Hortalez & Cie

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Hortalez & Cie

HORTALEZ & CIE. Although remembered almost entirely for his literary works, Pierre-Augustin Caron (1732–1799), who assumed the title "de Beaumarchais" in 1756, distinguished himself in his father's trade of watchmaking, became accepted at court, and showed himself to have a remarkable business talent. He also had a talent for intrigue. French foreign minister Vergennes sent him to London in April 1775 to retrieve some controversial letters in the possession of former French diplomat Charles d'Eon de Beaumont, who was famous for assuming the persona of a woman. In 1763 Louis XV had ordered d'Eon to survey England for locations of a possible French invasion, but he continued to hold Louis's letters on the matter in hopes of obtaining an increased pension from the king. While performing this assignment, Beaumarchais also took the opportunity to compose for the French government a series of reports on conditions in England and of the unrest in its American colonies.

Back in France, Beaumarchais met with Vergennes on 20 September 1775 and prepared a memorandum to be presented by the French naval minister and former head of the Paris police, Sartine, to Louis XVI, which concluded both that civil war was imminent in England and that "the colonies are lost for the metropole" (Beaumarchais, 2, p. 140). Vergennes pressed Louis for a prompt answer, which he apparently received only orally. On 15 November, Beaumarchais addressed another memorandum to the king, this time supporting a plan for France to seize the British Antilles by surprise, which he believed would have profound impact on the English economy. If the king would provide one million livres to him under the name of "Roderique Hortalez and Company," he could make it nine million.


WhileinLondonduring the autumn of 1775,Beaumarchais met Arthur Lee, agent there for the Continental Congress Committee of Secret Correspondence. They discussed what Americans would need to succeed—French aid. These discussions led Beaumarchais to write the king again in February 1776 that if French aid were not forthcoming, the American cause might fail, which would threaten the French West Indies. On 2 May, Vergennes wrote Beaumarchais that his proposals were making headway slowly. Before leaving London, he met with Lee one final time, and in that discussion it appears the two failed to agree that French aid would be not an outright gift, but rather an exchange for tobacco and other merchandise. Misunderstanding ensued almost immediately. In his first letter, Lee saw Beaumarchais as a mere façade for French secret aid: "The want of tobacco ought not to hinder your sending out your supplies to the Americans,… the essential object is to maintain the war."

On 10 June 1776 Beaumarchais received one million livres from Duvergier, cashier for the French foreign ministry. Establishing his home and business in a large building once used as the Dutch embassy and now known as the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande, he wrote to Congress's agent in Paris, Silas Deane, on 18 July and met him the next day to read his commission and to offer him credit for three million livres, one million already received, another promised by the Spanish, and a third from his friends; he expected tobacco in exchange. Deane's acceptance led Beaumarchais to assume that he had a contract with Congress and that American ships bringing goods would carry munitions back to Americans.

Shortly before the French government approached Beaumarchais in May 1776, it had selected Dr. Barbeu Dubourg, a botanist who knew Franklin, to serve as its intermediary on the matter of secret aid. When the French government decided upon the Hortalez venture conducted through Silas Deane, both Dubourg and Lee were upset and undertook to hamper Beaumarchais. Furthermore, the British ambassador to France, Stormont, learned of Beaumarchais's project and forced the French to issue orders against the shipping of war supplies from French ports. Although Beaumarchais's operations were supposed to be overlooked, a few minor French officials complicated matters by observing the letter of the law and forbidding the shipments. But why were these munitions so available from the French arsenals?


During the years prior to 1776, French weaponry had undergone significant redesign through the efforts of Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval. As an expert on artillery, Gribeauval introduced uniform production and higher standards to the manufacture of cannon and muskets. Consequently, armories overflowed with the outdated munitions. Purchaser of many of these weapons was Carrier de Montieu, who became a source of arms for Beaumarchais's venture.

By 1777 Beaumarchais had more than twelve vessels operating out of Le Havre, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Marseilles. Eventually, he had about forty. From Martinique or Saint Domingue they would sail north. Portsmouth, New Hampshire was port of entry for most of them; they usually stopped at Charleston on the return trip in hopes of picking up rice or tobacco, but usually they returned empty. The first Hortalez convoy reached Portsmouth in early 1777 with three million livres' worth of goods: two hundred field guns, thousands of muskets, a large supply of powder, blankets, clothes, and shoes—enough for twenty-five thousand men. As Beaumarchais's bills came due on 31 May 1777, Vergennes provided him with 400,000 livres. To his benefactor Beaumarchais wrote, "I can breathe again until the fifteenth." Within a month's time, the venture would cost the French government additional payments, totaling over a million livres.


As of September, Beaumarchais had yet to receive a cargo from the Continental Congress in compliance with his contract. So he decided to send Theveneau de Francy to America as his agent to Congress and to oversee future business. However, Congress had yet to be informed by the Committee of Secret Correspondence of Deane's contract with Beaumarchais for fear that Tory delegates in Congress would tell the British. Meanwhile, Arthur Lee had been busy spreading the word that the Hortalez firm was a blind for dishonorable business. Two months before Francy's arrival in America, Lee wrote the Committee on Foreign Affairs on 6 October 1777, "The Minister [Vergennes] has repeatedly assured us [Franklin, Deane, and Lee], and that in the most explicit terms, that no return is expected for these subsidies." After the Committee of Commerce examined the evidence brought by Francy, however, Congress authorized the commissioners to settle accounts on 16 April 1778, in which they assured payment for past shipments. Rival factions in Congress then started a long haggle over whether France should be paid for military aid. It was convenient for those in opposition to argue that Beaumarchais and France were acting in self-interest; they capitalized on the fact that France, officially neutral, could not publicly admit the arrangements under which Beaumarchais operated.

Deane reached America in July 1778 after his recall from Paris and fell into an acrimonious controversy with the congressional faction that opposed payment of Beaumarchais. The Virginia Lees and Massachusetts Adamses led this opposition. Deane's supporters finally succeeded in getting Vergennes to write to French minister Gérard on 16 September 1778 that Hortalez & Cie was a private, commercial firm and that some of its stocks had come from French arsenals with the understanding that these stocks would be replaced by the firm. However, before this critical information reached Philadelphia, Deane blew the entire affair into a public scandal by publishing in the 5 December 1778 issue of the Pennsylvania Packet a letter that denounced Arthur Lee's machinations and accused Congress of neglect and appalling ignorance of foreign affairs. Congress split into pro- and anti-Deanites. Henry Laurens, a member of the latter element, was forced to resign as president of Congress to be succeeded by John Jay, a friend of Deane. Thomas Paine, then secretary of the Committee of Foreign Affairs, entered the lists as a supporter of Arthur Lee and on 2 January 1779 claimed publicly that he had written evidence that France had promised the supplies as a gift before Deane ever reached Paris. The French minister issued an official denial, followed up with a formal protest against Paine's indiscretion in revealing "classified" information; on 9 January, Paine resigned under pressure. On 15 January, Beaumarchais was given a written apology from Congress and a pledge of payment.

Yet Franklin did not appear to be satisfied. With the 2,832,000 livres of congressional letters of credit to Beaumarchais coming due in 1782, he wrote a sixteen-page letter to Vergennes's assistant Durival on 12 June 1781 inquiring whether it was in fact a gift. The reply? "The minister knows nothing about them."

On 6 April 1781 Deane submitted an official document showing that, based on his own records, Congress owed Beaumarchais 3.6 million livres. But Beaumarchais's case was hurt by the scandal that wrecked Deane, and settlement was postponed. When Beaumarchais renewed his claims, Congress appointed Arthur Lee and Samuel Osgood in 1787 to examine the Hortalez accounts. They concluded that Beaumarchais owed Congress 742,413 livres. It was not until 1837 that his heirs finally received 800,000 francs.

What was America's reaction to Beaumarchais's efforts in support of the American cause? In October 1778 Beaumarchais's American agent, Francy, wrote him that several members of Congress were about to propose a motion to erect a statue in his honor. Beaumarchais's biographers, Brian Morton and Donald Spinelli, have simply concluded that the statue or any other monument to Beaumarchais was not to be.

SEE ALSO Beaumarchais and the American Revolution;Deane, Silas; Gérard, Conrad Alexandre;French Covert Aid; Gribeauval, Jean Baptiste Vaquette de; Lee, Arthur; Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de.


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Gérard, Conrad Alexandre. Despatches and Instructions of Conrad Alexandre Gérard, 1778–1780. Edited and translated by John J. Meng. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1939.

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Kite, Elizabeth S. Beaumarchais and the War of Independence. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1918.

Loménie, Louis de. Beaumarchais et son temps: Etudes sur la société en France au XVIIIe siècle. 2 vols. Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1856.

Morton, Brian N., and Donald C. Spinelli. Beaumarchais and the American Revolution. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003.

Smith, Paul H., et al., eds. Letters of Delegates of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. 26 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976–2000.

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Whitridge, Arnold. "Beaumarchais and the American Revolution." History Today 17 (1967): 98-105.

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