To what extent did the French play a crucial role in helping the settlers win the American Revolution?
An iconic oil painting of the British surrender at Yorktown, now hanging in the Rotunda of the Capitol, illustrates the partnership perfectly. As the resigned gloomy British general in the center of the photo prepares to hand over his sword, he is flanked by a row of Americans on one side, under a waving Stars and Stripes flag – and on the other by officers and French volunteers, under the white and gold banner of the Bourbon monarchs of France.
Artist John Trumbull’s decision to portray the two forces as equal fighters against the British shows how much America’s Founding Fathers owed the French in their battle for independence. The decision of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (better known as the Marquis de Lafayette) to leave France and enlist in the forces of George Washington is well known to many. But Lafayette was only a prelude to massive French support, the forerunner of a deep relationship that proved vital to the success of the revolution. Here are five ways the French helped Americans gain their freedom.
1. They provided ideological foundations.
“Give me freedom or give me death!” Patrick Henry’s forceful declaration at the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775 proved to be a tipping point, convincing his fellow delegates – including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – to vote in favor of engaging Virginian troops in the revolutionary battle. imminent. Henry’s rhetoric echoes the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opened his influential work of 1762, The social contract, with the words “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”
In the 1760s, the founding fathers and their peers avidly devoured French political philosophy. “It became almost a patriotic duty for the settlers to admire France as a counterweight to an increasingly hostile England,” wrote historian Lawrence Kaplan of Kent State University. The British may have triumphed militarily over their French rivals in the global conflict known as the Seven Years’ War. But the future American founders denigrated the way the British (in their eyes) trampled their own constitution, turning instead to France for new ideas on freedom and independence.
Rousseau, for his part, spoke of sovereignty residing not in a monarch, but in the people as a group, and the need to make laws for the general good. Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric (including “All men are created equal”) owes a great deal to Rousseau. However, the drafters of the American Constitution were perhaps most inspired by Baron de Montesquieu, who argued in his treatise The Spirit of Laws that to avoid despotism, a government of checks and balances was needed.
Without the ideas of these French philosophers to inspire them in difficult times, it is difficult to imagine that the revolution will succeed.
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2. They posed a greater geopolitical threat to Britain.
Still in the throes of its defeat in the Seven Years’ War and the loss of colonies around the world, including much of Canada, France saw the American rebellion as an opportunity to take revenge and restore some of his own empire at the expense of the British. The wily Count de Vergennes, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, urged Louis XVI to support the Americans, arguing that “Providence had marked this moment for the humiliation of England”.
French participation turned what might otherwise have been an unbalanced colonial rebellion into a major war, with the potential to turn into another global conflict. It turned out that the British had little appetite for this, especially when other European powers like Spain and the Dutch Republic showed willingness to support the settlers. The geopolitical calculation made it difficult for UK lawmakers to accept the prospect of a protracted, costly and global battle.
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3. They provided secret help.
One evening in December 1775, Benjamin Franklin, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress – and a member of its Secret Correspondence Committee, which carried out foreign communications – slipped silently into Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia with four of his colleagues to do what the Brits would certainly be considered a betrayal. They had come to meet Julien-Alexandre de Bonvouloir, secret envoy of the French regime. The clandestine meeting sowed the seeds of a strong secret relationship between the revolutionaries and France that predated the official treaties of 1778 between the two.
Bonvouloir’s reports in France were enthusiastic. “Everyone here is a soldier,” he said of the settlements. Franklin’s team of negotiators sent Silas Deane to Paris under the guise of a merchant in search of merchandise to buy for resale to Native Americans. Deane’s real quest was very different: he was looking for military engineers, as well as clothing, weapons, and ammunition for 25,000 soldiers. Oh, and the credit of the French to pay for everything. Two weeks after his arrival he had what he wanted, and France had become a secret supporter of the revolution.
When Benjamin Franklin himself visited Paris in November 1776, much of the secrecy surrounding negotiations with France disappeared. But Franklin’s popularity with everyone, from the aristocracy (he encouraged Lafayette to volunteer) to the general public, put more pressure on the French regime to continue supporting its new allies, even in the middle reports of American losses and their terrible winter at Valley Forge.
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4. They shared the money, the men and the materials.
Great ideas can wither and die without the capital to back them up. And from the earliest days, the American uprising depended on the French willingness to provide unlimited credit that allowed Deane and his partners to send supplies to the besieged revolutionary forces. In the end, France provided around 1.3 billion pounds of money and essential goods to support the rebels. Estimates suggest that with the settlers’ victory in October 1777 at Saratoga, a turning point in the war, 90% of all American troops carried French arms and were completely dependent on French gunpowder.
This triumph prompted the French to further open their coffers. Once the relationship was formalized in twin agreements in early 1778 (the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce), the flow of supplies skyrocketed, as did the number of soldiers and sailors crossing the Atlantic to fight for the American cause. About 12,000 French soldiers served the rebellion, along with some 22,000 naval personnel, aboard 63 warships. Lafayette was one of the first – and most prominent – officers to join. The Comte de Rochambeau, commander-in-chief of all French forces, played a crucial role in the containment of the English fleet and in the final campaigns. The Comte de Grasse reinforced the revolutionary forces in Virginia with French troops from Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in the Caribbean, then inflicted a decisive defeat on the British navy in the 1781 Battle of Chesapeake. It would be an army led by Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau together that would strike the decisive blow at Yorktown.
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5. They gave the settlers political legitimacy.
Without France’s help, American revolutionaries might have been seen by other great powers simply as treacherous subjects rebelling against their leaders. The French will to negotiate with Deane, Franklin and their successors confers legitimacy on American leaders. The Treaty of Friendship and Commerce of 1778 officially recognized the United States as an independent nation and paved the way for Americans to continue to trade internationally. Over time, France also sought help from other great European powers (Spain allied with the United States in 1779) while pushing others aside, such as Austria, which did not never joined the war but made it clear that she would support France in a larger conflict.
After the surrender of Yorktown, diplomatic support from France (and another loan) was essential to achieve an official end to the conflict, with the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The French and the Americans refused the British offers. separate peace agreements, and French Foreign Minister Vergennes played a key role in negotiating the treaty. Ultimately, it wasn’t until Britain and France settled their differences that the Americans finally signed the Treaty of Paris.