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France in the American Revolutionary War

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Battle of Lexington, April 19, 1775, which marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, engraving, United States
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/ De Agostini Picture Library/ Getty Images

The American Revolutionaries Seek Allies

After years of spiralling tensions in Britain’s American colonies the American Revolutionary War began in 1775. The revolutionary colonists faced a war against one of the world’s major powers, one with an empire that spanned the globe. To help counter this, the Continental Congress created the ‘Secret Committee of Correspondence’ to publicise the aims and actions of the rebels in Europe, before drafting the ‘Model Treaty’ to guide negotiations of alliance with foreign powers. Once the Congress had declared independence in 1776, they sent a party including Benjamin Franklin to negotiate with Britain’s rival: France.

Why France was Interested

France initially sent agents to observe the war, organised secret supplies, and began preparations for war against Britain in support of the rebels. France might seem an odd choice for the revolutionaries to deal with. The nation was ruled by an absolutist monarch who was not sympathetic to claims of ‘no taxation without representation’, even if the plight of the colonists and their perceived fight against a domineering empire excited idealistic Frenchmen like the Marquis de Lafayette. France was also Catholic, and the colonies were Protestant.

But French was a colonial rival of Britain, and while arguably Europe’s most prestigious nation, France had suffered humiliating defeats to the British in the Seven Years War - especially its American theatre, the French-Indian War - only years earlier. France was looking for any way to boost its own reputation while undermining Britains, and helping the colonists to independence looked like a perfect way of doing this. The fact that some of the revolutionaries had fought France in the French- Indian war scant years earlier was expediently overlooked. In fact, the French Duc de Choiseul had outlined how France would restore their prestige from the Seven Years War as early as 1765 by believing the colonists would soon throw the British out, and then France and Spain had to unite and fight Britain for naval dominance.

Covert Assistance

Franklin’s actions helped prompt a wave of sympathy across France for the revolutionary cause, and a fashion for all things American took hold. Franklin used this to help in negotiations with French Foreign Minister Vergennes, who was initially keen on a full alliance, especially after the British were forced to abandon their base in Boston. Then news arrived of defeats suffered by Washington and his Continental Army in New York. With Britain seemingly on the rise Vergennes wavered, hesitating over a full alliance and afraid of pushing the colonies back to Britain, but he sent a secret loan and other aid anyway. Meanwhile the French entered negotiations with the Spanish, who could also threaten Britain, but who were worried about colonial independence.

Saratoga Leads to Full Alliance

In December 1777 news reached France of the British surrender at Saratoga, a victory which convinced the French to make a full alliance with the revolutionaries and to enter the war with troops. On February 6th 1778 Franklin and two other American commissioners signed the Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France. This contained a clause banning either Congress or France making a separate peace with Britain, and a commitment to keep fighting until US independence was recognised. Spain entered the war on the revolutionary side later that year.

Intriguingly, the French Foreign Office attempted to pin down “legitimate” reasons for France’s entry into the war, and found almost none. France couldn’t argue for the rights which the Americans claimed without damaging their own political position, and couldn’t claim to be a mediator between Britain and America after their own behaviour. Indeed, all the report could recommend was stressing disputes with Britain and avoiding discussion in favour of simply acting. (Mackesy, The War for America, p.161).

1778 – 1783

Now fully committed to the war, France supplied arms, ammunitions, supplies and uniforms. French troops and naval power were also sent to America, reinforcing and protecting Washington’s Continental Army. The decision to send troops was taken carefully, as few in France had any idea how US citizens would react to a foreign army, and the numbers of soldiers were carefully chosen to balance being effective, with not being large enough to anger Americans. The commanders were carefully selected, men who could work effectively with both themselves and US commanders; however, the leader of the French army, Count Rochambeau, didn’t speak English. While the troops selected weren’t, as once believed, the very cream of the French army, they were, as one historian has commented, for “1780…probably the most sophisticated military instrument ever dispatched to the New World.” (Kennett, The French Forces in America, 1780 – 1783, p. 24)

There were problems in working together at first, as Sullivan found at Newport when French ships pulled away from a siege to deal with British ships, before being damaged and having to retreat. But overall the US and French forces co-operated well – although they were often kept separated – and certainly when compared to the incessant problems experienced in the British high command. French forces attempted to buy everything they couldn’t ship in from locals rather than requisition it, and they spent an estimated $4 million worth of precious metal in doing so, further endearing themselves to locals.

Arguably the key French contribution came during the Yorktown campaign. French forces under Rochambeau landed at Rhode Island in 1780, which they fortified before linking up with Washington in 1871. Later that year the Franco-American army marched 700 miles south to besiege Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown while the French navy cut the British off from desperately needed naval supplies, reinforcements, and complete evacuation to New York. Cornwallis was forced to surrender to Washington and Rochambeau, and this proved the last major engagement of the war, as Britain opened peace discussions soon after rather than continue a global war.

The Global Threat from France

America wasn’t the only theatre in a war which, with France’s entrance, had turned global. France was now able to threaten British shipping and territory around the globe, preventing their rival from focusing fully on the conflict in the Americas. Part of the impetus behind Britain’s surrender after Yorktown was the need to hold the remainder of their colonial empire from attack by other European nations, such as France, and there were battles outside America in 1782 and 83 as peace negotiations took place. Many in Britain felt that France was their primary enemy, and should be the focus; some even suggested pulling out of the US colonies entirely to focus on their neighbour.

Peace

Despite British attempts to divide France and Congress during peace negotiations, the allies remained firm – aided by a further French loan – and peace was reached in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 between Britain, France and the United States. Britain had to sign further treaties with other European powers who had become involved.
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