Chapter 10 – The Ambition of the Comte de Broglie


    About the author

    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      Of the French who wished to enlist in the American cause La Fayette proved the most useful friend, and was among the most illustrious in rank. But there were others whose military reputation far exceeded his, and who had already won name and fame in the world. The Comte de Broglie was perhaps the most conspicuous of these would-be recruits, and the intrigues by which he sought to obtain high employment in this country possess a curious interest. To us it seems like a crazy dream to suppose that a foreign adventurer would be chosen to replace Washington as commander-in-chief of the American armies, that the American patriots would ask a French nobleman to become the dictator of the new republic. But to us the history of the war is known, and the record of the men who took part in it; all this was veiled in mystery when Broglie cherished his ambitions; the capacity of Washington for a great place in the world was still to be demonstrated, his fame was still to be won.

      The Comte de Broglie himself was a very considerable person, and a member of a distinguished family. Though it was little over a hundred years since his ancestors had left Piedmont to push their fortunes in France, they had already furnished two marshals to the French army (Duc de Broglie, The King’s Secret, i, 23.), they had filled important positions under the government, and enjoyed the most intimate relations with the sovereign, and this great prosperity had been justified by uncommon ability. The count himself was a typical member of this active and pushing family. He was an experienced soldier and a lifelong intriguer. He was a very small man, but his bead was as erect as a bantam cock, said one contemporary; his sparkling eyes, when he was excited, made him resemble a volcano in eruption, said another. When a young man, he was sent as ambassador to Poland, and afterwards he returned to his occupation as a soldier and served in the Seven Years’ War. After that, he had been associated with Louis XV in that secret diplomacy with which the King sought to dispel his ennui, but only succeeded in annoying his ministers.

      But while the count had gained a certain amount of prominence, his ambition was far from gratified. He was, moreover, regarded with ill-favor at the court of Louis XVI; the ministers were not willing to excuse the part he had taken in some of Louis XV’s unlucky intrigues, and he was looked upon as an injudicious and dangerous man. This inclined him to turn his attention to a remote field of action. Its very distance lent enchantment, and made it easy to hope that vague dreams of ambition might there be realized. He knew the actual conditions in France and Germany, and he had little reason to expect any great advancement in those countries. But on a field of action over three thousand miles removed, among a people new in the politics of the world, there might be opportunities that it was idle to anticipate in settled governments, amid experienced and sagacious competitors for favor and fame.

      It shows how little was known as to the character of the American people, that any one could believe they would accept a foreign nobleman as a practical dictator. Information as to the colonists was naturally very scanty. The French people knew that the English colonies in America had white men as well as red men for their occupants, but their knowledge did not extend much further. That there could be found in those remote parts of the world men really competent to govern a state seemed to them improbable; and especially was this true at the beginning of the war, before it became the fashion to regard America as the home of virtue and wisdom. The colonial leaders were unknown on the continent, and many intelligent Frenchmen might think it doubtful if among them was a man fit to command armies and lead a revolt against Great Britain; they deemed it unlikely that in remote and semi-civilized colonies a leader could be found to compare with a nobleman who had learned generalship in campaigns against Frederick, and had studied politics in the chambers of Versailles.

      There is to us a mild amusement in reading suggestions that our forefathers might fail under the leadership of Washington, but could insure success by taking a second-rate French general as their commander, and yet the arguments suggested in Comte de Broglie’s behalf seemed plausible to many. It was in his interest that Kalb was led to volunteer for the American service. He went over as an advance agent, to suggest, if the opportunity seemed favorable, that the struggling patriots might wisely avail themselves of the sagacity and military prowess of the count, a man versed in warfare and accustomed to deal with the great questions of the world, and that, if the colonists should ask him to come to their aid, upon fitting terms he would be willing to comply.

      In 1776 Kalb submitted to Deane a curious paper in which he stated the hopes of his patron. The very title of the communication suggested its great import: “A project of which the execution would perhaps decide the success of the cause of liberty in the United States.” “Congress,” so Kalb declared, “should ask of the King of France some one who would become their civil and military chief, the temporary generalissimo of the new republic.” The course which had been so beneficial to the Dutch provinces, when suffering from the tyranny of Spain, would be equally advantageous in the present case. “It was necessary to furnish the infant states with foreign troops, and especially with a chief of great reputation, whose military capacity would fit him to command an army against Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick or the King of Prussia himself; who would join to a name made illustrious by many heroes great experience in war and all the qualities necessary to conduct such an enterprise with prudence, integrity, and economy. . . . Numerous armies and courage,” Kalb wrote, “are not sufficient to obtain success, if they are not sustained by ability and experience. (In speaking thus I have no intention to reflect on the glory, the conduct, or the achievements of the officers who are actually in command; on the contrary I think they acted very well and bravely on all occasions, especially General Washington. But my plan is to have a man whose name and reputation alone would discourage the enemy.) . . . Many young noblemen would follow him as volunteers, for the sake of serving and distinguishing themselves under his eyes. That nobility, by its interest at court, by its own credit, or the management of its friends and kinsmen, could decide the King in favour of a war with England . . . Such a leader,” he declared with enthusiasm, “with the assistants he would choose, would be worth twenty thousand men, and would double the value of the American troops . . . This man may be found, I think that I have found him, and I am sure that once he is known he will unite the suffrages of the public, of all sensible men, of all military men, and I venture to say, of all Europe. The question is to obtain his acceptance, which, as I think, can only be accomplished by loading him with sufficient honours to satisfy his ambition, as by naming him field-marshal generalissimo, and giving him a considerable sum of ready money for his numerous children, the care of whom he would have to forego for some time during his sojourn beyond the seas, to be equivalent to them in case of the loss of their father, and by giving him all the powers necessary for the good of the service.” (Kalb to Deane, Dec., 1776; translated in Deane Papers, i, 427.)

      If it was suggested that the generalissimo might make himself a king or a tyrant, Kalb declared that such a thought would never enter Broglie’s generous heart, and that the title of duke in France would be more acceptable than that of king in America.

      This document Kalb asked Deane to submit to Franklin, who had just arrived in Paris. It is doubtful if the doctor ever saw it, and it is certain that such a project would have been condemned by his common sense. But Deane seems to have been influenced by Kalb’s arguments; he was acting with much zeal and little wisdom in enrolling foreign officers for the American service, and the idea of furnishing not only colonels and major-generals, but a general-in-chief, was calculated to allure a man of not very sound judgment.

      On December 6, 1776, he wrote the secret committee of Congress: “I submit one thought to you; whether, if you could engage a great general of the highest character in Europe, such, for instance, as Prince Ferdinand, Marshal Broglie, or others of equal rank, to take the lead of your armies, whether such a step would not be politic, as it would give a character and credit to your military, and strike perhaps a greater panic in our enemies.” (Deane confounds the Comte do Broglie with his brother, the marshal and duke. Deane Papers, i, 404.)

      In the meantime Kalb had enlisted in the American service and received from Deane a promise of the rank of major-general, together with twelve thousand livres, for expenses and as an advance upon his appointment. No less than fifteen other officers were also engaged by the eager Deane, with rank ranging from major-general down and with money paid in advance for some. Nearly all of them, curiously, were adherents of Broglie; they might advance his interest in the colonies, and be trusty members of his staff, when the count assumed his duties as general-in-chief of the American army (Kapp, Life of Kalb, 320; Doniol, ii, 50-84.)

      Broglie had remained quietly at his country seat at Ruffec while his friends were pushing his interests with the American representatives, but it was now supposed that Kalb would shortly sail for America on his mission, and on December 11, 1776, the count wrote, explaining fully his views. A certain reserve kept him from using his own name, but he described himself with entire clearness and without any undue modesty. “I am sure,” he wrote, “that you approve the plan which M. Dubois has communicated to you.” There was needed in America a military and political leader who would unite all parties, and attract to himself brave and efficient followers. Kalb’s mission was to convince the colonists of the necessity of having such a man, one of elevated rank and large experience. “When you propose the man,” said the wily count, “you must act as if you were ignorant whether he desired such a position, and you will make it understood that he will only consent to make the supposed sacrifices if he is granted extraordinary advantages.” He then suggested what these advantages should be: the rank of generalissimo; supreme authority over the army; and he adds, “Great pecuniary advantages and a large pension for life, though the amount of these would be reimbursed a hundred-fold by the value of his services.” Finally the envoy was instructed to report the actual condition of feeling, and the possibility of success. If all went well, Congress was at once to send full powers to Deane to engage the future commander. “I leave this unsigned,” adds the count at the end. “You know who I am.” (Doniol, ii, 70-73.)

      Such were the ambitions and the selfish desires of the man who thought he was better fitted than George Washington to serve the cause of American liberty. His agent was quite right in saying that Broglie had no thought of making himself a king or permanent dictator in America. He hoped to be well paid for his services, but what he most desired was that the distinction he might win there would assist him to attain the rank of duke and marshal when he returned to France.

      Kalb was long delayed in embarking for America. He expected to sail on the Amphitrite in December, but at the last moment the government forbade its departure, and some of the officers associated with him were discouraged by the delay and abandoned the project. At last, in the spring of 1777, he embarked with La Fayette on the Victory. La Fayette had seen much of Broglie, and had been assisted by him in his efforts to join the American cause. Kalb presented La Fayette to Deane, and sailed with him for America. It would seem probable that the marquis heard something of these plans, but he took no part in them, nor in his memoirs does he disclose any knowledge of them. Certainly he went to America to gratify his own desire, and not to further the ambition of any one else. He fought for his own hand.

      Kalb also desired to become himself an actor in the western war; but he was ready to further Broglie’s project, if it were at all feasible, and he hoped to create a feeling that might lead Congress to turn to the count as a protector and a savior. But he was a sensible man and soon discovered that the American Congress had small need of foreign volunteers, even of less rank than a generalissimo. It needed but a brief sojourn for him to see how chimerical were Broglie’s schemes. Like an honest man, he at once sought to undeceive his patron, and in September, 1777, he wrote: “If I return to Europe it is largely on account of the impossibility of succeeding in the great project with which I occupied myself with so much pleasure. M. de Valfort will tell you that the proposition is impracticable. It would be regarded as a crying injustice against Washington, and an affront to the honor of the country.” (Letter of Sept. 24, 1777; Doniol, iii, 227. Translated by Kapp, Life of Kalb, 127.)

      The desires of Broglie to play a great part were not gratified either in America or in Europe. There was no more talk of choosing him as generalissimo of the American armies; even the count realized that this ambition had been only a day-dream, and he was no more successful in his efforts to obtain important employment from Versailles. He submitted to the King an elaborate plan for the invasion of England, and called attention to the confidence with which Louis XV had honored him during twenty-three years. This did not secure him the confidence of Louis XV’s successor, his memoir received no attention, and he had no opportunity to show his skill as a general either in Europe or in America.

      It is interesting to watch the change in Kalb’s opinion of the American general-in-chief. Though he was free from the excessive self-assertion of many of the foreign volunteers, yet he arrived here with the prejudices of a soldier who had seen long and important service in great European wars, and with a readiness, that was neither unnatural nor blameworthy, to criticize those who, in military experience, were far his inferiors. Washington had won no brilliant victories, and while his campaigns had been marked by some degree of success, they had also been attended by some serious disasters. Kalb writes of Washington in September, 1777, soon after his arrival: “He is the most amiable, kind-hearted, and upright of men, but as a general he is slow and even indolent, much too weak and not without vanity and presumption. In my opinion, if he achieves some important successes, it will be due more to fortune and the faults of his adversaries, than to his own capacity.” (Doniol, iii, 226-227.) A little later his judgment is somewhat more favorable. “It is unfortunate that Washington is so easily led. He is the bravest and truest of men, and has the best intentions and a sound judgment. I am convinced that he would accomplish some great results if he would only act more upon his own responsibility, but it is a pity that he is so weak and has the worst of advisers in the men who enjoy his confldence.”

      A letter written still later from Valley Forge shows that Kalb was slowly coming to appreciate the greatness of the man. “He will rather suffer in the opinion of the world than hurt his country in making appear how far he is from having so considerable an army as all Europe and great part of America believe he has. This would show that he did, and does every day, more than could be expected from any general in the world in the same circumstances, and that I think him the only proper person (nobody actually being or serving in America excepted), by his natural and acquired capacity, his bravery, good-sense, uprightness and honesty, to keep up the spirits of the army and people, and that I look upon him as the sole defender of his country’s cause.” (Kapp, Life of Kalb, 137,145.) “Washington’s integrity, humanity, and love for the just cause of his country, as well as his other virtues, receive and merit the veneration of all men,” Kalb wrote in 1778, and this judgment be never found occasion to modify(Kalb to his wife, May 12,1778; lbid., 159.)

      Some account has been given of the long negotiations which at last resulted in France espousing the cause of the new republic. In the lengthy memoirs of Vergennes there is abundant statement of the reasons which led him at last to advocate such action, and in the French ministry his influence on this question certainly was of the greatest.

      But a review of the diplomatic relations, an examination of the memoirs prepared by ministers, and a study of the minutes which described the acts of the Council do not tell the entire story. The assistance given by France was so important to the United States that it is worthwhile to trace the varied causes which at last resulted in that assistance being given. I have already said that it seemed unlikely that the ancient monarchy of France should assist rebels against their king. It is interesting to consider why interference in behalf of the colonists, which certainly would not have been attempted by France if our Revolution had occurred in the early years of the reign of Louis XV, was enthusiastically decided upon in the early years of the reign of Louis XVI.

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