entered the American
Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in 1778, and assisted in the victory of the Americans
seeking independence from Britain (realized in the 1783 Treaty of Paris).
The example of the American Revolution was one of the many
contributing factors to the French
American origins of the conflict
After the end of the Seven Years'
, the economic situation of Britain had driven her to
exercise stricter and stricter controls on the commerce of her
colonies: taxes were raised, commerce was exclusive, and the
colonies were asked to contribute to the upkeep of the British
troops stationed in the colonies through a special tax. The
colonists proposed a law to the effect that "No population subject
to the British Crown may be taxed without the agreement of its
representative assembly". However, the tax was imposed, giving rise
to increased tensions between the colonists and the colonial power.
(see No taxation
best-known episode was the Boston Tea Party in 1773 in which the colonists
refused to accept the British government-given monopoly of the
failing British East India Company over tea sold
in America, throwing large quantities of tea overboard into
Boston Harbor. Britain decided to
close the port in reprisal, and opinion rapidly hardened in favor
of the Bostonians.
of the colonists was
organized, and armed militias mobilized and the colonial ruling
apparatus replaced by local legislatures. On the Fourth of July 1776 the
States declared their union and independence from
Up against the British power, the young United States lacked arms
and allies, and so turned naturally towards France. After the
prodding of Benjamin Franklin
France, which had no direct interest in the conflict, nevertheless
engaged herself first in the covert support of the American war,
then in open war from February 5 1778
placed her almost alone against the Royal
Debate over aiding the colonies or declaring open war
Secretly approached by Louis XVI and Vergennes, Beaumarchais
was given authorization to sell
gun powder and ammunition for close to a million pounds
under the veil of the Portuguese
company Rodrigue Hortalez et Compagnie
. The aid given by
France would ultimately contribute to George Washington
's survival against the
British onslaught. France accommodated American frigates that
committed piracy against British merchant ships, provided economic
aid, either as donations or loans, and also offered technical
assistance, granting some of its military strategists "vacations",
so they could assist American troops.
, appointed by the Americans, and
helped by French animosity towards Britain, obtained unofficial
aid. However, the goal was the total involvement of France in the
war. A new delegation composed of Franklin
, Deane, and Arthur Lee
, was appointed to lobby
for the involvement of European nations. They claimed that an
alliance of the thirteen colonies, France, and Spain would assure a
rapid defeat of the British, but Vergennes, despite his own desire
in the matter, refused. Franklin might even have proposed to aid
France in reclaiming New France
. On the
23rd of July, 1777
, Vergennes demanded that
either total assistance or abandonment of the colonies be
Lastly, when the international climate at the end of 1777
was tense, Austria had requested the support of
France in the War of Bavarian
against Prussia in line with the Franco-Austrian Alliance
had rejected, causing the relation with Austria to turn sour. In
these conditions, asking Austria to give assistance to France in a
war against the British was impossible. Attempts to rally Spain
also failed: Spain had nothing to gain and the revolutionary spirit
was even threatening the legitimacy of the Spanish Crown in its own
Public opinion in France was in favor of open war, but the
governing body was reluctant due to the consequences and cost of
such a war.
Following the Declaration of
of the thirteen
, the American Revolution had been well received in
France, both by the general population and the educated classes.
The Revolution was perceived as the incarnation of the Enlightenment Spirit
"English tyranny". Benjamin
, dispatched to France in December of 1776 to rally her
support, and was welcomed with great enthusiasm, as numerous
Frenchmen embarked for the Americas volunteer for the patriot war
effort. Motivated by the prospect of glory in battle and/or
animated by the sincere ideals of liberty and republicanism,
volunteers included the likes of Pierre Charles L'Enfant
, who enlisted in
The official reaction was more cautious. Louis XVI wanted to assist
the colonies, but was constrained by the financial situation of his
Kingdom and would only provide clandestine aid through Beaumarchais
French foreign minister, Vergennes
from 1774 to 1781) was in favor of open participation by France due
to the possibility of commercial and diplomatic gains. There was
much prolonged consideration and analysis, as diplomats attempted
to court allies (Spain through their Family
, and Austria), or at least ensure the neutrality of other
powers (Austria, Holland, Prussia).
Still, many overseers of economy and the Navy in particular
remained reluctant. The French Navy was described as still
insufficient and unprepared for such a war, the economy would have
been thrown into even further debt - as noted by Turgot
. Diplomats were less
enthusiastic as Vergennes and Louis XVI, underlining the unique and
isolated position of France in Europe on the matter.
Entry into the war
After France entered the war on February 6, 1778, the British naval
force - master of the seas - and French fleet confronted each other
from the beginning. First these navies quarreled head-on, in the
Channel and then in the entirety of the Atlantic Ocean, in
a war of escorts.
The ultimate outcome would be decided by
the naval Battle of the
and the Battle of
, America, and by the naval battle of
British had taken Philadelphia, but American victory at the Battle of
Saratoga brought back hope to the Patriot and enthusiasm in
The army of Burgoyne (Britain) was defeated and
France became aware that the Thirteen Colonies could be victorious
and thus decided to provide official aid to colonies. The Spanish
ally was more skeptical. Vergennes and Louis XVI were considering
the proposition of an American alliance through the American
diplomats Benjamin Franklin
, and Arthur Lee
with increasing interest. The alliance
between Britain and France, forged in 1763, plunged into a
diplomatic crisis. The war was benefiting from popular support,
notoriety, and the avenging spirit was ready to express
On the 6th of February, 1778, Vergennes and Louis XVI decided to
sign with Benjamin Franklin a treaty of friendship and official
alliance with the 13 colonies. France recognized the independent
status of the colonies, both parties agreed that peace would not be
signed separately, and the colonies engaged themselves in
protecting French possessions in America. Battles were initiated
in America and in the West
With the entry of France into the war, Britain attempted to keep
the French navy in its waters. The naval Battle of Ushant in the Channel was
indecisive: the two forces eventually withdrew (British admiral
The landing of 40,000 men in the nearby British Isles was
considered, but abandoned because of logistical issues. On the
continent, France was protected through its alliance with Austria,
which, even if it did not take part in the American Revolutionary
War, affirmed its diplomatic support of France.
Other nations in Europe refused to take part, but Vergennes was
able to convince the Spanish to enter the war in 1779, and Britain
declared war on the Dutch Republic
1780 over Dutch violations of neutrality. Britain was in a
difficult situation, forced to fight the war on many more
The French intervention was initially maritime in nature and
indecisive but was turned absolute when in 1780, 6,000 soldiers of
were sent to America. In 1779, 6,000 French had already faced 3,000
British in the Battle of
, but the French-American attack was too precipitous
and badly prepared, which led to its eventual failure. The 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake caused a
part of the British fleet to flee, making possible the entrapment
of Charles Cornwallis' army at
Virginia, where he hopelessly awaited the promised British
Cornwallis was trapped between American and
French forces on land and the French fleet on the sea. The French
alliance was crucial in the decisive victory of the patriots at Yorktown
October 17, 1781, which could not have been achieved if not for the
French Navy under Admiral François Joseph Paul de
. Cornwallis formally surrendered on October 19, ending
major hostilities in North America.
Other important naval battles between the French and the British
were spaced out around the globe. The British and French confronted
one another for the domination of the Antilles
, which France lost to Britain after the
1782 Battle of the Saints
Spanish and French forces were able to defeat the British and
successfully capture Minorca in February of 1782. However, the Great Siege
of Gibraltar was a failed attempt by the French and Spanish to
regain the Gibraltar peninsula from the British.
India, British troops gained control of French outposts
in 1778 and 1779, sparking the Kingdom
of Mysore to begin the Second Anglo-Mysore War.
Allied with the French, the Mysoreans for a time threatened British
positions on the east coast, but that war ended status quo ante bellum
A French fleet commanded by the Baillie de
fought a series of largely inconclusive battles with a
British fleet under Sir Edward
before word of a peace agreement arrived in 1783.
of decisive battles on American soil, the French were in a strong
position during the peace negotiations in Paris.
Peace and consequences
Starting with the Battle of
, Benjamin Franklin never informed France of the secret
negotiations that took place directly between Britain and the
United States. Britain relinquished her rule over the
Thirteen Colonies and granted them all the land south of the
Lakes and east of the Mississippi River.
France was not included in the American-British peace discussions,
the alliance between France and the colonies
was broken. Thus the influence of France
and Spain in future negotiations was limited.
A limited victory was declared in
September 1783, in the Treaty of
. France gained (or gained back) territories
in America, Africa,
the Treaty of Paris of 1763
and in the Treaty of Utrecht
(1713) were in part regained: Tobago, Saint Lucia, the Senegal River
area, as well as increased fishing rights in Terra Nova. Spain regained
Florida and Minorca, but Gibraltar remained in the hands of the British.
Because the French involvement in the war was distant and naval in
nature, over a billion livres
were spent by the French government to support the war
effort. The finances of the French state were in disastrous shape
and financial setbacks in particular were contributed by Jacques Necker
, who, rather than raise taxes,
used loans to pay off debts. State secretary in Finances Charles Alexandre de Calonne
attempted to fix the deficit problem by asking for the taxation of
the property of nobles and clergy but was dismissed and exiled for
his ideas. The French instability further weakened the reforms that
were essential in the re-establishment of stable French finances.
Trade also severely declined during the war, but was revived by
The war was especially important for the prestige and pride of
France, who was reinstated in the role of European arbiter.
France did not become the main commerce partner with the United
States of America, despite particularly expensive military
French troops had to be transported over great
distances, which cost about 1 billion livres tournois, and further
added to France's debt of a little less than 3.315 billion.
Another result of French involvement was the newly acquired pride
in the enlightenment
set in motion with the Declaration of Independence in 1776
, through the American victory in 1783
, and accented by the constitution
satisfied. But there were also some major consequences: the
nervous, and the nobility began to take measures in order to secure
their positions. On May 22, 1781
, the Decree of Ségur
closed the military
post offices of the upper rank to the common persons and reserved
those ranks exclusively for the nobility. The blight of the
bourgeoisies had begun.
France's status as a great modern power was affirmed by the war,
but it was detrimental to the country’s finances. Even though
French territory was not affected, victory in a war against Britain
with battles like the decisive siege
in 1781 had a large financial cost (one billion
severely degraded fragile finances and increased the deficit in
France. Even worse, France’s hope to become the
first commercial partner of the newly-established United States was not realized, and Britain immediately became
the United States’ main trade partner. Pre-war trade
patterns were largely kept between Britain and the US, with most
American trade remaining within the British Empire .France, despite
its financial difficulties, used the occasion of the war to weaken
its arch-rival in European and world affairs, Britain. Independence for the colonies would
seriously damage the British Empire
and create a rising power, the United States, that could be allied with France.
France primarily sought revenge against Britain for the loss of
territory in America in the 1763
Treaty of Paris
. However, Dull, in 1975, argued that France
intervened because of dispassionate calculation, not because of
Anglophobia or a desire to avenge the loss of Canada.
French participation reflected the desperate French diplomatic
position on the European continent. The Spanish navy was vital to
the maintenance of the military initiative by the allies. France
was desperate for peace but did not attempt to betray the United
States. The French government was overwhelmed by debt maintenance,
but war led to the financial crisis "which provided the immediate
occasion for the release of those forces which shattered the French
political and social order."
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