At the dawn of the American Revolution, France and Britain had been coexisting under a treaty of friendship since about 1765. Traded like properties on a monopoly board, the Seven Years War (1756 to 1764) won Britain new colonies in such places as Spanish Florida and the Caribbean, and also French trading posts in far-off India. British economic power grew dramatically, fueled by cheap colonial labor and the unbridled harvesting of indigenous raw materials.
Growth of industry in the United Kingdom was vastly outpacing the stagnant post-war French economy. Battle had drained French purses to the point that the nation could no longer afford to openly challenge the British. In fact, the so-called “friendship” was a relief to France, giving an opportunity to rebuild finances and commercial strength. Periodic friction over fishing rights off of Newfoundland or port privileges in India, for example, showed France to be barely capable of impeding British ambitions. Ambassadors on both sides squabbled within diplomatic convention over the details of trade rights.
As the American colonies agitated for greater freedoms and self-determination, the French during this early phase of the American Revolution watched the rebellion weaken Britain’s grip on the colony. Monarchs across Europe fundamentally detested the American colonists. They resented insubordination to the institution of the crown and they resented a peasant’s assertions of rights. They expected subjects to respect established class rule and Divine Rights. But it was becoming evident to the court of the French King Louis XVI that in America maybe the British had more on their hands than they could reasonably manage. The counsellors of the Spanish monarch Charles III, a nephew of Louis XVI, viewed the British situation in America in much the same way. With the onset of the American Revolution, the dilemma created in Paris (and in Madrid) was to weigh defense of the institution of monarchy at home and in far-flung colonies versus the opportunity to weaken Britain.
While history is filled with altruistic anecdotes about brotherly France sharing the American cause, the facts show that the primary motive for French support of the colonists at this point in the narrative was the opportunity to exhaust Britain financially and militarily; not with an American victory, but rather by encouraging and prolonging the conflict in America. The French had zero confidence that the Americans could manage a plausible threat to overthrow the British. But a strongly-held opinion in the French government was that, “a forcibly held America would be a continual drain on the British.”
In the Spring of 1775 the French ambassador to Britain was distracted by personal problems and absent from his post in London. In order to sort out an embarrassing ministerial dispute that dated back to the reign of Louis XV, Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais was quietly sent to London as an informal mediator. The man had already enjoyed many lives: Beaumarchais initially established a reputation at the French court for his clever watch-making; then he enhanced his career by acquiring a patronage at court teaching music. He became a dramatist of some renown. His famous play The Barber of Seville was first performed in 1775. But he was not of the aristocracy, as he was constantly reminded. In fact, he himself embellished his birth name with the fancy “de Beaumarchais” appellation which was said to be adapted from the name of wooded land holdings belonging to his wife. Respected for his status-quo political writing and philosophical reasoning, he enjoyed the support of Louis XVI and his ministers.
With France constantly juggling budgets against a depleted treasury, Beaumarchais was well aware of the undeclared French policy to weaken Britain and “stimulate the growing rift between America and the mother country.” But how? International awareness of what was happening in America was limited. As a Crown colony, American trade was monopolized by Britain, and speech was rigorously censured. Those merchants and diplomats who dealt with America had the most reliable information about events in the new world. Ever seeking to further his standing at the French court, a closet commoner, working on his plays, sorting out old business at the French Embassy in London, Beaumarchais set about unofficially cultivating contacts throughout Britain. He networked, piecing together the state of affairs in America and the undertakings of revolutionaries.
Given the absence of the ambassador at the embassy and lacking up-to-date information on the British situation, the French court embraced Beaumarchais’s insights and updates. His private correspondence back to Louis XVI exposed the strife in the colony, detailed British management tactics there, and named the local actors fighting to sabotage their colonial masters through random pirate schemes smuggling gun powder and arms into the colonies. With the chance to further his career at court and perhaps to win himself an aristocratic title, the intricate mind of Beaumarchais proposed a pirate scheme of his own making. A plan was hatched to help the Americans—in a way that would not overtly break the “friendship” with Britain. It had to be a secret project so as to cover the French monarch with plausible deniability should the plot be discovered. After debate among the King’s closest councilors the program was agreed upon.
Beaumarchais was to create a shell company, which he called Roderique Hortalez et Compagnie. It was funded by initial, non-traceable cash investments of 1,000,000 French livres from mysterious sources linked to the French treasury. In turn, another million was added from the Spanish. With this, Beaumarchais set about acquiring ships and war materials to supply the Americans.
The ruse functioned in two ways: exports of gunpowder and muskets, for example, would secretly be pirated into mainly French Caribbean ports and forwarded to the Continental Army; and American trade goods (like tobacco) would be secretly pirated into French Atlantic or Mediterranean ports for sale and distribution throughout the country to pay for the war materials. As Roderique Hortalez, “Beaumarchais assumed the financial and political risks of this whole undertaking.”  It was secretly contracted with Beaumarchais that, “The French Government was to reserve the right to favor or oppose the company, according to political contingencies.” And it was confirmed by the French ministers that American freedoms were not as consequential to the French monarch as the constant American agitation of the British.
By August 1775, due to growing British anxiety over the situation with the American rebels, “the British prohibited all outside commerce with the Americans;” in December they “prohibited all commerce whatsoever with the colonies.” They forbade all foreign contact with America and completely closed trade with the outside world.
Throughout this same time period, as information on the revolution leaked into Europe, celebrated dignitaries from America began arriving in Paris seeking help. In returning vessels, European men of conscience such as Tadeusz Kosciuszko (summer of 1776) and the Marquis de Lafayette (spring of 1777) had begun sailing to America to join the rebel cause. But France could not officially recognize their American visitors, grant them status or receive them in any official capacity. France strove to publicly honor the “neutrality with England” established in 1763. Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and others were officially shunned, admonished about British spies, then secretly nudged to take their appeals to Roderique Hortalez et Cie. In one example of the subterfuge agreed upon with the Americans, “arms would be drawn from the royal arsenals in Lyon and would be replaced with new arms within the year . . . the muskets could be floated down the Loire River, stored near Nantes, and embarked [to the Caribbean] without arousing any suspicion.”
Based on commercial records, at its height between 1776 and 1778 Roderique Hortalez was estimated to be running as many as forty ships back and forth across the Atlantic, dodging the adversary at sea and hoodwinking British customs officials in port. “At Nantes, for example, not only did shipments of all sorts to America double from 1776 to 1777, but also over 50 ships were fitted out as privateers.” In other words, Beaumarchais also purchased ships with public funds and disguised them as privately-owned merchant ships—not Roderique Hortalez ships.
Prior to Beaumarchais’s efforts, France never considered that America could actually win independence from Britain. But following the Battle of Saratoga (September 1777) Britain was severely weakened, allowing France to openly support America. While his motives were suspect, after the Revolution Beaumarchais was justifiably recognized as, “the man who supplied most of the materials responsible for the decisive American victory at Saratoga.” Soon after, Beaumarchais’ operation dwindled to twelve ships running aid until it eventually ceased.
He is honored by a statue in Paris—perpetuating the memory of this artist, inventor, dramatist, and patriot. It is located near the Place de la Bastille, not along the Boulevard Beaumarchais but rather at Rue Saint Antoine and the Rue des Tournelles, where his self-absorbed statue dominates a small wooded park. Ever active as a writer, his new play The Marriage of Figaro was brought to stage in 1783. Beaumarchais died in 1799.