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France in the American Revolutionary War

Related subjects: North American History

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Engraving based on the painting "Action Between the HMS Serapis and Bonhomme Richard" by Richard Paton, published 1780.

France, despite its financial difficulties, used the occasion of the American Revolutionary War (1776–1781) to weaken its arch-rival in European and world affairs, Britain. Independence for the colonies would seriously damage the British Empire and create a rising power, the United States, that could be allied with France.

Some argue France primarily sought revenge against Britain for the loss of territory in America in the 1763 Treaty of Paris. However, Dull, in 1975, argued that France intervened because of dispassionate calculation, not because of Anglophobia or a desire to avenge the loss of Canada. French participation reflected the desperate French diplomatic position on the European continent. The war was a tragic failure for France: American independence failed to weaken Britain. The Spanish navy was vital to the maintenance of the military initiative by the allies. France was desperate for peace but did not attempt to betray the United States. The French government was overwhelmed by debt maintenance, but war led to the financial crisis "which provided the immediate occasion for the release of those forces which shattered the French political and social order."

The French entered the war in 1778, and assisted in the victory of the Americans seeking independence from Britain (realized in the 1783 Treaty of Paris). Its status as a great modern power was affirmed and its taste for revenge was satisfied, but the war was detrimental to the country’s finances.
Even though French territory was not affected, victory in a war against Britain with battles like the decisive siege of Yorktown in 1781 had a large financial cost (one billion livre tournois) which severely degraded fragile finances and increased the deficit in France. Even worse, France’s hope to become the first commercial partner of the newly-established United States was not realized, and Britain immediately became the United States’ main trade partner. Pre-war trade patterns were largely kept between Britain and the US, with most American trade remaining within the British Empire. Recognition of France's participation in the Revolution was mainly manifested in the United States' appreciation of French military heroes like the Comte de Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette. France’s hope to regain its territories in the United States ( Nouvelle-France) was also lost.
The weakening of the French state, the example of the American Revolution, and the rising visibility of viable alternatives to the absolute monarchy were all factors that helped influence the French Revolution.

French diplomatic situation

Louis XVI appointed Vergennes to foreign policy office. Vergennes shared with Choiseul the desire of revenge on Britain after the Seven Years' War. He first led a careful policy in Europe, maintaining the status quo between Prussia and Austria in the East, especially during the War of the Bavarian Succession, which he did not take part in. Meanwhile, he gave France a military fleet to match the British navy, and kept an eye on tensions in America.
In 1770, the Austro-French alliance enacted by Louis XV in 1756 was confirmed by the wedding of the future Louis XVI with Marie-Antoinette of Austria, while the alliance of the familial pact between France and Spain led to domination of continental Europe. The marriage of Marie-Antoinette to Louis XVI ostensibly marked the end of the age-old Bourbon-Habsburg rivalry.

The French Will

The French elite had dreamed of revenge since the 1763 Treaty of Paris, which was supported more than happily by exiled Scottish Jacobites in the colonies. The treaty, in view of the conditions of defeat, was moderate in its demands. France kept its most lucrative possessions (such as the sugar-producing colony of Saint Dominique). Even though the French-Spanish-Austrian alliance may have eventually defeated the British Royal Navy, the financial cost of the war was overwhelming, and all sought to end the conflict as quickly as possible. The Treaty of Paris was therefore accepted, but there remained in France a powerful aspiration to exact revenge on Britain and finish this unconcluded war.
Choiseul, even before 1763, had already begun the modernization of the navy, envisaging a new kind of war where the striking speed, the number of ships, and attacks on the enemy's merchant fleet would become more important. France thus "satirized" its fleet by adding fast and maneuverable small ships. France also modernized the equipment and the training given to the military while increasing its numbers significantly (to 300,000 men). Louis XVI achieved this modernization by providing the necessary amounts of money. The fleet, at a minimum in 1762, increased in numbers of 67 vessels and 37 frigates.

American origins of the conflict

After the end of the Seven Years' War, the economic situation of Britain had driven her to exercise stricter and stricter controls on the commerce of her colonies: taxes were raised, commerce was exclusive, and the colonies were asked to contribute to the upkeep of the British troops stationed in the colonies through a special tax. The colonists evoked a law to the effect that "No population subject to the British Crown may be taxed without the agreement of its representative assembly". However, the tax was imposed, giving rise to a series of frictions.

The best-known episode was the Boston Tea Party in 1773 in which the colonists refused to accept the British government-given monopoly of the failing British East India Company over tea sold in America, throwing large quantities of tea overboard into Boston Harbor. Britain decided to close the port in reprisal, and opinion rapidly hardened in favour of the Bostonians. A congress of the colonists was organized, and armed militias and new institutions were established. On the Fourth of July 1776 the United States declared their union and independence from Britain, but US still had to enforce it.

Up against the British power, the young United States lacked arms and allies, and so turned naturally towards France. After the prodding of Benjamin Franklin, France, which had no direct interest in the conflict, nevertheless engaged herself first in the covert support of the American war, then in open war from February 5th 1778, which placed her almost alone against the Royal Navy.

Reception in French opinion

Public opinion in France was in favour of open war, but the governing body was reluctant due to the consequences and cost of such a war.

Following the Declaration of Independence of the thirteen colonies, the American Revolution had been well received in France, both by the population and the enlightened elites. The Revolution was perceived as the incarnation of the Enlightenment Spirit against the "English tyranny". Benjamin Franklin, dispatched to France in December of 1776 to rally her support, was welcomed with enthusiasm, and numerous Frenchmen embarked for the Americas to help the war, motivated by the prospect of valor in battle or animated by the sincere ideal of liberty and republicanism, like Pierre Charles L'Enfant, and La Fayette, who enlisted in 1776.

The official reaction was more quiet . Louis XVI wanted to help the colonies. But, because of the financial situation in France, he just provided clandestine aid through Beaumarchais. Vergennes (in office from 1774 to 1781) was in favour of open participation by France and suggested the possibility of commercial and diplomatic gains: The situation was under French analysis, and they were looking for allies (Spain through their Family Pact, and Austria), or at least ensuring their neutrality (Austria, Holland, Prussia).

Leaders in charge of diplomacy, finances, the military, and the economy were rather reluctant. The French Navy was described as still insufficient and unprepared for such a war, the economy would have been greatly impacted, and the condition of the financial deficit of the French State was noted by Turgot and later Necker. Diplomats were less enthusiastic as Vergennes and Louis XVI, underlining the unique and isolated position of France in Europe on the matter. The balance of peace and economic prosperity of the times opposed the spirit of revenge and the liberal ideal.

Debate over aiding the colonies or declaring open war

Vergennes and Louis XVI were partisans of entering the war, however, in light of the opposition, Louis XVI compromised on clandestine material aid through Beaumarchais. Thus, through the secret sale of weapons begun in 1776, France was privately involved in the war. Secretly approached by Louis XVI and Vergennes, Beaumarchais was given authorization to sell gun powder and ammunition for close to a million pounds under the veil of the Portuguese company Rodrigue Hortalez et Compagnie. The aide given by France would ultimately contribute to George Washington's survival against the British onslaught. France accommodated American frigates that committed piracy against British merchant ships, provided economic aid, either as donations or loans, and also offered technical assistance, granting some of its military strategists "vacations", so they could assist American troops.

Deane, appointed by the Americans, and helped by French animosity towards Britain, obtained unofficial aid. However, the goal was the total involvement of France in the war. A new delegation composed of Franklin, Deane, and Arthur Lee, was appointed to lobby for the involvement of European nations. They claimed that an alliance of the Thirteen Colonies, France, and Spain would assure a rapid defeat of the British, but Vergennes, despite his own desire in the matter, refused. Franklin might even have proposed to aid France in reclaiming New France. On the 23rd of July, 1777, Vergennes demanded that either total assistance or abandonment of the colonies be chosen.

Lastly, when the international climate at the end of 1777 was tense, Austria had requested the support of France in the War of Bavarian Succession against Prussia. France had rejected, causing the relation with Austria to turn sour. In these conditions, asking Austria to give assistance to France in a war against the British was impossible. Attempts to rally Spain also failed: Spain had nothing to gain and the revolutionary spirit was even threatening the legitimacy of the Spanish Crown in its own Latin American colonies.

French Involvement

After France entered on February 6th, 1778 in the American Revolutionary War, the British naval force - master of the seas - and French fleet confronted each other from the beginning. First these navies quarreled head-on, in the English Channel and then in the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean, in a war of escorts. The ultimate outcome would be decided by the naval Battle of the Chesapeake and the Battle of Yorktown.

The British had taken Philadelphia, but American victory at the Battle of Saratoga brought back hope to the Patriots and enthusiasm in France. The army of Burgoyne (Britain) was defeated and France became aware that the 13 colonies could be victorious and thus decided to provide official aid to colonies. The Spanish ally was more skeptical. Vergennes and Louis XVI were considering the proposition of an American alliance through the American diplomats Benjamin Franklin, Deane, and Arthur Lee with increasing interest. The alliance between Britain and France, forged in 1763, plunged into a diplomatic crisis. The war was benefiting from popular support, La Fayette was gaining notoriety, and the avenging spirit was ready to express itself.

On the 6th of February, 1778, Vergennes and Louis XVI decided to sign with Benjamin Franklin a treaty of friendship and official alliance with the 13 colonies. France recognized the independent status of the colonies, both parties agreed that peace would not be signed separately, and the colonies engaged themselves in protecting French possessions in America. Battles were initiated in America in the Antilles.

With the entry of France into the war, Britain attempted to keep the French navy in its waters. The naval Battle of Ouessant in the Channel was indecisive: The two forces eventually withdrew (British admiral Keppel). The landing of 40,000 men in the nearby English islands was considered, but abandoned because of logistic issues. On the continent, France was protected through its alliance with Austria, which, even if it did not take part in the American Revolutionary War, affirmed its diplomatic support of France.

Other nations in Europe refused to take part. Then, after seeing France holding its own against the Royal Navy, Holland decided to side with France in 1780. The Spanish also offered their support in 1779. Britain was in a difficult situation.

The French intervention was initially maritime in nature and indecisive but was turned absolute when in 1780, 6,000 soldiers of Rochambeau were sent to America. In 1779, 6,000 French had already faced 3,000 British in the Battle of Savannah, but the French attack was too precipitated and badly prepared, which led to its eventual failure. The Battle of the Chesapeake (1781) caused a part of the British fleet to flee, destroyed the remainder, and encircled Cornwallis in Yorktown, where he hopelessly awaited the promised British reinforcements. Cornwallis was trapped between American and French forces on land and the French fleet on the sea. The French alliance was crucial in the decisive victory of the Patriots at Yorktown (October 17, 1781), which could not have been achieved if not for the French Navy under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. After useless counters, Cornwallis formally surrendered on (October 19, 1781). The major fighting was now over and only some skirmishes were left. Britain, however, would not formally end the war until 1783.

Over important naval battles between the French and the British were spaced out around the globe. In the ensuing battles, the British and French confronted one another for the domination of the Antilles, which France lost to Britain after the 1782 Battle of the Saints. The combined Spanish and French forces were able to defeat the British and successfully capture Minorca in February of 1782. In India, the Kingdom of Mysore, allied with the French, were able to successfully overpower the British. The French regained control of Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon from the British in 1783. However, the Great Siege of Gibraltar was a failed attempt by the French and Spanish to regain the Gibraltar peninsula from the British.

Because of the presence of decisive battles on American soil, the French were able to have a better base to negotiate on in Paris.

Peace and consequences

Starting with the Battle of Yorktown, Benjamin Franklin never informed France of the secret negotiations that took place directly between Britain and the United States. Britain relinquished her rule over the Thirteen Colonies and granted them all the land south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River. However, since France was not included in the American-British peace discussions, the alliance between France and the colonies was broken. Thus the influence of France and Spain in future negotiations was limited.

Ratification of the treaty of Paris, 1783. The British delegation refused to pose for the picture

A limited victory was declared in September 1783, in the Treaty of Paris. France gained (or gained back) territories in America, Africa, and India. Losses in the Treaty of Paris of 1763 and in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) were in part regained: Tobago, Saint Lucia, the Senegal River area, as well as increased fishing rights in Terra Nova. Spain regained Florida and Minorca, but Gibraltar remained in the hands of the British.

Because the French involvement in the war was distant and naval in nature, over a billion livres tournois were spent by the French government to support the war effort. The finances of the French state were in disastrous shape and financial setbacks in particular were contributed by Jacques Necker, who, rather than raise taxes, used loans to pay off debts. State secretary in Finances Calonnes attempted to fix the deficit problem by asking for the taxation of the property of nobles and clergy but was dismissed and exiled for his ideas. The French instability further weakened the reforms that were essential in the re-establishment of stable French finances. Trade also severely declined during the war, but was revived by 1783.

The war was especially important for the prestige and pride of France, who was reinstated in the role of European arbiter. However, France did not become the main commerce partner with the United States of America, despite particularly expensive military spending. French troops had to be transported over great distances, which cost about 1 billion livres tournois, and further added to France's debt of a little less than 3.315 billion.

Another result of French involvement was the newly acquired pride in the enlightenment, finally set in motion with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, through the American victory in 1783, and accented by the constitution in 1787: liberal elites were satisfied. But there were also some major consequences: the European conservatives had become nervous, and the nobility began to take measures in order to secure their positions. On May 22nd, 1781, the Decree of Ségur closed the military post offices of the upper rank to the common persons and reserved those ranks exclusively for the nobility. The blight of the bourgeoisies had begun.

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