Leaky Diplomacy


The river of diplomatic correspondence gushing forth from WikiLeaks is only the most recent incident in a long history of leaky diplomacy that began with the American Revolution. You might even say that the American Revolution was won with the help of the most notorious wiki-leaker of his day, the Chevalier d’Eon.

In 1763 the Chevalier was the French ambassador to Britain. He was a military hero of the Seven Years War famed for his valor, a cunning diplomat, and a spy for Louis XV. He also had an excessive fondness for the grape. He imported tens of thousands of bottles of the best French burgundy. His entertainment budget approached the equivalent of one million dollars, and the French foreign minister complained that he needed to economize.

When the Chevalier refused to curb his thirst, he was recalled from his post.

But the recalcitrant Chevalier refused to return to France and insisted he still spoke for the French Government, even after his replacement arrived in London. The Chevalier threatened to publish some embarrassing diplomatic correspondence if the  French King refused to acknowledge him as the rightful ambassador. Just to prove he meant business, Chevalier d’Eon published a portion of the King’s less incriminating correspondence. This was the first time that the public had ever read diplomatic correspondence, and the book quickly sold out. d’Eon became a popular hero for portraying the fallibility and foibles of the bureaucratic elite.

Louis tried everything to shut d’Eon down: extradition, kidnapping, even assassination, but the wily Chevalier evaded every attempt. In desperation, Louis XVI sent a secret agent to bribe d’Eon, the comic playwright Caron de Beaumarchais, author of the play, “The Barber of Seville.”

When Beaumarchais confronted the leaker d’Eon broke down and admitted to Beaumarchais that this masterful diplomat, soldier, and spy was, in fact, a woman who had spent 40 years of her life pretending to be male. Beaumarchais set out to win her heart – and her correspondence.

D’Eon quickly fell for the charms of the dashing Beaumarchais and eventually agreed to surrender her correspondence in exchange for a hefty pension. Beaumarchais realized that so long as d’Eon continued to pretend she was male, she posed a threat to Louis. Beaumarchais insisted that as a condition for her pension she had to give up her male identity and return to France as a woman. (Now, there’s something that might give pause to the founder of Wiki-leaks Julian Assange.)

What does all this have to do with the American Revolution? Beaumarchais returned d’Eon’s diplomatic correspondence to Louis in exchange for a promise that the King would provide Beaumarchais with arms to sell to the American rebels, whose cause he shared. Beaumarchais would ultimately smuggle all the arms, ammunition, and supplies for an army of 30,000 men. These supplies reached the desperate Continental Army just in time for the critical Battle of Saratoga. Without these arms the Continental Army would have been crushed ending the Revolution. The American victory at Saratoga persuaded the French to form an alliance against Britain that won the Revolutionary War.

Leaky diplomacy is nothing new, but its consequences are unforeseeable.

Joel Richard Paul is the author of "Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution" and is a professor and associate dean at the University of California Hastings Law School. More from this author →