The unfortunate result of the expedition conducted by d'Estaing added to the discouragement which was now widespread in the country. For almost two years the colonists had been allied with a great European power, and yet the situation of affairs seemed worse at the end of that period than at the beginning. England was apparently no nearer to acknowledging the independence of the United States in the fall of 1779 than she was in the spring of 1778. Indeed, our alliance with France had inspired the English with a certain amount of new zeal in the war against us. Those who had been reluctant to make war on their own colonists, speaking the same language and allied in blood and race, were stirred to fresh ardor when the war was against France, the ancient and immemorial enemy of England.
The confident hopes excited among the American patriots by the announcement of the French alliance in the spring of 1778 had by no means been fulfilled. The expedition against Newport had accomplished nothing, the endeavor to capture Savannah had ended in defeat, conditions in the South had been so bad as to induce d'Estaing to go to their aid: they were rendered worse by the failure of his efforts. The years 1778 and 1779 were perhaps the most disheartening of the war. France as an ally, instead of bringing speedy victory, seemed less valuable than when she was furnishing secret aid. Such an opinion was indeed unfair. If Newport had not been captured, at least the enemy had been kept from undertakings which might have proved fatal to the American cause. Though the English had made large gains in the South, conditions in the North remained practically unchanged.
In one respect, however, it might be argued that the French alliance worked actual harm. Five years had passed since the first blood was shed at Lexington. With the long continuance of the war had come a weariness of the sacrifices that were required for its vigorous prosecution. The states furnished neither the men nor the money that Congress demanded and Washington needed, and when the French alliance was announced, many were willing to believe that a rich kingdom like France would now supply whatever was wanted; she had great armies and strong fleets and much wealth, with which she could insure the success of her ally, and there was little need for further exertion. Zeal for the cause had been lacking before the French alliance, and it was no more active after it; the duration of the war and increasing disturbances from a disordered currency made it more difficult to furnish pecuniary aid, and it became harder for Congress to obtain the support that was necessary to carry on the struggle. Thus the situation after five years of warfare was far from satisfactory, and patriotic men still doubted what the end would be.
It was a critical period in the history of the war, and the most sanguine patriot might fear that unless efficacious aid were soon furnished, the American Revolution would end as an unsuccessful rebellion. When the surrender of Burgoyne was followed by the French alliance, American patriots hoped that the war would be brought to a speedy and successful termination. These hopes had been by no means realized; though the English had won no notable victories, the ability of the colonists to persist in their resistance seemed more questionable in 1780 than in 1778.
Financial evils were the most serious, and in this respect conditions could hardly have been worse. No other nation has increased in wealth with the rapidity of the United States; no people ever began its national existence with less promise of financial wisdom. In the printing-press our ancestors placed their hopes, and its free use brought the country to a condition of business anarchy. The financial enormities of the French Revolution were as great, and a worthless currency depreciated with the same rapidity, but an extraordinary outburst of popular enthusiasm, controlled by men as full of vigor as they were lacking in scruple, enabled France to carry on war with success.
In America conditions were different: lack of funds and the inability to raise money by taxation threatened to disband the army and disrupt the government; and had it not been for the money advanced by France, it is hard to see how such a disaster could have been averted. At the beginning of 1780 a dollar of Continental money was worth only two cents, and this worthless currency was practically the only asset with which Congress was to carry on the war. The condition seemed the more hopeless because public men still clung to the printing-press as a source of revenue, and charged the state of affairs to the misconduct of those who were unwilling to receive the paper, instead of to the folly of those who issued it.
When a bushel of corn sold for one hundred and fifty dollars and a suit of clothes for two thousand, it was evident that an army could not be supported, nor could business be transacted under such conditions. To some extent, men in their ordinary affairs could resort to the primary usages of barter, but the soldiers had nothing with which to barter. When an army is partially unfed, largely unclothed, and wholly unpaid, its dissolution is imminent. Such was the condition of the force under Washington; the shadow of an army that remained, so he wrote, had no motive save patriotism to continue in the service, and no hope of better things. "If either the temper or the resources of the country will not admit of an alteration, we may expect soon to be reduced to the humiliating condition of seeing the cause of America in America upheld by foreign arms." When Congress could not pay a courier to carry important despatches to the general-in-chief, it was evident that the cause of America in America could be upheld only by foreign money (Report, La Luzerne, April 1, 1780; Doniol, iv, 345.)
In May, 1779, Washington wrote that the rapid depreciation of the currency, the extinction of public spirit, the want of harmony in council, and the declining zeal among the people were symptoms of the most alarming nature, and he added, "If the enemy have it in their power to press us hard this campaign, I know not what may be the consequence. Our army as it now stands is little more than the skeleton of an army." (Letter of May 8, 1779; Writings of Washington, Sparks's ed., vi, 251.) "I have no scruple," he writes a little later, "in declaring to you that I have never yet seen the time in which our affairs in my opinion were at so low an ebb as at the present." And in July he writes that, except for four hundred recruits from Massachusetts, he had received no reinforcements since the last campaign (Writings of Washington, Spark's ed., vi, 312.)
While such was the condition of our army and our treasury, La Fayette did work for his American friends at Versailles quite as valuable as any service which he rendered on American battlefields. In October, 1778, after the failure of the attempt to capture Newport, the marquis asked for a furlough to return to his own land. He hoped to serve again in the American army; but now that his country was at war with England, he wished to see what part might be assigned to him in the struggle. Both Washington and the Congress expressed with entire sincerity their appreciation of the services which La Fayette had rendered. Congress, in extending a leave of absence, gave him a vote of thanks, and directed that a sword should be presented to him by our minister at Versailles (Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc., ii, 41, 43.) Washington wrote of the many evidences of La Fayette's zeal and ardor, and expressed his own very particular friendship for one who combined the fire of youth with uncommon maturity of judgment. All these words of commendation were well deserved. La Fayette had not only shown himself a brave officer, - of such there is always an abundance, - but he had manifested an extraordinary combination of unselfishness, zeal, and good judgment. Coming a stranger to a strange land, given an important command while still under twenty-one, the French minister could write without exaggeration that La Fayette's conduct had made him the idol of Congress, of the army, and of the people.
In January, 1779, he sailed for home, and escaping the dangers of capture by the English and the perils of an attempted mutiny on his own vessel, on February 12 he reached Brest in safety. He at once made his way to Paris; but while he returned as a triumphant hero, he returned also as a disobedient officer. He had left France in defiance of the King's orders, and of this offence he was still unpurged. There was indeed no reason to anticipate a severe sentence upon a youth who came back crowned with laurels, when his own country had followed his example and enlisted in the cause of American liberty. But he was forbidden to appear publicly at Versailles, and was to regard himself as in prison at the residence of his father-in-law at the Hotel de Noailles. Imprisonment in this charming home, adored by his family and flattered by his friends, was not a rigorous ordeal, and after a week of such punishment he was allowed to visit Versailles and present himself to the sovereign (Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc., ii, 56,57.)
The arrival of La Fayette increased the enthusiasm for the American cause among the class to which he belonged. Even Marie Antoinette bade him visit her and tell her the news about "our good Americans, our dear republicans." The young marquis enjoyed the two things most dear to him, assisting a good cause in which he sincerely believed, and receiving an unlimited amount of popular applause.
The enthusiasm with which La Fayette was greeted upon his return to Paris did not make him forget his American friends; he was constant in season and out of season in soliciting the ministry to continue with vigor the war against England. He had left France two years before, a young man unknown to fame, owing to his wealth and social position his only claim to be listened to in matters of political importance. He was still very young, but he was now a man of mark. He had received the public thanks of the American Congress, he had been honored by the closest confidence of the American general-in-chief. The interest which had been excited by his departure, the enthusiasm which his conduct had aroused in France, the courage, the devotion, and the singularly good judgment which he had displayed in America, made him on his return a man with whom the minister must consult in any projects relating to the American colonies. His letters show the zeal with which he utilized his favorable position. To Washington he wrote, after lamenting the enormous distance that separated him from his dearest friend, that he was occupying himself with getting money from the French government. "I have been so insistent that the superintendent of finance fears me as he would the devil himself . . . To serve America, my dear General, is for me an inexpressible happiness . . . What would render me the most happy of men would be to rejoin the American banners, and put under your orders a division of four or five thousand of my own compatriots." (La Fayette to Washington, June 12, 1779; Lafayette, Memoires, etc. (1837), ii, 62,64.)
His letters to the President of Congress also show the manner in which he utilized his influence at court for the benefit of his friends. "I shall always regard the interests of America as my principal affair while I am in Europe. All the confidence of the King and the ministers, all my popularity among my compatriots, all of the means of which I can dispose .... will be employed in a cause so dear to my heart." (June 12, 1779; lbid., 55.)
With amiable but unwearied pertinacity, La Fayette continued his labors in behalf of the American cause. He lamented that the cost of a fete at Versailles was enough to equip the American army, and he was accused, justly enough, with being ready to strip the palace in order to buy clothing for American soldiers. " I suppose the expense of this is a million of livres," he writes of a great illumination when home on a visit. "As much as I respect this country, particularly the King and the royal family, I could not help reflecting how many families in another country would this tallow make happy for life; how many privateers would this tallow fit out for chasing away the Jerseymen and making reprisals on Messieurs les Anglais."
The illuminations were not abandoned, the tallow still continued to light the halls of Versailles and was not used to equip privateers. Marie Antoinette would not give up her balls, nor the King sell his furniture to aid the American cause, and yet the labors of La Fayette were by no means unproductive. He persisted in his demands that more aid should be given the new republic, both by furnishing supplies and money and by preparing for further hostilities. His demands to some extent were answered.
The enterprise to which the attention of the French government was first given resulted indeed in no advantage either to France or her allies. Plans for an invasion of England have allured French statesmen and generals from a remote period, and the fact that from the days of William the Norman no such enterprise has met with any large degree of success has not disturbed the hopefulness of the Gallic mind.
The proposed invasion of England met the decided approval of Spain. 'Whether Spanish statesmen were naturally inclined to favor this plan because it was unwise, or for whatever reason, they expressed their desire to cooperate with the French in landing an army on British soil. An invasion of England was accordingly planned, and this was not a mere scheme of the Cabinet; troops were gathered, ships equipped, and commanders chosen. La Fayette was promised a command of some importance, and he was filled with delight at the prospect. He wrote Vergennes: "The idea of seeing England humiliated, annihilated, makes me tremble with joy . . . Judge then if I am eager to know whether I shall be the first to arrive on that coast, the first to plant the French flag in the midst of that insolent nation." (La Fayette to Vergennes, June 10, 1779; Doniol, iv, 291.)
During all the summer of 1779 troops were drilling, ships preparing, and soldiers gathering for the expedition. The chief command was intrusted to the Comte de Vaux; he was ordered to assemble his forces at Havre and St. Malo, and from there sail to England, land his army, and proceed to the invasion of perfidious Albion (Doniol, iv, 294.) The count came and went from Havre and St. Malo. La Fayette was feverishly active, now at Havre and now at Paris, but still the expedition did not set sail. Though the Spanish had been eager for the invasion, when the time for action came they were not ready. A convoy was sent to meet them at Cape Finisterre, but when, after two months' waiting, the Spanish ships at last arrived, they were in much need of repair and ill fitted for the expedition. But the combined fleet now numbered sixty-six ships of the line, and it sailed up the Channel, exciting a mild alarm at Plymouth and along the English coast.
La Fayette found the thought that the French flag now floated over English roadsteads a delicious morsel for his pride (Doniol, iv, 243.) It was the only enjoyment he was to obtain from this abortive expedition, and he had no opportunity to plant the French flag in the midst of that insolent nation. The condition of the French ships was better than that of the Spanish, but still the work of preparation had been very imperfect. A violent wind scattered the fleet, many of the ships were out of water and provisions, and they sailed back to Brest with a sick-list of nearly half the men on board. The storms of autumn now began, and the health of the soldiers grew no better. In October it was decided to abandon the expedition. It was justly described by Rochambeau, who was assigned to a command in it, as an exceedingly expensive and an exceedingly ill-arranged enterprise.
Yet the money expended in this foolish project was not altogether wasted, for it led the French to undertake the expedition which resulted in the capture of Yorktown. The decision of the French government to send not only a fleet, but a considerable force of soldiers, to cooperate with the American army was in large degree due to La Fayette. In July, 1779, he submitted a carefully prepared plan for the assistance of their American allies (Writings of Washington, Sparks's ed., vii, 479; Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc, ii, 499.), - for a new expedition, to consist not merely of ships, but of land forces, which should act in cooperation with Washington; the plan contained in substance the project which was put into effect a year later under the command of Rochambeau. This was submitted to the ministers; it received the approval of Vergennes, and even of the aged and infirm Maurepas. La Fayette not only asked that these reinforcements should be sent, but he insisted that they should depart, at the latest, by the following spring.
In the summer of 1779 the French were absorbed in their plans of English invasion, but when the failure of that project was admitted, La Fayette's request for a new expedition to America was seriously considered. Such an enterprise was attended by a good deal of embarrassment. It was not only that the cost was large, that there were serious difficulties in sending several thousand men across the Atlantic, exposed both to the perils of the sea and to the vigilance of English men-of-war, but it was not certain that assistance in this form would be agreeable to the Americans, or that French soldiers could cooperate successfully with the American army. The expedition led by d'Estaing in 1778 had not been productive of advantage to the common cause. The French troops finally sailed away from America, having accomplished nothing except to create discontent, the unseemly expression of which was only checked by Washington's prudent counsel. To place several thousand French soldiers on American soil might lead to complications that would destroy the alliance instead of insuring its success.
La Fayette himself, who knew better than any other Frenchman the condition of American feeling, was somewhat apprehensive of the effects that might be produced by the presence of a French army. The Americans had asked for money, for supplies, and for ships, but they had not been zealous in requesting the assistance of French soldiers. When Adams heard of the proposed expedition, he wrote to Vergennes, insisting that a French fleet should remain in American waters, but stating his belief that on land the colonists were quite capable of dealing with the English forces. There was always a possibility of misunderstandings between two armies of different nationalities, differing in speech, faith, and customs (Works of John Adams, vii, 220 - 226.) Some of the Americans had complained openly of the conduct of their French allies; and some of the French officers, if they made no open complaint, sent to the French minister unfavorable comments on the American soldiers and the American people.
The unfortunate expedition of 1778 had bred a good deal of discontent on both sides: the French thought that they had done all in their power for helpless allies, and had received as their only reward ingratitude and unfriendly criticism; many of the Americans declared that their French allies might have done much and had done little, and they were more inclined to find fault than to return thanks.
Vergennes's zeal in the cause of the insurgents had perhaps cooled a little. The war in America had not met with the prompt success that had been hoped, and the count felt that the Americans were inclined to rely too much on French aid and did too little for their own salvation; he complained that the burden of the struggle was cast on France, and that her ally's appeals for help were becoming excessive. It was apparent to him, also, as to all, that the average ability in Congress was less than it had been four years before. "There are," Vergennes wrote his representative in Spain, "poor heads and dishonest hearts to be found in Congress."
The quarrels between different factions of Congress were known at Paris, and their importance was perhaps exaggerated, while the open and unseemly wrangling between the representatives of America in Europe was only too familiar. La Fayette was as much distressed by these bickerings as the most zealous American patriot. "Nothing injures our interests . . . so much," he wrote the President of Congress, "as these stories from which it is supposed that there are disputes and divisions among the Whigs." And he wrote with more frankness to Washington: "There is a very important subject which demands all your influence and all your popularity. For the love of God prevent these clamorous quarrels, the account of which does more harm than anything else to the interests and the reputation of America." (Lafayette, Memoires, etc., ii, 62; Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc., ii, 73.)
While La Fayette recognized the delicacy of the situation, yet he felt that the assistance of a French army was indispensable to American success, and he was confident that with proper precautions the danger of complications could be avoided. He thought there would be least danger of misunderstanding between the allies if he were himself given the command of the French reinforcements. This aspiring young man was not coy in his demands for important position, but he was quite justified in this request. His service in the United States had displayed considerable military ability; what was of still more importance, he had the entire confidence of Washington, he was by far the most popular of the foreigners who had come to our aid, he had shown tact in dealing with a strange people in a strange land, and by his enthusiasm and his unselfish zeal for the cause had gained the sincere affection of the American people.
"I agree with you," he wrote Vergennes, "as to a certain distrust that can be remarked in our American allies . . . but if to-morrow the King would send me with a French detachment . . . I would wager all most dear to me, not only that the troops would be well received, but that their union with the Continental army would be of great service." (Doniol, iv, 272.) And he added that though Franklin was not authorized to ask that troops be sent, he greatly desired it.
In this La Fayette was correct; yet while the American government asked much from France, they did not formally request the aid which was to prove most valuable of all. Franklin had instructions to ask for money but not to ask for troops. There were good patriots, La Fayette said, who feared that such assistance might increase too much their obligations to France. Moreover, the marquis recognized a trait which has always been strong in the people of this country. "It is in the American character," he wrote, "to hope that when three months have passed, they will no longer be in need of anything."
Undiscouraged by such obstacles, La Fayette continued his efforts in behalf of his American friends. The proposition which be submitted in the summer of 1779 had been approved by the ministry, even if not formally sanctioned. Since then, not only had the project of English invasion proved abortive, but news now came of the disastrous failure of d'Estaing's expedition against Savannah. Yet this lack of success did not lead to rejection of La Fayette's requests; it rather impressed upon the French ministry the necessity for some vigorous action.
In January, 1780, La Fayette submitted to Maurepas an elaborate paper, in which he declared that the dangerous successes of the English in the South and the unsatisfactory conditions in the North rendered it necessary to send at once a French army to Washington's assistance. There were two objections raised, said the marquis: one, that their American allies lacked the resolution and courage to act with the necessary vigor, and the other, that the presence of French soldiers might breed jealousy and dispute. The first, he declared, his own experience in America enabled him to refute; and as for the second, if the command could be given to him, they would escape even the shadow of jealousy or strife (La Fayette to Maurepas, Jan. 25, 1780; Doniol, iv, 308.)
There is no doubt that this was true, and the selection of La Fayette as commander of the French expedition seemed the natural course for the French to pursue. But he was still a very young man, with a modest position in the French army; to place him over officers of longer service and higher rank was sure to be distasteful, and it was decided that he should not command the forces to be sent to America. No commander could have brought the expedition to a more successful conclusion than did Rochambeau, yet there is no reason to think it would not have achieved the same success had La Fayette been at its head. But if the French government did not satisfy his ambition, they were ready to gratify his zeal for the cause of his American friends. In February, 1780, the momentous decision was reached, and it was decided to send a French army to the relief of the United States.
Though the command was not given to La Fayette, no mistake was made in the selection of a leader for the forces to be sent to America. The Comte de Rochambeau had been chosen for an important command in the proposed invasion of England. He had there no opportunity to reap glory, and he expressed his just disapproval of the folly with which the Minister of Marine made his arrangements for that enterprise, and of the prodigality with which he expended money to no avail. Rochambeau had already had a considerable career, though on the expedition on which he was now sent rests his permanent fame. He was born in 1725, a member of a good French family. As he was the second son and his health was delicate, it was decided to make a priest of him. He was first placed in a college of the Oratory, and was there exposed to dangers more serious than threatened him during the years of his service as a soldier. The fathers of the Oratory were strongly suspected of the damnable heresy of Jansenism, and the Bishop of Blois, friend of Rochambeau's family, interfered to save the youth from the spiritual perils to which be was exposed. He carried the lad away from the Oratory, a brand snatched from the burning, and put him in a Jesuit school at Blois. In this pious work he was assisted by the Abbe Beaumont, who afterwards became Archbishop of Paris, and showed his Christian zeal by refusing to allow the sacrament to be administered to dying Jansenists.
But it was not Rochambeau's fate to become a Jesuit priest; when he was about to receive the tonsure, his elder brother died. The good bishop, who had saved him from the Jansenists, now told him that his duty was to serve his country with the same zeal that he would have shown in the service of God. Accordingly young Rochambeau left the college, and when only sixteen, like many another young French noble, he began his career as a soldier. He obtained a commission in the cavalry in December, 1741, and served during the War of the Austrian Succession with credit.
He served throughout the Seven Years' War, always acquitting himself as a good soldier and rising steadily in rank, though he performed no startling feats of arms. After the peace he was made a major-general and received the grand cross of the Order of Saint Louis, an honor bestowed for faithful and gallant service. In 1780 be was made a lieutenant-general, and was given command of the army which the King was to send to the relief of his American allies. He was then a man of past fifty-five. He had less than La Fayette of the fire of youth, but be had the sound judgment which comes as a result of years of active service.
It is proof of La Fayette's loyal zeal that he was more interested in obtaining an army for his allies than in obtaining for himself the position of its commander. If he was disappointed in his hopes, he acquiesced with the cheerfulness that endeared him to his associates. He was not backward in asking, but he always accepted the duty assigned without sulking, and performed his work with diligence. Even if be was not to command the French army, the reputation he had won secured him a prominent part in the future campaign. If the command was not given him, he asked that he should be sent to announce to Washington the assurance of aid, and to resume his position in the American army.
This request was granted. As soon as the expedition was decided upon, La Fayette was ordered to return to America in order to announce the important news, and to incite the Americans to an active cooperation, that would secure to them the utmost advantage from the assistance France was about to extend. He was to inform Washington that the French King would shortly send to him six ships of the line and six thousand soldiers. They were to be placed under his command; it would be for him to decide in what manner they could most profitably be used; the King's only desire, said the instruction, "is that the troops which he sends to the succor of his allies . . . shall cooperate effectively to deliver them for all time from the yoke and tyranny of the English."
While the French soldiers were placed wholly at Washington's disposal, yet, with a certain pathos he was asked to watch them with care and to spill no unnecessary blood. The well-known humanity of General Washington, concluded the instruction, "makes it certain that he will have specially in care the preservation of a body of brave men, sent more than a thousand leagues to the rescue of his country. Though ready to undertake anything for the safety of America, they should not be sacrificed rashly nor lightly." (Instruction and Project, March 5, 1780; Doniol, iv, 314-320.)
The progress of the war increased the respect in which Washington was held in Europe, and lessened the esteem bestowed upon Congress. The French auxiliaries were to be entirely under Washington's orders, and to him La Fayette was to report. The French desired that even the pecuniary assistance they were to render should be placed within Washington's control, in order that from it the best results might be obtained. It was announced that the money granted by the French King this year for the purchase of supplies, must be drawn on orders from General Washington; only after representations from Franklin that such a procedure would be contrary to all the usages of his government, were the officials of Congress again intrusted with handling the funds.
The Hermione was directed to convey the marquis on his important mission, and the captain was ordered to render all the attention due to so distinguished a passenger. "I shall have for M. Ie Marquis de La Fayette," said the polite captain, "all the regard and respect which are not only directed by your orders, but dictated by my own heart, for a man whose actions have inspired me with the strongest desire to know him." (Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc., ii, 93.)
A favorable wind seconded the captain's zeal, and on March 14, 1780, the Hermione sailed from La Rochelle carrying La Fayette and his momentous secret. Duplicates of the papers intrusted to him had been sent to the French ambassador at Philadelphia, to be used in the contingency, by no means improbable, of the capture of the marquis by some English cruiser. But the good fortune which deserted La Fayette in his late career still attended his youth. The voyage of the Hermione was prosperous, and on April 28 she came to anchor in Boston harbor.
There the marquis received new proofs of the affection which the colonists felt for one who had labored so indefatigably in their behalf. On the 28th he landed at Hancock's Wharf, where he was met by a procession of soldiers and escorted to the governor's mansion. He then visited the Legislature, where he was received with many honors, and in the evening there was general rejoicing in the town. Such a reception, in a foreign city, would be gratifying to any one, and popular applause was especially dear to La Fayette. He Wrote Vergennes that the warmth of his reception and the inexpressible marks of kindness which the American people bestowed upon him increased, if possible, his ardor in their cause (La Fayette to Vergennes, May 2, 1780; Doniol, iv, 351.)
He soon left the enthusiastic Bostonians and made his way to Washington's headquarters, where he arrived on May 10. He then visited Congress, and that body passed resolutions, commending the disinterested zeal and persevering attachment of so gallant and meritorious an officer. He was at once assigned to the command of two thousand men, a considerable force, when the entire army of the general-in-chief did not exceed six thousand.
La Fayette always displayed an extreme liberality to his soldiers; he possessed amiable virtues which made him, if not one of the greatest, yet certainly one of the most lovable of men. In France he had purchased with his own money a large stock of clothing and arms which he now distributed among his command. A good coat and a whole pair of shoes were usually a mark of distinction for a Continental soldier, and La Fayette's corps were the best-dressed men in the army.