We learn very young that Benjamin Franklin with charm and cunning forged the Franco-American alliance that won our Independence.
That’s what we were taught, anyway. But it’s not true.
The true story is that in 1775 the Continental Congress decided to send someone on a secret mission to persuade France to arm them against Britain. Franklin proposed a Yankee shopkeeper named “Silas Deane”. Deane had never left Connecticut in his life, could not speak a word of French, and knew nothing about diplomacy. Franklin thought that Deane was such an improbable spy the British would never suspect him.
With nothing but the worthless paper money printed by the Continental Congress, Deane arrived in France in July, 1776, unaware that Congress had just declared Independence. He was, in effect, our first emissary to Europe, and for the next six months without any diplomatic instructions, he improvised. He succeeded in his mission with the help of the French comic playwright, Beaumarchais, who wrote, “The Marriage of Figaro,” and “The Barber of Seville.”
Beaumarchais was a dashing and brilliant bon vivant who invented the wrist watch, designed the modern harp, and built the Paris water system. He was also an arms dealer on the side.
Together Deane and Beaumarchais shipped all the arms and supplies for the Continental Army even before Franklin set foot in France.
None of this secret dealing would have been possible without the unwitting help of the French ambassador to London, the Chevalier d’Eon. D’Eon was a famous military hero, an accomplished diplomat, and a French spy. He was also blackmailing Louis XVI, and the King had asked Beaumarchais to try to negotiate with D’Eon.
When D’Eon met Beaumarchais he was instantly drawn to the handsome playwright and confessed that he was, in fact, secretly a woman. D’Eon told Beaumarchais that her father had preferred a son and raised her as a boy and that in her male disguise she found opportunities to succeed that no woman ever had.
Beaumarchais offered to marry d’Eon in exchange for her abandoning both her blackmail threat and her male persona. Beaumarchais’ reward for neutralizing the threat to Louis XVI was that the King agreed to give Beaumarchais the arms for the Americans.
Thus, d’Eon’s decision to come out as a woman provided the catalyst that forged the Franco-American alliance and won our independence.
This Independence Day let’s remember our debt not just to Silas Deane, Beaumarchais, and France, but also to the cross-dressing spy who made it all possible.