France in the American Revolutionary War: Wikis


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Engraving based on the painting "Action Between the HMS Serapis and Bonhome Richard" by Richard Paton, published 1780

France 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 in 1763, 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 restricted, and the colonies were asked to contribute to the upkeep of the British troops stationed there 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.

The 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 North America, throwing large quantities of tea overboard into Boston Harbor. Britain decided to close the port in reprisal, and opinion rapidly hardened throughout the Thirteen Colonies in favor of the Bostonians. A congress of the colonists was organized in 1774, armed militias mobilized, and the colonial assemblies began taking control over provincial governments, supplanting royal authority. On July 4, 1776 the United States declared their union and independence from Britain.

French involvement

Following the American Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution was 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, was welcomed with great enthusiasm, as numerous Frenchmen embarked for the Americas to 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.


Debate over aiding the colonies or declaring open war

Up against the British power, the young United States lacked arms and allies, and so turned towards France. France was not directly interested in the conflict, but saw it as an opportunity to contest British power by supporting a new British opponent. Through negotiations conducted by Benjamin Franklin, France engaged first in covert support of the American cause.

Secretly approached by Louis XVI and France's foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, Pierre Beaumarchais was given authorization to sell gunpowder and ammunition to the Americans for close to a million pounds under the veil of the Portuguese company Rodrigue Hortalez et Compagnie. The aid given by France, much of which passed through the neutral Dutch West Indies port of Saint Eustatius, contributed to George Washington's survival against the British onslaught in 1776 and 1777. French ports accommodated American ships, including privateers and Continental Navy warships, that acted against British merchant ships. France provided significant 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.

Silas 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 assist France in reclaiming New France.[citation needed] On July 23, 1777, Vergennes demanded that either total assistance or abandonment of the colonies be chosen.

When the international climate at the end of 1777 had become more tense, Habsburg Austria requested the support of France in the War of Bavarian Succession against Prussia in line with the Franco-Austrian Alliance. France refused, causing the relationship with Austria to turn sour. Under these conditions, asking Austria to assist France in a war against the British was impossible. Attempts to rally Spain also failed: Spain did not immediately recognize potential gains, and the American revolutionary spirit was seen as threatening the legitimacy of the Spanish Crown in its own Latin American colonies.

Public opinion in France was in favor of open war, but King Louis and his advisors were reluctant due to the consequences and cost of such a war. The king's economic and military advisors in particular remained reluctant. The French Navy was described as still insufficient and unprepared for such a war, and the economy would have been thrown even further into debt, as noted by Turgot and later Necker. Some diplomats were less enthusiastic than Vergennes and Louis XVI, underlining the unique and isolated position of France in Europe on the matter.

Entry into the war

Surrender of General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, by John Trumbull, 1822.

The British had taken Philadelphia in 1777, but American victory at the Battle of Saratoga brought back hope to the Patriots and enthusiasm in France. The army of Burgoyne surrendered to American forces after Saratoga, and France realized that the Thirteen Colonies could be victorious. Consequently, King Louis directed Vergennes to negotiate an alliance with the Americans. The alliance between Britain and France, forged in 1763, plunged into a diplomatic crisis. The war cause benefited from popular support after the news of Saratoga, La Fayette was gaining notoriety for his exploits, and the avenging spirit was ready to express itself.

France formally recognized the United States on February 6, 1778, with the signing of the Treaty of Alliance. War followed not long after, when Britain declared war in France on March 17, 1778. The British naval force, then the largest fleet afloat, and French fleet confronted each other from the beginning. The British avoided intercepting a French fleet that left Toulon under d'Estaing in April for North America, fearing the French fleet at Brest might then be used to launch an invasion of Britain. France had kept the Brest fleet to protect commercial shipping in European waters, and it sailed out only after a British fleet was confirmed to have left in pursuit of d'Estaing, thus weakening the British Channel fleet. In spite of this reduction the British fleet still outnumbered the French fleet at Brest, and Admiral d'Orvilliers was instructed to avoid combat when he sailed in July. D'Orvilliers met the fleet of Admiral Augustus Keppel in the indecisive Battle of Ushant on July 27, after which both fleets returned to port for repairs.

France did consider the landing of 40,000 men in the nearby British Isles, but abandoned the idea 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 at first refused to openly join the war, but both Spain and the Dutch Republic gave unofficial support to the American cause. Vergennes was able to convince the Spanish to formally enter the war in 1779, and Britain declared war on the Dutch Republic in 1780 over claims of Dutch violations of neutrality.

North American operations

Surrender of Cornwallis to French troops (left) and American troops (right), at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.

The French intervention was initially maritime in nature and marked by some indecision on the part of its military leaders. Support became more notable when in 1780, 6,000 soldiers led by Rochambeau were sent to America. In 1779, 6,000 French had already faced 3,000 British in the Siege of Savannah, but the French-American attack was too precipitous and badly prepared, and it ultimately failed. The 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake forced the withdrawal of a British fleet that was attempting to relieve Charles Cornwallis, who was awaiting either reinforcements or withdrawal at Yorktown, Virginia. This then made possible the encirclement of Cornwallis by American and French forces on land, and the French fleet of de Grasse on the sea. The Siege of Yorktown and following surrender by Cornwallis on October 19 were decisive in ending major hostilities in North America.

Other theaters

Other important battles between the French and the British were spaced out around the globe, from the West Indies to India. France's navy at first dominated in the West Indies, capturing Grenada, Tobago, and St. Kitts, but losing St. Lucia. A planned Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica was aborted after the decisive Battle of the Saintes in 1782.

In European waters, France and Spain joined forces with the entry of Spain into the war in 1779. An attempted invasion of Britain failed due to a variety of factors. French and Spanish forces besieged Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783, but were unsuccessful in either storming the site, or preventing repeated British relief of its garrison. They were successful in capturing Minorca in February of 1782.

In 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 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, and the only major military land action, the Siege of Cuddalore, was cut short by news that a preliminary peace had been signed.

Because 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 Siege 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 Lakes 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.

Ratification of the treaty of Paris, 1783. The British delegation refused to pose for the picture

The war formally ended in September 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. France gained (or gained back) territories in America, Africa, and India. Losses in the 1763 Treaty of Paris 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 tournois were spent by the French government to support the war effort, raising its overall debt to about 3.315 billion. The finances of the French state were in disastrous shape and were made worse 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 trading partner with the United States of America, despite the lavish military spending required to transport French troops over great distances.

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 adoption of the United States Constitution in 1787: liberal elites were satisfied. But there were also some major consequences: European conservative Royalists and nobility had become nervous, and 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 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[citation needed].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. 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 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."

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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