Chapter 2 – The Treaty of Paris and its Consequences


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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 terms of the Treaty of Paris were galling to French pride, and it was certain that French statesmen would seek revenge whenever there was reason to suppose that France had her old enemy at a disadvantage. There was no strong desire to win back the lost possessions in North America, especially in Canada. The Canadian colony had often been a thorn in the flesh, and the possible value of the great possessions held by France in America was not generally realized. Most persons regarded the West India Islands as worth more than the valleys of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi. Voltaire had written of the acres of snow, in contending for which the government wasted more money than all Canada was worth; and he expressed the views of many Frenchmen.

      But if there was no desire to recover Canada, there was a strong wish to humiliate England, and it was thought that the loss of her American colonies would be a ruinous blow to her prosperity. The gift of political prophecy is possessed by few. All then believed that the advantage of colonies to the home country consisted in holding a monopoly of colonial trade, and when this was lost, the commercial interests of the metropolis would necessarily suffer. No one foresaw that free trade with the new Republic would be better for England than forced trade with the colonists, or that the United States would add vastly more to English wealth than her American colonies had ever done. French statesmen, whose economic views were quite as antique as those of British merchants, felt a confident hope that American independence would insure England’s decline, and they were eager for an opportunity to do England harm.

      The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763, and it is not surprising to find that in the following year the secret advisers of Louis XV were preparing plans for an invasion of England. These schemes were indeed of little importance. Designed by men of small judgment, approved by a king who regarded such intrigues as a relief from the ennui under which he suffered, they had no result except to furnish an unscrupulous adventurer with a pretext for extorting money from the French treasury, and to afford Beaumarchais employment which put him in the way of future dealings with America.

      In 1758 the Duc de Choiseul became chief minister of France, and for twelve years he held that position with an influence such as had been exercised by no minister since Fleury. The obscure plots of the confidants of Louis XV in due time came to Choiseul’s knowledge. These transactions throw a curious light on the French monarchy, when the power of the royal office was exercised by an infirm incumbent. Nominally, the king was supreme; he could decide his own policy, select his own agents, and control his own councils. The theory had not been far from the reality when Louis XIV was king, except as the monarch was unconsciously guided by those skillful enough to make him believe that when he adopted their views he was announcing his own. But Louis XV left to his ministers the actual decision of questions of importance, and contented himself with obscure intrigues, carried on without the knowledge of his responsible advisers.

      Such had been these schemes for a new war with England, and the King was now in terror lest his part in them should be known by his own chief minister. He was as unwilling to face Choiseul with a statement of what he had been doing as a school-boy is to acknowledge to his teacher the occupation of a truant afternoon. Choiseul soon discovered as much as he could wisely learn; he was too judicious a courtier to subject his master to open shame, and he knew that Louis was so alarmed by the prospect of exposure that he would willingly abandon his plans and sacrifice his confederates. But if Choiseul was unwilling that such schemes should be carried on by political opponents, he was eager for the day to arrive when plans of revenge against England could be put into execution, and in the meantime he occupied himself in preparing France for the contest.

      The poor organization, the bad discipline, the scandalous abuses of the French army had much to do with the long list of defeats during the Seven Years’ War. When Louvois was war minister, the armies of Louis XIV were the best in Europe and French soldiers went forth to almost uninterrupted victory. Under Louis XV the soldiers were still brave; but inefficient generals, bad rations, and insufficient equipment involved the army in almost uniform defeat. The navy was no better, and when the English met the French on the sea, they were victorious as a matter of course.

      Choiseul undertook a thorough reorganization of the army and of the navy. To improving the condition of the navy he gave special attention; in ten years its nominal strength was doubled and its efficiency was probably increased four-fold. At the close of the Seven Years’ War the French navy consisted of forty-four ships of the line and ten frigates, mostly in poor condition (Lavisse, Histoire de France, viii[2], 375.) In 1771 there were sixty-four men-of-war and forty-five frigates, all in good condition (Ibid.) France was ready to meet England on the seas with some chance of success.

      It was important to strengthen the army and navy, but it was still more important to foster the nation’s commerce, and increase the nation’s wealth. Many things assisted in bringing about this result, and the minister was entitled to some of the credit. Methods of taxation still remained bad, but there was some relaxation in laws which had done much to check the nation’s growth. New ports were opened to commerce, the monopoly possessed by the East India Company was abolished, trade with the West India colonies greatly increased, restrictions on the movement of grain from province to province and on its exportation from the country were relaxed, and agriculture profited greatly. The doctrines of the physiocrats bore fruit. The ancient laws, by which manufactures were regulated and restricted, were in part repealed – a woman could wear a cotton dress without being sent to the pillory; a merchant could make goods to suit his customers without being put in jail. The business of the country increased rapidly. Though the government was nearly bankrupt and the treasury was always in distress, commerce flourished and the growth of wealth in the community was apparent. In 1775, France was much richer than when the Seven Years’ War ended: she had a better army, a stronger navy, a less prodigal king, and more sagacious ministers.

      While Choiseul was endeavoring to prepare his country for a new war, he observed with watchful eye the possibilities of trouble in store for England. He was one of the first to suggest that the overthrow of French dominion in America would pave the way for a revolt of the English colonies. Naturally he viewed such a possibility with satisfaction, and it furnished him some consolation for the losses which France suffered as a result of the Seven Years’ War. Any signs of discontent with English rule were closely watched, and the French minister did not have long to wait for their manifestation. Few statesmen on the continent paid any attention to the mutterings of war in scantily populated colonies three thousand miles away, but Choiseul observed them with close interest from their first beginning. He wished to be informed as to the sentiments and the resources of the colonists, and he was ready to incite them to resistance if the opportunity offered.

      The American leaders did not need any stimulus from France to stir them into activity, but the reports made by Choiseul’s representatives as to conditions in our country are not without interest. In 1764 M. de Pontleroy was despatched to America on a tour of observation, and full reports of his two years’ wanderings were sent to the French minister (Bancroft, History of the United States (ed. 1854), vi, 25.) He described the land as rich and prosperous, containing many hardy seamen and skillful ship-builders, who, in time of war, were well fitted to serve either on ships of war or on privateers. He declared that the colonists were beginning to feel their strength, and were too opulent to remain long dependent on any foreign power; he anticipated that they would not only shake off the rule of the mother country, but would invade the sugar islands of the West Indies and add them to their domain. A little later one of Choiseul’s agents in London reported that only arms, a leader, and a feeling of self-reliance were required in order to secure the independence of the American colonies, and that it was the business of France and Spain to bring about that result.

      In 1768 Choiseul wrote cheerfully that the quarrel would have no end, the colonists would soon do without the assistance of the mother country, England would be ruined, and her vast possessions in America prove a millstone around her neck.

      So far as Choiseul was concerned it made little difference to him on which side of the ocean England became involved in trouble. Speaking of a report that there bad been a riot in London and lives lost, be says, “I hardly dare hope that it is so. The English will never cut each other’s throats to the extent that we desire.”

      In the mean time a new agent was selected to gather information, and one who was destined to play an important part in American affairs. Baron Kalb apparently took his title, not by hereditary right or ancestral claim, but because he thought that it would be an advantage in his career to be called a baron. Similar instances were common in that time, and are not unknown in our own. When there is no sovereign ready to bestow a title upon a man, his only remedy is to bestow one upon himself; and if it is resolutely asserted, the owner’s right is not often questioned.

      At all events, Kalb, born near Bayreuth, of respectable but not of noble parentage, became while still a young man a lieutenant in the French service. He served with credit in the War of the Austrian Succession and in the Seven Years’ War. After that he retired on a pension and married a rich wife, but he was soon anxious to return to active service and sought employment wherever there was opportunity. He first desired a position in the Portuguese army, but after two years of intriguing he failed to obtain it.

      This disappointment resulted in his being assigned to much more important work. Choiseul decided to send a new agent to America. Kalb was strongly recommended by Broglie and Soubise, under whom he had served; he received a reappointment to the French army and was ordered by Choiseul to go first to Amsterdam and find out what he could about the American colonies, and then sail for America(Friedrich Kapp, Life of Johann Kalb, 1-46.) There he was to investigate the sentiments of the people, and their ability to furnish munitions of war and competent officers; to ascertain how many troops they could raise, the probability of a revolt against England, and of its success if it were attempted. Kalb hesitated to undertake the mission, but Choiseul told him that, after much deliberation, he had been selected for a difficult task, and he must not decline it.

      In October, 1767, Kalb sailed for America, and after a voyage which lasted more than three months, in January, 1768, he reached Philadelphia. The reports he sent back were not altogether calculated to encourage the hopes of his superior. The discontents produced by the Stamp Act and the duties on tea were still active, so Kalb wrote; even the women discarded tea and sugar, and sought to do without silks and English linen. “But,” he added, “the question is how long they will adhere to this resolution.” At present he did not think the colonies would be able to repel force by force, and said, what was undoubtedly true at that time, that at the bottom they were little inclined to shake off English supremacy, and especially with the aid of foreign powers. Yet he recognized the growing irritation produced by the policy of the British ministry, and he gave at much length the complaints which the Americans brought against the home government. All classes of people, he wrote later, were imbued with a spirit of independence, and if the provinces could be united, an independent state would soon be formed. “At all events,” he adds, “it will certainly come forth in time.” The country was becoming too powerful to be governed from London; the population was estimated at three millions, and was expected to double every thirty years. “It is not to be denied that children swarm everywhere like ants,” he wrote. The size of the families of our ancestors impressed all foreign observers(Letter of Feb. 25, 1768; Kapp, Life of Kalb, 63.)

      In March Kalb writes from Boston: “I meet with the same opinions as in the provinces I had already visited, only expressed with greater violence and acrimony” … But he added that in spite of this spirit, all, from the leaders down to the humblest citizens, cherished a strong affection for the mother country, and it would be difficult to induce them to accept assistance from other nations.

      Kalb continued his journey to Canada, and his reports from there could not have been gratifying to the home government. Only a few years had elapsed since the Canadians had ceased to be French, but they had already discovered how much their lot was improved by becoming British subjects. They paid slight taxes, wrote Kalb, they enjoyed freedom of conscience, they took part in public affairs, and as a natural result of all this, their lands had increased in value(All the above reports are from Kapp, Life of Kalb, 53-70.) The people of Canada, though they entertained a sentimental fondness for the land of their origin, had no desire to be again subjected to the evils of French colonial administration.

      Kalb did not remain long in America. He gave as a reason for returning to France that he got no answers to his despatches, and feared they had not reached their destination; but travel in this country was not then an alluring occupation. In January Kalb went from Philadelphia to New York. The weather was wintry, and when he endeavored to cross the Hudson, the boat was wrecked, the horses and luggage were lost, the passengers spent the night in a marsh without shelter of any sort, and two of them died from exposure. Kalb saved his life and his limbs, but he lost his baggage, the badge of his order, and several hundred louis d’or.

      In June, 1768, be arrived again in Paris. In the meantime Choiseul’s interest in American affairs had diminished. He was occupied with the annexation of Corsica, and there seemed no immediate prospect of any disturbance in America. When subscriptions were raised in England to assist the Corsicans, Choiseul said the French would retaliate by raising money to assist the Americans; but he did not carry out his threat (Letter of Choiseul, Jan. 18, 1769; lbid., 72.)

      Kalb waited long for an interview, and when at last one was granted, Choiseul brought it to a speedy end. “You have returned too soon from America,” he said; “you need not send me any more reports about the country.”

      But if Choiseul, with characteristic fickleness, declined to bother himself further with American affairs, the reports of his agents, the volumes of newspaper articles and fugitive papers indicating discontent with the mother country, which were carefully preserved in the French archives, show how closely French statesmen watched the possibility of trouble between England and her American colonies. Even the sermons of discontented New England divines, who were not afraid to preach politics to their flocks, found their way to Versailles (Kapp, Life of Kalb, 73.)

      If Choiseul’s policy had been followed in another matter, France might again have been involved in a war with England, under circumstances much less favorable than at the time of the American Revolution. Choiseul was bold and sometimes reckless in his foreign policies; “unquiet, aspiring, and superficial,” he was declared to be by Frederick II, the most aspiring, but also the most sagacious of European sovereigns. When the Comte de Broglie prepared plans for an English invasion, and the half-crazy Eon was sent as an agent to further them, Choiseul condemned such follies. Yet he was quite ready to take the chances of a new contest, if only he were the man to direct it, and the compact with Spain, which had been renewed by Choiseul, very nearly involved France in war with England. In 1766 a small English settlement was established on one of the Falkland Islands. These islands were of little importance, and Spain’s claim upon them rested only on vague assertions of supremacy over the South Seas. The Spanish had taken no steps to settle them, or make any practical use of their asserted supremacy, but they were offended at the action taken by England. In 1770 a Spanish armament, sent out by the governor of Buenos Ayres, landed on the islands, captured the English garrison, and carried them away prisoners.

      Though the territory in dispute was unimportant, the English were justly outraged at the insolence of this proceeding and they demanded that Charles III should disavow the act of his governor and restore the island. The Spanish were loath to do this, and yet they recognized the madness of attempting to meet England single-handed. But by the terms of the Family Compact, France was bound to come to the aid of Spain if she became involved in war, and accordingly the Spanish King declared that he would do nothing that could infringe upon his honor, and intimated that he was ready for the contest.

      There is no doubt that in this he was encouraged by Choiseul, and that rash minister was ready to involve his country in a new war on a question of Spanish etiquette. He believed that France was prepared for the contest, and be was ready to take the risk. If he could avenge the defeats of the last war, be would win great praise from his countrymen; and at any rate, he believed that war would insure his continuance in office (Mercy-Argenteau to Maria Theresa, Sept., 1770.)

      The situation of affairs was changed by the interference of the King. It was not often that Louis XV exercised any control over French policy; he was quite right in saying that he had little influence with his own ministers. But he had had enough of fighting; drawing plans for the invasion of England he regarded as an amusement, but when there was a possibility of actual hostilities, he was stirred from his ordinary apathy. He now intimated very decidedly that France would not go to war on any question of Spanish punctilio, and Choiseul’s intrigues were brought to an abrupt close. In 1770 Louis XV dismissed him from the ministry, the Spanish at once abandoned their position, and the island was restored to England. There can be little doubt that if France had become involved in hostilities with England, instead of obtaining revenge for the calamities of the late war, she would have added to them. The French were not as well prepared as when they interfered in behalf of the Americans eight years later, and the English were in far better condition. Louis XV, who had plenty of intelligence when he wanted to use it, was quite right in saying, “War in our present condition would be a frightful evil for me and for my people.” (Louis XV to Charles III, Dec. 21, 1770.)

      For a while, after the disgrace of Choiseul, American affairs received little attention in France. The whole of Louis XV’s reign was ignominious, but its closing years were the worst. The old King was sunk in sensuality and vice; Madame du Barry was at the height of her favor; the ministers were men of small capacity; sordid schemes and petty ambitions comprised the politics of the court. But on May 10, 1774, a loathsome disease ended Louis XV’s unedifying life, and the face of French politics changed in a day. From his grandson, Louis XVI, who inherited the throne, a well-meaning youth of inferior intelligence and narrow sympathies, nothing great could be expected; but he began his reign with a sincere resolve to do his duty, he desired to improve public conditions, he believed in morality and decency, and he sought the assistance of ministers who would aid him in his endeavors.

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