FRANCE and the NEW WORLD
Whether the American colonies would have succeeded in their struggle for independence if they had not received aid in men and money from France, is an interesting and not a simple question. A study of the period impresses one with the difficulties under which the colonists suffered, - difficulties which might well have proved insurmountable, had the colonists been left entirely to their own resources. Naturally we assume that what did occur must have occurred, that because the English did not succeed in reducing their rebellious colonists to subjection, there was no possibility of their doing so. We can, indeed, be certain that with the growth of population in this country, its people, sooner or later, would have become independent of foreign rule; but it was entirely possible that the struggle begun in 1775 should have ended in disaster, and the history and development of the United States have been different.
The most important factor working for the colonists was the extraordinary incapacity manifested by their opponents. Less than twenty years earlier, England had conducted a war against France, in which her armies and navies had displayed skill, vigor, and heroism to a degree exceeded in few great contests. But the English government had sadly changed from the days in which Pitt was minister to those in which it was guided by North and controlled by George III. The Seven Years' War was one of the most glorious epochs in English history, the American Revolution was one of the most inglorious. A contest that had been precipitated by folly was conducted with stupidity; in seven years of fighting with their own colonists, not one English officer gained a first-class reputation; the movements of the English armies were sluggish, their generals were inefficient, golden opportunities were lost, great advantages were frittered away. Gerard, the French minister at Philadelphia, said with much truth: "If the English had shown themselves in America as we have seen them elsewhere, only too active, confident, and courageous, they would have met with little resistance." (Gerard to Vergennes; Doniol, iii, 319. Most of the citations from the French official correspondence are taken from the collection in Doniol's invaluable work, La Participation de la France a I'Etablissement des Etats Unis d'Amerique, cited as " Doniol.")
But if George III did not know how to select good generals or inspire vigorous action, he was resolute in his purpose. If he was not wise he was stubborn, and if the colonists did not encounter skillful opponents, they had to endure many years of fighting. A long contest our ancestors were in many respects unfitted to meet, and the reason for this unfitness was in their form of government. If the resources of three million people, fairly prosperous, intelligent, and courageous, could have been properly utilized, it would have been impossible for England to reduce them to subjection, though Chatham had commanded her councils, Marlborough her armies, and Nelson her fleets. But while a body with the limited powers of the Continental Congress might suffice during a brief season of patriotic enthusiasm, enthusiasm will not take the place of an effective government. The character of the Congress dateriorated, and the helplessness into which that body was plunged rendered a seat in it unattractive to able men. Having no power to raise supplies or compel the formation of an army, it was at the mercy of the several states, and to expect vigorous action from thirteen different governments, was to show small knowledge of human nature. If the French King had not interfered, wrote his minister, "there is every reason to believe that the employment of the means of resistance would not have corresponded to the desire to maintain independence." This judgment may have been wrong, but as the war progressed the difficulties in raising, fitting, and equipping soldiers grew steadily greater, and a strong desire to be independent would not have secured independence if there had been no armies to fight for it.
The inherent weakness of the government hardly threatened greater danger to the patriot cause than the evils resulting from economic mistakes. If the blood circulating in the veins is corrupted, there can be no health in the body; when the financial system of the country was hopelessly diseased, the existence of the Republic was threatened. The issue of an irredeemable currency proved more dangerous to our country's liberties than the invasion of Burgoyne or the treason of Arnold. The land possessed resources, and there were plenty of men patriotic enough to be willing to use them; but in the financial confusion that prevailed when a continental bill for ten dollars was worth only ten cents, when a pair of boots cost one hundred dollars, and butter and sugar sold for three dollars a pound, when four months' pay of a private would not purchase a bushel of wheat and the pay of a colonel would not buy oats enough for his horse, when a wagonload of money, as Washington wrote, would hardly purchase a wagon- load of provisions, it is not strange that the soldiers of Valley Forge walked barefooted in the snow, and the regiments of New Jersey and Pennsylvania deserted the colors under which they were starving (Hatch, Administration of the American Revolutionary Army, chap. 7.)
A currency that had no value and a government that had no head were the gravest perils to the success of the American Revolution. How serious they were may be judged from the writings of the most sagacious of American patriots, and the one who, from his position as commander-in-chief, had the fullest knowledge of the dangers of the situation. "Our affairs," Washington wrote in 1778, "are in a more distressed, ruinous, and deplorable condition than they have been since the commencement of the war . . . the common interests of America are mouldering and sinking into irretrievable ruin if a remedy is not soon applied." (Writings of Washington, Sparks's edition, vi, 151.)
And a few months later, he wrote again: "The rapid decay of our currency, the extinction of public spirit, the increasing rapacity of the times, the want of harmony in our council, the declining zeal of the people, the discontents and distresses of the officers of the army, and, I may add, the prevailing security and insensibility to danger are symptoms, in my eye, of a most alarming nature. If the enemy have it in their power to press us hard this campaign, I know not what may be the consequence. Our army as it now stands is but little more than the skeleton of an army." (Writings of Washington, Ford's edition, vii, 451, 452.)
"I have never yet seen the time," he writes again in 1779, "in which our affairs, in my opinion, were at so low an ebb as at the present." (Writings of Washington, Sparks's edition, vi, 252 [note].)
Repeatedly in the long years of weakness and distress, Washington declared that unless aid came from France, the army would dissolve and resistance cease. "Unless a capital change takes place soon," he writes in 1781, "it will be impossible for me to maintain our posts and keep the army from dispersing." (lbid., viii, 38, 39.) With melancholy iteration came the statements of the difficulties in which the great patriot was involved, with a scanty army, that was often on the verge of dissolution, usually unpaid and sometimes unfed, with requests for recruits meeting a feeble response, and with a disordered currency, rendering the pay promised the men almost worthless, even if the promise had been kept.
Nor can we disregard the fact that a considerable portion of the people, a minority probably, but a minority prosperous and influential, had little sympathy with separation from the mother country, and that even among the "patriots " there could be no strong feeling for the newly created Republic. Their affections were for the states to which they belonged; there was no united country for whose benefits they were grateful, to whose memories they clung, and of whose glories they were proud. A strong desire to be rid of the tyranny of George III was not an impulse so powerful as patriotic zeal for a beloved fatherland.
In our admiration for the great men of the Revolution, we are apt to overestimate the vigor of resistance shown by the people of the thirteen colonies as a whole. The history of the period is by no means one of united zeal, or of strenuous self-sacrifice for the common cause. It was natural that the French should complain of allies whom they found less zealous than they hoped, but their criticisms cannot be wholly disregarded. "I am beginning to have a poor opinion of their firmness," Vergennes wrote of his new allies to the French minister at Madrid, ... their Republic, unless they correct its faults, ... will never be more than a feeble body capable of little activity ... I must own that I have little confidence in the energy of the United States." (Vergennes to Montmorin, Nov. 27, 1778; Doniol, iii, 581.)
The people of the United States have displayed energy, both in peace and war, to a degree never excelled, but they have been formed and developed under a more benign government than that the weakness of which Washington as well as Vergennes deplored. Prosperity not only brings happiness, but it develops virtues. The unequalled readiness with which our people in a later day responded to calls for the public need, while largely due to the influence of a wisely framed government, was in part the result of long years of increasing wealth and well-being.
The French minister at Philadelphia was an intelligent, and not an unfriendly, observer of the people among whom he was thrown; and he owed to his superiors the duty of describing the condition of American affairs with accuracy. "Personal disinterestedness and pecuniary probity," he writes, "do not illustrate the birth of the American Republic. All the agents have obtained exorbitant gains for their manufactures ... The spirit of mercantile cupidity forms, perhaps, one of the distinctive characteristics of the Americans, especially those in the north, and doubtless this will influence the future destinies of the Republic." (Gerard to Vergennes, Aug. 12, 1778; Doniol, iii, 319.)
Such criticisms might be disregarded as coming from foreigners prone to judge harshly the conduct of another nation. To the unfavorable judgment of Gerard we might oppose the fervent praise of La Fayette. If the one reflected the ardent confidence of amiable youth, the other savored of the suspicious apprehension of cynical maturity. But Washington's opinions of the situation were little more favorable than those of foreign observers. "Speculation," he wrote, "Peculation, Engrossing, forestalling, with all their concomitants, afford too many melancholy proofs of the decay of public virtue." (Writings of Washington, Ford's ed., vii, 388.) Similar charges could be made in our civil war, and perhaps in all wars of all nations, but there is nothing to show that disinterestedness was stronger in 1776 than in 1861, and much to show that it was rarer.
There was less danger from gross cases of dishonesty than from the feeble response made to demands for money and troops. With much trouble some troops were obtained; and if these had been properly fed and cared for, the supply of men might have been sufficient; but without French aid it is hard to see how they could have been furnished with guns or clothing, with meat or bread. The length of the contest increased the perils of the patriot cause. When France made her treaty of alliance, the war had already lasted three years and the end was not in sight. Hostilities were continued for four years more; weariness of the conflict was widespread when the alliance with France was made; it grew stronger each year that the conflict endured. Four years of warfare was a terrible tax upon a nation as rich and strong as our own in 1861; the burden of a much longer struggle upon a much poorer people might well have exhausted both their means and their zeal for resistance.
The hardships of Valley Forge might be endured by patriotic men for a winter, but soldiers cannot be kept together for years without food, or clothes, or money. Even with French aid Washington with difficulty maintained a small army of poorly equipped men; without that aid it is hard to see how he could have kept an army in the field at all. Such were the elements of weakness among the colonists, which might have proved fatal to success if they had received no assistance from abroad.
It is true that few of the victories won by the Americans were due to the direct assistance of the French army, or the French fleet. The capture of Yorktown was the only action of importance in which French and American soldiers fought side by side with success. The fleet which d'Estaing brought over in 1778 undertook no joint enterprise, save a futile movement against Newport, and from a military standpoint it was wholly unproductive. In the following year d'Estaing engaged in the siege of Savannah, but that resulted in a disastrous repulse. Not until 1781, the last year of actual warfare, did French and American armies again act together, but by their joint action the war was then brought to an end. The outcome of the American Revolution without French aid may be problematical, but it is certain that without that aid, the army under Cornwallis could not have been captured. The siege of Yorktown could not have been attempted without the cooperation of a fleet, and the Americans had no fleet; while of the forces which took part in the operations on land, one half were French.
It is hard, therefore, to see how the colonists, unaided, could have brought the struggle to a successful end, unless troops, money, and supplies had been furnished by the thirteen colonies on a far more liberal scale than was done during the last five years of the war. The colonies might indeed have united in a great and sufficient effort, but they might also have decided to accept some sort of decent terms from the mother country at the end of long years of exhausting warfare. At all events, at a time when our early history is studied from many standpoints, the part taken by France in the American Revolution, the aid she gave us, and its influence on the result of the contest, furnish profitable themes for investigation.
It is interesting to consider the effects of French assistance on the fortunes of the American Revolution. It is equally interesting to consider the effects of the action of the French government upon the French people themselves. How far did the increasing embarrassment of the French treasury, resulting from the cost of that war, hasten a financial crisis? Would the French Revolution have begun in 1789 had it not been for the impression produced on French thought by the successful revolution in America? Certainly the old regime could not have lasted much longer, but might not its overthrow have been delayed and the catastrophe have assumed a different shape ?
The situation of our own country at the beginning of our Revolution, and the causes which led to that event, are familiar to us all, but the social and political conditions in France which resulted in her intervention naturally are much less known. At first glance it might have seemed unlikely that France should lend her assistance to colonists across the Atlantic, who were seeking to shake off the home authority and establish a republic to be governed by its own citizens. Why should a Bourbon monarchy throw in its lot with a people in revolt against their King, who proclaimed the equal rights of men and denounced the evils of monarchical rule ? France had still many foreign possessions that were kept in close subjection by the home government. In France the right of self-rule was strictly denied. French statesmen had for centuries declared that on the absolute and untrammelled authority of the monarch rested the welfare and happiness of the nation. It seemed unlikely that the successor of Louis XIV, the grandson of Louis XV, would take up arms in behalf of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
There were other reasons that might well have kept France from involving herself in a new war, of which the cost would be certain, and the results uncertain. The Seven Years' War had come to an end only twelve years before. It had been one of the most disastrous contests in French history, an almost unbroken chapter of defeat and disgrace. With disordered finances, with discontent among the people, with an increasing readiness to criticize the government and to question institutions that had once been regarded as sacred as Holy Writ, a judicious statesman might well have felt that a long period of peace, of financial recuperation, of internal improvement, would be best for the true interests of France. Such was the policy advocated by Turgot, the most sagacious French statesman of his generation, but it was advocated in vain.
In fact, the disasters of the Seven Years' War had created a desire in the French mind for a new war, in which old defeats might be avenged and old disgraces wiped out. The Treaty of Paris, in 1763, not only stripped France of a large part of her foreign possessions, but contained provisions that were specially ignominious. It ceded to England Canada and all the French possessions in North America except those transferred to Spain, various islands in the West Indies, and practically all of the great empire in India that Dupleix had sought to secure for France, while the conditions in reference to Dunkirk, which had been extorted from Louis XIV at the nadir of his fortunes, were reimposed. By the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the King had been obliged to agree that the fortifications of the French city of Dunkirk, which had been erected at great cost to protect that important harbor, should be demolished. It is rare that any nation will submit to the dictation of another power as to the use of its own territory; such terms might be imposed by Russia on Poland, but not, it would be thought, by England upon France.
Yet Louis XIV promised to destroy the fortifications of the city, to fill up the port, to ruin the locks and never to reestablish them. When a new war broke out, naturally these agreements were no longer regarded. But in the Treaty of Paris, the French King again agreed that the fortifications of Dunkirk should be destroyed; and, as an aggravation of ignominy, the French consented that an English commissioner might reside in the city to see that they were not rebuilt.
It is hard to understand the wisdom of this provision; it was a constant irritation to the French, it was of no great advantage to the English. The French were a proud people, and for many centuries their military record had been marked by much glory and little shame. The defeat of the Seven Years' War left a consciousness of disgrace in every patriotic Frenchman, and a strong desire for revenge. And the feeling was more bitter towards England than towards Prussia. Frederick had been fighting for his own existence, defending himself against enemies who proposed to dismember his kingdom. He had succeeded in keeping it intact, but he added nothing to it. No French territory had been wrested away by Prussia, no indemnity had been extorted as a punishment for defeat. But England had interfered in the contest, not to save herself, but to check the power of France. She had profited enormously from her success; she had wrested from the French possessions far greater than France herself, and from them she might anticipate a vast increase in wealth and power. While there was not the yearning to recover these foreign possessions that the French afterward felt for the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine, the desire for revenge upon perfidious and triumphant Albion was quite as strong as the desire for revenge upon Prussia after the War of 1870.
At the same time the animosity felt against England was not accompanied by any love for England's colonists. The position of France, as the owner of vast territories in North America, had brought her into frequent conflict with the English-speaking settlers in that country. When war broke out between England and France, the English colonies had taken an active part with the mother country. And even when there was peace between the home governments, there had been frequent collisions between the representatives of the two nations in North America. The jealousy and the active opposition of the English-speaking colonies had done much to check French development in the New World, and it was natural that French statesmen should look upon our ancestors as an aggressive, domineering, and disagreeable population. Certainly it was largely due to their action that the influence of France in North America, at the beginning of the American Revolution, was far removed from that position of ascendancy for which sagacious and intrepid Frenchmen had hoped.
It once seemed possible that civilization in North America might be as much French as English: the territories which, nominally at least, were under the control of France far exceeded those held by the English colonists in extent, and were not inferior to them in fertility. At the beginning of the seventeenth century one might well anticipate that France would take a leading part in the development of the New World. French mariners had been among the early explorers of North America. Only a few years after the landing of Columbus in the West Indies, French fishing-boats were found in large numbers off the coast of Newfoundland. The hardy mariners of Normandy and Brittany sailed each year across the Atlantic in search of fish, as their descendants do to this day.
In 1635 the settlement of Canada was begun by Jacques Cartier, and that country became a French province. French immigration was small, and the home government did little to encourage the growth of a prosperous colony; but French missionaries and explorers secured for their country claims of ownership over vast territories. The explorations of Joliet and La Salle carried the French lilies over the western prairies and the Valley of the Mississippi. La Salle established a station by the banks of the Illinois, and started an ill-fated settlement in Texas. It must be said that, save in Canada, there were no French colonies which could be compared with the English settlements along the* Atlantic, and Canada itself, with its natural progress checked by the unwholesome restraint of the home government, ill-ruled, priest-ridden, sparsely populated, bore little resemblance to the prosperous communities of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
Yet French exploration spread over great territories. In the north and along the Mississippi Valley, scattered settlements, generally unprosperous, sometimes destroyed by plague, by famine, or by Indians, preserved the claim of French sovereignty over regions which now contain twenty great and populous states.
By the Treaty of Utrecht the Hudson Bay Territory, Newfoundland, and Acadia were ceded to England. But while these vast though barren territories were lost, France strengthened her claim over a great part of the fertile lands of North America. In the early part of the eighteenth century, the speculations of Law and the enterprises of the Mississippi Company gave a fresh impetus to French colonization. New Orleans was founded. The Company asserted its authority, not only over the Valley of the Mississippi, but over all North America west of the Alleghanies, except in the extreme north, and in the ill-defined territory over which the Spanish claimed a nominal sovereignty.
The efforts at colonization that were made under the auspices of Law's Company were often theatrical; some of them, it may be feared, were intended to influence the stock market rather than furnish Pilgrim Fathers to distant provinces. On one day one hundred and eighty girls and as many youths were married at Saint-Martin des Champs and embarked for Louisiana. Boats laden with women were sent out, to supply spouses for the unmarried settlers already there. They were eagerly sought for; but unfortunately the past lives of most had not fitted them to be wives of hardy pioneers, and the results of governmental matrimony, like those of many other governmental enterprises, were unsatisfactory. One body of adventurers penetrated into Arkansas in search of some fabled rocks of emerald. They did not find the emeralds and their settlement came to naught; but a colony of Germans sent over by Law, who were content to seek their fortunes in market-gardening near New Orleans, remained and prospered.
Some progress was thus made in strengthening the claims of France upon the Valley of the Mississippi, but a great and fertile territory could not be permanently held by a few forts over which floated the fleur-de-lis, or a few settlements in which French was spoken. The rich fields of the Valley of the Mississippi were in many respects more attractive for colonization than the fringe along the Atlantic in which the English-speaking colonists were found. The soil was more fertile, and the climate more agreeable; they were farther removed from the seashore, but this disadvantage was to some extent compensated by the proximity of the Great Lakes and by the great river flowing through to the Gulf. These possessions would surely attract the rising tide of English colonization, and this could be checked only by French settlement of sufficient dimensions to turn a nominal sovereignty into an actual occupation.
The failure of French colonization is often charged to defects in French character; it might more properly be attributed to mistaken theories in French government. English colonists were sometimes driven from the home country by persecution; but if they suffered injustice from the government at home, in their exile they received from it the greatest blessing it could bestow. To a large extent they were let alone and left to make their fortunes as best they could.
But a paternal government would not leave the French settler alone, though he had abandoned the banks of the Seine and the Loire for the shores of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay. France sought to develop her foreign empire by granting monopolies and bounties, by every means except allowing the colonists to work out their own salvation. A little before the beginning of our Revolution it was figured that fifty-five great commercial companies, patronized by the French government and organized to trade in her foreign possessions, had come to ruin. They not only ruined themselves, but they deprived the settler of a fair chance to improve his lot; he was harassed by privileges and restrictions and monopolies in Canada and Louisiana as much as he would have been in Paris or Normandy. As a result few emigrated.
The French remained at home, not because they were necessarily averse to emigration, but because in the foreign possessions of their own country they saw small opportunity to better their condition. If the French government had furnished facilities for emigration, if it had encouraged its citizens in seeking new homes under the French flag, if it had even been content to let alone those who made the effort, the record of French colonization of North America would have been more creditable and more important. But as it was, the peasant of the province and the artisan of the city saw little reason for exposing themselves to the hardships of a new country, where they probably would fare no better than they did at home. As a consequence little attention was given to the question of American colonization by the French people, and still less by the French government.
There was one great opportunity for the development of French colonization, which was lost not so much by the inertness as by the bigotry of the home government. When the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes compelled large bodies of industrious Frenchmen to leave their own country, a considerable proportion of them, in all probability, would have preferred life in a French possession to life in a foreign land. Even though driven from the fatherland, they might still have lived under their own flag and listened to the speech of their own people. The French Huguenots would have made as hardy pioneers, they were as well fitted to be the founders of a new state as the English Puritans, but this possibility was checked by the bigotry of Louis XIV and his successors. Neither the snows of Canada nor the prairies of the west could be profaned by the presence of heretics. The French government preferred that its American possessions should be occupied by Indians and wild beasts rather than by Huguenots.
Such were the conditions at the beginning of the Seven Years' War. That contest settled the question whether England or France should become the great colonial power of the world. Both in the east and in the west, France was forced to abandon her dreams of colonial empire. In India nothing remained to her but a few unimportant trading stations. Canada was ceded to England, the province of Louisiana, with its vague claims of empire in the west and southwest, was transferred to Spain as a consolation for her losses. The upper Mississippi was now regarded as a field for colonization by English colonists.
Yet the conquest of Canada by England prepared the way for the loss of her other American colonies. The colonists had needed her assistance against the dreaded power of France, and the constant peril of interference or invasion from the French in Canada. When this danger was removed, the usefulness of the mother country was much diminished, and the annoyance caused by injudicious restraints was no longer lessened by the feeling that a suzerainty which was often a burden was sometimes a blessing. Choiseul, with the sagacity that in him was strangely mingled with frivolity and poor judgment, early discerned this danger to England, and watched eagerly the growth of discontent among the colonists towards the home government, of whose aid they no longer had need.