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Francemarker 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 Revolution.

American origins of the conflict

After the end of the Seven Years' War, 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 without representation)

The best-known episode was the Boston Tea Partymarker 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 Bostoniansmarker. A congress 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 United Statesmarker declared their union and independence from Britain.

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, which placed her almost alone against the Royal Navy.

French Involvement

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.

Deane, 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 chosen.

Lastly, when the international climate at the end of 1777 was tense, Austria had requested the support of France in the War of Bavarian Succession against Prussia in line with the Franco-Austrian Alliance. France 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 Latin American colonies.

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 Independence of the thirteen colonies, 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 against the "English tyranny". Benjamin Franklin, 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, and La Fayette, who enlisted in 1776.

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. The French foreign minister, Vergennes (in office 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 Pact, 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 and later Necker. 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 English Channelmarker 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 Chesapeake and the Battle of Yorktown, America, and by the naval battle of Trincomalee.

The British had taken Philadelphiamarker, but American victory at the Battle of Saratogamarker brought back hope to the Patriot and enthusiasm in France. 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, Silas Deane, 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, La Fayette was gaining notoriety, and the avenging spirit was ready to express itself.

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 Indiesmarker.

With the entry of France into the war, Britain attempted to keep the French navy in its waters. The naval Battle of Ushantmarker in the Channelmarker was indecisive: the two forces eventually withdrew (British admiral Keppel). 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 in 1780 over Dutch violations of neutrality. Britain was in a difficult situation, forced to fight the war on many more fronts.

The French intervention was initially maritime in nature and indecisive but was turned absolute when in 1780, 6,000 soldiers of Rochambeau were sent to America. In 1779, 6,000 French had already faced 3,000 British in the Battle of Savannah, 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 Yorktown, Virginiamarker, where he hopelessly awaited the promised British reinforcements. 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 on October 17, 1781, which could not have been achieved if not for the French Navy under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse. 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. Combined Spanish and French forces were able to defeat the British and successfully capture Minorcamarker in February of 1782. However, the Great Siege of Gibraltarmarker was a failed attempt by the French and Spanish to regain the Gibraltarmarker peninsula from the British.

In Indiamarker, 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 in 1784. A French fleet commanded by the Baillie de Suffren fought a series of largely inconclusive battles with a British fleet under Sir Edward Hughes before word of a peace agreement arrived in 1783.

Because of decisive battles on American soil, the French were in a strong position during the peace negotiations in Parismarker.

Peace and consequences

Starting with the Battle of Yorktown, 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 Great Lakesmarker and east of the Mississippi River. However, since 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 Paris. France gained (or gained back) territories in America, Africa, and Indiamarker. Losses in the Treaty of Paris of 1763 and in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) were in part regained: Tobagomarker, Saint Luciamarker, the Senegal River area, as well as increased fishing rights in Terra Nova. Spain regained Floridamarker and Minorcamarker, but Gibraltarmarker remained in the hands of the British.

Because the French involvement in the war was distant and naval in nature, over a billion livres tournois 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 1783.

The war was especially important for the prestige and pride of France, who was reinstated in the role of European arbiter. However, France did not become the main commerce partner with the United States of Americamarker, despite particularly expensive military spending. 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, finally set in motion with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, through the American victory in 1783, and accented by the constitution in 1787: liberal elites were satisfied. But there were also some major consequences: the European conservatives had become 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.

Financial aspects

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 of Yorktown in 1781 had a large financial cost (one billion livre tournois) which 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 Statesmarker 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, Britainmarker. Independence for the colonies would seriously damage the British Empire and create a rising power, the United Statesmarker, that could be allied with France.Some argue 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 Canadamarker. 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."

See also



  • Samuel Flagg Bemis. The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1935) online edition
  • Brown, John L. "Revolution and the Muse: the American War of Independence in Contemporary French Poetry." William and Mary Quarterly 1984 41(4): 592-614. Issn: 0043-5597 Fulltext in : Jstor
  • Frank W. Brecher. Securing American Independence: John Jay and the French Alliance. Praeger Publishers, 2003. Pp. xiv, 327 online
  • Chartrand, René, and Back, Francis. The French Army in the American War of Independence Osprey; 1991.
  • Corwin, Edward S. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778 Archon Books; 1962.
  • Dull, Jonathan R. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution; Yale U. Press, 1985.
  • Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy 1774-1787 (1975)
  • Louis Gottschalk; Lafayette Comes to America 1935 online
  • Louis Gottschalk, Lafayette Joins the American Army (1937)
  • Hoffman, Ronald and Albert, Peter J., ed. Peace and the Peacemakers: The Treaty of 1783. U. Press of Virginia, 1986. 263 pp.
  • Hoffman, Ronald and Albert, Peter J., ed. Diplomacy and Revolution: The Franco-American Alliance of 1778. U. Press of Virginia, 1981. 200 pp.
  • Hudson, Ruth Strong. The Minister from France: Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, 1729-1790. Lutz, 1994. 279 pp.
  • James H. Hutson. John Adams and the Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1980)
  • Kaplan, Lawrence S. "The Diplomacy of the American Revolution: the Perspective from France." Reviews in American History 1976 4(3): 385-390. Issn: 0048-7511 Fulltext in Jstor; review of Dull (1975)
  • Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780-1783.Greenwood, 1977. 188 pp.
  • Kramer, Lloyd. Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions. (1996). 355 pp.
  • Lafayette, Marquis de. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790. Vol. 2: April 10, 1778-March 20, 1780. Cornell U. Press, 1979. 518 pp.
  • James Breck Perkins; France in the American Revolution 1911 online
  • Popofsky, Linda S. and Sheldon, Marianne B. "French and American Women in the Age of Democratic Revolution, 1770-1815: a Comparative Perspective." History of European Ideas1987 8(4-5): 597-609. Issn: 0191-6599
  • Pritchard, James. "French Strategy and the American Revolution: a Reappraisal." Naval War College Review 1994 47(4): 83-108. Issn: 0028-1484
  • Schaeper, Thomas J. France and America in the Revolutionary Era: The Life of Jacques-Donatien Leray de Chaumont, 1725-1803. Berghahn Books, 1995. 384 pp. He provided military supplies.
  • Harlow Giles Unger; Lafayette Wiley, 2002 online


  • Susan Mary Alsop, Les Américains à la Cour de Louis XVI, 1982. Traductio française : Jean-Claude Lattès (1983).
  • Mourre, Dictionnaire encyclopédique d'histoire, Paris, Éditions Bordas, 1987, en 8 vol.
  • Le petit Mourre : dictionnaire de l'histoire, Paris, Éditions Bordas, 1990.
  • Henri Haeau, Complot pour l'Amérique 1775-1779, Paris, Éditions Robert Laffont, 1990, ISBN 2-221-05364-8
  • J.-M. Bizière et J. Sole, Dictionnaire des Biographies, Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1993.
  • Olivier Chaline, La France au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1787), Paris, Éditions Belin, 1996.
  • Joël Cornette, Absolutisme et Lumière 1652-1783, collection Carré Histoire, Paris, Éditions Hachette, 2000. ISBN 2-01-145422-0
  • Egret, Jean. Necker, Ministre de Louis XVI, 1776-1790; Honoré Champion; Paris, 1975.
  • André Zysberg, La Monarchie des Lumières (1775-1786), Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 2002.

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