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The life of playwright and entrepreneur Beaumarchais offers a window into the transformation that brought France to revolution.

By M.M. Bennetts / June 3, 2009

Ask the question, “Who was Beaumarchais?” and it’s likely that opera buffs would answer: “He’s the author of the play upon which Mozart based his opera, The Marriage of Figaro.” And someone might add that he also wrote The Barber of Seville – the basis for Rossini’s opera. But Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the subject of Beaumarchais, a new biography by French scholar, Maurice Lever, was much more than that. 

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Born at the heart of working-class Paris in 1732, he was the son of a watchmaker, and accordingly learned his father’s trade – making his name by perfecting an escapement which revolutionized the time-keeping mechanism, making it reliable for the first time. But he was also a musician of some note and rose to the position of harp-master to King Louis XV’s daughters.

From this point forward, it’s as if Beaumarchais’s life sprang from the combined pens of Alexandre Dumas and John Grisham. He acquired a title, a fortune, a knack for international espionage, the ear and trust of the king’s ministers, and a reputation as a lady’s man – a necessary virtue in 18th-century Paris. He was imprisoned in the Bastille by means of an infamous lettre de cachet, and his legal battles were legendary with the whole of Paris serving as judge and jury through means of his vitriolic pamphleteering.

Still, Beaumarchais’s most significant and enduring contribution to the fate of nations was his devotion to the cause of American independence, and in this he produced far more than mere words of encouragement. In truth, his actions were less an endorsement of American democracy than a cold-blooded cold-war-style effort to sabotage Britain’s economic and global interests.

Nevertheless, through patient and tenacious petitioning of Louis XVI, Beaumarchais gained the right to set up a proxy company which would channel French funds, uniforms, equipment, food, and even French troops to the American rebels. Indeed, without France’s covert intervention and supplies, the American cause could not have succeeded. By 1778, Congress acknowledged his claims of 5 million livres worth of goods and supplies, as well as a further 24 million which Congress would receive in credit.


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