William Howarth
Beaumarchais and the Theatre

The sequence of events began in March 1792, when it was brought to Beaumarchais's notice that a stock of 60,000 rifles, seized from rebels by the Austrian authorities, was being held in Walcheren on the Dutch coast, and a Belgian intermediary, knowing of his experience as an arms dealer, offered him the chance to acquire the rifles on behalf of the French government. The nation was at war, and arms were in short supply: as with the American enterprise, the opportunity for personal profit went hand in hand with a means of proving his zeal for the cause of the Revolution; though Beaumarchais's biographers agree that the patriotic motive was uppermost in his mind.

The affair was fraught with difficulties and dangers from the beginning. Diplomatic difficulties, to begin with: he had to get round the condition on which the arms were being offered to France, namely that they should be sent abroad for use in the colonies (and could not therefore be used against other European powers). Financial difficulties: for French currency was already under attack, with the government's paper money worth only 60 per cent of its face value, and he had to raise a loan in London in order to finance the deal. But above all difficulties created by the incompetence, the instability and the petty jealousies that were endemic in the governments of these years. Not only was Beaumarchais's initiative frustrated by obstruction on the part of officials in the government offices, who resented the fact that they stood to lose the percentage on such a deal to which they were entitled by custom, if not by law; he was also constantly denounced by envious or vindictive deputies or civil servants who had a score to settle. He was accused in the Assembly of himself having concealed the 60,000 rifles in Paris, and his house in the Marais was ransacked by a mob, incited to carry out a search for them. And when the Terror began with the massacre of the aristocrats in the Paris prisons in September 1792, Beaumarchais just managed to escape with his life: he had been in the Abbaye prison at the end of August when he was unexpectedly released by Manuel, the public prosecutor, as 'an innocent victim of persecution'; only much later did he learn that his mistress Amelie Houret, whom he had known since 1787, had obtained his release by rendering similar services to Manuel. He had already moved his wife and daughter to a place of safety at Le Havre; and now, in the face of further threats, he himself went first to The Hague, where he met renewed obstruction from French government agents, then to London, where he learned that the Convention in Paris had received a fresh accusation against him from one of his most determined enemies, Lecointre. He was determined to face his accusers in the Assembly, but the English friend who was his creditor had him imprisoned for debt in order to prevent him risking his life. He devoted his stay in a debtors' prison in London to writing the memoirs in his defence which covered the 'most painful nine months', and returned to France in March 1793 to arrange for their publication, the Minister of Justice, Garat, having given him a formal guarantee of his safety. The rest of 1793 was taken up with complicated financial negotiations concerning the arms deal, which involved journeys on Beaumarchais's part to England and to Switzerland; and the projected deal ended in fiasco in October 1794, when the rifles were finally seized by the English.

In the meantime, however, in March 1794, Beaumarchais, who was on a mission to Frankfurt authorised by the Committee of Public Safety, was nevertheless placed on the list of emigres. He was forced to spend the next two years in poverty and isolation at Hamburg, where he was ostracised bv most of the genuine members of the emigre community because he was in fact in the service of the revolutionary government; though since he was proscribed, he was unable to return to France, and his wife was forced by law to divorce him. Finally, her unremitting efforts and those of his friends, as well as Beaumarchais's own further appeals to those in authority, obtained the revocation of the decision to place his name on the list of emigres. Lindet, chairman of the Committee of Public Safety, had written to the Directoire, which had replaced the Convention in October 1795:
I shall never cease to think and to proclaim on every occasion that citoyen Beaumarchais is being unjustly persecuted and that the senseless plan to make him out to be an emigre was conceived by men who were misguided, misled or ill-intentioned. His abilities, his talents and his many gifts could have served our cause. By wishing to harm him, we have done the more harm to France.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.