A tantalizing reassessment of America’s earliest foreign policy.
Paul (International and Constitutional Law/Univ. of California, Hastings) explores the network of spies, diplomats and profoundly self-serving aristocrats whose actions helped determine the outcome of the American Revolution. The primary characters are Silas Deane, the Connecticut merchant charged by the Continental Congress to secure financial and military aid from France, and two French counterparts, Beaumarchais, the playwright and inventor, and Chevalier d’Eon, the transgendered officer and secret agent. A web of personal and professional machinations are brought to bear on each of these players as they engineer sometimes duplicitous missions for the French, British and American governments with often unintended but weighty consequences. We learn about the intricacies of Beaumarchais’s covert arrangements with Deane and King Louis XVI to smuggle arms to the Americans; a partnership between Deane and his fellow diplomat, Benjamin Franklin, built as much on a shared interest in the dirty politics of a domestic land-grab scheme as a love of liberty; and the intriguing and self-absorbed political ramifications of d’Eon’s transgendered identity. Paul handles each of these relationships with diligent care, accounting not only for the grand schemes and boisterous actions of his subjects, but also the nuanced textures of their daily lives in revolutionary-era Europe and America. The author keeps a close eye on the weather, fashion and, most importantly, the sense of time—the unreliable and painfully slow pace of trans-Atlantic communication plays heavily into the narrative. Occasionally, the author’s detail work moves from harmless quotidian chronicling to questionable character assessments, as when he asserts that “it was precisely because d'Eon was so readily swayed by her heart's desire, rather than by rational self-interest, that she found herself in this predicament,” as a primary reason that she became alienated from the French king.
A few such quibbles are not enough, however, to undermine an otherwise keen, intriguing assessment of how personal politics might play out on the international stage.