French Covert Aid

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French Covert Aid

FRENCH COVERT AID. As the dispute between England and its colonies escalated into actions, French officials anticipated conflicts between the American colonists and the British, and they sought to exploit the situation to their own advantage. The French provided informal and, to some extent, covert support for the American cause in several ways. First, through opening up their West Indian islands to American vessels, they provided an immediate market for American wheat, tobacco, salted fish, and indigo. This, in turn, provided money with which the colonists were able to purchase munitions. Second, in both the Caribbean and off the French coast, they unofficially offered safe harbors for American privateers that were marauding British shipping and capturing British cargoes. Finally, the French provided loans and subsidies to assist the Americans in sustaining their war-making ability. France's major concern was that, should their support become publicly known, it would serve as a justifiable cause for the English to declare war on France at a time when the French were still unprepared for combat. The result was that the French were required to maintain a delicate balance between 1775 and 1778, providing enough supplies to keep the Americans in the field without provoking the English government to declare war.

In October 1774 conflict between England and its colonies had led George III to forbid the sale of munitions to the colonies. By spring 1775 the British Parliament prohibited the colonies from foreign trade altogether, except for those colonies that the government considered safe: Georgia, North Carolina, Delaware, and New York. In August George III declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion and charged that those who participated in the rebellion were traitors.


To assess the level of discontent in America, the French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes had dispatched Achard de Bonvouloir to visit the colonies. While in Philadelphia in December 1775, Bonvouloir met with members of the Committee of Secret Correspondence, who inquired whether France would sell munitions to the Americans. His conversations convinced him that French support of the American cause would be worthwhile. When Vergennes received Bonvouloir's report, he presented Louis XVI with a memorandum titled "Considerations," proposing that France provide the Americans with secret aid to sustain their efforts.

In May 1776 Louis XVI approved an investment of one million livres to enable the Americans to purchase arms. To provide cover for the investment, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was selected to set up a company, Roderique Hortalez & Cie, which would use the money to purchase obsolete arms from government arsenals to sell to the American Congress on credit. Congressional representative Silas Deane arrived in Paris in July 1776 and quickly became involved with Beaumarchais in the enterprise. The two agreed to a contract for the exchange of American tobacco and other goods in return for munitions. Beaumarchais had worked hard to convince Deane of his close relationship with the French government, and this later led many in Congress to conclude that he was merely a conduit for French gifts, a situation that would have tragic financial results for Beaumarchais and his descendants. Soon another French financier, Jacques Donatien Leray de Chaumont, also came forward to offer Deane one million livres credit for the purchase of supplies, which Deane immediately accepted.

By December, Beaumarchais's initial cargo of war supplies in the Amphitrite was exposed in the London Chronicle, and the "secret" became public knowledge. The English ambassador to France, David Murray, the seventh Viscount of Stormont, complained about French involvement in the colonies, and Vergennes was forced to issue orders halting the ship. However, it had already set sail before the orders arrived.

Having received instructions to enlist engineers, Deane also recruited experienced French officers for the Continental army, signing so many commissions that he soon created a crisis for the Congress as to which commissions to honor. In December 1776, Deane was joined by Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, who also pressed the French government for further concessions.


Despite the actions of the Continental Congress, the states began to fear that they would not be able to defend themselves from British military and naval force. A number of states, especially Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia, decided to act individually in the search for arms and ammunition from foreign sources such as the West Indies. Often using the contacts of American shippers and merchants, they identified and established covert relations with sympathetic foreign merchants and officials in the Caribbean and in Europe.

On 15 July the Continental Congress passed a resolution suggested by Benjamin Franklin that allowed a ninemonth period during which ships returning to America with cargoes of military supplies would be exempt from the prohibitions on foreign trade. During the summer of 1775, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island sent ships to the West Indies to obtain munitions. On 18 September 1775 Congress created a the Secret Committee of Trade (later simply known as the Secret Committee) to negotiate contracts for the importation of gunpowder and munitions. During the winter of 1775–1776, New York and Rhode Island planned and executed voyages to the Dutch and the French West Indies to obtain war supplies. In August 1776 Georgia sent Oliver Bowen and Pierre Emmanuel de la Plaigne to Saint Domingue, and in the following November Virginia appointed Raleigh Colston as its agent in Saint Domingue, all in order to secure the material needed for the war.


On 18 May 1776, the Continental Congress instructed the Committee of Secret Correspondence to send a representative to the French West Indies to purchase munitions. They selected as the committee's secretary Philadelphian William Bingham, whose father had been a merchant in the West Indian trade and who had undertaken a business tour of Europe in 1773. Under the cover of a private merchant he went to Martinique, met its governorgeneral, comte Robert d'Argout, and began to purchase muskets and bayonets. He was also given the informal duty of promoting the American cause and keeping Americans in France informed of events back home.

Upon his arrival in Martinique, Bingham met Richard Harrison, the agent for Virginia and Maryland. In the autumn of 1776, while awaiting the appearance in the islands of arms shipments from the Hortalez & Cie, Bingham began loading vessels with molasses and shipping them to America to generate income for the committee's benefit. By the spring of 1777, vessels began to reach Martinique from France. Bingham split the cargoes for transport to America among several smaller ships. Throughout 1777 he received shipments of arms, powder, tents, cloth, and medicines from Nantes and Bordeaux. Yet he received no return cargoes from the Committee to pay for these supplies. Finally, on 16 April 1778, Congress authorized him to draw funds from the Paris-based commissioners (Deane, Franklin, and Lee) to cover his bills. In May Bingham received news of the signing of the treaties with France neither through the commissioners in France nor from Congress but from reading a newspaper from the island of Dominica.


The second field of covert French continental and West Indian assistance was through their support for American privateers. The purpose of these privateers was twofold. First, their capture of English merchant vessels provided cargoes with which to fund the purchase of much-needed munitions. Second, they created a disruption of English commerce.

The capture of British merchant vessels by privateers began as soon as Franklin arrived in France. On the Atlantic crossing, Franklin's ship, The Reprisal, captured two merchant vessels. The Americans sold them in French ports by falsifying their papers. Vergennes complained, but the Americans continued their privateering activities. When Captain Lambert Wickes captured eighteen prizes in June 1777 and brought them into French ports, he brought the situation to a crisis.

In August 1777 and with the support of King George III, Lord North, who was then Britain's prime minister, sent a special envoy to Versailles to threaten war if Wickes's squadron was not expelled from French ports. A few weeks later, the American squadron set sail for America. Facing French anger and a lack of resources, the American commissioners to France found that their financial situation was deteriorating rapidly. By November, however, Vergennes came to the commissioners' aid by advising them not to worry about paying for the supplies they had purchased from Hortalez & Cie. Thus began Arthur Lee's belief that the loans from Beaumarchais were, in fact, gifts. In early November Vergennes informed the commissioners that France would provide an additional three million livres to sustain them. Shortly afterward, news arrived of the American successes in the battle of Saratoga. The new year brought with it an alliance and further aid, but this time the French were willing to cement their formal alliance with the Americans.

American use of privateers in the West Indies was also significant, but it was not as threatening to peace as it was with the ships that were marauding the shipping lanes that lay directly off the French and English coasts. Early during the Revolution, Bingham and Harrison had jointly financed privateers that were working in the West Indies. Lord Stormont complained to Vergennes in autumn 1776: "At Martinico in particular the Privateers of the Rebels had been furnished with everything they wanted …, with as much willingness, and alacrity, as if they had been subjects of France." The American commissioners to France reported by 6 February 1777 that insurance rates for English vessels sailing in the West Indies were higher than at any time during the Seven Years' War. "This mode of exerting our force against them should be pushed with vigour. It is that in which we can most sensibly hurt them." (Stevens, Facsimiles 14, no. 1392; Franklin, Papers, 23: p. 287)

Stormont's complaints to Vergennes continued into the middle of 1777; now he added that the privateering vessels had crews who spoke French and had French papers. In response to Stormont's complaints, Vergennes finally announced that the governor of Martinique, d'Argout, would be replaced by François Claude Amour du Chariol, Marquis de Bouillé, and the minister of the navy and colonies, Antoine Gabriel de Sartine, decreed that the sale of prizes in French colonial territories was forbidden. Despite these actions the new governor of Martinique continued to allow American privateers to enter French continental and colonial ports on the flimsiest excuse. By December 1777, the French were in fact providing the protection of French warships until American vessels were safely out of harbor. In response, Stormont claimed that Martinique was engaging in warlike acts.

The efforts of the French government to sustain the American cause were never truly unknown to the English government, which maintained an extensive spy system in France. Whenever French support became especially obvious or painful to the British, they issued diplomatic complaints and threats which the French were obliged to address, even if only to issue formal orders that were informally ignored. The French sought to maintain a delicate balance, whereas the Americans were pressing for every advantage. As a result of the aid channelled to the Americans through the French West Indies, through their often contradictory but generally supportive treatment of American privateers, and finally through their financial assistance by way of supposedly private commercial ventures such as Hortalez & Cie, the French were able to keep American forces supplied until 1778, by which time the French military and naval forces were prepared for the possibility of combat with the British and a formal alliance could at last be concluded.

SEE ALSO Committee of Secret Correspondence; Deane, Silas; Franklin, Benjamin; Hortalez & Cie; Louis XVI in the American Revolution; Vergennes, Charles Gravier, comte de.


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