Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de
Vergennes, Charles Gravier, Comte de
VERGENNES, CHARLES GRAVIER, COMTE DE. (1717–1787). French foreign minister. Born at Dijon, he started his diplomatic career under his uncle, Chevignard de Chavigny, at Lisbon and at Frankfort (1740–1745) and then represented the French monarchy at the courts of Trier (1750), Constantinople (1754–1768), and Stockholm (1771–1774). When Louis XVI ascended the throne in 1774, Vergennes became foreign minister. With a desire to restore France to its status as preeminent European power by reducing English power, organizing a tier of client states in alliance with France, and renewing an alliance with the Swiss cantons (1777), he sought to aid the Americans clandestinely until French military and naval strength could be restored and the king could be convinced to undertake a formal war against England. He proceeded with much greater caution than an earlier foreign minister, Choiseul.
Events of 1775 in America led Vergennes to believe that the colonists were serious about resisting the British government. The danger to France was that after committing themselves against the British, the latter might quickly settle the problem in America—by diplomacy or arms—and then turn their entire strength against France. Having previously refused to act on hints from American agents (for example, Arthur Lee in London) that the colonists would welcome aid from their traditional enemy, France, should a shooting war develop with England, Vergennes now agreed to the exploratory mission of Achard de Bonvouloir. At the same time Vergennes undertook a study of secret aid that led to establishment of Beaumarchais's Hortalez & Cie.
French statesmen were faced with the problem of when it would be wise to fight England, even with that country being handicapped by its war in America. Turgot, controller general of finances, was opposed for a number of reasons but finally agreed to secret aid. The other problem was that of getting support from Spain, a country with grave fears that the success of revolution in the thirteen colonies of North America might inspire Spanish colonies to revolt.
Vergennes succeeded first in getting his own government and that of Spain to support the plan for secret aid through Hortalez & Cie. In the summer of 1776, Vergennes was ready to go to war against Britain if Spain would join in, but upon learning of the British victory at Long Island, he decided it would be better for France to restrict assistance to secret aid until it could be sure the Americans could continue the war long enough for open assistance to do them any good. Two months before Burgoyne's defeat at Saratoga and influenced largely by Washington's brilliant riposte in the Trenton-Princeton campaign, Vergennes in July 1777 again officially proposed armed intervention by France and Spain. France had lost the restraining influence of Turgot, but Spain had a new foreign minister, the Conde Floridablanca, who lacked the enthusiasm of his predecessor, Grimaldi, for participation in a shooting alliance. Spanish hesitancy to agree to Vergennes's plan as well as reports of Burgoyne's initial successes in his invasion from Canada led the French foreign minister to delay his schemes. Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, had meanwhile succeeded in seriously embarrassing Vergennes by finding out details of the latter's secret aid and making official protests, an embarrassment to the French king.
The Saratoga surrender, Germantown, and Franklin's diplomacy in Paris led ultimately to the French alliance, which Congress ratified on 4 May 1778. Vergennes's policy partially prevailed, to the benefit of the Americans—who probably never could have achieved independence without active French participation in the war in America. In 1784 Vergennes wrote to Louis XVI that England was "bent under the weight of an enormous debt which is crushing her." However, the burdens of the global war and active intervention with its client states had also overburdened the French economy and accelerated the financial crisis that would lead to the French Revolution. Vergennes sought to tie England to France through a commercial treaty in 1786. Exhausted by the efforts, he died during deliberations.
Hardman, John, and Munro Price, eds. Louis XVI and the Comte de Vergennes: Correspondence, 1774–1787. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998.
Murphy, Orville T. "The View from Versailles: Charles Gravier Comte de Vergennes's Perceptions of the American Revolution." In Diplomacy and Revolution: The Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.
――――――. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes: French Diplomacy in the Age of Revolution, 1719–1787. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
――――――. "A la sublime porte: La preparation de Vergennes au ministère." Revue d'Histoire Diplomatique 101 (1987): 227–237.
Price, Munro. Preserving the Monarchy: The Comte de Vergennes, 1774–1787. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
revised by Robert Rhodes Crout