225 Years Ago A Brief History of the French Alliance

Presentation by Historian Robert A. Selig, PhD,
at the 6 February 2003 commemoration of the 1778 French-American Alliance,
Carpenters' Hall, Philadelphia
.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor and pleasure for me to speak to you today about one of the most significant events of the American War of Independence, an event, which, one could argue made the very survival of the American experiment possible. The event is the signing 225 years ago, on 6 February 1778, of the Treaties of Amity and Friendship and of Military Alliance between His Most Christian Majesty Louis XVI, by the Grace of God, King of France and of Navarre and the United States of America.
I would like to begin my presentation with an anecdote as to how this alliance came about. It was printed in the Wednesday, 29 October 1781, issue of The Freeman's Journal: or, the North American Intelligencer, published by Francis Bailey in Philadelphia.

At the breaking out of the present war with the French, and their joining the Americans, Sir Joseph Yorke meeting the French ambassador at the Hague, censured his [i.e.,France's] court for interfering in the dispute, and taking so ungenerous a part; "you have been guilty of a dishonourable act, says he, that is unpardonable, no less than that of debauching our daughter." "I am sorry," replies the French ambassador, "that your excellency should put such a severe construction on the matter; she made the first advances, and absolutely threw herself into our arms; but rather than forfeit your friendship, if matrimony will make any atonement, we are ready to act honourably and marry her."

Like all good anecdotes, this one too has more than a grain of truth in it: Columbia -- the United States -- was and is Britannia's daughter, even if she has outgrown the mother. And though she did indeed throw herself at France, she did so only in the hour of her greatest need. France, in turn, knew quite well who Columbia was, why she did what she did, and what both of them wanted to get out of the marriage. And like most marriages this one too has had its ups and downs, even periods of separation, but in times of need, the two nations, at least until now, have always stood together for the survival of the ideals that one brought into the alliance and which burst forth in the other half-a-dozen years after it had helped them become reality in America.

The origins of the Franco-American Alliance of 1778, can be found on the battlefields of Canada, those "few acres of snow," the "quelques arpents de neige," as Voltaire derisively called them, that France lost to Britain in the Peace of Paris in 1763. France was humiliated but there was much posturing behind her public and passionate lamentations. Much as it hurt French pride, Étienne François, duc de Choiseul-Stainville, her chief minister in 1762, had almost insisted that Canada be given to Britain. Choiseul realized that when General James Wolfe defeated the French forces of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec in September 1759, he had also freed France and her foreign policy in America. Chief British negotiator Lord Bedford anticipated Choiseul's fondest dreams when he saw an alarming mirage emerging across the Atlantic. As early as 1762, Bedford wondered "whether the neighborhood of the French to our North American colonies was not the greatest security for their dependence on the mother country, which I feel will be slighted by them when their apprehension of the French is removed."

Bedford's worst fears, and Choiseul's fondest hopes, soon became reality. The war had not only brought victory to Britain, but also 137 million of debt. Parliament wanted the colonies to help pay for these debts, but the ensuing legislation, e.g., the Sugar Act of 1764, the Quartering and the Stamp Acts of 1765, the Townshend Acts of 1767, was immensely unpopular in the colonies. On 5 March 1770, long-standing tensions in Boston erupted when troops fired into a mob, killing five people. In the fall of 1773, East India Company ships were turned back at New York and Philadelphia; one even had its cargo thrown overboard in the Boston Tea Party of 16 December 1773, to protest a new tax on tea. In 1774, Parliament responded with what colonists called the Intolerable Acts curtailing Massachusetts' self-rule and barring the use of Boston harbor until the tea was paid for.

Of equal importance for the deterioration of British-Colonial relations was the Quebec Act of 1774. The act not only granted Roman Catholics the freedom to practice their religion, more importantly, it also placed all lands between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River under the administration of the governor of Quebec. With that decision, the House of Commons had closed off all hope of continued westward expansion. Until 1763, France had stood in the way of the colonists, now Parliament in London had assumed that role.

British policy since 1763, had taught the colonists, at least in their own minds, three important lessons, which formed the core of the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers.
1. Her relationship with Britain as a colony, as a junior partner, as a weaker partner, had entangled her in half a dozen wars that did not really concern her. Just look at the names of some of these wars: King William's War, Queen Anne's War, King George's War, etc. In these wars, which were really wars between European powers over royal inheritances and other such things, America's resources had been used by Britain to further her own ends. And once the wars were over, the Americans were even expected to help pay for the cost and damage.
2. Every time Americans tried to determine their own fate, some sinister power in Europe, either Britain, or France, or Spain, stood in the way. The goal of these policies was to control the fate of America for the benefit of Britain, or whatever power would replace her, without involving the colonists themselves. Why?
3. The reason why European powers in general and Britain in particular wanted to control the American continent was because she offered natural resources, resources that Europe and her rulers had wasted in their wars.

Absurd as this interpretation of history seemed to Englishmen, Britannia for many of the founding fathers had become at best a distant cousin who took advantage of virtuous Americans, exploited their resources and entangled them in dynastic wars. When London reminded the colonists of their obligations as subjects of King George III and as members of the Empire, they responded with a Declaration of Independence that stressed their differences with Britain rather than commonalties.

If Britain could not be trusted, what about France and her intentions? In February 1762, already, a full year before the Peace of Paris was signed and just as Lord Bedford was weighing the impact of Canada changing hands, Choiseul declared that he would pursue "only one foreign policy, a fraternal union with Spain; only one policy for war, and that is England." In a 1765, Mémoire, Choiseul described the purpose of this war as "de se venger de l'Angleterre," but that was only part of the story. This war of revenge was going to be fought in the New World, and through it France would gain access to the riches of the New World by replacing Britain as America's main trading partner.

As Versailles was preparing for the war it kept a close watch on American developments. As early as 1767, Choiseul dispatched German-born Major-General Johann von Kalb on a fact-finding mission to the colonies, and when the First Continental Congress convened in Carpenters' Hall on 5 September 1774, his successor, the comte de Vergennes, was well aware of the tense situation along America's eastern shore. Civil disobedience erupted into open violence when patriots fired at British troops at Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. Two days later, on 21 April 1775, colonials at Bunker/Reeds Hill outside Boston twice repulsed Redcoats under General William Howe before retreating.

The colonies were at war, and France quickly joined the fray. She had planned for this conflict politically and militarily for more than a decade. If there was one aspect she had not anticipated, and could not have foreseen, it was the decidedly republican flavor of the war. More than once the king hesitated when approached by Vergennes with proposals to support the rebels. As late as March 1776, Louis fretted how he "disliked the precedent of one monarchy giving support to a republican insurrection against a legitimate monarchy." Only after Vergennes had persuaded the king that his goal was "not so much to terminate the war between America and England" and to create a republic in America "as to sustain and keep it alive to the detriment of the English, our natural and pronounced enemies" did the king agree to release funds.

Here is the clearest expression of the American war used by France as a tool against the British. America ideals and resources abused in yet another war of the European powers: these were the very words every American patriot abhorred.

But even Francophiles such as Thomas Jefferson were under no illusion as to the French king's motives. To expect a monarch who ruled over his subjects "by the Grace of God" to support a movement that called for a political system in which "all men are created equal" and where "governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed" was unthinkable. Coupled with the experiences of decades of warfare with the catholic French, knowledge of this ideological contra-diction meant for many Founding Fathers that France too was not completely trustworthy.

But in order to understand American views and concerns of 225 years ago, one more strand of thought needs to be introduced. Two centuries ago already, strong isolationist sensibilities had developed in the American colonies primarily out of religious roots and resulted in a perception of being a different, if not a chosen, people.

In the years leading up to 1776, this idea of being the "City Upon A Hill," for the world, had taken on a more secular but no less exemplary form in the mind of deist thinkers of the Enlightenment such as Thomas Jefferson. America was still to provide a model for the rest of the world to follow, but now through the rational organization of a government based on natural law. But in order to be able to serve as this model, America could maintain but the loosest of bonds with the corrupt and corrupting powers of Europe.

In the Declaration of Independence America had consciously and intentionally dissolved "those political bonds" to assume "among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them." But this "separate and equal station," as the revolutionaries well knew, first had to be won on the battlefield, and the only country willing to help was royalist, monarchist, absolutist France.

In Versailles power-politics had won out over ideological concerns. In September 1775, Vergennes' emissary Achard de Bonvouloir landed in Philadelphia to encourage Americans in their rebellion. From a position of strength France offered assistance to a needy America that dreaded the consequences of accepting it. With the removal of the French threat from Canada, the colonies were no longer militarily dependent on Britain for their defense. The current war had to bring total independence -- it must not be fought, and won, to substitute a formal political dependence on George III in the British Empire with a more informal but no less burdensome commercial dependence on Louis XVI in the French Empire. Yet all that America could offer was her resources which John Adams was quite prepared to dangle before French eyes as the prize for assistance. In March 1776, he wrote: "A Treaty of commerce which would opperate as a Repeal of the British Acts of Navigation as far as respected Us and Admit France into an equal participation of the benefits of our commerce would be an ample Compensation to France for Acknowledging our Independence."

These were bold words of instruction indeed for Congress' representatives Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Arthur Lee sent to Paris to buy clothes, arms, and ammunition, to engage volunteers, preferably with technical skills, and to negotiate treaties of friendship, commerce and alliance, coming as they did, from a country at war without an army, a navy, a treasury, or most everything else needed to fight that war! The French did not rise to that bait, or prize, and as America's military fortunes declined in 1776 and 1777, the bargaining position of Congress' representatives worsened accordingly.

By 1777, desperation had crept into the cajoling, flattering, threatening, and pleading of the commissioners as they painted the specter of an America defeated and re-united with Britain before French eyes. But France was not to be rushed, and Lee complained bitterly that "we are left like Hercules in his cradle to strangle the serpent that annoys all Europe."

Britain was more than one serpent, and at Saratoga on 17 October 1777, General Horatio Gates finally strangled one of them. The surrender of General Johnny Burgoyne turned out to be the turning point in Franco-American negotiations. The victory proved to France that the American rebellion was still alive. News of Burgoyne's surrender reached Paris on 4 December 1777. On the 17th, Vergennes promised to recognize the independence of the colonies; on 30 January, the king authorized Secrétaire du Conseil d'Etat Conrad Alexandre Gérard to sign the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a secret Treaty of Alliance. On 6 February 1778, Gérard put his name to the document; Deane, Franklin, and Lee signed for the United States. A week later, the three Americans were introduced to Louis XVI as the Ambassadors of the Thirteen United Provinces and Gérard was appointed French resident in Philadelphia. The treaties reached Congress in early May, were received with great joy and gratitude, ratified unanimously and without debate, and published without waiting for France to ratify them as well.

A treaty of military alliance is not a declaration of war: but both sides understood it as such. On 15 March 1778, Britain recalled her ambassador; France expelled the British commissioners at Dunquerque. By mid-July, the war was on, and even inveterate Franco-phobes such as John Jay were grateful for the French assistance. "Let us be honest and grateful to France," he wrote to Robert Livingston (on 5 November 1782). But he could not help ending the sentence with the admonition to "let us think for ourselves."

That the Americans did, but so did the French. There can be no doubt that the treaties were signed on France's terms and, though but few dared to say so in 1778, the alliance was exactly the entanglement with a stronger ally that America had wanted to avoid. When Article 8 declared that "Neither of the two Parties shall conclude either Truce or Peace with Great Britain without the formal consent of the other first obtain'd and they mutually engage not to lay down their arms, until the Independence of the united states shall have been formally or tacitly assured by the Treaty or Treaties that shall terminate the War," it set American independence, desirable as it was, only as a first goal of the war. It tied peace to the consent of the other and America to French war aims. If France should decide that she wanted to regain India, America was obligated to continue the fight long after her own war aims were achieved.

The entanglement became even more dangerous in Article 10 when "The Most Christian King and the United States, agree to invite or admit other Powers who may have received injuries from England to make common cause with them, and to accede to the present alliance, under such conditions as shall be freely agreed to and settled between all the Parties." The most important other party admitted was Spain -- a fraternal union with Spain -- which entered the war in the secret Convention of Aranjuez of 12 April 1779, with France -- not with the United States! Yet Spain's most important war aim lay not in the New World: it was the conquest of Gibraltar, which she had lost to Britain in 1715. Spain and France promised not to end the war until the restitution of Gibraltar, and because of Article 8 -- no peace without the formal consent of the other first obtain'd -- war and peace in America were tied to Gibraltar: the war had become a Europe-centered/driven war.

In Article 11 "The two Parties guarantee mutually from the present time and forever, against all other powers, to wit, the united states to his most Christian Majesty the present Possessions of the Crown of France in America etc." This article bound the US to defend "forever" France's Caribbean possessions "as well as those which it may acquire by the future Treaty of Peace" against Britain. Neither the conquest of Gibraltar nor the (re-) conquest of India nor the defense of France's Caribbean islands was in America's interests, and while Britain might be persuaded to grant the colonies their independence, she would fight to the last for the retention of Gibraltar, which she still holds, after almost 300 years!

But America had done well too. In Article 6, France "renounce[d] for ever the possession of any part of the continent of North America which before the treaty of Paris in 1763 or in virtue of that Treaty, were acknowledged to belong to the Crown of Great Britain, or which are at this Time or have lately been under the Power of The King and Crown of Great Britain." Never again would France be a power on the American continent, never again would she, or Britain, stand in the way of westward expansion of an independent US. (Spain of course is still there but France can hardly give up Spanish claims in this treaty!)

There was only one last task to be attained. In 1777, America had been "at the end of our rope," as George Washington later put it, and thrown herself at France, who accepted her offer only after she brought victory at Saratoga as a dowry into the marriage. With the victory at Yorktown the raison d'être of the alliance was gone -- for America. Afraid that France might make peace with Britain and sell her out to Spain, Franklin, Adams, and Jay decided to pre-empt any such possibility and concluded, without Vergennes' knowledge, Preliminaries of Peace on 30 November 1782. Caught off guard, France, Spain, the United Netherlands followed suit and ceased hostilities with Britain on 20 January 1783.

Vergennes was fuming about such ingratitude and wrote to the Chevalier de la Luzerne that if "we can judge the future by what passes presently before our eyes we shall be paid badly for what we have done for the United States of America and for having assured them of that title." But in view of American war aims, it was only natural that the United States would soon broach the subject of terminating the alliance. The king refused as late as 1788, but when the Revolution broke out in 1789, followed by war in 1793, not even the Jacobins in Paris expected the United States to rise to the defense of France's American possessions. In his inaugural address, Francophile par excellence Thomas Jefferson, called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." That included France, and though the Convention of Morfontaine terminating the alliance had been signed by his predecessor John Adams in 1800, Jefferson accepted it gladly.

The alliance of 1778, was an entangling alliance, but one could argue that all alliances, like marriages, are entangling. But by 1793, America was de facto, if not de jure, free of the alliance, and the Founding Fathers -- George Washington's famous words in his "Farewell Address" about 'entangling Alliances' come to mind here -- could proudly say that they had achieved their foreign policy goals of 1776.

The alliance had achieved its purpose: Britain was defeated, France had her revenge, and America her independence. The marriage between France and America, announced by the French ambassador had in our introductory anecdote, was performed on 6 February 1778, and though it has had its ups and downs, even periods of separation, it has endured.

In 1917, almost 140 years after France had been the first nation to acknowledge the United States as an independent nation, America "paid her debt to Lafayette." It was repaid again in 1944, when American troops under General Dwight Eisenhower helped liberate France from the Nazi Germany. In both cases, Britannia stood by her daughter in support of the ideals that the three greatest and oldest democracies of the world embody. When the NATO treaties were signed in April 1949, the US entered into its first alliance since 1778. Now the roles were reversed: America was the stronger partner, Europe, including France, the weaker link, pleading, like Lee in 1778, for help so that Europe might not be "left like Hercules in his cradle to strangle the serpent that annoys all Europe." That serpent was communism, and it has been strangled as well. And just like America did not need France any more after 1783, Europe does not seem to want America now any more.

As we are celebrating the 225th anniversary of the signing of the treaties of 1778, the marriage has entered stormy waters again. The crisis over Iraq is testing Franco-American relations to the limits of their resiliency. But in the end, the ideals shared by these two great nations, the long history of the collective struggle for these ideals and the friendship of the Republic of France with the United States of America will overcome even these differences.

Return to top of this page.
Return to Alliance Day 2003 webpage.
Return to Dr. Selig's website.