Chapter 6 – Events of 1776 | France in the Revolution


    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.”



      In relating the part taken by Beaumarchais in behalf of the United States, and the disasters in which his zeal involved him, we have been carried beyond the time when Deane appeared as the representative of the colonists at the French court. It was through the medium of Beaumarchais, either acting for himself or as agent for the government, that military supplies were first sent to America in any large quantities. But he was not the only French merchant who engaged in these enterprises, though no one else conducted them on so large a scale. The others employed in this contraband trade seem to have obtained the connivance of the government, but not its active assistance. Among those who took part in such ventures was Dubourg, who thus sought to console himself for his disappointment that Beaumarchais was preferred to him as agent of the government. He was unfortunate in this undertaking also; he loaded a ship at his own expense, which was captured by the English, and the doctor, like his successful rival, was a pecuniary loser by his efforts to aid the cause of American liberty.

      Having started to furnish military supplies to the United States, the French government was soon on the point of actual interference. Had it not been for the ill-success of the American army, France would have acknowledged our independence not long after we ourselves proclaimed it. A little over a month after Deane’s arrival at Paris came the news that the United States had renounced allegiance to the British crown, and this intelligence was received with great satisfaction in France. There had been a constant fear that the colonists would agree on terms and make peace with the mother country; this seemed less probable when by solemn resolution they had abjured their allegiance to the British King. The English had declared that vigorous measures would soon bring to their senses unruly demagogues and their deluded followers. But the armies that had been sent over to repress insurrection by force had not yet succeeded, and at the end of a year the rebels, neither disheartened nor alarmed, had declared themselves an independent people.

      Moreover, the sounding phrases of the Declaration aroused enthusiasm, not among politicians like Vergennes, but in social and philosophic circles. It is curious to contrast the responses which the sentiments of the document met in France and in England. It was natural that English political leaders should declare this matter of small importance; but while the Declaration asserted principles dear to most Englishmen, it aroused little interest even among those who were friendly to the colonists. It seems to have been regarded as a highly impudent and not very important act.

      The French attributed to it far greater weight, and in this, history has shown they were right, even if they were not correct in some of their anticipations. When the charge d’affaires at London reported this momentous act, he added, “If the resistance of the Americans is victorious, this ever memorable epoch will reduce England to a point where she will no longer be a subject of disquiet to France, whose influence on the Continent must increase in proportion to the diminution of the British empire.” (Garnier to Vergennes, Aug. 16, 1776; Doniol, i, 585.) The sentiments of the Declaration of Independence were welcomed, not only among the disciples of Rousseau, but in the large class which admired the principles of liberty and democracy, when applied anywhere except to the government of France. The Declaration excited a degree of enthusiasm among the French people which had been aroused by no other public document, and feeling grew constantly stronger in favor of extending the aid of France to the American patriots.

      This decisive step also strengthened Vergennes’s inclination to interfere actively in behalf of the colonists. Popular sympathy with their cause had become outspoken, the English had made small progress in their military efforts, and the time seemed ripe to take part in a controversy in which the French government would receive the approval of its own people and might hope for speedy and decisive success. It was about the middle of August, 1776, that the news of the Declaration of Independence reached Paris, and on the thirty-flrst the Council met to consider the questions which now arose. The King was present and with him were Maurepas, the prime minister, St. Germain and Sartine, the ministers of war and of the marine, and the secretary of foreign affairs, Vergennes, who presented a report which apparently received the approval of all his auditors.

      It began with a discussion of general principles, a manner of arguing which so often distinguishes French from English political documents. An English cabinet considering practical questions would not indulge in any debate on the principles of government, but Vergennes sought to place his argument upon a philosophical basis. The purpose of all social institutions, he said, was their own advantage and preservation; on that basis societies had been established, and only when governed by that consideration could they maintain themselves and prosper. Thus the object of every administration should be to secure whatever advantages it could for the country committed to its charge.

      After some further discussion of the evils of war and the wickedness of England, Vergennes at last reached the practical question, should France interfere actively in behalf of the American colonists? His report was an elaborate and powerful argument in favor of interference, and immediate interference. Now, he said, there was a unique opportunity for France to avenge herself for all the perfidies and outrages committed by England in the past, and to render it impossible for her to repeat them for a long time to come. England was the hereditary enemy of France, jealous of her greatness, envious of her rich soil and her advantages of situation, using all her power to attack France, or to band Europe against her. Now there was an opportunity, which might not recur for ages, to abate England’s pride and lessen her influence. If one should balance the advantages and disadvantages of a war against England in the present juncture, the advantages would be incomparably greater; not only was it possible to visit that country with just punishment and weaken her dangerous power, but much could be hoped from the friendship of the new republic. A union between France and the United States was not one of those casual combinations that would cease when the need of the moment was over. “No interest,” he said, “can divide two peoples connected only over vast tracts of sea; the relations of commerce will form a chain which, if not eternal, will be of long duration.” (Doniol, i, 567-577. Read to the King and a Committee of the Council, Aug. 31, 1776.)

      Vergennes called attention also to the European situation, which was singularly favorable for any such action. The affairs of this world are closely linked together, and the condition in which Europe was left after the Seven Years’ War rendered possible the interference of France, and the establishment of American independence. If France became involved in war, this often excited the activity of rivals who dreaded her pre-eminence on the Continent and were eager for any opportunity to check her power. But the Seven Years’ War had changed the position of that country in Europe; her prestige had been lessened, and, as some compensation for this, her neighbors watched her with less apprehensive eyes. Austria was not an ally, and the relations between the countries were fairly cordial. Frederick II was always a man to be closely watched, but he had no desire for more warfare, and he took a malicious interest in any misfortunes that might befall England; he had never forgiven her desertion in his own hour of peril, and his representative at Paris repeatedly assured the French minister that if France were to interfere in the American contest, she need fear nothing from Prussia. “I protest to you,” he wrote his minister in London, that it is more possible that a good Christian should form an alliance with the devil than I with England.” Russia was far distant, and Catherine had no desire for war.

      To all these favorable conditions Vergennes called attention, and he concluded by saying: “It is certain that if his Majesty seizes this unique opportunity, which perhaps the ages will never again present, we can deal England a blow that would abate her pride and place her power within just bounds . . . and he would have the glory, so dear to his heart, of being the benefactor not only of his own people but of all nations.” (Doniol, i, 567-576.)

      As a result of these lengthy reasonings, Vergennes was in favor of enlisting in the cause of the American colonists without further delay. Apparently his views met the approval of his associates, and were not disapproved by the King. Louis had little sympathy with the colonists, and no taste for war, but he was a dull, inert youth, and if his ministers were resolved on their policy, he was not likely long to resist them. An American who could have known the secrets of the royal councils would have thought that the hour of deliverance for his country was near at hand.

      The only delay in deciding on immediate action seems to have come from a desire to communicate this resolution to Spain and ask her to join. Vergennes held closely to the traditions of the Family Compact, and on September 7 a report of his argument, which had received the approval of his colleagues, was sent to Madrid, and the cooperation of the Spanish King was asked (Doniol, i, 578.)

      The Spanish were not averse to war with England, but they had no thought of undertaking it except upon the promise of large reward. “One does not make war,” said the Spanish minister, “except to preserve one’s own possessions or to acquire those of others.” Having thus disavowed any altruistic motive, he declared that the recovery of Portugal would be especially advantageous to Spain and would also redound to the advantage of the entire Bourbon family. It was more than one hundred and thirty years since Portugal had freed itself from a foreign yoke, but the Spanish people clung with Spanish tenacity to the hope of recovering this lost possession. The French were willing that Spain should reconquer Portugal if she could, but they had no thought of undertaking a war against England for that purpose. Such a result would not benefit France, nor would it seriously injure England.

      Before the letter which stated the price Spain would charge for her aid could reach Paris, the aspect of affairs had changed, and the purposes of the French minister had changed with it. Vague rumors of the progress of arms in America had reached France, full of the inaccuracies that might be expected in reports that had crossed three thousand miles of water. Howe, it was said, had met with disaster in his expedition against New York, and had been forced to re-embark his troops. It was reported, so Vergennes wrote his representative in London, that there had been a bloody engagement on August 12 or 13, on Long Island. Ten or twelve thousand men had been killed on the two sides, and the English troops had been forced to re-embark (Letter of Sept. 28, 1776; Doniol, i, 613.)

      These illusions were soon dispelled. On October 16 an authentic report reached Paris, which announced that the American army had been defeated on Long Island, and that New York would soon be in the hands of the English. The Americans had been defeated, so Garnier wrote from London, with a loss of thirty-three hundred men, while the English loss did not exceed four hundred; the intrenchments of the Americans had been ill made and worse defended, and the supporters of the government in London declared that the rebels could now make no effective resistance and must speedily submit (Letter of Oct. 11, 1776; Doniol, i, 615.)

      These unfavorable predictions were not accepted by the French ministers, but their zeal for immediate interference was checked. The disaster of Long Island delayed for almost two years the French alliance, and the war which, with the active aid of France, might perhaps have been brought to a speedy close, now became a long and weary struggle.

      The demand of Spain that Portugal should be reconquered as the price of her assistance furnished an excuse for a different tone in the negotiations with that country. This suggestion was not favorably regarded by French statesmen; they were unwilling to involve France in a war which must continue until Portugal should become the prize of Spain, and if they had been ready for immediate action, they would have sought some modification of these demands. As it was, they treated the entire question as one that might be considered at leisure. “There is no pressing haste,” Vergennes said to the King. “All that circumstances now require from your Majesty and the Catholic King,” wrote the minister, “is to see that the Americans do not succumb for lack of means of resistance.” (Oct. 20,1776; Doniol, i, 620.) A long despatch was sent to Spain, filled with the terms of affection which should be expected between near kinsmen, but indicating with clearness that France was no longer eager for speedy action, and that the price demanded for Spanish assistance was not acceptable. “The French King will always view without jealousy,” said Vergennes, “the aggrandizement of the Spanish monarchy, but he cannot conceal from the King his uncle that the conquest of Portugal would be alarming to all rulers interested in preserving a just balance, and they would not view with tranquillity the power of the House of Bourbon increased by the reunion of the rest of the Spanish peninsula . . . If M. Grimaldi was right, that one makes war only to make gains . . . they should regard it as a great gain to lower the power of England. Let us secure the separation of her colonies in North America, and her diminished commerce, her burdened finances, will render that power less unquiet and less haughty.” (Despatch of Nov. 5,1776; Doniol, i, 686.) To this sentiment Vergennes remained constant. When the war came he sought for France no acquisition of territory, no gain except the injury to England that would result from the loss of her American colonies. Whatever degree of disinterestedness this represented, France and her minister are entitled to be credited with. And so these negotiations terminated by the resolution on the part of France that the fire already kindled should not be extinguished; that means should be provided by which the colonists could obtain the succor necessary to enable them to continue the contest, but that neither France nor Spain would at present enlist openly in the war. If the English had failed in the endeavor to capture New York, possibly the colonists might have been successful without an alliance with any foreign power; but it is quite certain that France would speedily have made a treaty with the United States and taken an active part in the war had it not been for the disasters which befell our army. She was anxious to prevent the collapse of the American cause, but did not wish to embroil herself with England if the failure of the colonies was assured. No matter how desperate the condition of the colonists might seem, the French ministers were ready to render all the assistance they could give without becoming involved in war with England. They were quite willing to take part in the contest if they could insure the independence of the thirteen colonies, and thus deal, as they hoped and believed, a fatal blow to the power of their great adversary; but they did not wish to expose France to an expensive war with a powerful state if the probable result was that the American colonists, even with French aid, would be unable to secure their independence. For a long period little favorable news came from across the Atlantic, and the French ministers doubted if there were any possibility of success for the American insurgents. As they doubted so they delayed, giving to the colonists, indeed, much valuable aid, but hesitating to acknowledge the new nation and declare themselves its ally. In the meantime the Continental Congress decided to take more active measures to obtain the assistance of France.

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