Tag Archives: american revolution

The Improbable Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger

How is it we don’t know who Beaumarchais is? He is most famous, these days anyways, for being the author of the plays The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro — he created that iconic character. Before that, as an apprentice to his dad in his clockmaker’s shop, he invented the wrist watch, the first watch that could be comfortably worn on the wrist, and made custom watches for the king and queen of France. He became an international businessman, amassing a fortune. He is the embodiment of the rags-to-riches story. But, perhaps most importantly, he, almost single-handedly, saved the American Revolution.

Beaumarchais was born Pierre-Augustin Caron in Paris, in the same year that George Washington was born (he would also die in the same year Washington died). He later gained the title Beaumarchais through his connections and his ability to buy a title. From the beginning, he displayed great and varied talents, from singing and music, to engineering. Being the only son in the family, it ultimately fell on him to take care of his sisters and parents. After a brief interlude as a teen when he was out carousing with friends too much for his father’s taste, and his father kicked him out of the house, he became a responsible head of household, ultimately taking care of the entire family.

Harlow Giles Unger’s portrayal of Beaumarchais, The Improbable Patriot, reads almost like a spy thriller. In the background, you have the world-shattering events of the American Revolution and the precarious state it was in. Washington had a relatively small number of raw recruits, little-to-no equipment, and a Congress that didn’t have the power to help. At the same time, France was ruled by despotic kings and similar-minded nobility, who could not stand that a commoner such as Beaumarchais could rise up in the world. More than once, Beaumarchais was imprisoned simply because he pissed of the wrong nobleman. This came with a loss of citizenship and the rights that went with it.

All the while, there is Beaumarchais himself, seemingly master of any task he put his mind to. By the time of the American Revolution, Beaumarchais was already a well known playwright, with The Barber of Seville already a smashing hit. His character, Figaro, embodied much of the revolutionary sentiment, and may have inspired, at least in part, the French Revolution (“A tiny gust that extinguishes a candle, Figaro reminds his audience, can ignite an inferno.”). He had also become a very successful businessman, tutored by the French magnate Paris-Duverney. But, Beaumarchais already had many enemies when he proposed to the French foreign minister that France absolutely had to help the Americans in their fight against the British, that they would lose without such help. He sold it as a way for France to regain the possessions she lost after the Seven Year’s War. Beaumarchais proposed an elaborate scheme to set up a shell company, giving it a Spanish origin, and using it to sell French arms and equipment to the Americans in exchange for goods. To do this, he got a massive loan from the French government, which would in principle be repaid by his selling American products on the European market. Unfortunately, because of American political backstabbing, he never really got his due from the American government. However, his shipments to America made a significant, perhaps pivotal, difference in the fight with Britain.

Though Beaumarchais didn’t play a significant role in the French Revolution — though he had humble beginnings, he was wealthy and conspicuous with that wealth at the time of the storming of the Bastille — he lived in an age of enlightened thought against the ways of despotic power. Voltaire, not exactly a contemporary, was still alive during Beaumarchais’ time and even asked the man to publish his complete works. Beaumarchais had been inspired by the works of Frenchmen such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who had strong views on the origin of power and the current state of the world — “The first man who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of class society.” In some sense, Frenchmen like Beaumarchais viewed America as the embodiment of the ideal society that French revolutionary thinkers discussed. He was ultimately disillusioned when political squabbling led to his debts being unsettled with the Americans.

At the same time, the French Revolution went further than the American Revolution, leading to mass riots and the Terror that saw large numbers of French put to death and the imposition of a new kind of dictatorship. While Beaumarchais certainly wanted change, he felt this had gone too far: “In trying to straighten our tree, we have made it bend in the opposite direction.” He came to see that people of all classes were similar. As Unger says, “The aristocracy had violated him early in his life for rising above his station to champion commoner rights; now the commoners whose rights he had championed had violated him, and he realized that commoners were as capable of injustice, cruelty, and arrogance as the aristocrats they despised — no better, no worse. Power rendered them all the same.”

Beaumarchais seemed to have an attitude toward life that was live it to its fullest. After being imprisoned in a miserable French prison, on the very day he was released he held a party, and chose not to dwell in his injustice: “Why should I lose the time I have with you, my friend, reliving things which only make us miserable.”

Beaumarchais was inspired by the social reform ideas of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, but maybe had a bigger hand in diffusing their ideas. His character Figaro embodied that spirit and spread those ideas in a way that philosophical treatises could never do. Figaro railed against the nobility: “Nobility, wealth, rank, position — it all makes you so proud. And what did you do to earn so many rewards? You took the time to be born — nothing else. Apart from that, you’re quite an ordinary man! while I, by God, lost in the faceless crowd, had to apply more knowledge and skills merely to survive than it took to govern the entire Spanish Empire for the last one hundred years.” If this doesn’t encapsulate the idea of the American Dream, I don’t know what does. That we seem to have lost the admiration for the self-made man seems, to me, unfortunate.

The story of Beaumarchais is replete with spies and international espionage — more than once he is sent on behalf of the king to stop spies from harming the monarchy — the drama of a internationally-reknown playwright, and ups and downs of dealing with petty nobility, and his own family dramas — his father seems to have been a sex-starved old man who was always looking for companionship — all of this in the backdrop of two revolutions. That we don’t learn about Beaumarchais in history classes is truly a shame. History comes alive when you learn about the individuals and their stories, about how decisions that change the world rely on the capriciousness of people, and about how all of us have remarkable stories to tell.

The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis

51ZjDS1hAUL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_ The United States has just fought a long and grueling war for independence. Or had it? What was the goal of that war? Joseph Ellis, noted historian, argues that a collective nationhood, a nation of United States, was not a goal of the war and rather had to be constructed by a group of visionaries, particularly the four men highlighted in his book The Quartet.

Ellis argues that the idea and implementation of a nation of the 13 colonies, more than a loose confederation of sovereign states, constituted a second American Revolution, one that embodied the promise of the actual war itself but one that was, in many senses, at odds with the spirit of the war. The war had the stated goal of throwing off a centralized government that did not represent the people at the local level. The establishment of a federal US government was at odds with this view. Further, the very idea of an American nation was something that the vast majority of Americans had never even considered. They were Virginians, New Yorkers, or Georgians, but never Americans.

However, the loose confederation of states embodied by the Articles of Confederation was simply powerless to do anything that required representing the states in any collective way, including collecting funds to pay down the war debt, put forth a consistent foreign policy, or settle disputes between the states. Four men, in particular, saw this problem and led an effort to empower a federal government that could realize the promise of the American Revolution: George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay.

The whole process of the calling of the convention that would lead to the US Constitution was, in some sense, anti-democratic. These were the political leaders of the time, but they operated in secrecy. Further, the ratification of the Constitution was done by state conventions, which were attended by select representatives. If a modern referendum had been called, the Constitution and the very idea of an American nation would have been rejected by the people. However, the representatives at these conventions were not so beholden to popular opinion.

This whole idea is a central and very intriguing aspect of the process. Madison, in particular, was not a fan of direct democracy. He felt that the will of the masses could be easily manipulated by demagogues and were a central threat to the rights of the minority. He preferred what a republic, in which the foundations of power resided with the people, but in which that power was filtered through layers of representatives that, ultimately, did not have to directly respond to the whims of the people. The US was never established to be a direct democracy, but very consciously avoided such a model. Essentially, he “endorsed political structures that filtered popular opinion through several layers of institutionalized deliberation before it became the law of the land.” “He harbored an eighteenth-century sense that unbridled democracy was incompatible with the political health of a republic.” “There was in Madison’s critical assessment of the state governments a discernible antidemocratic ethos rooted in the conviction that political popularity generated a toxic chemistry of appeasement and demagoguery that privileged popular whim and short-term interests at the expense of the long-term public interest.” Ellis examines this view in great depth. It is an interesting and, to our modern sensibilities, jarring perspective. He summarizes this juxtaposition thusly: the Constitution “manages to combine the two time-bound truths of its own time: namely, that any legitimate government must rest on a popular foundation, and that popular majorities cannot be trusted to act responsibly, a paradox that has aged remarkably well.”

There were of course many contradictions in the establishment of the United States, as a nation, and the ideals of the American Revolution. One of the central tenets of the war was that “all men are created equal.” However, the US certainly didn’t view the Native Americans or slaves as equals. The domestic policy of the US was that civilization would naturally and simply march westward, displacing the Native Americans, without any direct claim of imperialism. Further, the slave issue could not be resolved in the convention, as to directly address the issue would lead to a still-birth of the nation.  “…slavery was, on the one hand, a cancerous tumor in the American body politic and, on the other, a malignancy so deeply embedded that it could not be removed without killing the patient.” “Moral purity on this score would come at the cost of American nationhood.” This is how the men at the Constitutional Convention justified simply skirting the issue. However, one does wonder how history might have developed if they had taken the moral high road and pushed to abolish slavery at that time.

Once the Constitution was written, it had to be ratified, and that entailed a whole new battle in the hearts and minds of the citizens of the future United States. Ellis describes the efforts of primarily Hamilton and Madison, along with Jay, to convince the various state delegations to ratify the Constitution. They played a very political game, trying to get enough states to ratify before the heavy hitters — Virginia and New York — held their conventions to ensure enough political pressure on them to ratify. In the end, ratification was not as certain as one would expect from our historical perspective. Ratification did not represent the will of the people, but rather “superior organization, more talented leadership, and a political process that had been designed from the start to define the options narrowly.” The Bill of Rights, first drafted solely by Madison, had a similar political goal of ensuring that the Constitution would not be challenged by any of the states in the newly formed United States.

One key ingredient of this new Constitution was its vagueness. Issues such as sovereignity between the federal and state levels and slavery led to what Madison called a “living” document, one that “was intended less to resolve arguments than to make argument itself the solution.”

We often view the founding of the United States in almost semi-mystical terms, almost deifying the founders themselves as super-human agents of change. However, the truth is far from this picture and the very founding of the United States was never a forgone conclusion. Ellis’ analysis of this uncertain time provides new insight into the birth of our nation. His use of Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Jay as the vehicles of this change provide a human perspective, shedding light into the doubts these men had in their endeavor and the possibility of success.

I highly recommend this book for the historical perspective it gives into the development of the United States as a nation.