J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Unlikely Events and Unlikely Allies

On Saturday the Boston Globe ran a brief interview with Joel Richard Paul, author of Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution. The paper described that book as “a story too good not to tell—involving the celebrated French dramatist Caron de Beaumarchais, a cross-dressing secret agent named the Chevalier d’Eon, and a boatload of duplicity, hypocrisy, and corruption.”

I hadn’t thought that D’Eon de Beaumont had much to do with the American Revolution, but the book’s jacket copy says the chevalier’s “decision to declare herself a woman helped to lead to the Franco-American alliance.” I’ll have to put this on my list.

The interview contained some interesting observations about researching and interpreting historical documents:

Q. Tell me about doing research for this book. These are three pretty fringe characters you write about.

A. I spent a lot of time at the archives of the French foreign ministry and Bibliotèque nationale de France. I love France, but let’s just say that library science is not their forte. I came away convinced they hadn’t lost their colonies as much as misfiled them.

Q. We like to put the Founding Fathers on a pedestal, and your book paints a quite flawed and human picture of them. What kind of response are you getting?

A. When I speak to groups I always start off saying that the one thing we all know about the diplomacy of the American Revolution is that Ben Franklin went to France in 1776 and forged the Franco-American alliance that provided us with arms. And that’s wrong. Most people are very surprised, and very interested.

Q. Does it make you wonder how many more people are out there who changed the course of history and who we know nothing about?

A. Yeah. I think that most of us start with the assumption that history is shaped by great men or great ideas or great social movements. And one of the things I’ve seen is the extent to which history is shaped by accident, and people acting on the periphery of great events.
Another lively book based, like this one, in Silas Deane’s stumbling attempts at diplomacy and espionage is The Incendiary (also published as John the Painter), by Jessica Warner; I wrote more about it here.

Paul’s third answer above brings up the the question of “agency”—historians’ jargon for the idea that individual decisions can affect the course of major events. Usually that argument gets played out through “great men” and women, leaders making decisions for many other people. But might the real argument for individual effects lie in the plane of peripheral events, quirky accidents, and unintended consequences?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is the next to the last paragraph misplaced? Unless I'm missing something it seems like it's from another article.

George Lovely

J. L. Bell said...

I meant to link these two books through the figure of Silas Deane, America’s man in Paris early in the Revolution. He’s the “merchant” of Paul’s subtitle, setting up the relationship with playwright Beaumarchais. (I don’t know if he had any dealings with D’Eon.) Around the same time, Deane encouraged John Aitken to infiltrate Britain and try to burn down the naval shipyards, the topic of The Incendiary. Sorry for the lack of clarity.

J. L. Bell said...

Whoops, that should be James Aitken. His alias was “John the Painter.”

Rob Velella said...

I like the point made above. I think much of history is accidental - or, at least, the impact of events is seldom planned ahead, not to mention the impact of so-called acts of God.