February, 1778: Franco-American Treaties Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The American revolutionaries did not believe that their war of independence would go unnoticed by the outside world. In 1763, the balance of power in Europe had swung decisively toward Great Britain, largely because of its defeat of France and Spain in the Western Hemisphere. Americans and Europeans agreed that the scales would remain tipped in favor of the island kingdom only so long as it retained its New World possessions. At first, colonial writers warned that the Bourbon monarchies might attempt to seize several of George III’s American provinces while his house was divided against itself, and that such storm warnings might offer the most compelling reasons for the colonies and the mother country to patch up their quarrel. As the imperial crisis deepened, American opinion of the Roman Catholic states gradually shifted from fear to the hope that they would assist America in case of war with Great Britain.

The American revolutionaries did not believe that their war of independence would go unnoticed by the outside world. In 1763, the balance of power in Europe had swung decisively toward Great Britain, largely because of its defeat of France and Spain in the Western Hemisphere. Americans and Europeans agreed that the scales would remain tipped in favor of the island kingdom only so long as it retained its New World possessions. At first, colonial writers warned that the Bourbon monarchies might attempt to seize several of George III’s American provinces while his house was divided against itself, and that such storm warnings might offer the most compelling reasons for the colonies and the mother country to patch up their quarrel. As the imperial crisis deepened, American opinion of the Roman Catholic states gradually shifted from fear to the hope that they would assist America in case of war with Great Britain.

Benjamin Franklin at the royal court of France in 1778. From a painting by Hobens. (National Archives)

Changing Sentiments

That change of sentiment was one of the radical features of the American Revolution. Bred on a hatred of Catholicism and political absolutism associated especially with France, American publicists for decades had shrilled for the permanent removal of the French peril from North America. The elimination of France from Canada in 1763, however, meant that France was no longer the threat it had been previously. France and its ally, Spain, were now more tolerable from afar than in the day when the fleur-delis loomed over the back door of the mainland settlements. Moreover, France’s nearly total elimination from mainland North America did not mean that the striving colonies were destined to lose a potentially valuable international trading partner. A thriving market for import-export trade had grown between Atlantic seaboard ports and the Spanish and French colonial possessions in the Caribbean area. The American colonists’ desire to keep this trade free from British control was as much a factor in their feelings toward France as was their interest in political independence.

The need for foreign assistance, so ably expressed in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776), was a powerful catalyst for independence. Anticipating the final break, Congress in March, 1776, dispatched Silas Deane to Paris to purchase military stores and to explore the possibilities of a commercial alliance. Even before Deane’s arrival, French leaders decided to provide the patriots with covert aid. The Anglo-American war gave France the long-awaited opportunity to gain revenge for its humiliation in 1763. However, the comte de Vergennes, French minister of foreign affairs, was cautious and prudent, a tough-minded career diplomat, and no messenger of Enlightenment idealism. Fearful of American defeat or a compromise settlement between the colonies and Great Britain, Vergennes plotted a judicious course until the picture cleared. The attitude of Spain, which feared an independent America as a threat to its overseas dominions, also served to restrain Vergennes and his countrymen. Nevertheless, the year 1777 marked France’s increasing commitment to the American patriots.

The marquis de Lafayette in 1781. From a painting by J. B. LePaon. (National Archives)

The growing stream of supplies bought with royal funds or taken surreptitiously from military arsenals, the opening of French ports to rebel privateers and warships, the procession of French officers bound for Washington’s army, the unremitting pressures of Silas Deane, and the subtler blandishments of his colleague, Benjamin Franklin, all combined to move France toward the patriots’ orbit. News of the British capitulation of General John Burgoyne at Saratoga in October, 1777, dispelled any lingering doubts as to the patriots’ ability to continue the struggle. Vergennes now feared that the American victory might give rise to a spirit of conciliation in Great Britain, leading to some form of reunion between the English-speaking people on opposite sides of the Atlantic. The French minister of foreign affairs notified Franklin and his fellow commissioners that the government of Louis XVI was ready to establish formal ties with the United States.

Propagandists

Prior to and after final agreement on the treaties that were signed in 1778, Vergennes had French agents in America contact (and contract) willing propagandists to support a Franco-American Alliance. The best-known of these, until American leaders’ political differences led to his alienation, was Thomas Paine. Another supporter of the French, in Massachusetts, was the Reverend Samuel Cooper, whose brother was active in the politics of independence both before and after 1776. Cooper not only wrote articles calling for closer Franco-American relations but also gathered key information from the American emissary in Paris, Benjamin Franklin. His activities actually earned for him a salary from the French foreign ministry. Shortly after the French and the Americans signed the 1778 treaties, he and a number of other Francophiles opened a literary and social salon in Boston, to which French officers, including the famous marquis de Lafayette, were invited.

Although Cooper was among a small number of American patriots who corresponded regularly with French officials (including Foreign Minister Vergennes and France’s chief minister in America, Chevalier de La Luzerne), Lafayette did not know of their semiofficial propagandistic functions. Lafayette even wrote to Vergennes in May, 1780, urging Paris to “especially put Dr. Cooper at the head of the list of our friends.” Cooper’s service to the cause of closer Franco-American relations continued until he died in 1784. Another patriot propagandist who maintained close ties with La Luzerne was Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a Philadelphia Presbyterian minister and attorney who in 1779 edited United States Magazine. Although the magazine did not print specific articles backing the French treaties, it was assumed that French pay for other propagandistic pieces helped finance Brackenridge’s publication.

For both parties, the Franco-American Alliance was the child of necessity. If the patriots in the beginning hoped for massive French aid and the entrance of the Bourbon nation into the war, they wanted only a temporary relationship; too intimate a formal connection would mean becoming involved in the future strife of the Old World, whose peoples mirrored a society and way of life incompatible with free, republican institutions. While the patriots offered only a commercial treaty to France, Vergennes successfully demanded more: a “conditional and defensive alliance.” The French minister of foreign affairs and his sovereign were not enthusiastic about revolution against kings. Their willingness to recognize the United States of America and to sign treaties with the infant nation on February 6, 1778, was based upon a desire to humiliate France’s ancient foe.

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce contained most of the proposals made by Congress for liberalization of trade along principles foreign to mercantilism. The Treaty of Alliance stipulated that, in case of war between Great Britain and France—which the two treaties made inevitable—neither America nor France would make peace without the approval of the other. France renounced forever any claims to British territory on the continent of North America and agreed to recognize the U.S. right to any such territory seized by patriot armies. The two nations also guaranteed each other’s territorial boundaries in the New World as they would be drawn at the end of hostilities.

Public Reactions

Once news of the Franco-American treaties spread, an inevitable division of opinion over their presumed positive or negative significance appeared among American clerics. Although not all Anglican and Methodist ministers denounced the treaties, their denominational closeness to England caused schisms among parishioners. Many loyalists among the clergy had already left their pulpits as early as 1775 and 1776. The dissenting clergy that took over such ministerial posts tried to combine support for independence with some form of justification for the expediency of a formal alliance between the secularist Continental Congress and monarchical Catholic France. Among non-Anglicans, some pastors, such as the Reverend Cooper (already committed, for pay, to the French cause), defended the treaties openly. Others, including James Dana of Wallingford, Connecticut, recognized the necessity of international political alliances to help the struggling former colonies defeat Great Britain, but insisted that more extensive ties with “popery” would run counter to American principles of free government. A striking example of denunciation of the alliance as camouflage to hide presumed French Catholic propagandistic intentions came from John Zulby, a Swiss-born cleric and anti-independence member of the Continental Congress. Zulby was ultimately banished for referring to American patriots as preferring “Independancy and papist Connections” over “the Gospel and … former acknowledged happy Connections” with Great Britain.

Great Britain’s international difficulties continued to mount after hostilities opened with France in the summer of 1778. The next year, Spain entered the fray after securing a promise from Vergennes to continue hostilities until Gibraltar was regained. Although Spain did not join the Franco-American Alliance, the United States, through its tie with France, found itself committed to fight until Gibraltar fell to Spain. In 1780, Anglo-Dutch commercial friction brought the Netherlands into the war. Great Britain was also confronted by the League of Armed Neutrality, organized by several nonbelligerent nations in protest against British practices of search and seizure on the high seas. Unlike in earlier wars of the eighteenth century, Great Britain was isolated both diplomatically and militarily.

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