Unlikely Allies by Joel Richard Paul '77

Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution

by Joel Richard Paul '77

When I started writing UNLIKELY ALLIES I was self-conscious about the fact that I have no graduate training in history. My graduate work in law and economics did not really prepare me to write a book on American diplomatic history, and my undergraduate work at Amherst gave me just enough knowledge to feel intimidated by the judgment of other historians.

I went out on a limb in several respects writing UNLIKELY ALLIES. First, I challenged the conventional story of how we won the American Revolution. The conventional story says that Benjamin Franklin single-handedly convinced France to arm the Americans and forge an alliance against Britain. But I argued that Franklin had very little to do with arming the Americans, and he was more of a celebrity figure than a hands-on diplomat.

And while I sought to rehabilitate the reputation of Silas Deane, who has been variously denounced as a traitor, thief, spy, or fool, I questioned the contribution of the famous Lee family of Virginia. In my view, Richard Henry Lee and his neurotic brother Arthur were motivated by personal greed and vindictiveness as much as they were motivated by genuine patriotism.

I also asserted that the Revolution might have been lost had it not been for the complex relationship between the French comic playwright Beaumarchais and the cross-dressing diplomat d’Eon. Few historians have previously acknowledged the bisexuality of Beaumarchais or the trans-sexuality of d’Eon. In my view, d’Eon’s decision to admit that he was a she provided the catalyst that persuaded Louis XVI to arm the Americans.

Finally, I alleged that Deane was murdered by a fellow patriot who was a celebrated hero of the American Revolution.

Perhaps I went too far out on a limb. Did you find my book convincing? Or should I have kept writing law review articles and left the diplomatic history to the professionals?

I welcome your comments, criticisms, and questions!


Post your thoughts, reflections and questions about Unlikely Allies by posting a comment below.



            Paul warns us that his narrative contains the “disconcerting” message “that history is not guided by great or virtuous individuals,” yet the message I find in it is not disconcerting at all. Prof. Taubman’s note on the dust jacket putting down “worshipful accounts of the Founding Fathers’ wisdom and fortitude” is likewise ironic. Of the half dozen or so books I’ve read in recent years about the Founders, none seems to me worshipful. The most popular of these are probably McCullough’s John Adams, Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin and Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. Each of these writers certainly saw greatness in their subjects but were aware of the warts as well. Indeed, in Unlikely Allies the only one whose “duplicity, hypocrisy and corruption” is astonishing is Richard Henry Lee, and Paul’s overwhelming message is really to add another Father to the pantheon, Silas Deane. I wish the Silas Deane Highway that takes me to and from home in Wethersfield were a more fitting memorial of the man.

            Paul and Taubman seem driven to note the role of chance or accident in human affairs, but what really do chance and accident amount to but our difficulty in seeing all the nearly infinite causes behind events. It may be extraordinary for a shopkeeper to become a statesman or for a playwright to become a smuggler, but it’s much more than chance or accident. Deane and Beaumarchais were extraordinary people, and, even as he would discourage hero worship and emphasize the role of chance in history, Paul has done a masterful job of showing the power of ideas in human life and the difference fortitude can make. It seems as if the academy has an official doctrine that has to be asserted even when an author has a plain old heroic story to tell.

            Was the success of the revolution really so fragile? Did Britain’s loss really come down to the “want of a nail”? It makes for a great narrative when every detail seems essential to fall into place to get us from colony to nation, but even had the wager over d’Eon’s gone the other way, even had Beaumarchais never gotten into Versailles, even had Deane been kidnapped by British spies, even had the arms bound for Saratoga gone down in the Atlantic, it was still absurd, as Paine put it, for a continent to have long been ruled by an island. No one can ever know how differently the United States might have been shaped by different circumstances leading to different battlefield outcomes, but there surely were forces at work in the world—the Enlightenment, capitalism, , individualism, nationalism, “Liberty, Constitution and Rights” (p. 7)—that were making it impossible for George III to continue ruling the American colonies. And, in spite of himself perhaps, Paul may have shown us again that inevitability.

            Paul writes beautifully, and his story reads so well that even if he’s not trying to catch the attention of Hollywood producers, it wouldn’t surprise me if he hears from David O Russell. As much as I enjoyed the story, I was equally interested in how he came to write it and how he found all the information. That story, unfortunately, for the most part is not included. Paul’s endnotes, like most works of history, are too skimpy. He writes, for example, that, “The widow Webb found Deane’s confident presence reassuring and welcomed his visits, which gradually increased in length,” (p. 11) but offers no source whatsoever for these details. How does he know?—always the most interesting question of history.

Phil Steele, ‘66

ps: I just listened to the interview on the website—I hope it does become a movie!

Question: Are there any reviews of the book on-line? Phil Steele ‘66