France Supports the American Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

French military and financial support proved indispensable to the United States during the Revolutionary War, and the French played a vital role in the Battle of Yorktown, at which the British surrendered. French diplomacy, however, was less helpful during peace treaty negotiations.

Summary of Event

The French government watched attentively as disputes between the British and their American colonies intensified during the 1770’s, hoping to exploit the conflict to impair Britain’s position in the European balance of power and to gain revenge for their defeat in the Seven Years’ War. The French foreign minister, Charles Gravier de Vergennes, believed loss of the American colonies would gravely weaken the British Empire, thereby enhancing France’s position in Europe. [kw]France Supports the American Revolution (May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783) [kw]Revolution, France Supports the American (May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783) [kw]American Revolution, France Supports the (May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783) American Revolution (1775-1783);French support [g]France;May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783: France Supports the American Revolution[2240] [g]American colonies;May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783: France Supports the American Revolution[2240] [g]United States;May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783: France Supports the American Revolution[2240] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783: France Supports the American Revolution[2240] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May, 1776-Sept. 3, 1783: France Supports the American Revolution[2240] Vergennes, Charles Gravier de Rochambeau, comte de Lafayette, marquis de Grasse, comte de Franklin, Benjamin [p]Franklin, Benjamin;French diplomacy Adams, John (1735-1826) Jay, John

In September, 1775, Vergennes sent an unofficial agent French-American diplomacy[French American diplomacy] American-French diplomacy[American French diplomacy] to Philadelphia who encouraged the Continental Congress to apply to Paris for military aid. Vergennes in May, 1776, secretly provided funds to a fictitious company that bought military supplies at low cost from French armories and shipped them on credit to the Americans. Vergennes expected France ultimately to enter the conflict, but he could not risk a British declaration of war by openly helping the Americans, since the French navy would not be ready to fight before 1778. During the next few years, 90 percent of the arms and ammunition reaching the United States were surreptitiously supplied by France. Despite angry protests from Britain, France permitted American privateers Privateers attacking British shipping to bring in prizes and refit in French ports.

After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, many unemployed European officers volunteered for service in America, hoping to advance their fortunes. Unique among them was the Marquis de Lafayette, who arrived at Philadelphia in July, 1777, with a shipload of munitions, purchased at his own expense, which he donated to the Americans. Commissioned a major-general, Lafayette proved an effective commander of American forces and a useful advocate for the United States with the French court.

News of the surrender of an entire British army at Saratoga Saratoga, Battles of (1777) reached Paris on December 3, 1777, providing the occasion for Vergennes to offer formal recognition of the United States. On February 6, 1778, Benjamin Franklin signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce Amity and Commerce, Treaty of (1778) Franco-American Treaties (1778)[Franco American Treaties] that acknowledged the independence of the United States and granted each country most-favored-nation status. In a secret Treaty of Alliance, Alliance, Treaty of (1778) signed the same day, which would not become operational until war broke out between Britain and France, each country pledged not to conclude a truce or peace with Great Britain without consent of the other.

Protesting recognition of the United States, Britain recalled its ambassador from France in March, 1778. When British warships attacked the French on June 17, France France;in American Revolution[American] openly entered the war, sending a naval squadron to help the Americans. Although the fleet failed to capture New York City, arrival of French ships in American waters led the British to evacuate Philadelphia and move troops to New York.

French loans and subsidies were indispensable to the United States, especially in 1781, when the American currency collapsed and only substantial grants Franklin obtained from Vergennes permitted Congress to restore the monetary system. When Vergennes in June, 1781, requested replacement of John Adams, who had infuriated Vergennes with his ignorance of and open contempt for European diplomatic protocol, Congress revoked Adams’s mandate to conduct peace negotiations with Britain and reduced him to one member of a five-member commission. Dependence on French help explains Congress’s instructions to the peace commissioners to do nothing without the knowledge and concurrence of the French.

Direct French military activity made possible the successful 1781 campaign. In 1780, Lafayette convinced the French that the war could be won only if they established a continuous military presence in America. The comte de Rochambeau arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in August, 1780, with fifty-five hundred troops, who served under General George Washington’s command. The comte de Grasse led a French fleet that campaigned mostly in the West Indies. When Lafayette, commanding a Virginia militia contingent, notified Washington in September, 1781, that a British army was fortifying the Yorktown peninsula, the Americans and French coordinated a joint attack. Washington’s army, which had been besieging New York, was joined by Rochambeau and his French troops, and they moved stealthily south to join Lafayette. De Grasse arrived from the Caribbean with his fleet, preventing the British from relieving their army by sea. The First Marquess Cornwallis’s surrender Yorktown, Virginia, surrender (1781) on October 19, 1781, effectively ended the Revolutionary War.

A print dated 1779 and published in London. “Brittanias Ruin” shows Brittania, or Great Britain, lamenting the state of the nation: “What a Situation I am in sold by an American & purchased by France & Spain,” referring to French and Spanish support for American independence.

(Library of Congress)

When the British sent an informal agent in the spring of 1782 to sound out the Americans on peace terms, Franklin was the only American peace commissioner in Paris. John Adams was in the Netherlands winning recognition of America and would not arrive until negotiations were in their final stage; John Jay, who would play the major role in the actual negotiations, was on his way from Madrid. Franklin told the British what he considered necessary and advisable concessions. Among the necessary articles (which included all the major points of the final peace treaty, except for access to Newfoundland fisheries) were full recognition of American independence and a western boundary on the Mississippi River. As an “advisable” gesture, to restore American goodwill toward Britain, Franklin suggested ceding Canada to the United States.

After Franklin came down with a severe case of kidney stone, Jay took over bargaining detailed peace terms and precise boundaries. A descendant of Huguenot refugees from France, Jay disliked and distrusted Catholics and Frenchmen; he suspected Vergennes of plotting to strike an agreement with Britain at American expense. With Franklin’s reluctant consent, Jay ignored Congress’s instructions to do nothing without French knowledge and proceeded to negotiate a separate peace with Britain. A provisional treaty was signed November 30, 1782.

Jay’s suspicions may have been founded upon prejudice, but they were not unrealistic. Vergennes understood that France’s interests in America were better served by a weak United States, dependent upon French support and subservient to French direction, than by a strong, self-reliant country. He therefore encouraged the British and Spanish to establish protectorates over the trans-Appalachian Indians, confining the Americans to the coastal plain, and he suggested that Britain bar American ships from Newfoundland waters, where they competed with French fishermen.

Historians have described Vergennes as unpleasantly surprised when he learned of the agreement, which seems unlikely, given how thoroughly spies permeated the American delegation. He was somewhat astonished by Britain’s generosity to its former colonies, commenting that they bought rather than made peace. Despite the displeasure Vergennes expressed after Franklin informed him of the American achievement, he responded to Franklin’s request for more financial aid by arranging a loan of another six million livres.

Significance

French help made the American victory in the Revolutionary War possible. When final treaties Paris, Treaty of (1783) were signed on September 3, 1783, France and the United States considered themselves the clear victors. The United States had its independence and extensive territorial boundaries; France enjoyed revenge for its defeats in 1754-1763. The British House of Commons reluctantly accepted peace-treaty terms considered so humiliating that the government had to resign. Over the next decades, however, Britain emerged stronger than before, while the economic expense of the war proved a major disaster for France.

Vergennes hoped that France would replace Britain as the major trading partner of the United States, but Britain soon regained its dominance of the American market. As the Industrial Revolution created increasing wealth and Britain became the world’s foremost financial power, its influence in European grew at the expense of France. Despite the nominal boundaries of the United States, the British maintained a de facto protectorate over western Indians; it would take a decade of negotiations to remove the British army from western forts and another war to reduce their influence over the Indians.

Within five years of the war’s end, in part due to wartime expenditures, the French government was bankrupt, necessitating recall of the Estates-General in 1789. The ensuing French Revolution French Revolution (1789-1796) convulsed France, set off decades of European war, and left France in 1815 impoverished, with many of its young men dead.

In the short run, the United States struggled, but in the long run it was the major beneficiary of the war. After the Constitution created an effective government, the rich territory won by the United States with French help provided the foundation for economic developments that created the leading world power of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brecher, Frank W. Securing American Independence: John Jay and the French Alliance. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Poorly organized, but very informative on peace negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. A brief scholarly history of American and European diplomacy, 1763 to 1783.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001. Defends Adams against criticism of his diplomatic activities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Edmund S. Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. A concise biography with an excellent account of Franklin’s diplomatic role.

French and Indian War

Seven Years’ War

First Continental Congress

American Revolutionary War

Second Continental Congress

Declaration of Independence

Battles of Saratoga

Franco-American Treaties

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Treaty of Paris

Fort Stanwix Treaty

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

John Adams; First Marquess Cornwallis; Benjamin Franklin; John Jay; Comte de Rochambeau; Charles Gravier de Vergennes; George Washington. American Revolution (1775-1783);French support

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