(This guest post is by intern R. Grant Kleiser, European Reading Room.)
The year 2021 marks the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown (September 28-October 9, 1781), the last major engagement of the American Revolution in North America. This decisive event prompted Great Britain to enter peace negotiations and recognize the independence of the United States of America. The French contribution to this battle is popularly known, most famously perhaps from the musical “Hamilton!” in which the Marquis de Lafayette sings “I come back with more guns/ And ships/ And so the balance shifts.”(Song “Guns and Ships”).
During American independence celebrations, it is easy to forget the extent of French involvement in the revolutionary struggle and particularly the Battle of Yorktown. The French played an indispensable role in helping the United States gain its independence in three key areas. First, French loans, clothing, gunpowder, muskets, cannons, and provisions supplied and sustained the American Continental Army especially during its most desperate moments. Second, the United States would not have been able to win at Yorktown without French land forces led by the Comte de Rochambeau and, critically, the French fleet led by Admiral De Grasse, which eliminated any hope of British reinforcements, supplies or escape. And finally, the French military engaged the British in many other geographical arenas, most-notably the Caribbean, which diverted British resources from North America and turned the American Revolution into so costly a global war that many British politicians refused to continue it. The French contribution to American independence was therefore of great significance.
France had long been enemies of their neighbors across the English Channel. While the two had competed in the Hundred-Years War (ca. 1337-1453) for territorial sovereignty in continental France, one could say Britain and France then partook in a second Hundred-Years War (ca. 1689-1815) for global commercial and military power. Each empire was wary of the other gaining too much wealth, land, or naval prowess, and engaged in at least eight major conflicts against each other during this period. By 1763, France had suffered a crushing defeat in the Seven Years’ War (more commonly called the “French and Indian War” in the U.S.), losing all its claims to mainland Canada and the Louisiana Territory. Therefore, by the time the American Revolution broke out in 1775, the young French King Louis XVI was eager to use this conflict to weaken the British Empire by helping deprive it of its North American colonies.
As colonial North Americans escalated their rebellion against Britain and declared independence from the British Empire in July of 1776, top American leaders and diplomats recognized France’s potential as an ally and arsenal. The new United States desperately needed money, weapons and outfitting since they did not possess large manufacturing depots for these. Many of the George Washington Military Papers contain orderly and memoranda books, provision returns, and enlistment records that demonstrate the desperate need the Continental Army had for supplies. As a result, in late 1776, Benjamin Franklin travelled to Paris to try to negotiate economic and military aid. Besides Franklin, the merchant and congressional delegate from Connecticut, Silas Deane, became an important voice at the negotiating table. Other American commissioners, primarily Arthur Lee, William Lee and John Adams played important roles as well in persuading France to send economic and military support to the United States.
On the French side of negotiations, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs (1774-87), Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, served as the primary diplomat. While initially wary to engage in another costly conflict, Vergennes agreed to provide initial clandestine aid to the United States from 1776 to 1778. For instance, the French government decided to secretly loan one million livres (French monetary unit) to a fictitious trading firm called “Roderigue Hortalez and Company” that purchased military supplies, arms, and munitions and sold them to the American government. We can see some of the records of this aid through two letters by Pierre Beaumarchais, who oversaw the “Roderigue Hortalez and Company’s” covert activities. The French also provided war material and clothing to the Americans through the neutral Dutch Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius, which was probably the single largest source of gunpowder for North American revolutionaries. In addition, individual French officers and soldiers decided to join the Continental Army’s ranks, most famously the Marquis de Lafayette but also military engineers like Louis Duportail, François Fleury and Maudit du Plessis.
King Louis XVI and Vergennes, however, hesitated to formally join the American cause, waiting for the young United States to prove that they could succeed militarily against the British and would not abandon the cause to form a separate peace. Such a sign came in the U.S. victory over British General John Burgoyne by American Generals Horatio Gates and Benedict Arnold at Saratoga, New York in the fall of 1777. Vergennes and the American commissioners came to terms very quickly, signing two treaties in February 1778. The first, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, mostly hashed out details concerning French trade with United States vessels. The second, the Treaty of Alliance promised that France would establish a formal military alliance with the United States should Britain declare war on France due to their now official economic support of the American rebels. It committed the United States and France to a joint military and no separate peace should Britain declare war (which they soon did). Vergennes dispatched Conrad Alexandre Gérard as the first French minister to the United States to facilitate this alliance.
France’s economic support was essential in bolstering U.S. finances, supplying and outfitting the American army and replacing the colonies’ lost trade in leaving the British commercial network. France’s actions further legitimized the rebellion, helping to convince other rivals of Great Britain, such as the Spanish and the Dutch, to support the U.S. cause.
Part 2 will describe French military action on behalf of the American Revolution.
The published correspondence between Louis XVI and the Comte de Vergennes is available via the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress’ Franklin Papers hold a vast array of letters to and from Franklin related to diplomacy with France, starting in 1777.
Another great resource for researchers is The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, an online collection sponsored by the American Philosophical Society and Yale University containing most of Franklin’s correspondence and writing.
The Library of Congress houses many Silas Deane’s letters from Paris.
A large number of Silas Deane’s papers are also available online via Hathitrust. Search, e.g., for “Deane, Silas” and “papers.”
The “France in America” collection explored the history of the French presence in North America from the first decades of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century.
The Library of Congress contains 149 pages of the financial transactions of the American commissioners in France from December, 1776 to May 1779.
Much of the correspondence relating to the United States commissioners who negotiated with the French (especially that of John Adams) has been transcribed and put online by the U.S. National Archives.
The Library of Congress contains microform reels of the papers of the Marquis de Lafayette.
For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.
Subscribe to 4 Corners of the World – it’s free! – and the world’s largest library will send you cool stories about its collections from around the world!