Chapter 17 – The Sinews of War | France in the Revolution


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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.”



      Rochambeau’s son had been chosen to convey to the French government the result of the deliberations at Hartford. He did not sail at once, for there was still hope that the second detachment might appear, and the arrival of these new recruits would render unnecessary any appeal for assistance. But neither French soldiers nor word of any sort from the French government arrived at Newport. Communications between distant parts were slow at best, and because the delivery of letters was so uncertain, it often seemed simpler not to send any at all. The representatives of governments were left uninstructed and uninformed to an extent that seems amazing, and was often embarrassing. Silas Deane wrote to his employers in Congress, in November, 1776, that he had received no letter from them for five months; and in the following year reported that in the twelve months since he had left Philadelphia on a diplomatic errand he had received from his principals three letters in all (Deane Papers, i, 340; ii, 18.) Franklin was left equally unadvised as to the progress of events or the desires of Congress; for long months his only communications from Congress were the drafts they drew upon him, without informing him of their dates, or taking steps to provide the funds with which they could be honored. Generals were in as bad a plight as diplomats. For months Rochambeau expected the arrival of recruits, who were never sent, and he was not even notified that it had been resolved not to send them.

      It had been agreed that if no soldiers arrived by October 15, Rochambeau’s son, a colonel in the French army, should sail for France with a full report of the Hartford conference, and ask in person for the relief, which was unlikely to be granted in answer to any written application. The envoy was in some respects specially well fitted for his task. In case of capture all his papers and instructions were to be thrown into the sea; but the son had so good a memory that he could deliver to the minister, word for word, the contents of his despatches (Mem. de Rochambeau, i, 256, in Doniol, iv, 384.) His memory was not put to so severe a test. Not until October 28 was there a favorable wind, but on that day the French frigate Amazon went to sea, starting in a violent gale that she might better avoid the vigilance of the British squadron. She was discovered and chased, but made her escape, and reached the French coast without further peril and after an unusually fast voyage. On the 26th of November the Vicomte de Rochambeau made his bow to Louis XVI at Versailles.

      If the voyage had been auspicious, the time of the arrival was less so. During the three years since the treaty of alliance was signed, little but discouraging news had come from France’s ally across the water, and Rochambeau had to bring still more unfavorable reports: to tell of small armies, of soldiers who were receiving poor food, poorer clothing, and no pay at all, and to ask further aid from France to buy for them muskets and uniforms and rations.

      France had just gotten through the third campaign of the alliance at an outlay of one hundred and fifty million livres, and the fourth campaign bade fair to cost much more. At this era of discouragement, the Spanish were strenuous in their advice that France should get such terms as she could for her American allies and make peace without more delay. The Spanish were engaged in negotiations with England, from which they hoped to get the utmost for themselves, by conceding to England the best possible terms with the United States. The Spanish ministers looked forward with Christian resignation to sacrifices to be made by the American colonies, in order to secure the blessings of peace for Spain. The French, said the Spanish prime minister, would become the victims of their own folly, and would find that the Americans, when once independent, would be zealous allies of England (Doniol, iv, 509.) So if a treaty could now be made which would leave the contesting parties where they were, France and the colonies ought to be content.

      But the English were in possession of New York and Charleston, and practically of three of the thirteen states; a truce for ten or twenty years on such terms would have left the colonies in evil plight. Yet Louis XVI, in the autumn of 1780, was in so despondent a mood that he was ready to authorize Spain to act as a mediator to secure peace between France and Great Britain.

      At this crisis, as during all the war, Vergennes showed himself not only a friend to our country, but a statesman of no inferior rank. He was no international philanthropist, he considered first the interests of France, but he knew that a cowardly and unsatisfactory peace was neither for the interest nor for the fair fame of his own land. “If we impose on Spain the duty of obtaining peace for us,” he wrote the King, “No one can answer for the results, nor assure your Majesty that your reputation and your honor will not be compromised.” (Vergennes to King, Sept. 27,1780; Doniol, iv, 488.)

      It was easy for a strong will to control the vacillating purposes of Louis XVI, but requests at this time for still greater exertions in the war naturally received a somewhat languid reception. Rochambeau transmitted to the ministry the messages of the Hartford conference, but any response was long delayed.

      The French treasury was in need; it was rarely in any other condition, but the cost of the war aggravated its chronic distress. Yet Vergennes was not discouraged, and the French government was not remiss in its responses to calls for aid. “It would be a misfortune,” Vergennes wrote in February, 1781, “if this campaign should pass like the preceding one, without any important result . . . We must occupy ourselves in ending the war, and this we cannot do without striking some great blow. If we succeed, that will bring an honorable peace; if we fail, we shall not suffer the shame of having neglected anything in our power to procure it.” (Doniol, iv, 544.)

      Not until March 9 was the answer to the propositions of the generals at Hartford formally announced (Reponse aux conclusions arretees a Hartford, le 9 Mars, 1781; Doniol, iv, 584, 548.) Their demands were not agreed to, and yet the aid promised was of still greater importance. Rochambeau’s request for ten thousand more men was refused, and he was informed that the second detachment, which he had so long expected, would never be dispatched. If more troops were required, the French government thought it best to supply Washington with money, so that he could strengthen his command with American volunteers. Accordingly, six million livres were promised, not as a loan but as a free gift, to be placed at Washington’s disposal (Doniol, iv, 587.) The most important decision was imparted in secret, for the information of Washington and Rochambeau. The Comte de Grasse was to depart with a powerful fleet for the Antilles, with instructions later in the year to sail to the coast of North America and there cooperate with the French and American armies in some joint movement against the English. “Provided we strike a great blow at the common enemy, and the result is fortunate . . . the place of action is of no importance.”

      While the French ministers were ready to extend aid liberally, both in men and money, they felt very doubtful about the result. They had been discouraged by years of ill-success, and still more so by the difficulties under which their American allies now labored in obtaining recruits and keeping an army in the field. News of the mutiny of the Pennsylvania regiments had reached Paris, and it was feared that Washington’s entire army might dissolve. Should this calamity ensue, said the instructions to Rochambeau, he must abandon the lost cause and sail away with his army to San Domingo or the Antilles.

      The Vicomte de Rochambeau departed with these promises of aid, but the colonists were to receive from their French ally during this eventful year a still larger measure of assistance. Not only had Washington and Rochambeau sent requests for help, but Congress had resolved on a special mission, to ask for money with which to pay the expenses of a war that could no longer be defrayed from American resources. In December, 1780, a resolution was passed that a special envoy repair to Versailles, and ask a loan of twenty-five million livres, in order that an army of thirty-two thousand American soldiers might be kept under arms until the end of the war. The demand was large, but the need was great.

      This action was accompanied by parliamentary manoeuvres, which, if they had proved successful, would have been most harmful. The most enthusiastic admirer of the Continental Congress cannot feel that it always showed wisdom in the selection of its agents. Intrigues in the halls of Congress resulted in the incompetent Gates being sent to replace the competent Schuyler, and were often directed against Washington himself. By similar processes it was now sought to displace the minister who, next to Washington, did most to secure success in the war of independence. Lee and Izard had returned from their unproductive errands abroad, and were doing all the harm they could at home. Of Franklin their denunciations were as persistent as they were virulent. If, said Lee in one of his jealous attacks, “the total disorder and neglect which prevails in the public affairs committed to him will not satisfy gentlemen that the continuance of him in office is incompatible with the public honor and interest,” there is no use of my making further charges (Wharton, iv, 184.)

      If Franklin had enemies at home, he had firm friends in the government to which he was accredited. “His conduct leaves nothing for Congress to desire,” wrote Vergennes. “It is as zealous and patriotic as it is wise and circumspect . . . The method he pursues is much more efficacious than . . . if he were to assume a tone of importunity in multiplying his demands, and . . . in supporting them by menaces, . . . which would only tend to render him personally disagreeable.” (Vergennes to La Luzerne, Dec., 1780; Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., vii, 379.)

      That Franklin made himself agreeable to the French minister was a cause of offence in the minds of some of his enemies. They believed that the way to get the most help from France was to complain of the past and threaten for the future, and that some patriot who would bluster to Vergennes, with bad manners, and in worse French, would obtain more than the smiling plenipotentiary. No idea could have been more mistaken. No man could have obtained so much from France as the minister who during long years combined unfailing tact and unbroken courtesy with unwearied zeal for the land be served.

      The effort to remove Franklin failed, but it was resolved to send a special envoy to urge the demand for a loan of twenty-five million livres which Congress now made. The choice lay between two of Washington’s aides, Alexander Hamilton and John Laurens. There was no one better fitted for such a task than Hamilton, but the Congress preferred Laurens and he was selected. The mission was regarded as of much importance. No reply had yet come to the requests sent from Hartford, and the need of immediate aid was great. Washington, most of all, realized how critical was the situation. A little before this he had written Mason: “We are without money, and have been so for a great length of time; without provision and forage except what is taken by impress; without cloathing, and shortly shall be (in a manner) without men. In a word, we have lived upon expedients till we can live no longer.” (Washington to Mason, Oct. 22, 1780; Writings of Washington, Ford’s ed., ix, 13.)

      He wrote Sullivan, who was now in Congress, to the same effect: “I will take the liberty in this place to give it as my opinion that a foreign loan is indispensably necessary to the continuance of the war. Congress will deceive themselves if they imagine that the army, or a state that is the theatre of war can rub through a second campaign as the last . . . To depend, under these circumstances, upon the resources of the country, unassisted by foreign loans, will, I am confident, be to lean on a broken reed.” (Washington to Sullivan, Nov. 20,1780; Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., vii, 297.)

      With still more emphasis did he seek to impress upon the envoy who was to visit the French court in search of aid the importance of success in his mission. “Be assured, my dear Laurens, day does not follow night more certainly than it brings with it some additionaI proof of the impracticability of carrying on the war without the aids you were directed to solicit. As an honest and candid man, as a man whose all depends on the final and happy termination of the present contest, I assert this, while I give it decisively as my opinion, that without a foreign loan, our present force, which is but the remnant of an army, cannot be kept together this campaign, much less will it be increased and in readiness for another.” (Washington to Laurens, at Paris, April 9,1781; Ibid., viii, 5.)

      A little earlier Washington had written Laurens: Without efficacious succor in money “we may make a feeble and expiring effort the next campaign, in all probability the period to our opposition.” (Washington to Laurens, Jan. 15,1781; Writings of Washington, Sparks’s ed., vii, 371.) “We are at the end of our tether,” he writes again, “and now or never deliverance must come.”

      The words of Washington had their full weight at the French court; all recognized him as the bulwark of the American cause, they knew he would send no request for aid that was not justified, and that he would utilize to the utmost whatever assistance in men or money was granted. There were others who also sought to impress on the French minister the gravity of the crisis. The last campaign, La Fayette wrote in January, had been conducted by the Americans, without having a shilling, but that miracle could not be repeated (La Fayette to Vergennes, Jan. 80, 1781; Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc., ii, 194.) Rochambeau told the American envoy to speak the absolute truth, and state the condition of distress in which his unhappy country would be unless she received prompt support (Rochambeau to Washington, Feb. 2, 1781.) The Americans were at the end of their resources, Rochambeau wrote his government, and if aid were not given, the dissolution of their army was not only possible, but probable.

      Thus fortified, Laurens sailed for France, and he arrived there in March, 1781. The French had just transmitted, by Rochambeau’s son, a promise to furnish six million livres to the colonies as a gift, besides sending a fleet under de Grasse to assist in the cause. Naturally, still further demands were not agreeable when made upon a benefactor which was itself very hard up. Vergennes complained that he was beset from every side, and that of requests for money there was no end. France was, unluckily for herself, the only country where the United States could get money. Nothing could be obtained from Spain; no other European country was willing to risk a penny in aid of the American colonies or to discount their promises to pay at any price. Frederick the Great wished them well, but not a groschen could be extracted from his firm grasp.

      Holland was friendly with the states, and at war with England, but she would not lend a guilder unless the French King would guarantee the debt. Our country was ready to send ministers to Tuscany, to Russia, to any country that would receive them; rarely did they obtain a courteous reception, and never a dollar in hard money. An American envoy was looked upon as we regard an acquaintance who, if he obtains an interview, is sure to ask for a loan, and whose ability to repay is very doubtful. A few months before, Jay, unable to raise a dollar at Madrid on the credit of the United States, had written to see if the French King would not guarantee a loan of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. “I experienced the sad sensation,” he said in his letter, “of those, who already weighed down by benefits, are forced by cruel necessity to ask for more.” (Doniol, iv, 388.)

      Vergennes, with many apologies, had been obliged to decline this request; but when Franklin a little later asked for money with which to meet drafts for a million livres, drawn upon him by Congress with no provisions for payment, the French minister saved the American ambassador from bankruptcy. Those at home who declared that Franklin was an aged. trifler, too absorbed in social pleasures to attend to his political duties, should have been comforted with the unbroken success with which their representative found means to open the French treasury, and extract money of which the French government itself had great need.

      Laurens was far from an ideal envoy. He had little experience and much impetuosity. He desired to storm the French ministry, as, at the head of his regiment, he would have stormed a barricade; he did not ask aid but demanded it; he uttered few thanks and many threats. Such conduct was little to Vergennes’s taste, and in his letters to La Luzerne he complained bitterly of Laurens’s procedure. This officer “is little familiar with the usages and consideration which are due the ministers of a great power; he has made his demands, not only with unfit importunity, but even employing threats.” (Vergennes to La Luzerne, May 11, 1781; Doniol, iv, 560.)

      But if the young officer was often indiscreet, and sometimes impolite, he was assisted by the unfailing adroitness of Franklin, end moreover the situation spoke for itself. In a pathetic letter Franklin pressed the claims of his country. “I am becoming old, I am weakened by my last illness, and it is not probable that I shall be long occupied with these matters. Therefore I seize this occasion to let you know my opinion on the subject. The present conjuncture is critical. Congress is in danger of losing its influence with the people; if it cannot obtain the aid it needs, the whole system of a new government in America may be overthrown.” (Cited by Doniol, iv, 540.)

      The Dutch would not lend to the United States, but it was decided that Louis XVI should borrow of them ten million livres and let his allies have the money. This was added to the six millions already furnished, to the cost of the French troops at Newport, and of the expedition to be despatched under de Grasse.

      Laurens sailed for home in May well satisfied with the result of his mission. “This court,” wrote FrankIin in a letter he sent with Laurens, “continues firm and steady in its friendship, and does everything it can for us. Cannot we do a little more for ourselves? ” (Doniol, iv, 562.)

      A little later Laurens arrived in Boston, bringing with him the money that had been raised in answer to the supplications of the American representatives. Louis had promised to assist the Americans in all to the amount of six million livres. A considerable part of this was spent in the purchase of arms, clothing, and ammunition for the American troops, but two million and a half Laurens brought with him in cash. It was a most seasonable gift; for it is hard to say how, without it, it would have been possible for Washington to conduct successfully his expedition to the South. It should not detract from the gratification which an American feels in the capture of Yorktown that it could not have been accomplished without the cooperation of French troops, and without the assistance of French money.

      Not only did France increase her military strength in America in preparation for the campaign in 1781, but changes in administration relieved somewhat the scandalous inefficiency of late years. The average of administrative efficiency under the old regime was poor. There were indeed illustrious exceptions: CoIbert devoted to the finances of the kingdom not only a disinterested zeal, but great ability; Louvois made the army of Louis XIV the best-equipped military machine in Europe; but the average of executive ability was very moderate. Of corruption there was much; of inefficiency there was more; of indolence and neglect of duty there was most of all. By court intrigues and personal preferences, most of the great positions in the state were filled. The traditions of public life were low. No man was thought the worse of because he became rich through the opportunities of office, while for the zealous reformer there was no room. Turgot and Malesherbes and Necker were ministers of Louis XVI, but none of them had a long tenure of power. An ancient trifler like Maurepas was selected as chief minister when Louis XVI became king, and held his place for seventeen years, until death released his grasp upon it. Sartine had been minister of the marine and Montbarey of war. Both were nobles, men of the court and of the world, agreeable to Maurepas, amiable and inefficient. Ships were not ready when expeditions should sail; provisions were unfit for use, or were not supplied at all; money flowed freely, but the results were not to be seen. “The expenses of the marine,” wrote Vergennes in 1779, “are really frightful, and I was far from having a true idea of them.” (Doniol, iv, 491.) The Minister of War was no better. His private conduct, wrote the Queen, as well as the pillage which he tolerated in his department, made it impossible for him to accomplish any good.

      These positions were now filled by men who were at least far superior to their predecessors. Castries succeeded to the marine, and the Comte de Segur to the bureau of war. It was a son of the Minister of War who served in America in the patriot cause, and has left agreeable memoirs in which he has described the impressions produced on an habitue of Versailles by the modes of life he found in the remote west. They excited in him only enthusiasm. Segur was one of the most zealous of the patrician youths who sighed for a new society and new modes of government, and who saw only felicity in a future which was to overthrow the class to which he belonged and bring to the block many of his associates.

      The Segur family displayed the contrasts so common in this period of unrest. If Segur’s views seem out of due season when France was assisting at the birth of a republic, and was herself on the verge of a revolution, he was an efficient administrator, and under him the condition of the army steadily improved.

      Another change in the French administration had little effect on the fortunes of the American war, but was of evil omen for France herself. Necker, unlike his predecessor Turgot, was neither a great statesman nor a great man. He was, however, a person of financial ability and honest purpose.

      The conditions of the French treasury grew steadily worse; the unfair imposition of its burdens and the repudiation of its obligations were potent causes of the impending cataclysm. If the French government would have paid its debts regularly, spent its money wisely, and imposed its taxes justly, the revolution, if not arrested, might have had a different history. Necker was honest and wise, he endeavored to strengthen credit, to prevent waste, and to check fraud. In one year five hundred sinecures were swept away. Internal duties which obstructed trade were abolished, the government received more money from its taxes and made better terms for its loans. By his most famous act, Necker published the “Compte Rendu ” and gave to the public some account of the use of the money which was taken from it (Charles Gomel Les Derniers Controleurs, chaps. 1 and 2.)

      If such acts pleased the public which paid the taxes, and encouraged the bankers who bid on the government loans, they aroused a spirit of discontent among those who had favor at court. Every courtier who had lost a position or feared to lose a pension was ready to intrigue against the man who questioned his right to live from the public purse. Necker was harassed at every turn. The King was weak in his support, Maurepas was active for his overthrow. The minister was denounced as a foreigner and a Protestant by those who hated him as a reformer and an economist, and in 1781 he fell from power. A successor was found in Joly de Fleury, who fostered every abuse and opposed every reform. As a result of his management the court was content and the treasury was empty.

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