The Role of France in the American Revolutionary War

Surrender at Yorktown

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After years of spiraling tensions in Britain’s American colonies, the American Revolutionary War began in 1775. The revolutionary colonists faced a war against one of the world’s major powers, one with an empire that spanned the globe. To help counter Britain's formidable position, the Continental Congress created the "Secret Committee of Correspondence" to publicize the aims and actions of the rebels in Europe. They then drafted the "Model Treaty" to guide negotiations of alliance with foreign nations. Once the Congress had declared independence in 1776, it sent a party that included Benjamin Franklin to negotiate with Britain’s rival: France.

Why France Was Interested

France initially sent agents to observe the war, organized secret supplies, and began preparations for war against Britain in support of the rebels. France might seem an odd choice for the revolutionaries to work with. The nation was ruled by an absolutist monarch who was not sympathetic to the principle of "no taxation without representation," even if the plight of the colonists and their perceived fight against a domineering empire excited idealistic Frenchmen like the Marquis de Lafayette. In addition, France was Catholic and the colonies were Protestant, a difference that was a major and contentious issue at the time and one that had colored several centuries of foreign relations.

But France was a colonial rival of Britain. While it was arguably Europe’s most prestigious nation, France had suffered humiliating defeats to the British in the Seven Years War—especially its American theater, the French-Indian War—several years earlier. France was looking for any way to boost its own reputation while undermining Britain's, and helping the colonists to independence looked like a perfect way of doing this. The fact that some of the revolutionaries had fought France in the French-Indian War was expediently overlooked. In fact, the French Duc de Choiseul had outlined how France would restore their prestige from the Seven Years War as early as 1765 by saying the colonists would soon throw the British out, and that France and Spain had to unite and fight Britain for naval dominance.

Covert Assistance

Franklin’s diplomatic overtures helped prompt a wave of sympathy across France for the revolutionary cause, and a fashion for all things American took hold. Franklin used this popular support to help in negotiations with French Foreign Minister Vergennes, who was initially keen on a full alliance, especially after the British were forced to abandon their base in Boston. Then news arrived of defeats suffered by Washington and his Continental Army in New York.

With Britain seemingly on the rise, Vergennes wavered, hesitating over a full alliance, though he sent a secret loan and other aid anyway. Meanwhile, the French entered negotiations with the Spanish. Spain was also a threat to Britain, but it was worried about supporting colonial independence.

Saratoga Leads to Full Alliance

In December 1777, news reached France of the British surrender at Saratoga, a victory that convinced the French to make a full alliance with the revolutionaries and to enter the war with troops. On February 6, 1778, Franklin and two other American commissioners signed the Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France. This contained a clause banning both Congress and France from making a separate peace with Britain and a commitment to keep fighting until the independence of the United States was recognized. Spain entered the war on the revolutionary side later that year.

The French Foreign Office had trouble pinning down “legitimate” reasons for France’s entry into the war; they found almost none. France couldn’t argue for the rights that the Americans claimed without damaging their own political system. Indeed, their report could only stress France's disputes with Britain; it avoided discussion in favor of simply acting. "Legitimate" reasons were not terribly important in this epoch and the French joined the fight anyway.

1778 to 1783

Now fully committed to the war, France supplied arms, munitions, supplies, and uniforms. French troops and naval power were also sent to America, reinforcing and protecting Washington’s Continental Army. The decision to send troops was taken carefully, as France was not sure how the Americans would react to a foreign army. The number of soldiers was carefully chosen, striking a balance that allowed them to be effective, while not being so large as to anger the Americans. The commanders were also carefully selected—men who could work effectively with the other French commanders and the American commanders. The leader of the French army, Count Rochambeau, however, did not speak English. The troops sent to America were not, as has sometimes been reported, the very cream of the French army. They were, however, as one historian has commented, "for 1780...probably the most sophisticated military instrument ever dispatched to the New World.”

There were problems in working together at first, as American General John Sullivan discovered at Newport when French ships pulled away from a siege to deal with British ships, before being damaged and having to retreat. But overall, the American and French forces cooperated well, although they were often kept separate. The French and Americans certainly were quite effective when compared to the incessant problems experienced in the British high command. French forces attempted to buy everything from the locals that they couldn’t ship in, rather than requisition it. They spent an estimated $4 million worth of precious metal in doing so, further endearing themselves to the Americans.

Arguably the key French contribution to the war came during the Yorktown campaign. French forces under Rochambeau landed at Rhode Island in 1780, which they fortified before linking up with Washington in 1781. Later that year, the Franco-American army marched 700 miles south to besiege Gen. Charles Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown, while the French navy cut the British off from desperately needed naval supplies, reinforcements, and complete evacuation to New York. Cornwallis was forced to surrender to Washington and Rochambeau. This proved to be the last major engagement of the war, as Britain opened peace discussions soon after rather than continue a global war.

Global Threat From France

America wasn’t the only theater in a war which, with France’s entrance, had turned global. France threatened British shipping and territory around the globe, preventing their rival from focusing fully on the conflict in the Americas. Part of the impetus behind Britain’s surrender after Yorktown was the need to hold the remainder of their colonial empire from attack by other European nations, such as France. There were battles outside America in 1782 and 1783 as peace negotiations took place. Many in Britain felt that France was their primary enemy and should be the focus; some even suggested pulling out of the American colonies entirely to focus on their neighbor across the English Channel.

Peace

Despite British attempts to divide France and Congress during peace negotiations, the allies remained firm—aided by a further French loan—and peace was reached in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 between Britain, France, and the United States. Britain had to sign further treaties with other European powers who had become involved.

Consequences

Britain quit the American Revolutionary War rather than fight another global war with France. This might seem like a triumph for France, but in truth, it was a disaster. The financial pressures France faced at the time were only made worse by the cost of aiding the Americans. These fiscal troubles soon spiraled out of control and played a large role in the start of the French Revolution in 1789. The French government thought it was harming Britain by acting in the New World, but just a few years later, it was itself harmed by the financial costs of the war.

Sources

  • Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780–1783. Greenwood Press, 1977.
  • Mackesy, Piers. The War for America 1775–1783. Harvard University Press, 1964.