On today’s date in 1778, the King of France, Louis XVI, signed a Treaty of Alliance with the rebellious colonies of the United States (pictured, right), thus recognizing their self declared independence, and committing his countries resources to their cause. TRY reading this, if you can…
“The most Christian King and the United States of North America, to wit, New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay…. having this Day concluded a Treaty of amity and Commerce, for the reciprocal advantage of their Subjects and Citizens have thought it necessary to take into consideration the means of strengthening those engagements and of rondring them useful to the safety and tranquility of the two parties, particularly in case Great Britain in Resentment of that connection and of the good correspondence which is the object of the said Treaty, should break the Peace with france, either by direct hostilities, or by hindring her commerce and navigation, in a manner contrary to the Rights of Nations, and the Peace subsisting between the two Crowns; and his Majesty and the said united States having resolved in that Case to join their Councils and efforts against the Enterprises of their common Enemy, the respective Plenipotentiaries, impower’d to concert the Clauses & conditions proper to fulfil the said Intentions, have, after the most mature Deliberation, concluded and determined on the following Articles.”
WHEW!! Talk about a loooong sentence! But such are the vagaries of diplomatic-speak that such phrasing is or was quite normal in diplomatic documents. And the meaning of this treaty was quite clear indeed: the Kingdom of France was throwing her support behind the colonists in their rebellion against their mother country of Great Britain.
France -vs- England – the Mongoose and the Cobra!!
France had effectively been kicked out of North America by the Brits as a result of the French and Indian War of 1754 to 1763, and had been smarting from this unceremonious ejection ever since. The outbreak of war between Britain and her colonies provided just the sort of trouble that the French had been wishing upon her natural enemies in England. In fact the Comte de Vergennes, France’s Foreign Minister wrote a letter to King Louis shortly before Franklin arrived stating:
“England is the natural enemy of France; and she is an avid enemy, ambitious, unjust, brimmimg with bad faith; the permenant and cherished object of her policy is the humiliation and ruin of France.”
But France had a treasury which was limited, and taking on England again was an iffy proposition. Would France come out fully in favor of America?
Ben Franklin “Schmoozes” His Way Into the French Court.
It was with the hope of convincing the French to do just that that Benjamin Franklin was dispatched to France. Franklin was by this time 70 years old, so he was quite an elder statesman when he arrived in France in November of 1776. As a result of his experiments in science (the discovery of electricity with his kite) and also because of the international fame accorded to his “Poor Richards Almanac”, he was the most famous American in the world. So his arrival in France caused an immediate sensation. Balls were given in his honor, and miniatures of his famous visage wearing the fur cap of the simple , but wise rustic philosopher (pictured below) were distributed everywhere. Franklin, the original “Spin Doctor” was in fact anything but rustic or simple, but he recognized the value of projecting this image, so he obligingly played the role.
And he used his considerable powers of persuasion upon the eminent members of France’s government and society to get them to support the American cause. He would frequently relax with the French aristocrats in ways which made him seem like a frivolous ladies man. Now this was not entirely out of his character… the man did indeed have his randy side. Living with him in the village of Passy, his grandson would write:
“The air of Passy and the warm bath three time a week have made quite a young man out of him. His pleasing gaiety makes everybody in love with him, especially the ladies, who permit him always to kiss them.”
Franklin Blends Realism With American Exceptionalism
But Franklin was devoted to securing French aid to his country and knew how to make it happen. He knew and very shrewdly understood where he could make France go for the American cause. He wrote a letter to the aforementioned Comte de Vergennes emphasizing the French interest in the outcome, that if France and Spain were to enter on the American side, the Brits would lose their colonies and her possessions in the West Indies, and “the commerce that has rendered her so opulent..” which would then relegate her to a “State of weakness and humiliation…” precisely what Vergennes had declared to be Britain’s plan for France in his letter to King Louis. But as Franklin’s biographer Walter Issacson has written:
“Frankin realized that appealing to the cold calculus of interests was only part of the equation. Better than most other diplomats in the nation’s history, he understood that America’s strength in world affairs would come from a unique mix that included idealism as well as realism. When woven together, they would later be in policies ranging from the Monore Doctrine to the Marshall Plan, they were the warp and woof of a resilient foreign policy. ‘America’s great historical moments ,’ writes historian Bernard Bailyn, ‘have occurred when realism and idealism have been combined, and no one knew this better than Franklin.’ “
In effect, Franklin understood that it was by emphasizing America as a land of freedom and opportunity, who not only could be free of British domination, but should be, that he could ignite a real enthusiasm for the American cause that would be lacking for just another armed conflict.
The Alliance Comes to Life
So it was when the final obstacle to the French Alliance was overcome. France had indeed been ready to lend her full support to the Americans, but it was only the victory of the Americans in the battle of Saratoga (Sept. 19 & October 7, 1777) that convinced France to go ahead and sign on with us for good and all. It was because of the American victory over the forces of General Burgoyne in that battle that the French government, the Comte de Vergennes
in particular were at last convinced that the Americans had a chance of defeating a major British force in the field. With her need for realism thus satisfied, France went ahead and signed up to our side. This alliance would prove to be the decisive factor in securing American victory in the war. For it was during the Battle of Yorktown (September 28 – October 19, 1781) that a French fleet under Admiral Comte de Grasse defeated a Britsh fleet. This trapped the Army of Lord Cornwallis on the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia and forced them to surrender (above) to the surrounding American forces under Goerge Washington and the French forces under the Comte de Rochembeau.
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“The American Heritage History of the American Revolution” by Bruce Lancaster, Bruce Catton and Thomas Fleming; American Heritage
Publ., New York, 2004.
“Benjamin Franklin; An American Life” by Walter Issacson, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003.