The French Alliance
The French motives.—On February 6, 1778, France entered into an alliance with the United States. That event changed the war from a struggle between England and her former colonies to an international contest in which Spain and Holland were soon engaged. The motives of France in entering the contest have been variously ascribed to revenge for the loss of her possessions and the desire to regain them, to the intellectual movement in France, to the desire to build up French commerce at the expense of England, and to the fear that Great Britain would adjust the difficulties with the colonies and unite with them in an attack upon the French West Indies. Professor Corwin, who has recently examined the question, concludes that these explanations are not adequate. He contends that the basic principle of French diplomacy was the maintenance of leadership in Europe, and that in return for this commanding position, France was willing to forego the extension of her dominion. In the Seven Years' War French prestige had been destroyed; to rebuild it was the object of her statesmen.
The policy of Vergennes.—In 1774 Louis XVI became king. No better intentioned ruler ever mounted a throne but his weak will and vacillating course led to his undoing. For two years Turgot was the reigning influence at the council board. He installed a system of economy and reform, which, had it been adhered to, would probably have saved France from the throes of her great revolution. Turgot's plans ran counter to the policy of Vergennes, the foreign minister, who desired to see his country take its place in the sun as the dictator of European politics. The attainment of Vergennes's policy was based upon three main ideas: the preservation of peace on the continent by a close alliance with Austria; a renewal of the Family Compact with Spain; and the humbling of England. The last was to be accomplished by the building up of the French navy, by secretly aiding the colonies, and when the time seemed auspicious, by entering into an alliance with them, an alliance in which Vergennes hoped that Spain would join. To win over the latter power and to overcome the aversion of Louis XVI to aiding rebellious subjects were the immediate problems of Vergennes.
Vergennes wins over the king.—A secret agent, Bonvouloir, was sent to America to ascertain the condition of the colonies. His first report, which reached Paris in March, 1776, gave a favorable statement of the military situation. Vergennes immediately attempted to convince the king that secret aid should be given the colonies. He argued that the prolongation of the struggle would be advantageous to France and Spain as it would weaken both contestants, and he pointed out that England would probably attack the French West Indies as soon as the present war was over. Aided by Beaumarchais, the author of Le Mariage de Figaro, Vergennes countered the advice of Turgot and won over the king to his plan.
Deane and Beaumarchais.—The secret committee on foreign correspondence of the Continental Congress in March, 1776, sent Silas Deane to Paris. His presence became known to Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, who demanded his deportation, but France refused and continually aided him in securing supplies. The French government also loaned the colonies a million livres and obtained a similar amount for them from Spain. When news of the Declaration of Independence reached Paris, Vergennes urged that France and Spain enter the war, but Washington's defeats around New York held back both countries. France continued to aid the colonies, the business being transacted by Beaumarchais through the fictitious house of Hortalez et Cie. Beaumarchais also drew heavily upon his private fortune to assist the colonies.
Franklin.—The delay of France in making an open alliance caused Congress to appoint a commission composed of Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and Benjamin Franklin Of all colonials Franklin was the best known in Europe. As a scientist, philosopher, wit, and statesman, his name was familiar to all classes in the French capital. His unpretentious dress, unaffected manners, and simplicity of life made him seem to Parisians the impersonation of the natural man of Rousseau's philosophy. On the street, at the theater, in the salon, Franklin was the center of interest. Artists made busts of him and jewelers exhibited his countenance on medallions, watches, and snuff-boxes. Franklin soon discovered that he could not hurry matters; he quietly bided his time, never losing an opportunity to win supporters to the American cause. Even the court became enthusiastic, and Marie Antoinette, with little understanding or prophetic vision, applauded the republicans of America.
The American proposals.—In January, 1777, the commissioners presented their views to Vergennes. They proposed that France and Spain furnish the United States eight ships of the line, twenty or thirty thousand stand of arms, and a large quantity of cannon and ammunition. Congress in return offered the two nations a commercial treaty and a guarantee of their possessions in the West Indies. Vergennes was unable to comply but he advanced two hundred and fifty thousand livres as the first instalment of a secret loan of two millions. In February the commissioners suggested that, if France and Spain became involved in war because of a treaty with the United States, the states would not conclude a separate peace. In March they proposed a triple alliance between France, Spain, and the United States. The bait for Spain was the conquest of Portugal, and the war was to continue until England was expelled from North America and the West Indies.
The attitude of Spain.—The American proposals included both France and Spain, and in the latter country the commissioners met with a stumbling block. Spain at first showed a friendly attitude. Through the firm of Josef Gardoqui and Sons supplies were secretly furnished to the United States, but when Arthur Lee attempted to go to Madrid, he was turned back by the Spanish authorities, who preferred to work in secret. In February, 1777, the Count de Florida Blanca became minister of foreign affairs. To Florida Blanca Spain's interests must take precedence over those of France in determining Spanish policy. Difficulties with Portugal had been adjusted, and Florida Blanca could see no advantage in an immediate war with Great Britain. He was willing to keep the contest in America going until both parties were exhausted. Then Spain and France might enter the war, Spain to get the Floridas and France to obtain Canada. But as to the recognition of American independence, king and minister were unalterably opposed.
Lafayette.—Of no little importance in bringing France and the United States together was the coming of the young nobleman Lafayette to America. Fired by the Declaration of Independence, he determined to enlist in the American cause. In April, 1777, Lafayette with the Baron de Kalb and several other officers sailed for America. They reached Philadelphia on July 27 but Congress gave them a chilly reception. Nothing daunted, Lafayette proudly announced that he asked nothing but the opportunity of serving as a volunteer. Congress was deeply impressed by his unselfish attitude and promptly made him a Major-General. Washington received him gladly, took him into his military family and through the long war, with the exception of a period when he was promoting American interests in France, he served as a trusted officer of the commander-in-chief.
The French alliance.—During the summer of 1777 the American question was held in abeyance at Paris but Burgoyne's surrender stirred Vergennes to action. He appears to have feared that Great Britain was about to effect a reconciliation with the United States. To prevent it he believed that France must openly espouse the American cause. One more effort was made to draw Spain into the alliance, but the reply proved unfavorable. On January 7, 1778, at a French royal council meeting the final decision was made and on February 6 treaties of commerce and alliance were signed. The latter agreement was described as a defensive alliance to maintain effectually the liberty, sovereignty, and independence of the United States, as well in matters of government as in commerce.
Lord North attempts conciliation.—When news of Burgoyne's surrender reached London, hope of subduing the rebellion by force was temporarily abandoned and Lord North was empowered to try his hand at conciliation. On February 17, 1778, the Prime Minister presented his plan to the Commons. He proposed (1) the repeal of the tea duty, (2) the passage of an act removing apprehension regarding parliamentary taxation of the colonies, (3) opening the port of Boston, (4) restoration of the Massachusetts charter, (5) opening the fisheries, (6) restoration of commerce, and (7) full pardon to those engaged in rebellion. (8) Prisoners charged with treason were not to be brought over the sea for trial, and (9) no bill for changing a colonial constitution was to be introduced in parliament except at the request of the colony involved. (10) Regulation of colonial courts was to follow colonial opinion, and (11) officials were to be elected by popular vote subject, however, to the approval of the king. (12) The royal treasury was to assist in the withdrawal of colonial currency, and (13) a promise was given that the question of colonial representation in parliament would be considered.
The Carlisle Commission.—A royal commission was to visit America to settle points in dispute. Headed by the Earl of Carlisle, the commission proceeded to Philadelphia but it was soon discovered that nothing could be accomplished. General Howe had been recalled and Clinton, who was placed in command, was under orders to evacuate Philadelphia. The alliance with France was already known in America and nothing short of a recognition of independence would satisfy the Whig leaders.
Change in British plans.—The French alliance brought about a complete change in British plans. Henceforth garrisons were to be kept in New York, Newport, Canada, and the Floridas, and hostilities on the mainland were to be devoted to the destruction of coastwise trade and coast towns, and to the harassing of the frontiers by Indian raids. Attacks in force were to be made on the French possessions in the West Indies.
Evacuation of Philadelphia and the battle of Monmouth.—In pursuance of this plan in May, '78, the British prepared to evacuate Philadelphia. General Howe returned to England and Clinton took command. Most of the stores, some of the troops, and about three thousand Loyalists were placed on transports, and the main army on June 18 started on its march across New Jersey. Washington succeeded in getting in touch with the British army ten days later at Monmouth. Clinton's forces were stretched out to such an extent that it was difficult to bring them into action. Washington sent Lee to attack, but after a slight demonstration, the poltroon ordered a retreat. Lee's cowardice gave the British time to form and a bloody battle followed which ended only with nightfall. In the darkness the British army broke camp and when morning dawned it was beyond the reach of Washington.
The coming of D'Estaing.—On April 15 Admiral D'Estaing sailed from Toulon in command of twelve ships of the line and five frigates which carried four thousand infantry. The voyage was pursued in a leisurely fashion which gave Lord Howe time to get his transports out of the Delaware and concentrate the fleet at New York. It also made it possible for a reinforcement under Commodore Byron to arrive in American waters. Not until July 8 was D'Estaing's fleet within the Delaware capes. After landing Gérard, the French minister, the admiral proceeded to New York. Though the French fleet was superior to the British, D'Estaing failed to attack.
The failure at Newport.—Instead he entered into a plan with Washington to take Newport which was garrisoned by five or six thousand British troops. Sullivan, with about a thousand continental soldiers and several thousand militia, was to coöperate with the French fleet. The opening was auspicious. The war vessels ran by the batteries and anchored in the inner waters. The British commander to prevent capture destroyed several frigates and small craft. On August 9 Sullivan moved nine thousand troops to the island. The same day Howe's fleet appeared at the entrance of Narragansett Bay and D'Estaing, carrying his infantry with him, sailed out to meet the enemy. Before the fleets could engage a terrific storm arose which scattered the vessels. Howe finally regained New York and D'Estaing sailed to Boston for repairs, leaving Sullivan unsupported and in a precarious position. When word came that Clinton was sending large reinforcements, Sullivan abandoned the siege.
D'Estaing in the West Indies.—D'Estaing lingered at Boston ten weeks and then sailed for the West Indies. Before his arrival a French force from Martinique had captured Dominica. The English retaliated by capturing St. Lucia, and when D'Estaing attempted to relieve it, he was replused. On June 18, 1779, the French occupied St. Vincent and on July 2 Grenada. On July 6 Byron attacked the French fleet off Grenada, but D'Estaing had the better of the fighting although he failed to follow up his victory. After attempting the relief of Savannah, the French commander despatched part of his fleet to the West Indies and then sailed for Europe.
Stony Point and the evacuation of Newport.—After the Newport failure Washington drew a cordon about New York and strengthened the line of the Hudson. On May 31, 1779, Clinton seized the fortifications at Stony Point and Verplanck's Point, but on July 16 General Wayne carried the works at Stony Point. Clinton also sent raiding parties to the Chesapeake and along the Connecticut coast, but in October he ordered the evacuation of Newport and concentrated his forces at New York.
The second French expedition.—Washington still hoped for effective help from the French fleet in the West Indies, but his hopes were blasted early in 1780 by the arrival in the islands of British naval reinforcements under Admiral Rodney, who during April and May fought three indecisive actions with the French fleet. Largely through the influence of Lafayette France was induced to send a large force to America in 1780. In July a fleet of seven vessels convoying six thousand men commanded by Rochambeau arrived at Newport. The second division, however, was blockaded at Brest and was unable to sail. Washington's hopes mounted high but they were soon dashed again, for Clinton, who had just returned to New York after the capture of Charleston, was able to send a considerable armament to blockade the French at Newport, and there they remained for months to come.
Arnold's treason.—During the long contest Washington had often been disappointed by the incompetence of his subordinates, but Nathanael Greene and Benedict Arnold had seldom been found wanting. The former was soon to win fame as the conqueror of the South; the other chose a path which made his name despised. Arnold had not been justly treated by Congress, although he had the absolute confidence of Washington. Brooding over his wrongs and convinced that the country would welcome the reëstablishment of the king's authority, he determined to play the part of a General Monk. While in command of Philadelphia, he entered into a treasonable correspondence with Clinton. He then asked for the command of the great fortress at West Point. This was readily given to him and there he perfected his plans to deliver this key position of the Hudson to the British. Clinton sent Major André to communicate with Arnold, but upon his return on September 23, 1780, André was captured and on his person were found papers which disclosed the plot. André was condemned and hung as a spy, but Arnold made good his escape to the British lines.
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