Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Unlikely Allies, by Joel Richard Paul (2009)

Every so often, there's a straight history book written in such compelling style that it reads like fiction, and thereby earns a mention in this blog. Such a book is Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, by Joel Richard Paul. Once the reader gets past the overly wordy subtitle, this book is indeed "wildly entertaining", as proclaimed in the book review quote featured on the cover.

The factual story related in Unlikely Allies is itself so unlikely that it probably would never work as fiction, except perhaps in the hands of someone like Gore Vidal - a black humor genius who understood all too well the darkest corners of human nature. To get an idea how outlandish this tale really is, consider the cast, who at the beginning of this book knew nothing of each other:

  • The Merchant: Silas Deane, self-made successful merchant in pre-Revolution Connecticut. His fatal flaw - an idealistic faith in the concept of an independent America. Again and again, he found those ideals sorely lacking in most of his fellow revolutionaries.
  • The Playwright: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a successful French inventor and playwright who wanted to be an international statesman.
  • The Spy: One of the most fantastic characters of the time, the Chevalier d'Eon was a cross-dressing social climber fascinated with the hidden world of political intrigue.  
Unlikely Allies tells the unlikely story of how these three stumbled and bumbled together to create a convoluted Rube Goldberg-esque (or maybe Jacques Tati-esque, since two of the three were French) scheme whereby France supplied arms, supplies and ammunition to the fledgling American Revolution - at the critical moment just before the tide-turning rebel victory at Saratoga. Paul makes a compelling case that, without that French aid, the outcome of British General Burgoyne's campaign would have been reversed. No Saratoga victory; no French alliance; and much less likelihood of American independence.

In addition to the three main characters, there's a large supporting cast. The well-known names are there: Franklin, Adams, Lee; but also some fascinating lesser lights. British radical John Wilkes deserves to be better known among Americans. Arthur Lee, Edward Bancroft and Charles Wentworth probably deserve to be forgotten (except as moral lessons), but play crucial roles in this story. Lots of names for future reading!

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Joel Richard Paul joins David Hackett Fischer on my short list of historians whose writing is better than fiction.

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