French in the American Revolution

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FRENCH IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. The American Revolution, like similar upheavals, endeavored to export its ideals and secure military aid abroad. During the Revolution, the Continental Congress, the governing body of the thirteen colony-states, failed in the first respect. The Congress's appeals to French Canadians and to British settlements in the West Indies fell on deaf ears. In the second regard, Congress met with success. France, nursing grievances against Britain from the humiliating loss of its North American possessions in the Seven Years' War, provided the revolutionaries with secret military aid and eventually entered the war against its European enemy. Soon after its creation by Congress in November 1775, the Committee of Secret Correspondence met privately in Philadelphia with a French agent and agreed to secret cooperation. The French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, and King Louis XVI were solely motivated by a desire to weaken Britain through the loss of its colonies and to increase France's strength in Europe.

Although proclaiming neutrality, France's involvement in the American cause deepened in 1776 and 1777. American vessels slipped in and out of French ports. Soon the Paris government regularly channeled military stores to a mercantile company, Roderigue Hortalez and Company. At intervals, the firm turned over its acquisitions to American agents, who later paid the company in tobacco. The French king accepted, while not officially recognizing, a three-man American diplomatic delegation—led by the distinguished international figure Benjamin Franklin—to lobby at the royal court. Possibly the defeat of the British general John Burgoyne near Saratoga, New York, in October 1777 gave France the incentive to enter the war on the side of the Americans. France, however, had already become so involved in the conflict that it would have been a humiliation to pull back. The two countries signed a treaty of amity and commerce as well as a treaty of alliance on 6 February 1778. By the following summer, Britain and France, the two "superpowers" of eighteenth-century Europe, were engaged in open hostilities.

Americans generally rejoiced, but the alliance was a mixed blessing to George Washington and some other revolutionary leaders. Certainly Britain became more mindful of defending the kingdom by keeping much of the fleet in home waters. The British were also forced to defend their West Indian possessions with a sizable naval complement along with some regiments previously fighting in America, while at the same time evacuating the rebel capital of Philadelphia. Yet Washington opposed the Marquis de Lafayette's idea of a Franco-American invasion of Canada in 1778, at least partly because he feared France might wish to reclaim its former North American dominions. Moreover, two combined operations ended in failure, one at New York City in 1778 and another at Savannah in 1779, both involving the French admiral Comte d'Estaing. French diplomats won some friends and lost others by becoming involved in congressional politics concerning terms of a future peace agreement. France's wartime expenses, including substantial subsidies to America, led Vergennes to concede privately that he now waivered on his commitment to insist that American independence be part of any peace settlement.

Lord Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown on 19 October 1781 was the only major military success of the alliance. But it was a remarkable achievement, involving luck and remarkable coordination in a day when instantaneous communication and rapid movement of armies and navies were not possible. In the early fall of 1781, two French naval squadrons, a small one off Rhode Island under the Comte de Barras and a larger one in the West Indies under the Comte de Grasse, a small French army in Rhode Island under the Comte de Rochambeau, and Washington's main army, stationed outside New York City, all converged on the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia at approximately the same time to trap Cornwallis, who had moved his army there after failing to subdue the Carolinas. Fighting at sea continued between Britain and France for another year, but all sides seemed ready for peace, including the Netherlands and Spain, which had entered the war against Britain but had fared poorly. Preliminary articles of peace were signed in Paris late in 1782, followed by the final treaty in 1783. Tough bargaining enabled American diplomats, taking advantage of European rivalries, to gain the Mississippi River as the nation's western boundary. In time, as Washington predicted, the French alliance, which had no termination date, outlived its usefulness, and President John Adams later paid dearly to extract America from its treaty obligations. American hopes to see the post-1783 European world turn from mercantilism to free trade also met with disappointment. It was only with the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 that America freed itself from the ills and entanglements of the Old World.


Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Hutson, James H. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1980.

Morris, Richard B. The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

Stinchcombe, William C. The American Revolution and the French Alliance. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1969.


See alsoDiplomacy, Secret ; France, Quasi-War with ; France, Relations with ; French and Indian War ; Newport, French Army at ; Revolution, American: Political History, Military History, Diplomatic Aspects ; Yorktown Campaign .

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French in the American Revolution

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