Chapter 3 – The Diplomacy of Vergennes


    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.”



      The young King received the popular favor which is readily bestowed on royalty combined with youth. Nothing could be worse than the old King, and the people looked with hope upon a new sovereign, who, though he had done little to arouse ardent anticipation, had done nothing to excite popular disapproval. It was natural that a new ruler should choose new ministers, and there was special reason for change. Those in office shared the discredit which attached to the closing years of Louis XV’s reign, and in addition to this, they were regarded as the creatures of Madame du Barry.

      Public opinion in France was not severe and was habituated to royal gallantries, but it had been outraged by the favor bestowed upon a woman like du Barry, and the ministers who had shared her power also shared her unpopularity. She was at once exiled from court, to the delight of all decent people, and the ministers of Louis XV were speedily removed.

      It was believed by many that Choiseul would now return to power. He was the most prominent of French statesmen; if not the ablest, he was the most brilliant; he had been disliked by Madame du Barry, and his return to favor might naturally follow her overthrow. Such expectations were disappointed. Choiseul’s brilliancy did not appeal to a slow-witted youth like Louis XVI, while many of the duke’s qualities were distasteful to the King. Choiseul was a spendthrift, his life was immoral, his tongue was bitter, and his criticisms had spared neither king nor courtier. Louis selected for the head of his Council the Comte de Maurepas, a man of seventy-three, who had been out of office for quarter of a century. He was well known as a wit, as a satirist, as a great nobleman who patronized literature and condescended to scholarship. He had held office almost from boyhood until middle age, and had then been driven from power by the hostility of Madame de Pompadour. That might perhaps have been to his credit; but as he had aroused her hostility by some very indecent verses he wrote concerning her, his overthrow excites less sympathy than if it had been due to the fearless performance of public duty. At all events, he was now recalled, and he remained in office until his death on November 21, 1781.

      A man whom years of alternate favor and disgrace had left weary of the struggle was not likely, at seventy-three, to adopt new or vigorous measures, either in domestic or foreign policy; but the position of secretary of foreign affairs was filled by one who played a great part in the history of France and of our own country. For this office the King made choice of Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, then stationed at the court of Sweden.

      The selection of Vergennes was of much importance to the American colonists. It is indeed probable that France would ultimately have become our ally, no matter who was at the head of her foreign department. Yet Louis XVI was at no time eager to interfere in our affairs. His temperament was sluggish, and was not stirred by any love for adventure or for the hazard of war; his instincts were monarchical, and the pictures of republican virtue and democratic simplicity which charmed French society did not allure him. If he had been governed by the counsels of an adviser like Turgot, the colonies might have been left to fight out their own salvation.

      Not only had Vergennes much to do with the momentous decision, but during five years of war be did his best for his allies. He did not respond to all their demands for money, but he gave liberally and steadily the pecuniary assistance without which the American armies might have dissolved from lack of clothes and food. He considered first the interests of his own country, as was his duty; but never, during long years of indifferent success, did he waver in his resolution that peace should not be made until the independence of the United States was assured. For that object France had taken up arms, and until it was accomplished Vergennes would listen to no suggestion that she should lay them down. He was a cold man, but he was constant; his memory is not green in America like that of La Fayette; he had few of the endearing qualities and none of the ardent enthusiasm of the marquis; he felt for the American patriots little of the fervid admiration of some who fought for us and many who talked of us; but he did more than any other Frenchman to secure political independence for the American colonies.

      Vergennes was fifty-seven years of age when Louis XVI selected him for secretary of state, and he had followed the profession of diplomacy during most of his active life. Almost quarter of a century earlier he had been minister at Treves; a few years later he represented France at a diplomatic congress at Hanover, and he was then sent as ambassador to the Porte, in which difficult position he conducted himself with judgment and sagacity. In 1771 he was intrusted with an important mission to Sweden, and it was there that a summons reached him to return to Paris and assume the office of secretary of state for foreign affairs.

      He did not belong to the great nobility, he had little court influence, and he owed his appointment to the personal choice of the young sovereign. Vergennes was not a great man, but he was a sagacious and prudent statesman, and he devoted himself laboriously and intelligently to the service of his country. If he was not as brilliant as Choiseul, he was a much safer public servant. His industry was unwearied; he was often at his office at eight in the morning, he was not unfrequently there at ten at night, and to industry and intelligence he added, not perhaps unselfishness, but integrity. Making money out of official position, unless actual dishonesty was added to greed, was in that day regarded with no disapproval; the man who neglected such opportunities was thought to be a strange and not altogether an admirable creature. When Lord Stanhope declined the bribe of six hundred thousand livres which Dubois offered him, the abbe declared such conduct heroic. If not heroic it was unusual.

      To the self-seeking politicians of England, the first Pitt seemed a marvel because he declined profits that he might have pocketed. Pecuniary standards were no higher in France. Vergennes was not a dishonest man, nor was he regarded as a greedy man. He did not accumulate great wealth out of his office as Richelieu and Mazarin had done, but it would have been thought absurd if he had not availed himself of what were deemed to be the legitimate gains of royal favor and important position. He left a fortune of about two million francs, an amount of which the purchasing power would be little short of two million dollars today. Such wealth did not indicate dishonesty, though probably the larger part of it represented the direct or indirect gains of holding office. Pecuniary disinterestedness in a public man was very nearly a thing unknown. We are disturbed when men in public life use their positions, not for actual corruption, but for greedy accumulation at the expense of those they represent. In the eighteenth century sentiment in Europe would not have been disturbed by such disclosures, and the number of offenders would have been very nearly measured by the number of those who had the opportunity. Few men got poor in politics a hundred and fifty years ago, except in a poor nation like ours, where there was little opportunity to make money. When Vergennes died, in 1787, Franklin, who knew him well, said that the taking away of so wise and good a man was a loss to mankind. He was surely a wise man and be was not a bad man, though both his political and his pecuniary standards were lower than those which public opinion now requires.

      The King called to office a greater man than Vergennes. Those who recognized the necessity for a radical change in French administration might have felt ground for hope when Louis, in the summer of 1774, selected Turgot as his minister of finance. Turgot had neither a great family nor influential friends to help him into office, but he had shown his fitness for this position during his administration as intendant at Limoges. He was known as one of the few officials in France who improved the lot of those under them, as a disciple of legislative reform, identified with the economists and philanthropists. Turgot did away with the corvee, he reestablished free commerce in grain within the kingdom, he abolished many iniquitous taxes, he checked many useless expenditures; his policy would have relieved the poor from much of the undue taxation which fell upon them and would have averted the bankruptcy to which the government was rapidly progressing. “It is only Turgot and I,” said Louis of him, “who love the people.” But if the King could recognize the wisdom of Turgot’s plans and sympathize with his efforts to improve the condition of the people, he had not the firmness to support his minister against a host of enemies exasperated by his reforms. Turgot’s tenure of office was brief. The innumerable enemies excited by his efforts at reform were soon powerful enough to bring about his overthrow; if he had remained in office and been given a free hand, it is possible that the changes he would have carried into effect might have saved France from a revolution.

      That he was opposed to an alliance with the colonists may forfeit his claim for gratitude upon Americans, but should increase their respect for his judgment as a French statesman. Turgot viewed the question from a financial aspect, and he was right in saying that such a war would complete the ruin of a financial situation already in desperate plight. Naturally, we admire the action of France in assisting our forefathers to achieve their national independence. If the policy of a nation is to be judged by its influence upon the world, the assistance France gave us was an act of high import to the interests of civilization; but after all, it was the business of French statesmen, under the French monarchy, to preserve the system of which they were servants; to improve it doubtless, to fit it for the future, but to save it from destruction. The man who is willing to involve his own country in ruin that he may assist other lands, manifests a high degree of national altruism; but it remains a question whether he is a useful citizen of the country to which he owes his allegiance. If Louis XVI had been governed by Turgot’s counsel, the monarchy would not only have escaped the dangers threatened by a continuance of unbearable abuses, but would have been saved from the perilous effect on French thought produced by interference in behalf of a people who demanded political freedom. But Turgot was a prophet without honor, and heads less level and more visionary directed the destinies of France.

      Towards the last of July, 1774, Vergennes returned from his mission in Stockholm to enter upon his duties as secretary of foreign affairs. The French were already watching with attention the growing prospect of revolt in the American colonies. Gerard de Rayneval, who was to take so active a part in the affairs of America, was filling Vergennes’s place in the interim, and he wrote early in July to the charge’ d’affaires in London: “We are awaiting the moment when the fate of the Bostonians will be decided. General Gage will need much talent and much sagacity and patience to calm the spirit of insubordination which has possessed almost all the English colonists.” (Gerard to Garnier, July 3, 1774; cited by Doniol, i, 12.) In September, after Vergennes had assumed the duties of his office, he wrote: “The quarrel between the colonies and the British government seems to become more serious every day . . . It may prove the most fatal blow to the authority of the metropolis.” (Vergennes to Garnier, Sept. 11, 1774; Doniol, i, 13. )

      The minister was right in saying that the quarrel constantly became more serious, and it was more closely watched in France than in any other part of the continent. Russia, Austria, and Prussia had no American colonies; they derived a mild pleasure from the complications in which England was involved, but they were little concerned by the progress of American discontent. Though Spain had great American possessions, her apathetic government exhibited no interest in anything, except the possibility of some immediate gain for Spain herself. But France could not be indifferent to the future of a continent in which for almost two centuries she had been largely interested, and her feeling of rivalry towards Great Britain was stronger than that of any other European state.

      In time popular sympathy with the colonists became an important factor, but the probable results of American insurrection were considered by French statesmen long before they excited any interest in the French public. Vergennes and his associates believed that the loss of the colonies would prove fatal to England’s commercial power. “If the resistance of the Americans is successful,” wrote the French minister at London, “this memorable epoch will reduce England to a point where she will no longer cause disquietude to France, whose consideration on the Continent will increase in proportion to the enfeeblement of the British Empire.” (Garnier to Vergennes, Aug. 16, 1776; Doniol, i, 585.)

      A similar belief was held in America, on the Continent, and in England herself. The feeling was widespread that if the American colonies achieved their independence, this would be a fatal blow to the power, the wealth, and the trade of England. The future was to show the fallacy of this belief, but it had a large influence in exciting the ardor of French statesmen for the American cause. Not only did they hope for harm to England, but for a great increase in French trade with the new republic, in return for assistance in her struggle. This hope, also, was disappointed. Trade between the United States and France increased as a result of the growth of the American people in numbers and wealth, but trade is governed by business conditions; the French who assisted the colonists gained no more than the Germans who furnished troops to King George; French merchants would have sold as many pieces of silk and bottles of champagne to Americans if the United States had secured their independence without French aid. If gains in trade only were considered, France was poorly paid for the money she spent in assisting the American colonists.

      In 1775 the first blood was shed, and the long dispute between the colonists and the motherland had at last resulted in actual war. The reports of these early events reached France for the most part through English channels. The letters of the French ambassador at London were filled with discussions as to the relations of the colonies with the mother country, and with surmises as to their future action and the plans of the British ministers. The French representative was active in procuring information, and he did not hesitate over the necessary means. No daily press then revealed to the world the debates of Parliament, but Garnier wrote that be had secured a member of Parliament who was to furnish full reports of the discussions for the guidance of the French minister. We may be sure that this member was liberally paid for his work. Parliamentary corruption was common, and selling reports of other men’s speeches was not so bad as selling one’s own vote.

      Notwithstanding his efforts to get accurate information, the ambassador sent to Paris many statements which had small foundation in fact. He was very apprehensive that Russia might interfere in the conflict, and he transmitted various sinister rumors that Catherine had promised to furnish England with twenty thousand men with which to subdue her rebellious subjects (Guines to Vergennes, Sept. 29, 1775; Doniol, i, 210.) Vergennes was not disturbed by this report. Catherine had many vices, but he knew that she was not a ruler of the type of the Elector of Hesse, and that she would not sell the blood of her subjects for the money of George III (Doniol, i, 213.)

      Another rumor was more persistent and excited more alarm. The French ministers were haunted by the idea that England would seek relief from present troubles, or consolation for future losses, by declaring war on France and despoiling her of the scanty possessions she still held in the west; the recollection of the late war was fresh and excited apprehension for the future. When considering the complications of the American situation, nothing disturbed the French ministers so much as the possible return of Chatham to power. With him at the helm they thought that war with France was certain to come, and would probably be disastrous.

      In February, 1775, Garnier, charge d’affaires, wrote that only immediate success could prevent the fall of the ministry, that the King would be forced to turn to Chatham, who would make peace with the colonies and find armies and navies ready at his hand. , It is a naked sword in the hands of a madman,” he added; and he then proceeded to show that Chatham’s ambition would seek fresh fields of glory at the expense of France. (Garnier to Vergennes, Feb. 20, 1775; Doniol, i, 69.) “Lord Chatham will necessarily become the conciliator and there is the man to dread,” wrote Guines in June; and he added: “What can be the conditions of the conciliation? Conditions little honorable to England, and then an audacious minister, accustomed to glory, will look upon our colonies as a necessary compensation.”

      In reply Vergennes bade the ambassador to watch the progress of the crisis with care, and especially to ascertain what influence Chatham might obtain over the King (Guines to Vergennes, June 16, 1775; Doniol, i, 81-83.) But there was no ground for fear. George III was not the sovereign to be influenced by a man like Lord Chatham, and no defeats in America could induce him to turn to the great war minister for aid.

      Vergennes was uncertain as to his future policy; but he desired to be informed accurately as to the progress of events, and the prospects of the contest. In July the ambassador at London wrote complaining of the inaccuracy of the news from America, and he added, “I think it might be advantageous to us, it would at least satisfy the King’s curiosity, to have among them a capable man who could judge the situation from the political and the military standpoint, could foresee the course of events, and send on his reports by each merchant ship.” (Report, July 1, 1775; Doniol, i, 128.)

      This suggestion was received favorably, and a gentleman named Bonvouloir was sent as a secret agent to America; but Vergennes desired that the messenger should go without any trace of official character, so that his acts and words could in no way involve the French government. He could not even receive any written instructions, and lest his reports might fall into hostile hands, his letters nominally were to treat of commercial questions and be addressed to a correspondent at Antwerp, while the information he was sent to impart was to be written in some preparation of milk, which could be developed only when heated by a red-hot shovel (Doniol, i, 266.) With all these useless attempts at secrecy, Bonvouloir was assigned duties of some delicacy and importance. Not only was he to send home faithful accounts of all he saw and heard, but he was to insinuate into American ears suggestions of the desirability of France as an ally; he was to tell the colonists how the French people admired the grandeur and nobility of their efforts; and especially was he to impress upon their minds that under no circumstances would France seek to recover Canada (Vergennes to Guines, Aug. 7, 1775; Doniol, i, 155.) Vergennes fully realized that nothing could be more distasteful to the English colonists, after half a century of conflict, than to see the French flag again floating at Quebec and Montreal. It would be idle to expect the permanent friendship of the new nation if Canada were again French. Moreover, the French did not look with covetous eyes upon their lost Canadian possessions. Canada had been a source of anxiety and vexation of spirit to the home government. The colony had not increased in population as had its southern neighbors; it had not become an important factor in the trade of the home country; even at Versailles there was a dim consciousness that the colonial policy adopted for Canada had been a failure, and there was no desire to undertake the experiment again. No lust for the St. Lawrence or the Great Lakes interfered with the conviction that an attempt to regain Canada would surely excite the ill-will of the American colonists.

      In addition to these instructions, Bonvouloir received the modest allowance of two hundred louis. “If nothing is accomplished,” Guines wrote with praiseworthy frugality, “it is only a loss of two hundred louis.” (Gaines to Vergennes, Sept. 8, 1775; Doniol, i, 138.) Bonvouloir received his louis, and in September, 1775, he sailed for America. Though he had no official position, his expedition must be regarded as the first formal step towards action in behalf of America taken by France. Bonvouloir was not the man to take an important part in a crisis, but his reports may have tended to encourage the French minister in a policy of interference.

      He reached America in December, after a stormy and dangerous passage. “I had a frightful passage,” he writes. “I was one hundred days at sea, twenty times I thought I should perish; I was reduced to two biscuits a day . . . a little salt beef and stale water.” Having at last landed, he at once repaired to Philadelphia, and talked with the members of Congress gathered there; but the fear of exceeding his authority rendered him a timid negotiator. “I made them no offer,” he writes, “absolutely none . . . When asked if France would aid them, and at what price, I replied . . . It is possible that she might, but I knew nothing about the terms . . . and, in short . . . all they could do was to submit their propositions to that country.” (Doniol, i, 267, 287-292.)

      But the secret committee insisted on regarding Bonvouloir as the representative of his country, and addressed him a set of written questions: Was the disposition of France favorable to their cause? Could they obtain from her two experienced engineers? Could they buy arms and munitions of war in exchange for American products? To this Bonvouloir replied that he was but a private citizen, he could only give his conjecture, but he believed that France wished them well, that she would furnish them two good engineers; and without making himself responsible for anything, he believed they might attempt an exchange of products at their own risk (Bonvouloir to Guines, Sept. 28, 1775; Doniol, i, 368.)

      Even these mild expressions disturbed him. He wrote for further instructions and said: “These affairs are so delicate that with all the good-will possible, I tremble as I advance.” But still he drew a satisfaction from his exploits, which was not entirely justified. “No one will ever make such progress in their confidence as I,” he writes, “nor manage them as I do . . . I toil night and day, happy if I succeed … I am learning to talk English very prettily.”

      Of more importance than these effusions of timidity and vanity, was the information he gave as to conditions in America; it was not accurate, but it was of a character to encourage the plans of interference which the French ministry already entertained. “Every man here is a soldier,” he writes, “the troops are well clothed, well paid and well commanded. They have about fifty thousand men under pay, and a still greater number of volunteers who wish no pay. Judge how this sort of men would fight.” (Doniol, i, 289.) This enthusiastic account was not correct, but it led Bonvouloir’s superiors to overestimate the military strength of the colonists, and thus his lying was in a good cause. Indeed he seems to have believed his own statements, far as they were from the truth.

      Bonvouloir remained for another year in America, but the results of his mission were not important. He had spent his money, and the Comte do Guines, who had selected him for the expedition, asked the minister to come to Bonvouloir’s assistance (Doniol, i, 510-513.) Vergennes estimated the agent at about his real value – he said that Bonvouloir had failed to satisfy the curiosity which led them to authorize his journey, and the best thing he could do was to return as soon as possible. But Bonvouloir was at Philadelphia with his money all gone, and he could not return. At last Vergennes authorized Guines to send the unlucky envoy two hundred louis, and to send him at the same time instructions to return to France forthwith. Thus Bonvouloir faded out of the field of American politics and out of the attention of history.

      It is difficult to decide how far, at this early stage, the French ministers had any definite thought of interfering in the American contest. The struggle had just begun, the resources of the colonists were unknown, it was uncertain how stubborn a resistance they could make to the English armies. The situation was watched with no very strong sympathy for the insurgents, but with the lively desire that they should do England as much harm as possible.

      In 1775 Vergennes was profuse in his assertions that France would take no part in the quarrel. And even if his asseverations were not entirely sincere, it seemed probable that he would keep his word. “You are right in explaining,” he wrote the ambassador at London, “that . . . even if the interest of the King led him to stir up the flames of rebellion in America, justice would forbid it. And this is the most powerful consideration to his mind.” (Doniol, i, 149.) Far from seeking to profit by the embarrassment in which England finds herself on account of American affairs, wrote Vergennes in June, 1775, “we desire rather to aid her to escape from them. The spirit of revolt, wherever it appears, is always a dangerous example. With moral as with physical maladies, either can prove contagious.” But it was in the American possessions of France that Vergennes foresaw the possibility of harm from the dangerous example of the American colonies; be did not foresee how potent was to be the influence of that example on France herself. In August he said that if the Americans asked help from France, it would be politely refused.

      Lord Stormont was the English representative at Paris, a shrewd, hard-headed man, who afterwards proved a thorn in the flesh to Vergennes, when the latter was secretly assisting the Americans, and openly denying that he was doing so. At this time Stormont believed there was no reason to fear unfriendly action by France. He wrote on October 31, 1775, narrating a long interview with Vergennes in which the French minister had said that he regretted the troubles in America and declared that these were of advantage to no one; that if the Americans became an independent nation, sooner or later they would build up a great navy, seize the West Indies, extend their conquests over South America, and in time leave not a foot of earth on that hemisphere in the possession of any European power. ” ‘You and I will not live to see these changes accomplished,’ he added, but if these results are remote they are certain.’ All this he said,” wrote the experienced diplomat, “with the air of one who was expressing his own opinion.” (Doniol, i, 200.)

      To this Vergennes added assurances which the future did not confirm. Instead of seeking to increase England’s embarrassment, the French government, he said, viewed it with regret, and would prevent any assistance being given to the Americans. While they might not always be able to check private speculators, they would do their best to prevent any illegal commerce between France and the colonies. Maurepas, the chief minister, talked in the same way, and assured Stormont that France would never give any assistance to the insurgents, directly or indirectly.

      These expressions were not wholly insincere. The French were very uncertain what action they would take in this crisis, and Vergennes was truthful in disclaiming any strong interest in the principles for which the colonists were contending; but if his statements were not altogether false at the moment, they were far from indicating a settled purpose to take no part in the contest between England and her colonies.

      Whether these expressions were more or less sincere, the importance of the American contest was well understood. “This,” wrote an officer in the West Indies, “marks a memorable epoch in the world’s history . . . The result will surely affect every commercial nation on either continent.” (Doniol, i, 242.) Vergennes frequently expressed the same idea. In July he wrote saying that England must either lose her colonies or destroy them in the effort to hold them, and in either event there would be the same loss of trade, the same decay in manufactures, and the same destruction of national credit (July 29, 1775; Doniol, i, 95.)

      While Vergennes was giving fair words to the English ambassador, he wrote in a different strain to the Spanish minister, telling of England’s crimes and suggesting that an opportunity now offered to obtain revenge for them. “That nation,” he wrote, “is as depraved in its politics as in its morals. . . . England is the monster against which we should be always prepared.” (8 July 28, 1775 ; Doniol, i, 115.) They must not be deceived by any professions of friendliness on the part of England’s ministers, he added; they could count on her only so long as her domestic embarrassments continued, while the great possessions of Spain in America would surely be a bait to English greed.

      At so critical a period, the English ministers might well have avoided giving unnecessary offence to a powerful neighbor that bore England no love; but diplomatic adroitness has never been an English quality. They now pressed irritating inquiries as to Dunkirk, where a vigilant watch was constantly kept to see that the French King took no steps to fortify his own city. “This question … has been threshed over a hundred times,” wrote Vergennes in the summer of 1775; ” … if we have no right to restore what was destroyed by virtue of the treaties, we have the right to maintain and preserve what was allowed to remain.” But still, he added, the French officials would be strictly charged not to exceed the limits, because the King wished to preserve a good feeling between the nations, and not to profit by England’s embarrassments (Vergennes to Guines, July 22,1775; Doniol, i, 93.)

      No important event marked the campaign in the autumn of 1775. It became evident to Vergennes that the uprising of the colonists was no brief or ill-considered movement, and yet he believed that unless they received foreign aid, the English would succeed at last in wearing out their means of resistance. Such a result would have been highly unsatisfactory to the French, and in December, 1775, Vergennes submitted to the King an elaborate statement of his views on the question.

      There was little profession of interest in the future of the colonies, and this was natural. The relations between the French and the English colonists had been those of almost perpetual hostility; they had quarrelled and fought for generations. The principles which they advocated were soon to excite universal sympathy among the French people, but it would have been strange if ministers of Louis XVI had kindled into enthusiasm over declarations of popular rights and denunciations of the tyranny of kings.

      The questions were discussed in cold blood; there was no altruism, no sympathy for a community struggling to be free. The minister sought to discover wherein lay the interest of France, and this perhaps was the only concern of a French statesman. The struggle between the colonies and England deserved the attention of all the powers, he said, but France and Spain had special reason to watch its progress. Left alone, he believed that England would reduce her rebellious subjects to submission; even if the endeavor cost her dear, she would still preserve the mercantile advantages which commerce with America had secured to her. “England,” he added, “is the natural enemy of France, an enemy greedy, ambitious, unjust, and false. The invariable and cherished object of her policy is, if not the destruction of France, at least her abasement, her humiliation, her ruin.” (Doniol, i, 244.)

      Nor did he fear that the independence of the English colonies would foster other revolutions in the new world. They would be fatigued by a long war, they would adopt a republican form of government, and it was admitted, he said, that republics rarely had the spirit of conquest. The history of Greece, of Rome, of Venice, might have thrown some doubt on this aphorism, but Vergennes thought there was no reason to suppose that the United States would become a dangerous neighbor. Accordingly the minister advised helping the colonists, so far as it could be done prudently, and encouraging their efforts by the suggestion of still more active assistance; if at the end of the next campaign the English had made no farther progress in reducing the colonies, France might then decide to interfere openly and secure their triumph (Doniol, i, 243 -249.)

      Such was the policy which Vergennes advocated at the close of 1775, and it was followed. France assisted the colonists so far as she could without becoming embroiled with England, but the course of events delayed actual interference until a later date than the minister contemplated.

      On February 27, 1776, the report of Bonvouloir reached Paris. The rosy accounts which he gave of the strength of the American army seemed to confirm the reports which had already reached Vergennes by way of London. In March the minister submitted to the King another carefully prepared paper on the American situation, and asked for the opinion of his colleagues upon it. The minister now saw danger both in the success and in the failure of England, and contemplated the possibility of a war against France undertaken by Great Britain, either exultant over her victory or seeking compensation for what she had lost by defeat. “As to the possibility of an invasion,” he added, “which nothing had provoked, and which would be contrary to good faith and the obligation of treaties, he would be sadly mistaken who thought the English would be restrained by such considerations. They regard as just whatever they believe to be advantageous. As a result of his arguments the minister decided that the continuance of the American war would be advantageous to France, and that it might offer an opportunity for action which would reduce England to a second-class power, strip her of the empire which she exercised with equal pride and injustice, and deliver the universe from a greedy tyrant which sought to absorb all power and all wealth.

      But neither France nor Spain was ready for open hostilities, so the minister abandoned the alluring dream of interference and recommended instead to give the insurgents all the secret aid that was possible, without involving the country in actual war; if, on the one hand, the English ministers could be persuaded that France and Spain desired peace, and, on the other hand, the courage of the colonists could be maintained and their resistance strengthened, this would be the best policy for the present, and future problems could be considered when they arose (“Considerations”; Doniol, i, 273-278.)

      Such a programme was in strict accord with the classic diplomacy, which indulged in no philanthropy and was much addicted to lying. At all events, it was favorably received by most of Vergennes’s colleagues to whom it was submitted. The Comte de Saint-Germain was minister of war; his opinion was brief and did little more than echo the views which Vergennes had advanced. M. de Sartine, the secretary of the navy, was equally complacent. But Maurepas, whose influence was large with the young King, went somewhat further in his reply. While carefully guarded in expression, the programme advocated by Vergennes would ultimately result in war. Maurepas expressed the same purpose with less concealment; he said that while forming these projects for the present, it must be remembered that there had never been a more favorable opportunity for reducing the dangerous power of England than when she was embarrassed and harassed, and when no continental power would interfere in her behalf. “From such considerations,” he added, “it might be decided that a policy which would be actively offensive might be the true way to strengthen France, to weaken England, and to secure peace on the Continent, which was constantly disturbed by English intrigues and English money.” (Doniol, i, 285.)

      But the policy advocated by Vergennes met with no favorable response from the most sagacious of the advisers of Louis XVI. The young King displayed not only the desire to do right, which he always had, but an intelligence and independence which he rarely exhibited, when he selected Turgot as his minister of finance. Turgot returned this confidence by courage in action, and by wisdom in advice, which might have averted the dangers awaiting the King, but which resulted only in bringing about the speedy overthrow of the minister. On the American question, as on many others, Turgot made no effort to agree with the views of his colleagues, and he considered only the financial and internal condition of France.

      For a month he meditated on Vergennes’s proposition, and at last submitted a reply that was sagacious, lengthy, but more fitted to excite the ill-will of his colleagues than to control the conduct of the King. It would have been a better state paper if it had savored more of the politician and less of the professor of political economy. Turgot detailed with disagreeable accuracy the condition of the French treasury, the amount of the deficit, the impossibility of making ends meet except by a reduction of expenses. The King, he said, knew the state of his finances; that in spite of the economies already attempted there was a deficit of twenty millions, and this could be overcome only by the imposition of new taxes, by open bankruptcy, or by a further reduction of expenses. War, therefore, was the thing most to be avoided, because it would render impossible for a long period, and perhaps forever, the reforms necessary for the welfare of the state and the relief of the people.

      Nor did he view the external situation with the eyes of the majority. Colonies, he said, were of small commercial value; it was the part of wisdom to change them from subject dependencies to allied provinces. “In view of this,” be added, “what difference does it make to us whether England overcomes her rebellious colonies or whether she does not?” The loss of her colonies, he truly said, would not injure England, and would be a great benefit to the commerce of the world. He was less accurate in forecasting the commercial policy of the new republic. It must become, he declared, a nation of free traders, which would throw open its ports to the world, and prove to European nations that the colonial system of restriction and monopoly was founded on delusion (“Memoire sur la Maniere dont la France,” etc.; Euvres de Turgot, ii, 551.)

      Some of Turgot’s theories have become commonplaces of political economy, some of them are not yet recognized, but in so far as his doctrines were correct they were far in advance of the political thought of the day, and the addition of unpleasant facts, disagreeably told, rendered it still less likely that such revolutionary views should make converts. Certain it is that they had little effect upon the cabinet of Louis XVI, and Vergennes went on with his plan for aiding the colonies, as if Turgot had never spoken.

      In conformity with the principles of alliance between France and Spain, which still controlled the French government, Vergennes submitted his arguments to Charles III as fully as to Louis XVI. They met, however, with a cool reception. The Spanish government was indifferent, if not inimical, to the American colonists; if war was to be made upon England, they desired that the conquest of Portugal for Spain should be its object, and they advised an attempt to free Ireland rather than the American colonies from English rule. The dissensions between the English and the Irish were notorious, the Spanish ambassador wrote in February, 1776; with the help of the Irish, who would be ready, Ireland could be freed from tyranny and England would be no longer a power to fear (Memoire sur la Maniere dont la France,” etc.; Euvres de Turgot, ii, 551.)

      This project was not favorably received at Versailles, and the Spanish returned to the American proposition. It was not befitting the dignity of the two nations, Charles III declared, to make common cause with a people in revolt against their sovereign; but it was for their interest to maintain the rebels in their insurrection and furnish them secretly all they needed in order to keep up the struggle (April 1, 1776; Doniol, i, 342.) His minister Grimaldi viewed the question from a standpoint no more altruistic. “Certainly it is for our advantage,” be wrote, “that the revolt of these people should continue; we must wish that they and the English should exhaust each other.” (3 Doniol, i, 370.)

      As a result of these deliberations the two nations at last decided upon the policy which, for the time being, they would adopt in reference to the American colonies. The French government was not disturbed by the idea of making common cause with a people in insurrection, as were the ministers of Charles III; but they contented themselves with giving aid which, though secret, was none the less valuable. On May 2, 1776, Vergennes asked Louis XVI to authorize an advance of a million livres, which was to be intrusted to Beaumarchais for the use of the rebellious colonists, and this request was granted. It was the first direct aid given by France to our forefathers, and was the beginning of the interference of that country in the American Revolution, which at last led to an open alliance and war with England. Though such a result was contemplated as possible by Vergennes and his associates, no decision had yet been reached, and the French ministers were desirous to avoid doing anything which would necessarily involve their country in war. For this reason the action now taken was enveloped in mystery. Vergennes did not even venture to write the letter concerning the use of the money, nor intrust it to his secretary; it was written by his son, a youth of only fifteen, in whose discretion, the father declared, absolute confidence could be placed.

      The Spanish were asked to take similar action, and to this they agreed. Grimaldi sent to Paris a letter of credit for a million livres, to be used for the insurgents in the same manner as the million advanced by France. (Doniol, i, 485.) This moderate sum represented almost the entire direct assistance which the Americans received from Spain, and it was not given in order to secure their success, but in the hope that the contest would be prolonged until both sides were exhausted. However, the guns and supplies bought with the money advanced by Spain were just as useful as if the motive of the giver had been more exalted.

      France and Spain resolved on rendering this amount of assistance to the cause of the insurgents without any direct application from the thirteen colonies. It was decided to advance the money, in the hope that it would enable the rebellious colonists to prolong their resistance and make the situation more disagreeable and more embarrassing for England. Indeed, the colonists had not thus far assumed the form of an independent government or formally renounced their allegiance to the mother country. The progress of events soon changed the situation, and the governments of France and the United States entered upon formal relations with each other.

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