Franklin's presence gave to the negotiations for French support an importance they had not possessed when Deane, with an ill-defined errand, had been the sole representative of the States. And though Lord Stormont affected to regard Franklin as a fugitive seeking safety in a foreign land, he at once recognized the assistance which the party in France eager for an American alliance derived from the presence of the famous philosopher. "If reports are true," writes Stormont of Franklin, "he has already abused their ignorance . . . concerning the Americans so far as to proclaim roundly . . . that the affairs of the rebels are in a flourishing condition, while ours are desperate. When I hear such talk I make no reply. I leave that to General Howe, and I am sure that sooner or later it will be as good a reply as ever has been made." (Doniol, ii, 103.)
The alliance with France and the fate of the American colonies depended on the reply that Howe should make. Our ancestors were fond of using Roman names in their letters to newspapers, and Roman anathemas in their bursts of eloquence. If they had shared in Roman superstitions, they might have anticipated with confidence the enormous prosperity in store for the government they sought to establish. The old Romans found in lucky incidents at the beginning of any great undertaking the assurance of its happy accomplishment. No nation in the throes of birth was ever more favored in the character of its enemies than the American Republic. The stupidity of kings and ministers, the inefficiency of generals and admirals, permitted a rebellion to succeed which, with vigor, energy, and intelligence, could have been suppressed before the French made up their minds whether it was wise to assist the rebels.
Stormont left General Howe to make response to Franklin's prophecies of American success, but the expected response did not come. The prospect was indeed sufficiently unfavorable to delay the French in interfering in behalf of the colonists, but the procrastination and bad judgment of English generals gave Franklin plenty of time in which to obtain the assistance of a people already inclined to grant it. When he sailed from America in October, 1776, the opportunity to capture the American army on Long Island and win an advantage that would have crippled the insurgent cause beyond the power of resuscitation had been neglected by Howe. This crowning mercy was not, however, followed by any special prosperity for the colonists. While Franklin was on the sea, Fort Washington was captured with three thousand troops. The news followed him to France, and this calamity was succeeded by a long season of misfortune. The army under Washington was fast disintegrating, and only his wisdom and fortitude kept together a few thousand ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-armed men. The indignation excited by the brutalities of the Hessians, and Howe's failure to destroy the remnants of Washington's army, were all that the colonists could count in their favor, and the French ministers hesitated to declare in behalf of a rebellion which seemed to be in its last gasp.
Amid such discouragements, Franklin and his associates continued their efforts to obtain French aid, receiving all that the ministers dared grant without coming to an open breach with England, but failing to make of a secret friend an open ally. Not only the ill-success of the American armies, but the unfortunate character of some of the American envoys, added to the difficulties of the situation.
The American representatives at Paris were, as has been shown, far from harmonious; their relations were always unfriendly, and at times became almost a public scandal. The blame for this did not rest upon Dr. Franklin, who at Paris, as elsewhere, was one of the most affable and politic of men. But his associates had been selected with less judgment, and the character of many of our representatives in Europe during the Revolutionary War was not all that could be desired. Congress had sent over envoys and ambassadors accredited to various European courts, but few of them were received, and at Paris most of them made their headquarters. The finances of the United States were in great confusion, and as a result its representatives abroad were often put in embarrassing positions. Their pay was uncertain, their duties were ill defined, and most of them were ill fitted for any duties they had to perform.
Franklin, Deane, and Lee constituted the commission to France. Of Deane's embarrassments and misfortunes we have already spoken, but Arthur Lee did most to involve his associates in constant trouble. He came over to Paris filled with a sense of his own importance, and ready to regard his fellows with jealousy and ill-will. He soon decided that Deane was surely dishonest, Franklin was perhaps dishonest and surely incompetent. Lee was unquestionably an honest man himself, but he believed that no one else possessed that virtue. His scheme for the proper arrangement of American affairs on the Continent he stated to his brother. Dr. Franklin, he thought, should be sent to Vienna, a respectable, quiet place, and Deane to Holland. "France remains the centre of political activity, and here, therefore, I should choose to be employed."
Even the affability of Franklin could not soothe Lee's vanity nor allay his irritation. He sent constant complaints to Congress, and not only abused his associates behind their backs, but quarrelled with them to their faces. There prevailed at headquarters, so he wrote, "a spirit of neglect, abuse, plunder, and intrigue in the public business, which it has been impossible for me to prevent or correct . . . Things are going on worse and worse every day among ourselves . . . I see in every department neglect, dissipation, and private schemes . . . There is but one way of redressing this and remedying the public evil," and that was to send Franklin to Vienna, and leave Lee at Paris (Wharton, i, 499.)
Lee found a fit associate in Ralph Izard, who was sent over as envoy to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Izard made no attempt to visit the court to which he was accredited, but remained at Paris, demanding from Franklin large amounts of money, and pouring out the most virulent abuse when he did not get it. He received from Franklin two thousand guineas, and a few months later asked for five hundred more.
Franklin refused to honor the draft, calling attention to the fact that Izard had not incurred the expense of going to Tuscany. "You are a gentleman of fortune," Franklin added. "You did not come to France with any dependence on being maintained here with your family at the expense of the United States in the time of their distress, and without rendering them the equivalent service they expected." That Izard should reimburse his country for what it had already spent on his fruitless mission was Franklin's final suggestion.
If Lee regarded himself as a proper representative of the United States to France, that belief was not shared by the ministers of the French government. Nominally Franklin was one of three commissioners; practically he was treated as the sole representative, and a position of inferiority was irksome to Lee's jealous vanity. He resolved to seek other fields for his activity, a course which was agreeable to his associates and authorized by his instructions. In the minute prepared in October, 1776, Congress had said that the commissioners at Paris would doubtless have opportunities for conversing with the representatives of other European princes, and had added: "You shall endeavor, when you find occasion fit and convenient, to obtain from them a Recognition of our Independency and to conclude Treaties of Peace, Amity and Commerce between their Princes or States and us."
The representative of Spain at Paris was the Conde de Aranda, who exceeded Vergennes in his zeal for immediate action in behalf of the American colonies. The ardent minister and the ardent commissioner conferred together, troubled only by the necessity of having an interpreter. "English," wrote Aranda, "is the only language that Lee knows." (Letter of Jan. 31, 1777; Doniol, ii, 197.) Encouraged by the zeal of the count, which unfortunately was not shared by the government he represented, Lee resolved to start for Madrid, in the sanguine hope of obtaining from that country a treaty of alliance before Franklin could overcome the cautious resistance of the French ministry.
The announcement of Lee's purpose created violent commotion at the Spanish court. He was indeed to preserve the strictest incognito, to pass for a merchant attending to his affairs, furnished with a passport which described him as an Englishman. But this did not reconcile the Spanish to his visit. "This intelligence," writes the prime minister, "has been very disagreeable to the King ... It would be most unfortunate to have Lee at Madrid." He adds: "There was no necessity for the voyage." He would be discovered, and the English ministers would complain. "And still we don't want in any way to disgust or irritate these colonists." (Letter of Feb. 17, 1777; Doniol, ii, 196.)
To avoid such embarrassment, the Spanish minister adopted an expedient that was simple and effective. He sent an emissary to meet Lee at Vittoria, who was to keep him there in genteel confinement and prevent his penetrating to Madrid. Even Lee was obliged to yield to so firm a refusal to receive him. At Vittoria he remained, offering to conquer Pensacola and other possessions in return for Spanish aid, obtaining some promises and a little money. "A virgin state," Franklin said to him, using a metaphor of which he was fond, "should preserve the virgin character, and wait with decent dignity for the application of others . . . While we are asking aid it is necessary to . . . comply with the humors of those we apply to." (Franklin to Lee, March 21, 1777; Wharton, ii, 298.) There is no doubt that the virgin state, when counselled by so astute a politician as Franklin, showed much readiness to meet the peculiarities, not of those who pursued her, but of those whom she pursued.
After these vain efforts to penetrate the recesses of Spain, Lee turned to another country, where in some respects he met with better fortune. No one could be more indifferent than Frederick II to the fate of the American colonies, but no fear of English complaints would make him arrest an American envoy at the Prussian frontier. If he wasted no more affection on the Americans than on any other foreign people, he had some vigorous animosities that would be gratified by American success. Though Frederick was not willing to spend the money or the blood of his own people, even for so desirable an end, he was not only willing but very desirous that the French King should do so. A war that might cripple England, and would perhaps weaken France besides, was certainly a pleasing prospect. Frederick was constant in his efforts to incite the French to take up arms for the colonies, and indirectly he gave valuable aid to the American cause by his assurances that while France was thus engaged he would not stir up any continental question that would require her attention.
It would not cost Frederick one groat to allow an American representative to visit Berlin, and accordingly Lee made his way undisturbed to the Prussian capital. But there he met with small success. Lee had already sent a request that American ships be allowed to enter any Prussian port, but this Frederick politely evaded, not willing, as he wrote his minister, to irritate the colonists by an absolute refusal (Doniol, ii, 345.) Arriving at Berlin, Lee asked that some port be indicated where American privateers could sell their prizes, and he sought to form a treaty of commerce with Prussia. These suggestions were unfavorably received by the Prussian monarch. Until the independence of the colonists was more firmly established, he states in another letter, any commerce with them would be perilous and not worth the risk; and as for a treaty, he was in no humor to embarrass himself by complications with England in order to favor the Americans (Doniol, ii, 557.)
A new interest was given to the situation by an extraordinary incident. Elliot was the English ambassador at Berlin, and, proceeding with a degree of vigor that modern diplomacy would not approve, he had some one force his way into Lee's chamber and steal his papers. This high-handed act enraged Frederick, though it also answered his purpose, for it furnished him abundant excuse for showing some attention, even to an unofficial representative of an unacknowledged state, who had been so indecently treated by the English ambassador. But the prudent King had no thought of spending a florin of his own in assisting American rebels, and no emissary could have been less to his taste than a vain and injudicious intriguer like Arthur Lee. The British government made due apologies, Lee soon left Berlin for Paris, and employed himself in sending home lies about Franklin.
Though the American commissioners were constantly wrangling among themselves, they united in efforts to obtain further assistance from the French government. Their first requests for assistance were moderate, but in March, 1777, they submitted a more ambitious proposition in which they offered to form an alliance with France and proceed to the conquest of Canada, Newfoundland, and the West India islands. Of these spoils Canada and Newfoundland should be the share of the colonists, and the British West Indies should become the property of France.
While the French ministers were not specially allured by this project, they were rapidly reaching the point where they were ready to exchange the pretence of neutrality for the reality of an alliance. In April, 1777, Vergennes declared that, having done so much for the colonists, they must now do more. "We cannot expect," be wrote, "that what we have thus far done for the United Colonies is enough to secure their gratitude, and if they unite their forces with those the English already have in the New World, we should have small means with which to resist." (Letter, April 7, 1777 ; Doniol, ii, 341.)
While the French minister constantly asserted that his government was giving no heed to the demands of American representatives, the English ambassador was not deceived. In March be writes: "That M. de Vergennes is hostile to us in his heart, and anxious for the success of the Rebels, I have not a shadow of doubt," and he adds: "The provocation they give us is great, and there is nothing that would please me so much as to unmask their artiflce and confound their duplicity and fraud; but that must not be attempted until the day of retribution comes." (Stormont to Weymouth, March 26, 1777; Hale, Franklin in France, ii, 430.)
It was because Vergennes had so bad a conscience, and knew full well that the assistance he was secretly giving the Americans would justify the English government in declaring war on France, if a favorable opportunity should offer, that he was in constant fear of such action, and was the more inclined to begin a contest that he believed was inevitable. But still he did not wish to act without the cooperation of Spain, and his arguments were insufficient to induce that timid and uncertain power to undertake war in behalf of American independence.
The Spanish minister went so far as to promise aid to the Americans, but his assurance was marked by commendable thrift. He wished to give "a little so as to nourish their hopes." Even this promise was not kept, for some Spanish ships were captured by American captains, who, unfortunately, were not well read in Pufendorf and Grotius. By such an act Spanish dignity was offended, and it at once assumed its sternest aspect. Some French ships also were captured, but Vergennes accepted the situation philosophically, and sought to avert such evils in the future. This was not the policy of the Pardo; the ministers stormed and the King stopped the promised payments; luckily for the Americans, the promised payments were small. The American commissioners expressed their regrets and reproached the injudicious corsairs, but this did not smooth the ruffled feathers of Spanish diplomacy.
Undisturbed by such incidents, the French would probably have formed an alliance with the colonists during the summer following Franklin's arrival, had it not been for the ill-success of the American arms. During the weary months of 1777, when the commissioners at Paris fluctuated between the joyful belief that France would at once take up arms in behalf of the colonists, and the disappointment caused by constant delay, the reports from America for the most part brought tidings of disaster, and it seemed that the colonists would be forced to succumb before their possible allies could decide upon assuring their salvation. In July Ticonderoga was captured, and this success was regarded as of far more importance than it really was. George III declared that the Americans were now surely beaten, and Vergennes was afraid that such was the case. "It is a problem," he wrote, after the news of the abandonment of Ticonderoga reached France, "whether they can preserve the liberty for which they have taken up arms; attacked in the rear by the English army of Canada, while General Howe assails them in front. Have they the force, the unity, the leadership, to resist this storm ? " (Sept. 19,1777; Doniol, ii, 572.)
Another note states some of the embarrassments which hindered any decisive action: the divisions among leading men, it declared, the intrigues of the Tories, the inaction of the Quakers, or some untoward event might overthrow the edifice so hastily erected, and the powers that espoused the American cause would find themselves exposed to danger without being of any assistance to their allies (Doniol, ii, 628.)
But if these disasters chilled Vergennes's ardor, his delay aroused a storm of criticism that was valuable to the colonists. French public sentiment had long favored interference; the philosophers and litterateurs lauded the principles professed by the American patriots; ladies and gentlemen of fashion sang the praises of Franklin and Washington and their associates; young men of gallantry and ambition, like La Fayette, were embarking in the American cause. The disasters of the year were now charged by the French people to the remissness of the French government; they had delayed too long, they had let the critical and auspicious moment go by. The enemies of Vergennes filled the King's ears with complaints of the inert and unwise conduct of the minister. Even Frederick II declared that France had allowed the opportune moment for her interference to pass.
Vergennes was disturbed by these criticisms, and in November, 1777, he sent a M. Holker to visit the United States and ascertain the disposition of Congress, the resources of the people, what they were ready to do for a nation that would embark in their cause, and the actual condition of the English army (Doniol, ii, 615.)
Holker's mission was not important, for the die was cast long before he could make his investigations and send his report. On October 31, 1777, at ten o'clock on a fine morning, the brigantine Perch sailed from the Long Wharf in Boston, carrying Jonathan Loring Austin of that city, with messages from the Massachusetts Council announcing the surrender of Burgoyne and the capture of his army of six thousand men. Saratoga is justly reckoned by Creasy among the fifteen decisive battles of the world. If Burgoyne's expedition had been successful, it is doubtful if France would have interfered in the American cause, and still more doubtful if the colonists, without such assistance, could have achieved their independence.
The Perch was favored by remarkably fine weather, and in thirty days reached the French coast. On November 30, writes Austin, he first announced the news in France, and it was received with manifest joy by French as well as Americans. Leaving Nantes in a chaise drawn by three horses abreast, be made his way to Versailles, and from there to Passy. As he drove into the courtyard of the Hotel de Valentinois, he was met by Franklin.
"Sir, is Philadelphia taken? " asked the doctor.
It is," replied the messenger; "but, sir, I have greater news than that. General Burgoyne and his whole army are prisoners." (Hale, Franklin in France, i, 159.)
Beaumarchais was then visiting the commissioners at Passy. He started to carry the news to Paris in such hot haste that his carriage tipped over and he nearly broke his neck. Such casualties seemed unimportant to so eager and impetuous a friend of the American cause. "My right arm is cut," he writes, "the bones of my neck were nearly crushed . . . but the charming news from America is a balm to my wounds." (Beaumarchais to Vergennes, Dec. 5, 1777; Doniol, ii, 682.) It is sad that the American Congress, in settling Beaumarchais's accounts, showed so little of the alacrity with which he carried to the French court the good news of American success.
Upon receiving the intelligence of Burgoyne's surrender, the French government decided to espouse the cause of the American insurgents. They had long hesitated, and during the disasters of the summer, critics had declared that the ministers had hesitated too long: the golden moment had passed and the Americans, aided by no helping hand, had been overpowered by the British. It was then thought that France had delayed until the ruin of the colonies had been consummated: it was now feared that she had waited until the victory of the colonists would force England to grant acceptable terms, and the opportunity to gain the friendship of the new republic would be lost.
Vergennes had always been haunted by a vision of some sort of reconciliation between England and her colonies, and of their united arms turned to despoil France of her American possessions. He had feared this when it seemed that the cause of the colonists was hopeless; he now feared it when he thought the victory of the colonists was assured. The English, he said, were irritated because France had given so much aid to the colonists; the colonists were irritated because she had given so little.
"If the English learned wisdom from their misfortunes," wrote Vergennes as soon as he beard of Burgoyne's surrender . . . "and made terms of peace, what could France do to prevent a reconciliation?" And he continued with inaccurate prophecy: "The power which first recognizes American independence will gather all the fruits of this war." (Doniol, ii, 632.) "France must anticipate such action on England's part," he wrote again, "by greater speed in making the colonists our friends . . . My reflections are not agreeable," he said, "as I see the fatal period approach which I have always regarded as the most critical." (Doniol, ii, 622, 623.) In his uncertainty he did not derive the amusement which otherwise would have been furnished him when Lord Stormont had to announce the tidings from Saratoga. "He should have blushed," wrote Vergennes, "if he had recalled the audacious statements he had lately made about those cowardly insurgents . . . but the present crisis demands something more than pleasantries." (Doniol, ii, 704.)
The American commissioners at once renewed their demands, with the confident expectation that a favorable answer would not be long deferred. It was a year, wrote Franklin to his associates, since they had proposed to France a treaty of commerce and alliance. Their overtures had remained without definite reply, but now a favorable response would establish the credit of the United States and discourage their enemies. Thanking the King for his gracious gift of three million livres, they pressed for a further answer, desiring, next to the liberty of their own land, a firm and everlasting union between the two nations (Letter of Dec. 8,1777; Wharton, ii, 445.)
To these suggestions a reply was soon made. The long months of delay and uncertainty were at last a thing of the past. Vergennes at once prepared a paper in which he outlined the policy required by the new condition of affairs. At heart he had long been ready for an alliance with the United States and its necessary result, a war with England, but the ill-success of the colonists and the unwillingness of Spain to cooperate had prevented any final decision. Now he felt that the time for action had surely come, and there must be no more delay. He therefore prepared for the King's approval a paper in which be advised that a treaty of alliance be forthwith made with the United States.
His arguments were submitted to Maurepas, the chief minister, and by him they were presented for the consideration of the King. Maurepas fell ill of the gout, Louis visited him for further consultation, and the whole matter was gone over again. Vergennes's decision was made, at last the entire Council agreed, and the resolution to form an alliance with the United States was unanimous.
At an earlier period Louis XVI had regarded interference as unwise; he had believed with Turgot that French finance would not stand the strain of war; he felt that good faith to England and a just regard for the cause of kings forbade his espousing the cause of rebellious subjects. But now, if we may credit the statements of his ministers, the King was convinced of the wisdom of action, and ready to meet the risk of war. Louis XVI's judgment was indeed largely formed by the opinion of those around him; he had not an intelligence sufficiently active to form his own conclusions and control the action of his ministers by his own will. With different advisers he could probably have been persuaded that it was the part of wisdom for France to leave England and her colonies to fight out their own battles. On the other hand, so strong was the pressure of public opinion, so universal was the enthusiasm for the American cause, that any other ministers would probably have reached the same conclusion as Vergennes and his associates.
It was certainly a critical moment, and the deliberations between the King and his ministers were of an importance that it is hard to overestimate. The history of the war makes it seem at least probable that the colonists, left to themselves, would have failed in their effort to throw off British rule. Notwithstanding the judgment and patriotism of Washington and the fortitude of the men who bore patiently the sufferings of Valley Forge, exhaustion, the lack of arms, the lack of money, might at last have reduced the colonists to submission. After three years more of war, with the benefit of French assistance, the result still seemed doubtful, until the capture of Yorktown secured a successful termination. Without French aid, the capture of Yorktown and of Cornwallis's army would have been impossible. The United States might have won their liberty after a longer struggle; they might have failed, and at some later period have become an independent state; they might have obtained practical independence and still remained a portion of a greater England.
Nor were the results of the alliance of much less importance to France. They modified her political development, and had a large influence on the events that were soon to change the form of French government, to lead to the reign of the greatest conqueror of modern times, and at last to leave France a republic instead of a monarchy. These issues were considered by men who were sagacious but not great, and who did not realize the importance of the questions they had to decide. But the same thing can be said of most statesmen in great crises. The gift of prescience is given to few, and the most far-sighted can penetrate but little into the infinite complexity of future events.
If the motives which actuated the French ministers in their decision were not wholly philanthropic, they were neither petty nor sordid. The advantages for herself which France could hope for, and the only ones for which she asked when peace was made, were not, as Vergennes justly said, of sufficient importance to justify an appeal to arms: release from the ignominious conditions at Dunkirk imposed by the Treaty of Utrecht, some increase in fishery rights on the coast of Newfoundland, and the recovery of some petty islands in the West Indies. These were of small importance. To separate the United States from England and weaken the insolent enemy of the House of Bourbon was the object and the justification of the war (Doniol, ii, 781-788.)
In all these long diplomatic papers we find no discussion of wrongs suffered by the American colonists, of rights to be protected, or liberties to be assured. Vergennes thought that France should interfere in behalf of the colonies because thereby she could humble a rival and avenge past defeats. But though he was not moved by altruistic motives, the assistance was none the less valuable. Moreover, the spirit which led La Fayette to risk his life in aid of a people struggling to be free, represented the feelings of the French people better than the arguments of a minister who saw in this war only an opportunity for selfish advantage. Among the French people, the desire to assist the colonists in their struggle for independence was as unselfish as it was universal. The Americans loomed up before enthusiastic French eyes as heroes possessing the virtues of antiquity, and struggling for the freedom which had been dear to patriots of old. The subjects of an absolute monarchy sang the praises of liberty, and were enthusiastic for the success of its cause across the ocean. The popular feeling was strong and generous, based upon no selfish considerations of state, but upon genuine sympathy for fellow men.
Such sentiments were less potent among the statesmen in whose hands rested the final decision. It was their duty to consider the interests of their own land, and not to enter into war without proper regard for the welfare of the people whose servants they were. And yet, though the reasons for helping the Americans were discussed in grave official papers, with as little pretence of philanthropy as if it had been a question of the balance of power in Europe, it was the popular enthusiasm for American liberty which penetrated the council chamber and influenced the ministers in their decision, even if they failed to recognize such a motive.
As is often the case, the generous intuitions of the people were truer guides than the selfish counsels of statesmen. The advantages, so carefully considered by Vergennes and his associates, were realized in small degree. For some years a strong feeling of gratitude and kindliness toward France was cherished by our ancestors. This was agreeable to the French, but it was of small practical value. France did not obtain the chief share of American trade; that went to England, which had more to sell us, and was ready to buy more from us. The decline of English power, which Vergennes so confidently anticipated, he was not destined to behold. English merchants made more money out of the people of the United States than they had ever made from the American colonists; the power of England was greater under Pitt, when the people of the United States were independent, than it had been under North, when they were grumbling and discontented subjects. Nor is there any reason to believe that if peace had been made between England and the colonists before France interfered, they would have joined arms in order to strip the French of their possessions in the West Indies. Thus the arguments on which statesmen based their action were not justified in the future. But the instincts of the French nation were right: they assisted a people to gain their freedom, they took part in one of the great crises of modern progress, they helped the world in its onward march. For nations, as for individuals, that is the greatest work. The reward is not to be found in more vessels sailing, laden with wares, nor in more dollars gained and deposited in banks, but in the consciousness of the unselfish performance of good work, of assistance rendered to the cause of freedom, and to the improvement of man's lot on earth.
On the 17th of December, 1777, Gerard went to the house of Franklin and his associates at Passy, and imparted to them the momentous intelligence that Louis XVI had decided to recognize the independence of the United States, and to make with them a treaty of commerce and friendship. A ship was to sail forthwith that would carry the news to America, and the commissioners had the pleasure of reporting to Congress the resolution of the French King. The news of the surrender of Burgoyne, they wrote, had been received by the French with as universal joy as if it had been a victory won by their own troops over their own enemies. This joy had soon ripened into action. Gerard yesterday, they said, informed them that the King was ready to acknowledge our independence and make a treaty. "In this treaty no advantage would be taken of our present situation to obtain terms from us, which otherwise would not be convenient for us to agree to, his Majesty desiring that the treaty once made should be durable and our amity subsist forever." (Letter of Dec. 18, 1777; Wharton, ii, 452.)
As the representatives of France were ready to agree to the terms which the American commissioners proposed, there was little delay in the negotiations. On February 6, 1778, treaties of alliance between the King of France and the United States were signed by the French ministers in behalf of Louis XVI, and by Franklin, Deane, and Arthur Lee for this country. The commissioners reported that in the negotiations the promise to make no effort to take advantage of present difficulties in order to obtain disadvantageous conditions was fulfilled. The states were in great need and France could have driven a hard bargain in return for her aid, but the treaty was drawn as if the two powers had been of equal strength and equally in need of the alliance. Such had been the King's goodness, reported the commissioners, that nothing had been proposed which they could not well have accepted in a condition of complete prosperity and recognized power. Equality and perfect reciprocity had alone been desired, commercial privileges had been mutual, and nothing had been granted that could not be accorded to any other nation. Having reason to be satisfied with the good-will of the court and of the French nation, they hoped that Congress would adopt every means that could render the alliance lasting (Letter of Feb. 8, 1778; Wharton, ii, 490.)
Vergennes, in reporting the treaty to the French ambassador at London, took the same view of it as the American envoys. "We have not wished to procure," he said, "commercial advantages which could make any other nation jealous, and which the Americans would regret in the future that they had granted us." (Vergennes to Noailles, March 10, 1778; Doniol, ii, 822.)
Two treaties were executed: one of commerce, and the other providing for mutual defence and alliance. The terms of the treaty of commerce conformed largely to the proposals which Congress had intrusted to the commissioners. Each party was placed on the footing of the most favored nation. The French King promised his good offices with the Emperor of Morocco and the rulers of Algiers and Tunis, that those much dreaded pirates might leave the ships and citizens of the United States in peace. Our own privateers and their prizes were granted free access to French ports, but they obtained few advantages by treaty which they had not already been allowed by favor. How remote were the two sides of the Atlantic was shown by the provision in reference to the carriage of goods belonging to citizens of a power with which either of the contracting parties might in the future be at war. Two months were granted to ascertain the fact that such a war had begun. At the expiration of that period it was to be presumed that the news would have crossed the Atlantic, and penetrated into the ports of seafaring men.
Of greater importance was the second treaty, by which France agreed to come to the aid of the thirteen states. The only condition that France imposed upon her American allies was that they should make no peace until their independence was recognized, and that the allies should unite in any treaty. This surely was not a grievous condition. France guaranteed to the United States her independence, and in turn our country guaranteed to France her possessions in the West Indies. It must be confessed that at that period the French guarantee would have been regarded as of higher value. By secret agreement it was provided that Spain might join in the alliance, but of this privilege she never availed herself.
The American commissioners at once reported to Congress the great intelligence, with a pardonable pride in the result of their negotiations. It was with good cause that they congratulated their fellow citizens on an event destined to thwart the desires of their enemies and fortify the hopes of their friends. To this they added fervent expressions of gratitude to France, and of admiration of the upright and disinterested conduct of Louis XVI (Wharton, ii, 490.)
Vergennes endeavored, but in vain, to have Spain join France in an alliance with the American colonies. When it had been finally resolved that a treaty should be made with the United States, the Spanish King was at once notified of the decision reached by his nephew in France. The critical moment had at last arrived, he was told, and the French King could no longer remain inactive. "Providence has marked this epoch," it was said, "for the humiliation of a power, greedy and unjust, which has never known any other law than its own interest"; and the letter proceeded with a statement of the somewhat dubious political morality which then prevailed in every European monarchy. "Kings, when the welfare of their people is concerned, are not perhaps subjected to the rules of as rigid a morality as binds private persons in their actions."
Yet without any necessity of appealing to such a principle, there were many reasons which made an immediate war with England entirely just. Such a contest was certain sooner or later; the question was whether it was better to meet it with America as a friend, or with America again united to England. "Shall we sleep in false security, and lose the one chance which may offer itself for centuries to reduce England to her true position? . . . Never was such an opportunity furnished the House of Bourbon" to lower the pride of her enemy, and to form with the United States an alliance of which the benefits should be incalculable (Doniol, ii, 627, 664.)
But Spain could not be moved to sudden action by any arguments. The French ambassador visited the Spanish minister and debated the matter with him for five hours, but neither hours of argument nor reams of correspondence could induce the Spanish government to reach a decision. There was no haste, said Florida Blanca, and he submitted a letter containing not less than sixteen elaborate questions, to which answers must be given before any decision could be made. Vergennes sent the answers, but he did not wait for the close of a debate which would surely occupy many months. It was most painful to the King, he wrote the French ambassador at Madrid, to make this decision alone, but the interests of the two monarchies would not permit his Majesty to remain in a state of inactivity which might be fatal to both (Jan. 8,1778; Doniol, ii, 730.)
Though with much reluctance, Louis XVI signed the treaty of alliance with the United States without waiting for his Spanish kinsman. The Spanish were neither ready for action nor pleased that the French should act without them. While unwilling to reach a conclusion himself, the Catholic King manifested considerable annoyance because his Most Christian nephew had decided to help the Americans without waiting for the cooperation of Spain. As they disapproved of any treaty, naturally they were ready to criticize the terms of the one made, and declared them absurdly liberal. The Spanish minister compared the American commissioners to the Roman consuls whose aid eastern kings had begged, and said that the treaty, on the part of France, was quixotic in its liberality (Doniol, iii, 23.)
Now that the French King had formally recognized the new republic and had entered into treaty with it, the position of the American commissioners was altered. They had been kept in obscurity, had negotiated in stealth, and been received by under-secretaries or at private interviews. This was now changed. On March 16 Stormont left Paris for London, and on the 20th the American commissioners were formally presented to Louis XVI by Vergennes. They were not, indeed, received with all the ceremonial of accredited ambassadors, but their interview was as agreeable as if every detail of diplomatic etiquette had been complied with, and the presentation excited a degree of attention which was rarely given when the representatives of powerful governments and ancient monarchies were received at Versailles.
It was indeed a notable event in Franklin's extraordinary career. His government had been acknowledged by a great European power, and a treaty made that insured the liberties of his nation, and this was, in large degree, the fruit of his own labors. His admirers recognized how great was the triumph. As he proceeded to the interview he was greeted by applause, not only in the streets of the city, but in the sacred precincts of the palace. The King was less enthusiastic, but he was civil, and all went well. The impressions produced upon Franklin himself, as he has recorded them, are characteristic of the man. He was little affected by the splendors of Versailles, but the fact that the palace was ill kept, that sweeping and other sanitary provisions were neglected, impressed his practical and somewhat prosaic mind (Sparks, Diplomatic Correspondence, i, 374.)
After the reception was over the commissioners called to pay their respects to Madame de La Fayette, who was then at Versailles, and assured her of their gratitude for her husband's efforts; and they then dined with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
These formalities had been preceded by another ceremonial still more interesting. Paul Jones was then commanding the Ranger, from the mast of which floated the flag of the new republic. The hardy corsair, who now found himself the officer of a recognized government, wrote to Deane telling him of the first salutes exchanged between the flag of liberty and that of the ancient monarchy of France. On arriving at Nantes, Jones inquired if the French admiral would return his salute, and was informed that, as a senior officer of the American navy now in Europe, he would be given the salute authorized for an admiral of Holland. A little after sunset on March 14, the Ranger discharged thirteen guns in honor of the French admiral, and in reply nine guns saluted the flag of the United States. Jones would have preferred equal honors, but the difference between an ancient monarchy and a new republic had to be recognized. French officers visited the Ranger and delighted Jones's heart by declaring her a "perfect gem" (Translation of intercepted letter; Doniol, iii, 3.)
In April the news of the French alliance reached America and was welcomed with an enthusiasm befitting its importance. In Congress a resolution was passed expressing its high "sense of the magnanimity and wisdom of his most Christian majesty," and presenting "grateful acknowledgments" for the "generous and disinterested treaties." It sincerely wished that the friendship so happily commenced might be perpetual.
The treaty excited no less enthusiasm in the army, and no one appreciated its importance better than the commanding general. No one recognized more clearly than he the defects in our military and financial system and the importance of an alliance with a great military power. In an order issued by Washington at Valley Forge on May 6, he declared that it had pleased the Almighty Ruler of the universe to raise up for us in our need a powerful friend among the princes of the earth. In recognition of this the brigades were to meet at nine the next morning, when the chaplains would communicate the intelligence, offer up thanksgiving, and pronounce discourses suitable to the occasion. The men were then to be inspected, amid discharges of cannon, and at a given signal the whole army should huzza "Long live the King of France," and this should be followed by a huzza for the American states.
Our ancestors celebrated the alliance in a manner befitting good Puritans by listening to lengthy sermons, but they indulged also in other festivities. The sermon was followed by a great dinner, a somewhat rare occurrence at headquarters, where supplies were often scanty. It was attended by the officers and their wives and many distinguished personages. Washington, Greene, and many other generals were present; conspicuous among them all was the youthful La Fayette, who had done so much to excite among the French people an interest in the American cause. Mrs. Washington, Lady Sterling, and other ladies were among the guests.
Similar celebrations occurred in many places. Ministers preached and cannon roared in honor of the great event. Yet, while the intelligence of the alliance was hailed by all earnest patriots as the guarantee of ultimate success, the old distrust of France appeared in the outcry with which some greeted the treaty. Dancing-masters, said the critics, would now instruct the Puritans in manners, and priests would save their souls; Americans had left a loving though severe mother for a treacherous step-mother, and the French alliance would bring to the American cause inevitable ruin. Such were the predictions made by the Tories, but they were not to be verified in the future (C. H. Van Tyne, The Loyalists in the American Revolution, 152-156.)