France and the United States: A Revolutionary Friendship Based on Revenge And Commerce

The Comte de Vergennes, French architect of the Franco-American Alliance during the Revolutionary War

The Comte de Vergennes, French architect of the Franco-American Alliance during the Revolutionary War

February 6 marks the anniversary of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance between the United States and France in 1778. The treaty was a significant commercial and foreign policy coup for the young nation. Formal recognition meant trade and legitimacy for an impoverished republic that had declared only two years before that the United States assumed “among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Mind you, France was not in love with the radical notion of democratic revolutions. The Bourbon monarchy of France was as dedicated to ancien regime as any royal house in Europe.  But as one historian once quipped, the French invented diplomacy, because what other realm could successfully exercise the gentle art of persuading a hostile nation to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Trade and world power prompted French support of the American Revolution, combined with the hope of redressing its imperial losses in North America. What the French government desired was a situation that produced large numbers of dead British soldiers and restored control of Caribbean sugar. What the United States gained was a formidable military and economic ally who arguably was the leading foreign power backing American military operations with funds, troops, and supplies.

The French, ever-astute observers of the geopolitical world of the 18th century, were among the first to predict an American Revolution. They recognized how Britain had gained more power because of the expansion of its commercial empire and the economic bounty that created for the mother country, yet also created a situation where Americans would realize they no longer needed the maternal care of the mother country. The humiliating defeat of France in the Seven Years’ Wars (1757-1763) resulted in the near-total loss of the France’s mainland possessions in North America and the economic advantages that came with unrestricted access to Indian tribes and the Caribbean. Some French ministers predicted that Americans would realize that if the British government maintained a standing army in the colonies after the war the move would be perceived as both threatening to their liberties and unnecessary for their safety. In fact, any British garrison could be seen as a threat to the very lives of Americans, who first began to use that name widely for themselves in the 1760s because of the sense of colonial unity the war engendered. The French had left Canada, so no longer was there the threat of a Catholic, absolutist foreign power to the north of America to check any colonist’s desire to question British authority or policy. Sure enough, even after the end of the French and Indian Wars (as the American theater of operations was called) the British maintained a forward deployed force of roughly 10,000 soldiers. This decision inflamed many Americans who already were showing their Whig resentment of standing armies. That aversion makes an appearance in the Declaration of Independence:

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

However, the military might of both Great Britain and France remained realities in the world at the time of the American Revolution. Britain’s navy was the largest in the world, comprised of more than 100 ships of the line and the manpower necessary to man them. Her army was no paltry force, either. Because of the commercial power and geographic sweep of the British Empire, Britain was able to recruit or hire considerable forces to augment a standing army of 27,000 men at the time of the American Revolution. Colonial trade made Great Britain the wealthiest, richest, and most economically developed nation on the planet at the time, a considerable achievement for a country that had one-third the population of its archrival France. It also enabled Britain to support a global military effort when necessary. As for France, although her status as a great power was diminished after the disaster of the Seven Years’ War, the French still possessed the largest population of any European nation (about 24 million subjects), a commercial empire that provide trade and revenue in amounts comparable to the British, and an army of at least 170,000 soldiers. Along with this military might was an extremely complicated system of alliances that balanced the forces of other European powers against the enemies of both Great Britain and France. In the midst of this was America, where many in that country were conscious that both the war and the peace settlement had decided that the fate of North America also left the continent the makeweight of the European balance of power. North America’s wealth and it place as the focus of so much blood and treasure by the two greatest European powers would ensure that a Declaration of Independence would create global interest, even if it was the manifesto of citizens struggling to secure independent nation.

Although the French were at first reluctant to support the American Revolution, one man was astute enough to consider the opportunities that would drive the infant United States in the waiting arms of a former enemy. Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes (1717-1787), secretary of state and chief foreign minister to Louis XVI and one of the architects of the alliance between the new United States and France during the American Revolution, actually predicted the Americans break from Great Britain 12 years before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. “The consequences of the entire cession of Canada are obvious,” Vergennes told an English visitor in 1763, not long after the terms of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War were announced. “I am persuaded that England will ere long repent of having removed the only check that could keep the colonies in awe. They stand no longer in need of her protection; she will call on them to contribute toward supporting the burdens they have helped to bring on her; and they will answer by striking off all dependence.” This comment seems clairvoyant in hindsight.  It also serves to remind us that Vergennes, a Frenchmen who possibly did more than any other Frenchman except Lafayette to secure political independence for the United States, simply realized that Americans who once feared and even hated the French (who had once been the allies of bloodthirsty Indians who had slaughtered American settlers just a generation earlier at French urging) would now turn to France out of the need for allies – the inevitable outcome of balance-of-power thinking. Because of this fact, the Declaration of Independence has a clear connection to a strategy for international relations recognizing that “a separate and equal station” would allow the United States to jockey for position among the foreign powers that would have a deep interest in the outcome of the revolution. No wonder the Patriots of the Second Continental Congress prefaced their statement of American independence and liberty with an introduction that included the statement “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Until independence, the Americans were legally nothing but the rebels George III labeled them. Vergennes had no great admiration for many of the Americans who approached him such as Silas Deane, the emissary from the Continental Congress sent to France in 1776 to negotiate under what we would call today “commercial cover,” who presented himself as a trade representative but was in reality a secret agent attempting to negotiate French aid. However,Vergennes’s calculating assessment of the revolution included the realization that Congress’ promises of boatloads of American goods and access to American ports, as well as the fact that trade with the United States would siphon away trade with Great Britain, could redress the consequences of French defeat in 1763 and perhaps even destroy the British Empire by stripping of its most prized economic possession, the jewel of its maritime empire. Congress, which practically dictated the exact words Deane offered to Vergennes, would never have made the offer if they did not think that master of European power politics lacked interest in dealing with an independent state that could make good on its promises.

“…Independence, confederation, and negotiations with foreign powers, particularly France, ought to go hand in hand, and be adopted all together … . Foreign powers could not be expected to acknowledge us till we had acknowledged ourselves, and taken our station among them as a sovereign power and independent nation,” wrote John Adams, lawyer, future diplomat, and one of the members of the Committee of Five, in a later autobiography. As radical as the American Revolution was, Thomas Jefferson still held on to very Old World ideas in the Declaration. As Jefferson wrote pragmatically in a lesser-known document, “We cannot too distinctly detach ourselves from the European system, which is essentially belligerent, nor too sedulously cultivate an American system, essentially pacific.”  This nation has always needed good relations with other nations not only to survive but also thrive politically and economically, and those relations are often forged by accomodating less-than-lofty motivations, objectives, and  policy goals. Realpolitik internationalism is an overlooked factor that prompted the democratic republic called the United States to make one of the oldest international friendships in its history with a nation once ruled by kings.

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Filed under History of the Declaration of Independence

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