Author of Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais,
the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution
“You think you’re a genius,” the young man thundered at the older gentleman. “With all your money, fame, and influence, just what did you do to get so rich?
“You took the trouble to be born–nothing else,” the growling youngster answered his own question. “You are nothing but an ordinary man!”
Although the words might well be those of an “Occupy Wall Street” protester to a billionaire banker or hedge-fund manager, they were actually sounded more than 230 years ago by a simple barber–or at least, an actor playing a simple barber on a Paris stage. But the words resounded across France and, though King Louis XVI tried to ban them and jail the author, it was too late. The inflammatory language of Figaro, the main character in The Barber of Seville and its sequel The Marriage of Figaro, inspired millions of oppressed French commoners to rise up and overthrow the monarchy and aristocracy.
The author of the barber's words was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, arguably France’s greatest playwright. A commoner by birth, Pierre Caron began his career as a brilliant teenaged inventor, who produced the world’s first miniature time pieces–so small and light that French Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI could wear them on their wrists--and elevate Caron to world renown. Educated by his engineer father and musically talented mother, Caron was a brilliant musician, songwriter, poet and playwright, as well as inventor. Thwarted in every stab at success as a commoner, he married a nobleman’s widow and assumed her noble name of de Beaumarchais.and immediately soared to success, accumulating the trappings of wealth, fame, and title.
The limitations on human advancement in a class society and absolute monarchy continued to haunt him, however, and, Horrified by the Boston Massacre, Beaumarchais decided to help Americans break their chains of bondage to Britain’s monarchy. He soon became what American Heritage magazine called “the most underrated hero of the American Revolution.”
Unknown to most Americans then–and now–he devised a plot as complex as any he ever devised for the stage, setting up a dummy export company under an assumed name and secretly shipping surplus French arms to George Washington’s Continental Army. By the end of the American Revolution, Beaumarchais had provided an astounding 80 percent of their arms and ammunition, in effect singlehandedly ensuring America's victory over Britain.
A dashing hero and towering intellect, Beaumarchais had only just finished saving the American Revolution when he lit the flames of the French Revolution, using his fictional alter ego Figaro to mouth the words and music that aroused the French to overthrow the king. What made Figaro’s words so inflammatory was their challenge to the centuries-old doctrine of divine right of kings–that God himself had selected the French king and his aristocrat vassals to pocket the nation’s wealth and condemn the rest of humanity to privation as commoners.
In today’s America, Occupy Wall Street protesters seem to be challenging a similar notion, namely, that Wall Street supports and sustains the nation’s economy, when, in fact, Wall Street bankers and money men have undermined the economy, drained the nation's wealth and concentrated it in the hands of a small, powerful oligarchy.
Unlike 18th century French revolutionaries, however, America’s protesters have, from the beginning, lacked both leadership and unity of purpose. They simply don’t know what they want. They also lack the nationwide famine that left much of the French population enraged by hunger as well as economic inequality when they exploded. America’s protesters are simply not hungry enough to stage an effective revolution, and, without the words of a Beaumarchais–or a Figaro–to arouse them to effective action, winter’s winds will almost certainly drive the Occupy Wall Street protesters home, shivering in shame at their impotence, without a single token of triumph from their ill-conceived “revolution.”
Harlow Giles Unger is author of 20 books, including seven biographies of the Founding Fathers and four histories of early America. His latest book, Improbable Patriot: The Secret History of Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the French Playwright Who Saved the American Revolution, has. just been published by the University Press of New England, Lebanon, NH.