Chapter 13 – France Sends a Plenipotentiary


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    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.”



      The new republic was now a recognized ally of the ancient monarchy, and this recognition was at once followed by sending to the states an accredited diplomatic representative. For some years Franklin and his associates had represented the United States at Paris, but France had sent to America only unofficial agents, whose duty was to spy out the land. The position of minister to this new and unimportant republic was not regarded like the great ambassadorships, to Vienna, London, and Rome, and it was rendered less attractive by the perils and discomforts of the long voyage across the water. Furthermore, life at Philadelphia among a strange people, with different manners and customs, possessed no charm for a diplomat used to the society of the large cities of Europe. Yet, with the certainty of war with England, it was important to have a representative who could judge accurately of conditions among the new allies and stimulate them to zealous action in the common cause.

      The choice fell on a man who did not belong to the great nobility, to which the most important diplomatic posts were usually assigned, but who was peculiarly fitted for this position. Conrad Gerard de Rayneval had been Vergennes’s first assistant, and was familiar with all the negotiations which led to the alliance with the United States. To long experience he added a qualification less common among French diplomats, a good knowledge of English. Partly for this reason the negotiations with the American colonies had been largely committed to his charge. When Franklin first arrived and Vergennes wished neither to repel the Americans nor to excite the wrath of the English ambassador by treating with them too publicly, it was easy to refer them to Gerard, who could talk their language, and was therefore a fit person to conduct the negotiations. Gerard entertained the American representatives at his house, and was the mouthpiece of the ministry, before the French government decided on open action in behalf of the colonies; when this resolution had at last been reached, Gerard was intrusted with the agreeable duty of visiting the American commissioners at Franklin’s house in Passy, and informing them that Louis XVI was ready to form an alliance with the new republic. Gerard’s name was signed to the treaties, and it was natural that he should be chosen as the minister from France to the Republic of the United States; there was no Frenchman more familiar with the conditions to be encountered in America or better fitted to deal with them. He was the first of a long line of distinguished representatives.

      The instructions given Gerard disclosed the hopes and the fears of the French government. He was to guard against the possibility of Congress making a separate peace with Great Britain, and to assure that body in the most positive terms that Louis XVI would listen to no propositions from the enemy, and would not lay down arms until the absolute independence of the thirteen states had been recognized by England.

      The relations of France with Spain now, as during all the progress of the war, were a source of embarrassment. While Spain had made no treaty with the United States, France was bound to act in their interest and to secure for them Florida and a possible share in the Newfoundland fisheries. Gerard, therefore, was to dissuade Congress from any plan that might include the acquisition of the Floridas. Nor did France desire that Canada should be added to the thirteen states, for reasons which the instructions stated with unaltruistic clearness: the retention of Canada by England would make the Americans feel their need of the friendship of France.

      Gerard’s skill was sufficient to secure these objects, but the final instruction which he received was beyond his power to accomplish. “It is probable,” said the document, “that Congress will show a desire for subsidies from France.” Such requests Gerard was to check, by explaining that the efforts which France must make in the common cause would involve great expense and render it impossible for her to furnish pecuniary aid; he must convince the Americans that the French fleet was worth more to them than French money. “His Majesty was persuaded,” so the document ran, “that Congress would easily yield assent to such conclusive reasons.” (Instructions to Gerard, March 29, 1778; Doniol, iii, 153)

      If the King was thus persuaded, he was much mistaken. In part, perhaps, influenced by Gerard’s advice, Congress displayed no covetous desire for Florida and made no vigorous effort to conquer Canada, but nothing could keep it from demanding subsidies; fortunately for the interests of the states, the French King was not persuaded by his own arguments, and gave to repeated requests repeated satisfaction.

      It was thought desirable that Gerard should conceal his departure, and on April 11 he sailed from Toulon, ostensibly for Antibes; but when off Hyeres he embarked on the Languedoc, one of d’Estaing’s fleet, bound for the United States. After a journey of ninety-one days he reached his destination and was landed a few miles from Philadelphia.

      There was no lack of interest in the reception of the representative of our powerful ally. A delegation from Congress met him, and he drove to Philadelphia in Hancock’s carriage. Soldiers were drawn up in the streets to greet his entrance, and salutes were fired. The importance of the event was not underestimated. “I had the honor of being present the last Sabbath,” writes Henry Marchant, a member of Congress from Rhode Island, “at the most interesting interview that ever took place in America, or perhaps in the world, between Monsieur Gerard, the plenipotentiary of France, and the President of Congress . . . This interview was most cordial, generous, and noble.” (William Read Staples, Rhode Island in the Continental Congress, 191.)

      No permanent residence had yet been selected, and Gerard was entertained temporarily by Benedict Arnold, who was then commander at Philadelphia. Although arrangements were not yet made for his formal reception, the house overflowed with visitors; most of the members of Congress and the principal officers of the city, “even the most phlegmatic,” we are told, hastened to pay their respects. Representatives of the English King had lately visited Philadelphia in the hope of recalling the colonists to their allegiance by the offer of liberal terms. The news of the alliance with France destroyed even the remote possibility of success in such an effort. The English, it was charged, were provided not only with arguments, but with money, with which to persuade the members of the Continental Congress. None of the money seems to have been used, but presents which indicated good fellowship had been scattered about. These were now put to a use which would have been distasteful to the donors. A grand dinner was given Gerard, and he wrote home that the guests feasted on turtle and wine that had been sent members of Congress by the English commissioners (Doniol, iii, 270.)

      The members of Congress were most pleased to have a representative of France accredited to them, but they were somewhat uncertain as to the proper manner of receiving him. So embarrassing was the question that a special committee was appointed, which investigated the reception of foreign representatives with great care. They found that the proper form when an ambassador arrived was to have three members “wait upon him in a coach belonging to the states” and that “the person first named of the three shall return with the ambassador and his secretary in the coach”; and on reaching the chamber of Congress he should be seated on a chair raised eighteen inches above the floor. Since Gerard was only a minister, he must be content to be waited on by two members and was not entitled to have his chair raised from the floor at all (Journals of Congress, Ford’s ed., July 17,1778; Doniol, iii, 302.)

      Not until August 3 did Lee and Samuel Adams, as commissioners of Congress, formally notify Gerard that on the 6th, at noon, Congress would give him audience. On the morning of that day Lee and Adams called on him, and mounted in a carriage, drawn by six horses, they proceeded to the hall of Congress.

      There the minister was placed in a chair opposite the president. The thirty-two members of Congress were arranged in a half-circle around the room; we are told that the chairs of the president and the minister were large and of equal size, while those of the other members of Congress were of modest proportions. Gerard presented his letters, which were first read in French, and the thirty-two members listened attentively, though few understood them. Afterwards an English translation was read. The minister was then formally presented and delivered his address standing; the president made his reply, also standing; the minister saluted Congress and Congress saluted the minister, and the function was closed.

      A doggerel verse ran: –

      “From Lewis M. Gerard came
      To Congress in this town, sir
      They bowed to him and he to them,
      And then they all sat down, air.”

      Rivington’s Gazette, Oct. 3, 1778. – See Frank Moore, Diary of the American Revolution, 607; Journals of Congress, Ford’s ed., Aug. 6, 1778; Doniol, iii, 311-318.

      As we have seen, if Gerard had been an ambassador instead of minister plenipotentiary, etiquette would have required a larger delegation for his escort, and that he should have read his address sitting. “Congress has somewhat confused notions,” wrote Gerard, “concerning the dignity and etiquette befitting a sovereign state, but they desire no unnecessary ostentation and pomp.”

      Marchant writes of the reception: “It was an important day, . . . and I hope replete with lasting advantages to the United States in general and to the State of Rhode Island in particular . . . I think the connection brought about by the hand of Heaven, and that thereupon it promises to be lasting.” (Staples, Rhode Island in the Continental Congress, 193.)

      A great dinner at the City Tavern ended the day. Twenty-one patriotic toasts were drunk, to the booming of cannon and to the reasonable exhilaration of those who joined in all of them.

      Gerard proved himself a useful representative for his government. He was judicious, discreet, and avoided any diplomatic entanglements. His reports on the country to which he was sent were not always laudatory, but they were reasonably accurate. He was in sympathy with Vergennes’s resolve that no peace should be made until the independence of the United States was acknowledged, and to that end he was always loyal. When the question of the western boundaries arose later, though Gerard was guilty of no unfairness to the Americans, his sympathies were more with Spain. He wrote Vergennes, advising him to encourage Spain to get possession of whatever posts she could in the Mississippi Valley. He had told Congress that its persistence in an effort to establish its power on the Ohio, and the Illinois, and at Natchez would show an unfair spirit of conquest, that such an acquisition was absolutely foreign to the principles of the French and American alliance. He declared “that his King would not prolong the war one single day to secure to the United States the possessions which they coveted . . . Besides the extent of their territory already rendered a good administration difficult, and so enormous an increase would cause their immense empire to crumble under its own weight.” (Doniol, iv, 72-75.)

      Nor was his sympathy any stronger for our forefathers on the question of the fisheries. He was indeed content that the Americans should get what they could, but he did not feel that France was bound to prolong the war in order to gain for its allies advantages which were not stipulated in the original treaty. But in this there was no cause for complaint. Gerard was the representative of France and not of the United States. His career was marked by courtesy, by regard for the obligations which France had undertaken, and by a sincere desire to assist the allies of France to bring their struggle for independence to a successful termination (Doniol, iv, chap. 3.)

      In September, 1779, Gerard was relieved from his position as minister to the United States, and returned to the French Department of State. He carried with him the good-will of those to whom he was accredited. Congress asked that his portrait might be placed in its halls, so that it should recall how much his constancy and zeal had contributed to the consolidation of the alliance and the prosperity of the two nations. The merchants of Philadelphia presented him an address. All joined in wishing him godspeed, and to this friendly greeting he was fairly entitled (Doniol, iv, 209,210.) He had done his work satisfactorily to his own government and with reasonable regard to the interests of the people of the United States. The most important part of the work was now accomplished. He was glad to return to his own land, while La Luzerne assumed the position of French minister at Philadelphia.

      Cesar Anne de La Luzerne arrived in Philadelphia September 21, 1779, but did not have his first audience with Congress until the 17th of November. From that time until the end of the war he performed his official duties faithfully, winning the esteem of the American people by the suavity of his manners and the discretion of his conduct. He tried to carry out the spirit of the alliance on principles of equity and reciprocal interests. He remained in the United States for five years, and was succeeded by Barbe-Marbois (Wharton, i, 423.)

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