause.

Taken together the documents proved persuasive to the French cabinet. Louis XVI gave Vergennes approval for Beaumarchais to set up a commercial firm, Rodrique Hortalez et Cie., to provide munitions for the Americans or with money to buy them.

Vergennes wrote his versatile agent in London:

The operation must have essentially in the eyes of the British Government, and even in the eyes of the Americans, the aspect of an individual speculation, to which we are strangers... We will give you secretly a million [livres]. We will endeavor to persuade the Court of Spain to unite in giving you another. With these two millions, you shall found a great commercial establishment, and at your own risk and peril you shall furnish to America arms and everything else necessary to sustain war. Our arsenals will deliver to you arms and munitions, but you shall pay for them. You will not demand money of the Americans for they have none; but you can ask return in their staple products.

Some historical postscripts

  • Bonvouloir wrote Guines seventeen despairing letters asking whether his report had been received and acted upon. There was no reply. He traveled to India where he died of fever in 1783, the year the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the War for Independence.
  • One consequence of the French decision to secretly aid America was a massive ship-building program adding more than 200 warships. Many were in the fleet, commanded by Admiral de Grasse, which blockaded the Chesapeake and made possible the victory at Yorktown. Later, before the peace treaty was signed, the British thoroughly defeated de Grasse in the Caribbean and took him captive.
  • Benjamin Franklin counted among his myriad achievements the Alliance with France in 1778, which granted open support to the colonies. The tipping point occurred the previous September with Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga. Unfortunately, the British occupied Philadelphia that same fall after the American defeat at Brandywine.
  • It is estimated that 90 percent of the gunpowder fired by American troops came from France.
  • John Jay together with Franklin and John Adams signed the Treaty of Paris in September, 1783, granting independence. Later, Jay became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Adams was the new nation's second President.
  • Financial support for America further undermined the French treasury, already heavily in debt. Bankrupt, the nation exploded in the Revolution of 1789. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded three years later.