This short paper is an effort to provide some perspective on the French-American alliance that was signed in 1778, led to the military victory at Yorktown (1781), and arguably to full recognition of American Independence in the 1783 Treaty of Versailles. Obviously, this website somewhat favors the sentiment characterized by the idealized depiction of the French and American alliance represented in Rioult's painting shown on the main page. However, a realistic assessment provides a more complicated history. A chronological review, starting with the conclusion of the Seven Years' War (1754-1763), appears the best way to explain the Franco-American Alliance based upon a 1778 treaty.


The 1763 Treaty of Paris that concluded the Seven Years' War (1756-63) recognized the loss of significant French claims in North America (Canada and some possessions in the West Indies). That war was know as 'The French and Indian War' in North America, and was one of a series of conflicts in which many English colonists fought as auxiliaries or militia along side British forces against the French. [Both sides had Native American (Indians) allies]. The general perception of the French as being the 'traditional enemies' remained with the American colonists as they contemplated rebelling from England a little more than a decade after the end of the French and Indian War. George Washington, himself, had been a temporary prisoner of the French at the very beginning of the French and Indian War. Along with most of the American leaders, Washington did not see a need for direct French military participation in the American Revolution as it began in 1775.
A less appreciated aspect of the 1763 Treaty of Paris was that it removed French military presence in North America. This altered the political-military dynamics between England and her American colonies. During the North American colonial wars, the colonists perceived their most dominant threat as being 'Indians' who were supported on many occasions by French military units. This instilled in the English colonists an appreciation for the presence of British military forces. However, without the French military presence, the American colonists felt confident in dealing with the Indians on their own and were reluctant to support the continued expense of deployed English forces overseas.
The change in the American colonists' attitudes toward English supervision and demands had been anticipated by the French Foreign Ministers. In 1767, Etienne François de Choiseul, Minister under king Louis XV, sent a German-born, retired French officer, de Kalb, and some others to assess the situation in the American colonies. A new French foreign minister, comte de Vergennes, who came in with the accession of Louis VI in 1774, shared Choiseul's expectations of eventual American colonial resistance to English rule, and also sent 'spies'. The French 'spies' reported a growing resentment in the colonies against decisions made by the British government, but not enough to accept open French encouragement. Vergennes remained alert to any signs that the American colonies might rebel, while at the same time continuing with reforms of the French military and a build-up of the French navy.

    Comment on what motivated the French to be involved in a revolt of the American colonies from England. The French interest came from many factors, which were not shared equally by all the French participants or decision-makers.
  • There was certainly a significant desire for 'revenge' -- to see the British lose in North America, where the largest French real estate had been lost in recent war that ended in 1763.
  • There were broader French 'policy goals'. One goal was to improve French world-wide economic advantages. More broadly framed, the goal was to weaken Britain [France's main rival] and redress 'the balance of power' which had shifted in Britain's favor following the Seven Years' War.
  • France sought to improve the security of her fishing areas off Newfoundland, and the lucrative trading islands in the West Indies. Both were vulnerable to possible conquest by the North American colonists, assisted by the British navy. Separating the colonists from Britain had a very distinct, defensive advantage for the French. Contrary to American perceptions at the time, and carelessly asserted in many history articles, the French foreign minister was not interested in regaining Canada. This had been 'written off' French objectives when they transferred their Louisiana territory to Spain in 1762. The French did anticipate an opportunity to possibly acquire more islands in the West Indies, at the expense of the British.
  • Some sympathy for the American revolt was held by a few of the French intellectual elite [Philosophes] who idealistically favored the principles of democracy, and to a lesser degree of republicanism. Many envisioned a half-measure, with democracy applied under an enlightened monarchy being conceivable. Such feelings were also shared by a small group of English intellectuals. While the words of such intellectuals would often be quoted in association with the Franco-American Alliance, such individuals did not have the power to effect political or military actions.
  • There was a growing population of 'unemployed' military officers looking for employment. The French military reforms led to a reduction of active officer positions -- at least in contrast to the prior war years. A 'streamlining' of the army units was concurrent with material improvements ['force modernization'] being undertaken with infantry muskets, artillery pieces, etc., as well as an expanding naval ship inventory.
  • There were some cautionary arguments against French involvement in a possible American rebellion. The French Controller General Turgot feared the financial strain of another war with England. Louis XVI was also not enthusiastic about supporting a rebellion against a monarch.

In April 1775, the American colonists' opposition to British policies grew into an armed rebellion. Vergennes suspected that, without aid, the American colonists' rebellion would fail, and Great Britain would be all the stronger. However, based upon his earlier intelligence, such aid from France had to be low profile so as not to incite the British any sooner than necessary, or to arouse anti-French resentment in the colonies.
In September 1775, the French sent an agent, Achard de Bonvouloir, to Philadelphia to hold secret discussions with the American Continental Congress. At the same time, Vergennes obtained the king's approval to authorize loans to the US. The support was mainly to be in secret delivery of war materials to the Americans.

French Money was advanced to Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, who created a private trading company, the house of Hortalez & Cie. His 'trading company' purchased military supplies from the French government, and then transported the supplies on merchant ships, mostly going to the West Indies. The merchant ships were expected to return to France with agricultural products from North America. Beaumarchais also financed the transport and initial expenses of many of the volunteer officers who went to America in the early part of the war.
The French sought to get Spain [both monarchies were of the Bourbon dynasty] interested. Ports of both nations were effectively 'open' to American ships, which was a hostel act against Britain. The French ignored the presence of American ships in their ports. On occasion, when the British delivered formal protests with specific evidence, the French would request the Americans to depart -- temporally. 'Out-of-sight' from American shores, the catering to American privateers in French ports was a particular offense to the British, against which the protests of the British ambassador in Paris proved helpless. Further, French naval squadrons [stationed off the Channel ports and in the West Indies] were instructed to protect ships that the British wanted to search for contraband shipments to the American colonists.

From the American perspective, the need for French assistance evolved more slowly. Considerable anti-French feelings remained from the era of the colonial wars in North America, and there was ignorance of what an armed rebellion would really require. For the most part, the colonists had not faced the full power of an eighteen-century, European military power. Except for in Canada, France and England had not sent such forces in the earlier armed conflicts, and such a level of warfare had not been experienced in the thirteen colonies. Even the British, were not fully aware of the full military strength that they would be required to deploy to North America. However, by 1776, the realities that it would be a real war became evident to both sides. As the English increased their military and naval deployments, the American colonial leaders recognized the need to seek some assistance. Only one nation which could conceivably do so, and which expressed interest, was France.

In March 1776, the American representative, Silas Deane, arrived in France. French authorities made it be known that the American colonists needed to make a formal declaration of the intent. This 'Declaration of Independence' was officially announced 4 July 1776.
Anticipating the need for some formal agreement, the US Congress, in September 1776, adopted a 'model treaty', drafted by John Adams, to be submit to France. About two weeks later, three commissioners were appointed to negotiate agreements with European nations along the lines of the 'model'. It was largely a commercial treaty and not a wartime alliance.
[The French aid was not successfully kept secret from the English. Deane's secretary (Bancroft) was a British spy. However, England was not prepared for an open war with France, so the British efforts to deter the French aid to the American rebels remained in the form of diplomatic protests.]
Beginning with September 1776, the British offensive drove the American army from New York and across New Jersey. The Americans now appreciated what it was to confront a formal European army. 'Minutemen' were not going to do the job. Recognizing the reverses, Congress amended instructions to its agents in France, authorizing them to secure a military alliance with France and Spain.
Deane was joined by Benjamin Franklin, who arrived in France in December 1776. The third American representative was Arthur Lee, who would be recalled in January 1778.

Early 1777 saw the peak in the arrival of French military officers who served as 'volunteers' in the American army. Professionally, the most valuable of these were engineers and artillerymen. However, in June 1777, one of the most important 'volunteers', a French aristocrat possessing only a junior officer's rank in the French army, arrived at Georgetown, South Carolina. He was the marquis de La Fayette, and would see his first military action and be wounded in the American defeat at the battle of Brandywine (11 September 1777).

The American reverses in the Philadelphia Campaign of 1777, in which many French military volunteers participated, exposed serious weaknesses in the Americans standing up against a well led, trained, and equipped European army. Fortunately, a poorly led British army was defeated by the Americans at Battle of Saratoga (17 October 1777). Vergennes learned of the American victory at Saratoga in early December 1777. Conventional histories describe this as 'a turning point' in winning French commitment to the American cause. Events just covered leading to this moment, and those following belie the exaggeration.
As it happened, French preparations for war were nearly complete by December 1777, and Vergennes had the king's approval to begin negotiations for a formal alliance with the Americans. Vergennes wanted to prevent a possible reconciliation between the Americans and Britain. He was aware that the British were preparing such a plan to offer the Americans. The British did present 'reconciliation terms' to Franklin in December 1777.

The British offer was refused in January 1778. On 6 February 1778, Franklin, Deane, Lee and Gérard signed three documents. First was a Treaty of Amity and Commerce [based upon terms suggested by the US Congress in 1776]. Second was a Treaty of Alliance, which contained the political provisions of the agreement. The third document was a secret agreement that permitted Spain to associate later with the other two treaties.

13 March 1778 the French ambassador in London informed the British government of what the English already knew, that France had recognized the United States. Four days later, England declared war on France.
On 4 May 1778, the Continental Congress, meeting in York, Pennsylvania, again declined British overtures for reconciliation, and voted unanimously to approve the French treaties.
17 June 1778, hostilities between France and England began when two British warships attacked a French frigate in La Manche [the 'English Channel']. Later, Spain and The Netherlands also joined in hostilities against England, but nether signed a formal treaty with the US.
12 July 1778, the French Minister Plenipotentiary, Conrad Gérard, arrived in Philadelphia. As first secretary of the Foreign Ministry, he had been the chief French negotiator of the alliance.
The first direct deployment of French forces in the American Revolution was a naval squadron, under Vice-Admiral comte d'Estaing, sent in mid April 1778 from Toulon to the West Indies. This deployment had two basic misions: to protect French interests in the West Indies and to support the American military in combined/joint operations along the American coast. However the operations near New York and Newport (RI) failed in July and August 1778. On the other hand, the reinforced French naval presence in the West Indies, drew some British naval assets away from supporting British armies in the North American colonies.
27 July 1778, the French and British fought a costly, but indescive naval battle off the Île d'Ouesant [Ushant]. However, by the end of the year, the French position in North American waters was disappointing. The small islands off Newfoundland, Saint Pierre and Miquedon, were easily captured by the British. In the West indies, the French captured the Briitsh island of Dominica (8 September), but the British captured the French island of Saint Lucia (28 December).

The major French military plan was an invasion of England. The assembly of French units along the coast of northern France alerted the English to the threat, and contributed significantly to constrained deployments of British naval resources to North America.

Spain declared war on England in April 1779.
In September 1779, d'Estaing returned to the American theater and attempted to take Savannah from the English (October 1779). The failure of this operation was a significant embarrassment to the Franco-American coalition war effort.
French Minister Plenipotentiary Conrad Gérard became ill, and was replaced in October 1779 by Ann-César, chevalier de la Luzerne. Luzerne proved to be highly effective in working with the Americans. In fact, some thought that he worked too closely with Congress, even to the point of being involved in drafting some of the Congressional documents. But he was popular with the American leadership.
The French and Spanish armada failed to secure control of the water passage between France and England. Recognizing the logistical problems facing the planned design, as well as naval demands being placed on France elsewhere in the world, the combined invasion was cancelled in the fall of 1779. This effectively released a large number of quality French military assests for other deployments.
For some time, Vergennes and others in the French court had been considering deploying a sizable military contingent to North America. The idea obtained significant impetus when LaFayette approached Vergennes in July of 1779 to indorse such an initiative. The marquis had taken leave from his American comrades-in-arms to return to France in early 1779. LaFayette was able to confirm that the American commander, George Washington, had changed his earlier position, which saw no need for French land forces to assist the American rebels – though Washington always appreciated the potential value of the French naval forces deployed in North American waters. While Vergennes did not go along with LaFayette's further suggestions that the young marquis, himself, command such an expedition, or that such a French force would be committed to an attack into Canada, the French foreign minister was disposed to sending a French military expedition. Before the year's end, Vergennes and his staff were planning for the Expédition Particulière (Special Mission), made up largely of select resources that had been allocated to the cancelled invasion force.

In early January, comte de Rochambeau received the rank of Lieutenant Général, and was informed that he would command the expedition. A highly experienced field commander who was to have had a senior command in the cancelled invasion, Rochambeau had considerable influence in selecting the key officers, units, and artillery components of the expedition.

Wearing his American general's uniform, LaFayette reported to Versailles 29 February for a formal ‘farewell audience' before the king and queen, as he prepared to return to join the American ranks and to report to Washington of the pending French military expedition. This he did when he re-joined Washington's army, in Morristown, New Jersey on 10 May 1780.
Rochambeau's expedition, escorted by a French naval squadron under Admiral Ternay, arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1780. The French expedition spent the late summer and fall recovering from the sea crossing. However, Rochambeau established good report with Washington and the American community.
In the meantime, the British in North America launched a major offensive in the South. This led to their successful siege of Charleston (March - May 1780), and a later serious defeat of an American field army at Camden (16 August 1780). An American militia victory over a largely Loyalist force at King's Mountain (19 October 1780) helped stem the losing tide.

British Southern offensive was frustrated, by costly 'victories' and one American victory at Cowpens (21 January 1781). Superior British military forces found that they were unable to destroy elusive American forces in a decisive engagement. This was most markedly illustrated in the June - July 1781 maneuvering between Cornwallis and LaFayette in Virginia.

The year began in the north with inaction and failed excursions to Virginia waters by detachments from the small French naval squadron that accompanied the French expedition. Rochambeau's land army joined Washington's army in New York, but the allies were stalemated in face of the strong British positions.
An opportunity to break the strategic stalemate came with news of de Grasse's fleet intending to arrive off the Virginia coast, at a moment when a British force, under Cornwallis, was vulnerable without British naval support and protected lines of communication. Quickly acting on this opportunity, the allies executed the remarkable joint and combined military operations of the Yorktown Campaign (September-October 1781).

Confronted with the serious defeat at Yorktown and with world-wide conflicts with the French, England accepted to negotiate peace terms. Congress named peace commissioners to work in Europe 'under the supervision of the French': Franklin, Jay, Adams, and Laurens.

On 30 November 1782, without informing the French, the American commissioners signed preliminary articles with the British negotiators. However, it stipulated that the provisions depended upon France making its own preliminary treaty with Britain. The Americans were aware that they violated their instructions and had not kept faith with the French ally.
Vergennes was not surprised. He had his reasons for terminating the war quickly, and accepted the American diplomatic acts with the chide: "We have never based our policy towards the United States on their gratitude. This sentiment is infinitely rare among sovereigns, and unknown to republics."

The Treaty of Versailles was signed 3 September 1783.

With victory, the status of the Franco-American alliance became controversial. Some held that the alliance continued, as there was no limit specified in the treaty of 1778. Americans who disliked the suggested perpetual connection with France saw the French Revolution of 1789 as an opportunity to get rid of the treaty. However, Washington agreed with Jefferson that the treaty of 1778 remained in force even with France changing to a republic. The problem was intensified as the French Revolution led to another French-Anglo war, and the US wanted to remain neutral.

A French minister to the US, Edmond C. Genêt, arrived in April 1793. He attempted to foment a war between the US and England, as well as to encourage American privateer actions against Spanish and English possessions. His overt activities forced Washington to have Genêt recalled in August 1793. The episode embarrassed even the modest amount of Francophile support that remained in the US.

Even when his successor arrived in February 1794, Genêt's elected to remain in the US. He possibly feared returning to France during the Reign of Terror. However, the Americans did not want to be reminded of the 1778 treaty with France. They did not want it to disrupt lucrative commerce with the rest of Europe, and especially with England.

The American minister, John Jay negotiated the 'Jay Treaty' with England in November 1794. It accommodated American policy to British interests, and permitted British seizure of French goods on American ships.
The French reaction was abrupt. France broke relations with US and the French began to harass US shipping in the West Indies.

To resolve the situation, President John Adams, sent a US commission to France to negotiate a treaty of commerce and amity in 1797-1798.

The Directory refused to recognize them, but Talleyrand, the French foreign minister, delegated three agents to conduct negotiations unofficially. When French agents demanded a bribe, the US commission terminated the discussions and returned to the US. In April 1798, Congress distributed a report of the event, with the letters 'X', 'Y', and 'Z' substituted for the names of the French agents. From 1798 to 1800 an undeclared naval war between France and the US was waged in the Caribbean Sea. It is called The Quasi-War (1797-1801). This 'war' involved several naval actions and reflected considerable credit upon the fledgling US navy. It began and ended without formal recognition, though Washington was called back to command the army.

In July 1798, the US Congress unilaterally abrogated the treaties of 1778. France refused to recognize the US annulment.

Napoleon became First Consul in 1799, the same year he declared a day of national mourning upon the death of George Washington. Napoleon's grand design for Europe wanted to remove distractions in the Western hemisphere, so he entered into negotiations with the US to resolve the status of the 1778 treaty.

In return for some commercial concessions for the French, Napoleon officially accepted an end to the 1778 treaty at the Convention of Morfontaine (30 September 1800).

In summary, the Franco-American Alliance of the American Revolution lasted 'technically' from 1778 to 1800. As a treaty mutually supported by both consigning nations, it was effective only from 1778 to 1783.


The spirit of a 'continuing alliance':
There is a distinction between a formal treaty, with its exact dates and wording, and an 'alliance' which might be less specific and reflect only an emotional association. Many references to the French-American Alliance since the eighteenth century are the latter. Exceptions occur with the two world wars and then the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949. In all three cases, France, the United States, and England have participated along with various other nations of Western Europe. During the Second World War and especially after, the role of the United States as a 'world power' has been elevated. The reversal from its position in the eighteenth-century alliance leads to interesting comparisons and observations, but will not be examined here.

Some questions remain without convincing answers:
French aid to the US may have hastened the financial difficulties that contributed to the French Revolution, but the causes of the latter were far more complex.
Idealism fostered by the American Revolution appears to have had only minor impact in inciting the French Revolution. One problem here is that the perceptions behind the calls for 'freedom', 'liberty', 'democracy', 'republican government' have continued to shift over time, and with differing national, and even regional, developments.

Some questions that have more supportive answers:

Could the US have won the revolution that began in 1775 without French aid?
While a number of historians suggest that the US could have won on their own, a contemporary authority on the war -- none other than George Washington -- states more than once that French direct military participation proved necessary.
Most authors that claim French aid was not decisive or essential usually do not address the mutinies occurring in the American army and many signs of discouragement growing in the American community (which was never as united as popular myth suggests) as the duration of the war extended.
Cornwallis' expressed futility of trying to conquer the Americans can be suspect. Despite the fact that he went on to glory in India, Cornwallis did not exhibit sound strategic judgment in his North American campaigns. American myth likes to portray him as 'one of the best British generals of the war' -- it is always good to have beaten 'the best'. Cornwallis was familiar with his own frustrations, but not with those Washington faced. Also, the British did not have 'to conquer' the rebels, merely destroy their hope of winning independence and the credibility of the American leaders.

Scope of French assistance:

  • Loaned money that contributed to paying American troops and to purchasing local provisions for the American army.
  • Sent gunpowder, cannon, muskets, uniforms, and other war materials.
  • Sent experienced, professional army officers, especially engineers, to serve in the American army.
  • Provided seaman for some privateer ships.
  • Provided European-based ports to harbor US naval and privateer ships.
  • Diverted British military and naval resources from North America by challenging English navy on the seas and attacking English overseas possessions.
  • Assisted Dutch support of American effort.
  • Encourage and supported Spanish participation in the war against England.
  • Deployed the sizable military expedition and naval fleet that participated in the 1781 Yorktown Campaign.


French-American Relations in the Age of Revolutions: From Hope to Disappointment (1776-1800): presentation given by Professor Marie-Jeanne Rossignol at the Alliance Day celebrations, Paris, 6 February 2003.

The Avalon Project: France: Treaties of 1778.


William C. Stinchcombe. The American Revolution and the French Alliance, (Syracuse, N.Y., 1969). [Particularly fine review of attitudes in the American colonies toward the alliance.]

Ronald Hoffman, ed. Diplomacy and Revolution, The Franco-American Alliance of 1778, (US Capitol Historical Society, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1982). [Highly recommended as a concise review, with valuable references for further study]

Jonathan R. Dull. The French Navy and American Independence, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1975). [A well researched examination of the diplomatic aspects relating to the French American Alliance during the American Revolution.]

Jonathan R. Dull. A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1985). The author examines international aspects of the American War for Independence more broadly than did his earlier work relating to the French navy and diplomacy. However, when he returns to France's role, Dull provides a more penetrating examination, and refreshingly dispels many simplistic clichés used in so many Anglophone works to describe the motives of French leaders or the actual balance of power in Europe in 1775-1783.

William J. Eccles. "The French Alliance and the American Victory" ["Chapter 9"] in The World Turned Upside Down, The American Victory in the War of Independence, ed. by John Ferling, (Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut, 1988), pp.147-163, notes pp.226-228. [Another work by W.J. Eccles, France in America (Harper & Row, NY, 1972), provides valuable background of the French in the Western Hemisphere; furnishing detail on the history of the French in early North America. Though it touches only briefly on the American Revolution, it explains the complex relationship the French in Canada (and other parts of North America) had with the revolt in the English colonies.]

Nancy Lee Cairns. "French Participation and Assistance in the American Revolution" in The Valley Forge Journal, vol 5, no. 1 (1990), pp.1-24.

Charles J. Stillé. "Beaumarchais and the `lost million': A Chapter in the Secret History of the American Revolution," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 11 (April 1887), pp.1-36.

Elizabeth S. Kite, "French `Secret Aid'; Precursor to the Franco-American Alliance, 1776-1777," French American Review, vol. 1 (April-June 1948), pp.143-52.

Claude F. Van Tyne. "Influences which Determined the French Government to Make the Treaty with America, 1778," American Historical Review, vol. 21 (April 1916), pp.528-41.

Claude H. Van Tyne. "French Aid Before the Alliance of 1778," American Historical Review, vol. 31 (October 1925), pp.20-40.

Arnold Whitridge. "Beaumarchais and the American Revolution," History Today, vol. 17 (February 1967), pp.98-105.

John J. Meng, "A Foot-note to Secret Aid in the American Revolution," American Historical Review, vol. 43 (July 1938), pp.791-95.

Samuel Flagg Bemis. The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, (Blomington, Indiana, 1935 & 1957)

Edward S. Corwin. "The French Objective in the American Revolution," American Historical Review, 21 (1915), pp.33-61

Edward S. Corwin. French Policy and the American Alliance of 1778, (Princeton, N.J., 1916).

Don Higginbotham. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Politics, 1763-1789, (New York, 1971).

Henri Doniol. Histoire de la participation de la France à l'éstablissement des Etats-Unis d'Amérique, 5 vols. (Paris, 1886-92).

Auger Helen. "Benjamin Franklin and the Alliance," American Heritage, April 1956, pp.65-88. Adapted from her book The Secret War of Independence (Brown, NY, 1956).

Ben C. McCarthy. The Causes of the French Intervention in the American Revolution (Toulouse, 1928)

A. Temple Patterson, The Other Armada: The Franco-Spanish Attempt to Invade Britain in 1779 (Manchester, 1960).

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Last revised 3 April 2005.