The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Beaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de
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Beaumarchais, Pierre Augustin Caron de
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BEAUMARCHAIS, Pierre Augustin Caron de, a French dramatic author and speculator, born in Paris, Jan. 24, 1732, died there, May 19, 1799. He was the son of a watchmaker named Caron, and received his early education at a private school, which he left when only 13, after having shown remarkable precocity. His father desired him to study watchmaking; but he neglected his work to devote himself to music, for which he had an absorbing taste, and further annoyed his father by his somewhat dissolute habits. Threatened with severe punishment, however, he devoted himself for a time to his trade, and almost immediately achieved a great success by the invention of an improved escapement, which secured him the appointment of watchmaker to the court, then established at Versailles. Caron, now only about 23 years of age, attracted much attention in the court circle to which he was admitted, and acquired by his ability, personal beauty, and gallantry a position entirely disproportionate to his rank. In 1755 an old government official, Franquet, with whose young wife Caron had long stood in questionable relations, died; and the young watchmaker not only married his widow, but succeeded through court influence to his office. Less than a year after her marriage, Mme. Caron died after a very short illness; and her husband's many enemies took advantage of the rapidity with which her death followed that of Franquet to bring against Caron an accusation of poisoning, which he promptly disproved, but which was afterward several times revived in the less tangible form of a rumor, and formed a favorite court scandal. In 1757 Caron assumed the name of Beaumarchais; but he had no legal right to his title of nobility till 1761, when he purchased a commission as secretary to the king, a sinecure which conferred noble rank on its possessor. He still devoted much of his time to music, especially to playing the harp, in which instrument he made several improvements. His skill attracted the attention of the princesses Adelaide and Victoire, daughters of Louis XV., and he at once became a great favorite with them. Succeeding, through the influence thus acquired, in advancing certain schemes of the rich contractor Duverney, the latter admitted him to a share in his profitable mercantile ventures, which probably first gave him the passion for speculation that was afterward a distinguishing feature of his life. He now began the rapid accumulation of a fortune, and by way of further advancement he purchased a second office, that of vice president of the tribunal de chasses. In 1764 Beaumarchais went to Madrid where he had mercantile schemes in progress; but his visit is principally noteworthy on account of his revenge on Clavijo, the Spanish writer, who had broken a promise of marriage made to his younger sister. He not only compelled him to apologize, but succeeded in having him removed from his position at court, and prevented by decree from ever again holding any office under the crown. Goethe's drama of Clavigo has made this incident one of the most famous in the life of Beaumarchais. In April, 1768, he was married at Paris to a rich widow, Mme. Lévêque. Just before this marriage he had made his first important literary venture, in bringing out his play of Eugénie, but had met with no success. In 1770 he received a still greater rebuff in the failure of a second drama, Les deux amis. In the same year his second wife died, and the old stories of poisoning were revived against him. Duverney, the financier, also died in 1770, just after making a most advantageous contract with Beaumarchais. The contractor's heir contested this, and Beaumarchais found himself suddenly involved in a maze of lawsuits. He carried on the legal conflict for seven years, and won, after making some remarkable displays of oratorical power and wit, which rendered him famous even outside of France. It was during this memorable time, too, that he found leisure to produce his Barbier de Séville, written in 1772, and played, after several refusals from different managers, in January, 1775. No sooner had he extricated himself from the troubles just recounted than he became involved in a bitter quarrel with the duke de Chaulnes, his rival in the affections of an actress, who succeeded in having him illegally imprisoned for a time. Counsellor Goezmann had charge of his case, and, as the custom was, Beaumarchais sent Mme. Goezmann a present of money, which she promised to return in case her husband's report on the matter should be adverse to him. It so happened, but she returned only a part of the gift. Beaumarchais preferred an accusation of venality against Goezmann, and an extraordinary trial ensued, in which the accuser developed a most remarkable power of satire, eloquence, and skill, and, though he did not gain his end, made himself for a time the best known man in Paris. Two other somewhat scandalous trials followed, for Beaumarchais no sooner escaped one difficulty than he rushed into another. All this time he was involved in speculations; among them, one for the sale of timber from the forest of Chinon (just before Duverney's death), and one for supplying arms and munitions to the Americans, in their contest with England. As early as 1775 he had submitted to the king a memorial in which he insisted that the French government ought to assist the Americans, giving as his deliberate opinion that they would prove unconquerable. Beaumarchais passed a part of the year 1775 in England as an agent of the French ministry, had interviews with Arthur Lee, and was in the most intimate relations of correspondence with Vergennes. His secrecy, his sagacity in interpreting a hint from a minister without forcing him to commit himself even verbally, his quickness of perception, and his social attractions, made him a convenient instrument. His papers served to fix the wavering purpose of the king, and when Maurepas, the chief minister, hesitated, Beaumarchais, by letters, representations, and adroit flattery, assisted to bring him to the decision which his own love of ease would have shunned. The French cabinet consented to help Beaumarchais in his plans to furnish the colonies with arms and ammunition. For that purpose they secretly advanced to him 1,000,000 livres, an equal sum being furnished by Spain, and delivered to him arms and ammunition from the public arsenals, on the condition that he would pay for or replace the same. Beaumarchais, under the firm of Roderique Hortalez and Co., as early as the beginning of 1777 forwarded three of his own ships, carrying 200 pieces of ordnance, 25,000 muskets, 200,000 lbs. of gunpowder, and other ammunition. He had also engaged more than 50 officers, who sailed on board the Amphitrite, his largest ship; and among the number were La Rouerie, Pulaski, and Steuben, who so powerfully aided in the success of the American troops. This first fleet safely arrived at Portsmouth, and inspired the colonists with renewed hope. Several other ships were sent out during the same year, and about the month of September Beaumarchais's disbursements amounted to more than 5,000,000 francs. Congress, being under the impression that these supplies were gratuitously furnished by the French government, under a disguised form, neglected to make remittances to Beaumarchais, who found himself in embarrassed circumstances, from which he was relieved by the French government advancing him another million of francs. The forwarding of supplies was continued, and toward the beginning of 1779 no less than 10 vessels sailed at once, but few of them reached their destination. At that time the United States were indebted to Roderique Hortalez and Co., or rather Beaumarchais, to the amount of more than 4,000,000 francs. Although congress did not hesitate to acknowledge its obligations toward the French firm, the settlement of so large an indebtment met with many difficulties, and it was not till 1835 that the final balance of about 800,000 francs was paid to the heirs of Beaumarchais. The transaction, far from having been profitable to the latter, as it has been frequently asserted, resulted in losses, which he was enabled to withstand through government aid and some more successful speculations. In an interval of his occupations, he produced in April, 1784, his Mariage de Figaro. Its production was vehemently opposed by the court, and the fact that it was played at all was a remarkable triumph for its author, to say nothing of its popular success. In 1785 he had a quarrel, famous at the time from the notoriety and caustic writings of both parties to it, with Mirabeau, on the questions connected with the introduction of water into Paris — an enterprise in which he was largely interested. This ended with only a war of words. In 1787 he produced Tarare, another play which failed utterly, but which Beaumarchais afterward claimed he had written in sympathy with the growing signs of the revolution, in his Requête a MM. les représentants de la commune de Paris, 1790. The events of 1789 found him just finishing a magnificent house not far from the Bastile, and about to begin what he hoped would be for him a period of quiet. He expressed sympathy with the ends of the revolution, but did not enter with enthusiasm into the means taken to attain them. For a time it seemed that he would succeed in keeping apart from public affairs; but his apparent apathy regarding much that happened, and a sale of arms to Holland, conducted by him solely as a speculation, but used against him by his enemies, threw him into disfavor, and finally caused him to leave the country. Soon after, and while he was in England and Holland, his enemies caused his name to be enrolled in the list of émigrés and his property to be confiscated. After many endeavors he finally succeeded in gaining permission to return to France, but could not recover his wealth, though he constantly petitioned the directory during the remainder of his life to restore it. On the morning of May 19, 1799, Beaumarchais was found dead in his bed, having been seized during the night by an attack of apoplexy. — Of the plays written by Beaumarchais, the Barbier de Seville, the Mariage de Figaro, and La mère coupable form a trilogy, being parts of a dramatic story, and properly standing in the order named. Les deux amis and Tarare are distinct dramas. All these works, with perhaps the exception of Les deux amis, are principally devoted to exceedingly witty attacks on the old régime, and to the promulgation of ideas called revolutionary at the time of their publication. Besides dramas, Beaumarchais wrote many able arguments and pamphlets connected with his suits at law, and a celebrated justification of his conduct, addressed to the convention, and called Mes six époques. He prepared, at enormous expense and great loss to himself, a complete edition of the works of Voltaire. His own works were published by Gudin de la Brenellerie (7 vols., Paris, 1809, and 6 vols., 1821-'7); and memoirs of his life have been written for that edition and as a separate work by Cousin d'Avallon (Vie privée, publique et littéraire de Beaumarchais, Paris, 1802). See also Beaumarchais et son temps, Études sur la société française, &c., by Louis Léonard de Loménie (2 vols., Paris, 1856; 2d ed., 1858).