Listen to Joel discussing the book with Faith Middleton on Connecticut Public Radio. Listen here.
Q. How did you discover this story?
A. I was writing a book on the history of international law in the United States, and I was hunting for an anecdote to illustrate the improvisational quality of American foreign policy at the start of the republic. I knew that Franklin had sent Silas Deane on this secret mission to Versailles, but very little was written about him. So I asked a friend, who happened to be the executive director of the Connecticut Historical Society, how to find Deane’s correspondence. To my surprise, he replied, “We own Deane’s papers.” In fact, he had only just uncovered them a few weeks before in the basement of the Historical Society.
I flew out to Hartford, Connecticut. By a strange coincidence Deane’s papers were located in a building next to my former office at the University of Connecticut Law School, where I used to teach. I opened up a box that probably had not been opened for generations and found letters to-and-from Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Louis XVI, Jay, Morris, Arnold, and many others. The story they revealed was an astonishing tale of intrigue, betrayal, and courage. I was hooked. I set my original book aside to focus on Deane’s amazing story.
Q. Many historians credit Benjamin Franklin with forging the Franco-American alliance that helped American win its independence. But you argue a different scenario.
A. Before Franklin even landed in France, the first ships sent by Beaumarchais and Deane bearing arms for General Washington were already en route to America. Franklin was an accessory after the fact – a shrewd and charming public figure, but he had nothing to do with obtaining the arms that the Americans desperately needed. The arms arrived on the eve of the Battle of Saratoga, which was the turning point of the Revolution. And when the Americans captured the British Army there Louis XVI decided to ally with the Americans. Franklin’s presence in Paris did not persuade Louis to form an alliance.
Q. You offer some surprising revelations about certain members of the illustrious Lee family of Virginia.
A. The Lees had invested in developing land in the Ohio River Valley, and King George III banned further development to protect the Indian tribes. Part of Richard Henry Lee’s motivation for supporting Independence was to evade the king’s ban. Franklin and Deane also invested in a competing land syndicate, which is one reason the Lees were determined to destroy both of them. Arthur Lee libeled decent men with false accusations of treason; he conspired with the British to undermine the Franco-American alliance even at the risk of losing the war; and he used his public office to enrich himself while accusing others of public corruption.
Q. There are passing hints about Beaumarchais and a homoerotic relationship he may have had, and later he becomes entangled with the cross-dressing Chevalier d’Eon. Does homosexuality play any role in the story you tell in UNLIKELY ALLIES?
A. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept that did not exist in the eighteenth century, but of course, people were just as likely to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex then as now. Homoerotic relationships formed part of the social context in which this story occurs and help explain the motives of some of the characters.
Q. You’ve said that writers such as David McCullough present a view of American history in which the American Revolution was accomplished through “great men,” but you reject that view.
A. Great men, revolutionary ideas, and mass social movements can influence history, but history is also a product of chance. Random encounters by minor characters on the periphery of great events also shape history. I’m more interested in the accidental path history takes.
Q. You also suggest that many of the founding fathers were less virtuous than the way that historians like David McCullough and Joseph Ellis have portrayed them. According toUNLIKELY ALLIES, Thomas Jefferson used government money to pay someone to steal Deane’s private papers, the Lee family profited from their public service, Franklin spent time in Paris in a gay bathhouse, and Benedict Arnold and Silas Deane were heroes of the Revolutionary War. Are you mocking our faith in the founding fathers?
A. The founding fathers were every bit as human as we are. By acknowledging our common humanity with the founding generation perhaps we will recognize the capacity in ourselves for revolutionary leadership.
Q. With UNLIKELY ALLIES you are revising history. But beyond that achievement, do you think the story you tell in the book has any relevance to modern times?
A. I began writing the book at the start of the Iraq War at a time when politicians disdained our traditional allies, especially France. I wanted to remind people that France helped to create our country. As the book developed, I also saw it as a story about ordinary people who had done extraordinary things that changed history. I wanted to reclaim their historical contributions, and in doing so, to empower people with the knowledge that everyone has a part in history.