Saturday, September 4, 2010

Book Review: Unlikely Allies by Joel Richard Paul

Truth, as the saying goes, is often stranger than fiction.  That maxim certainly applies to Joel Richard Paul's book Unlikely Allies (Riverhead Books, 2009).  A delightful telling of the diplomatic machinations behind the Franco-American alliance during the Revolutionary War, Paul's book is a helpful reminder that the success of the American Revolution was dependent not only on the actions of great men on the public stage, but on countless patriots who worked behind the scenes or in obscure posts to make American independence a reality. 

Paul focuses his story on three major characters -- American merchant and diplomat Silas Deane, French playwright and government go-between Caron de Beaumarchais (who wrote the Barber of Seville), and Chevalier d'Eon, an eccentric, cross-dressing French noble who inadvertently pushed the French king Louis XVI into an alliance with the Americans.   Paul weaves the story of how these three interacted, building piece by piece, in fits and starts, the partnership between France and America that eventual led to the French intervention in our war for independence.  In the process, Paul introduces us to a host of other players - including one memorable Scottish pyromaniac who was caught while executing a scheme to burn down all the shipyards in Britain in an effort to aid the American patriots.  All in all, Paul's writing is fast paced and evocative, and he brings a very subtle eye to observing the complex diplomatic endeavors both before the formal American declaration of independence and after. 

Aside from being a delightful story, Paul's book serves another function, one that is sorely necessary whenever we study the Founding period.  As Americans, we tend (regardless of our political ideology) to look upon the Founding period as a time of giants.  Great men strode the country then, our pantheon of Founding Fathers (and the occasional Founding Mother like Abigail Adams).  There are the gods like Washington and (depending on one's ideological proclivities) Jefferson.  Then there are the attending angels like Madison and Hamilton.  There's even a devil or two -- Benedict Arnold during the Revolution, Aaron Burr during the early Republic.  The great ideas of our revolutionary period -- scientific, religious, philosophical -- get lots of attention as well.  But what Paul's book emphasizes is that the success of the Revolution depended just as much on people outside the elite circles of power, motivated not by grand Enlightenment principles or solid Christian beliefs, but by simple love of country (whether of America or of France).  As Paul himself puts it in the introduction to his book:
We are accustomed to reading about the great men who won our Independence.  We know that the Revolution was also inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment and realized by mass social movements.  While it is true that great men, great ideas, and great movements all influence history, history is never so predetermined.  We know from our lived experience the impact of random events, chance meetings, and peripheral characters.  So too, the arc of history is often diverted from its intended trajectory.
Paul's study of Deane, Beumarchais and d'Eon demonstrates his point quite well.  The book is well worth reading for its broader perspective on what made our Revolution successful.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Were these ordinary men "pre-determined" by their leaders, as to what, where, and how they would serve their country? or was it thier independent choice that drove their allegience to American ideals?

Mark D. said...

Read the book! I guess I don't know what you mean by "pre-determined," but on the French side, it was often the individual initiative of many of the supporters of American independence that was key. While key players in the French government were sympathetic to the Americans, many other important French figures weren't. d'Eon's role is particularly interesting in Paul's study in detailing this point.

King of Ireland said...


I wish I had your subtle nature. You are very good at making subtle points with your posts that add much to the stream of discussion on the blog. I do not miss it and I hope others have caught on as well.

You are essentially echoing Brad's warning that we can get so caught up in the Christian vs. Enlightenment thing and the "key founders" or "prevailing political theology" that we miss most of what the little guy did and why?

He is right and so are you. Thanks for bringing balance.