Louis XVI in the American Revolution

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Louis XVI in the American Revolution

LOUIS XVI IN THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Louis XVI came to the French throne in 1774 at age nineteen with a determination to reestablish France's position as the premier monarchy of Europe; regain the monarch's authority as "most Christian majesty"; and overcome France's disastrous losses to England in the Seven Years' War, albeit with a hesitation to undertake outright warfare. Turgot, his comptroller-general of finances from 1774 to 1776, was initially a restraining influence on the more aggressive plans of foreign minister Vergennes. Louis, however, convinced by Vergennes that Anglo-American reconciliation might threaten its valuable West Indies colonies, decided to assist the Americans minimally. His goals were to exhaust the English and to keep the Americans involved in their differences with England, providing a small amount of aid that would keep them engaged in the conflict without developing American resentment toward the French.

Louis hesitated to commit to formal alliance and American independence until news of Germantown and Saratoga in 1777 led him to fear Anglo-America rapprochement. The alliance treaties followed quickly in March 1778, and with them openly declared conflict. Congress responded by proclaiming Louis "defender of the rights of mankind." Louis's support of the Americans was part of a larger strategic policy in which France sought to determine the balance of power partly by becoming a commercial and diplomatic patron of weaker monarchies and republics, including the United States, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and some independent German states. The resulting financial burdens were compounded by the global extent of the war from 1778 to 1783 and the refinance of France's existing debt. Unable to reform France's financial system, Louis begrudgingly accepted a series of political reforms in the 1780s that put him between irreconcilable domestic forces. Yet without Louis's assistance—first through secret aid like that funneled through Hortalez & Cie, and later through open aid under the French alliance—it is doubtful the Americans could have won.

SEE ALSO French Alliance; Hortalez & Cie; Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de.


Crout, Robert Rhodes. "In Search of a 'Just and Lasting Peace': The Treaty of 1783, Louis XVI, Vergennes, and the Regeneration of the Realm." International History Review 5 (1983): 364-398.

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

Murphy, Orville T. "The Battle of Germantown and the Franco-American Alliance of 1778." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 82 (1958): 55-64.

―――――――. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution: 1719–1787. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.

                              revised by Robert Rhodes Crout