"Challenging Historical Clichés
about the French Participation
in the American Revolutionary War "

by Dr. Jonathan R. Dull
Except for text in green color font, the following text on this page has been transcribed from a typewritten document obtained via Inter Library Loan; and reportedly reflects the presentation made by Professor Jonathan R. Dull, at the Proceedings of the First Annual Meeting of the Western Society for French History (Las Cruces, New Mexico, 1974; pp. 110-119).


Jonathan R. Dull
Acting Instructor
Department of History
University of California, Berkeley

According to Webster's Dictionary a myth to "A traditional story of unknown authorship, ostensibly with an historical basis ..." For purposes of this paper I will band this definition so as to define ‘myth' as "A supposed historical fact of unknown authorship, but presumably with some historical basis." In other words the myths I will discuss, are historical clichés – some true but needing elucidation, some false and needing correction.
For a number of reasons the clichés about the French participation in the American Revolutionary War are in particular need of being challenged. Most of the works on the subject are outdated, largely because of their dependence on published sources. Even more, they have been seriously harmed by one of the least justified forms of historical compartmentalization, the division of war between military history and diplomatic history. My challenge of their clichés is based on my research in both the French diplomatic correspondence and the French naval correspondence of the period. It is my belief that only through studying its instruments of force can the historian properly understand the diplomacy of the war. (The instruments of force for the war are chiefly the naval instruments of force since from the French standpoint the war was overwhelmingly a naval war.) Conversely, it is only through a knowledge of the diplomatic aims or the war that the historian can properly understand its military strategy. This, of course, is to say nothing very original. Had there been a Garrett Mattlingly studying the American war there Would have been no need for my research.
In this paper I wish to briefly discuss six myths: 1) that the French Intervention was motivated by a desire to weaken Britain's position in the balance of power; 2) that the French intervention marked one of France's few diplomatic and military successes of the 18th century; 3) that the decisive factor in convincing France to enter hostilities was the American victory at Saratoga; 4) that during the course of the war the chief French diplomatic mistake was in bringing her ally Spain into the war; 5) that during the peace negotiations France attempted to betray the United States and was foiled by the vigilance of the American peace commissioners, led by John Jay; 6) that the cost of the American war led tho French monarchy to bankruptcy and then to revolution. In the following sections I will discuss in turn these myths.

I: The lesson for the French Intervention.
The first of these myths – that of the French desire to weaken Britain – holds the most historical validity. The alternative explanations of the French conduct are easily disproved. Any ideological explanation is contradicted by the whole nature of Ancien Régime diplomacy. The attempt, still occasionally made, to portray France as moved by fear for her own colonies in the West Indies is inconsistent with the pattern of her ship and troop movements. In May 1776 France chose to extend credit for arms purchases to the rebelling colonies yet it was more than a year later before she sent ship and troop reinforcements to the Went Indies. The reason for the French desire to weaken Britain, however, is considerably more complex than has been previously acknowledged. There certainly was an emotional coloring to France's British policy. The French foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes, once said of the English that no people more loved rapine and pillage. French diplomats were generally, about as fond of Britain as they were of Austria. None the less, the French Intervention in Britain's American troubles was activated not by Anglophobia or by the desire for revenge for the lose of Canada but rattler by dispassionate calculation.
Significantly, Vergennes as a diplomat took as his model Cardinal Fleury, the statesman who had used cooperation with Britain to bring France the most stable peace she had enjoyed in centuries. In 1786 Vergennes negotiated a commercial agreement with Britain, the Eden Treaty, in hopes of establishing a common interest between the two states. The Eden Treaty represented not a reversal of policy but rather a different stage of a continuous policy. The logic of the American war was the logic of Ancien Régime diplomacy. France fought Britain in order to weaken Britain so that France could deal with her as an equal. Both states perceived Britain as occupying a superior position in the balance of power and until that situation was rectified any rapprochement was impossible. As I will discuss later, the peace negotiations of 1782 were greatly forwarded by the implied promise of the British prime minister that Britain would co-operate with France in maintaining the status quo in Eastern Europe. There was, however, an inherent contradiction is Vergennes' policy. Britain was not an absolute monarchy, free to adopt yesterday's enemy as today's friend. Parliament provided a real check on British diplomacy and the American war deeply alienated the members of Parliament and their constituent from France. The distrust Vergennes met in 1786 in trying to bring the two countries together stemmed in part from France's actions between 1776 and 1783.
Why this tortuous policy? Vergennes was by no means sanguine about French success against the hitherto invincible British. In seeking to deprive Britain of some of her colonies France ran the risk of losing all of her own. The French participation in the American war was, I believe, a reflection of the desperate French diplomatic position on the European continent.
French security in the 18th century was based on two factors. First was her ability to play off the other major powers of the continent (Russia, Austria and Prussia) against each other. Second was her ability to maintain and protect a network of client states (the smaller German and North Italian states, Sweden, Poland and Turkey). In 1772 the three great powers of Eastern Europe operated in conjunction to dismember Poland, one of these client states. It is difficult to overestimate the effects of this development upon Vergennes, ambassador to Stockholm and Constantinople before becoming foreign minister. The first partition of Poland represented a great change in the way balance of power diplomacy was conducted. Until then the strong had protected the weak out of mutual fear and jealousy. Now the strong to maintain the balance of power had taken an equal share in robbing one of the weak. France's whole network of client states was now endangered. If France's credibility had been weakened by the defeats of the seven Years' War, it was far more gravely diminished by the partition of Poland, which France had watched helplessly. To reestablish her credibility (then called 'prestige') and to be able to deal on equal terms with Britain, traditionally the other subsidiser of continental states, France ran the risks of the American War.

II:The success of the French Intervention.
This raises the second myth, that of France's success in achieving her objectives. Part of the mythology of the war has been patriotic or emotional. For Frenchmen this has meant an association of the war with heroic leaders and glorious victories. Americans have often been as romantic in their beliefs about, the French. assistance an they have been cavalier in acknowledging the role of Spain and Holland in defeating Britain. France was a faithful ally but she fought for American independence for reasons of policy rather than out of generosity. What did the successful conclusion of the American War mean to her?
In minor ways the war did bring some direct benefits to France – the British commissioner established in 1763 at Dunkirk was expelled, French fishing rights off Newfoundland were clarified, France received Senegal and Tobago and Britain was forced to commit herself to the commercial negotiations which bore fruit in 1786. In any significant sense, however, the war was a tragic failure for France. Later I will discuss its costs to France but even with minimal costs the war would have been a failure. I have already mentioned the difficulties it imposed on, future co-operation with Britain. Even on its own grounds though, the war was fruitless, since American independence failed to weaken Britain.
French policy was based on a mercantilist view of the relationship at colonial monopolies to a national economy. Essentially the French believed that British trade and hence the British economy and the British navy were dependent on a continued British' monopoly of American markets. On the face of it this belief Seems exaggerated. The colonies in rebellion had accounted for only 18% of British exports in the years immediately preceding the war. On the other hand European markets were liable to interruption and economically the West Indian colonies were closely tied to North America. Above all, the American trade was prized because of the employment the long voyages provided for sailors, much as the French prized their Newfoundland fishing grounds. In those pre-Whitney days American exports to Britain were of far less importance – only providing about 12% of British Imports as compared to 25% from the West Indies. The French West Indian colonies, which were gambled for sake of Vergennes' diplomacy, accounted for 40% of French imports. If you wish to see the futility at the French participation in the American Revolution you need only compare the pre-war and post-war British exports to the United states. During the five years after the war these exports were about 90% of them during the five years preceding the war. As early se the 1790's they exceeded the best pre-war figures. Until well after the War of 1812 the United States was an economic satellite of Britain. I need hardly mention the triumphs of the British navy during the Wars of the French Revolution and Empire or the overall condition of the British economy. 1783 seems as acceptable a date as any for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
The French can hardly be blamed for not foreseeing the phenomenon of economic neo-colonialism or the industrial Revolution, but one man did see the economic contradictions on which French policy was based. This was Turgot, the great Controller-General. One of his last public acts was to oppose the extension of arms credits to the Americans. Turgot argued that the king needed, above all, to put his own house in order and that American independence would present no benefits to France. Louis, however, accepted the advice of Vergennes rather than that of Turgot – a decision of incalculable importance.

III: The Significance of Saratoga.
The third myth deals with how the policy of providing arms was converted to a policy of direct participation in the war. According to the traditional mythology the French wavered for a year and a half between peace and war, affected chiefly by the changing fortunes of the combatants in North America. Finally the battle of Saratoga convinced then that the Americans would be reliable allies. In fact, the progress of the French involvement was linear and can be measured by the cubic feet of wood in the navy's dockyards. When in May 1776 the French decided to aid the Americana the French dockyards were seriously undersupplied with the materials of war, chiefly with the oak needed for the construction and repair of ship hulls. For the next year and a half the French navy department, at gigantic cost, purchased wood for construction, masts and hemp from Sweden to Albania. By the summer of 1777, the French council of state could anticipate that the resupply effort would be substantially complete by the end of the year, at which time it would have to decide between peace cad war. I have even found a memoir from approximately April 1777 in which Vergennes' chief aide outlined the campaign plans actually used the following year. During the summer of 1777 France underwent a severe war scare, an indication that the policy of restricted aid could not continue indefinitely. Finally, the battles of Germantown and Brandywine and the capture of Philadelphia by the British indicated that the main British army was still more than a match for the main American army. This was true even though the Americans were capable of destroying isolated British detachments, even large ones as they did at Saratoga.
What then of the supposed French fears that after Saratoga the Americana and British would agree to a compromise peace? It seems to me virtually inconceivable that so veteran a diplomat an Vergennes could have believed that the Americana would use their greatest triumph to abandon the independence for which they had been fighting the previous two campaigns. I believe instead that Saratoga merely provided the occasion for the – implementation of a policy already decided upon and that Vergennes fears were a charade. His objective was to frighten the Spaniards into joining the French, with whom they had a defensive alliance. In this, Vergennes failed completely and eventually had to bribe Spain by extensive diplomatic and military concessions into joining the war.

IV: The Spanish Contribution.
With few exceptions (one being Piers Mackesy) historians have criticised the concessions made by France to Spain and have believed that Spain made little or no contribution to the winning of the War. A count of the ships of the line in the service of each of the combatants quickly reveals how vital the Spanish navy was to the maintenance of the military initiative by the Allies:











































*– 1 July;
** – April. [Names of, each of these ships are given in Appendices E - I of Professor Dull's The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (Princeton, 1975).]

Several things should be noted about this chart. The number of ships in service was governed by the number of available sailors. This to the reason the numbers remain go nearly constant after reaching a peak. (France Is an exception and I Will discuss this in the next section). France was able to fight Britain by herself in 1778 only because she had the advantage of surprise and because it took a longer time for Britain than for France to man her fleet. This was because the British fleet was manned by sailors taken from oceangoing merchantmen while the French fleet was largely manned by sailors from fishing boats and coastal shipping. After 1778 France needed the help of Spain and eventually of Holland (the United. Provinces of the Netherlands) to offset the superior British resources in ships and above all in sailors. Spain and Holland aided the Allied war effort not by winning naval battles or by capturing British ships but rather by pinning down British forces in Europe. Each year until 1782 British detachments to the Western Hemisphere were too little or too late to give the British superiority or, during the crucial year of 1781, equality.
It is impossible to conduct a history of what might have been but two factors seem to differentiate this war from the six naval wars France lost to Britain: France's freedom from a simultaneous continental war and the timely and effective support of the Spanish and Dutch navies. Had the French navy been crushed, at least before Yorktown, the British would have had an excellent chance to cut off American contact with Europe. The United States of America might then have been strangled by blockade as was the Confederate States of America. In any case there would likely have been little hope for more than a compromise peace.

V: The Peace Negotiations.
The defeat at Yorktown broke the British will to reconquer America yet the war continued. After December 1781 the Allied naval effort began to unravel, largely because the French had expanded their navy beyond their personnel resources (by increasing the proportion of untrained sailors, by hiring foreign sailors, and in face of great opposition by using non-noble auxiliary officers). It seems almost certain to se that only the conclusion of peace saved France, Spain and Holland from-disaster – such too was Vergennes' feeling. It is the failure of historians to understand the strategic and diplomatic background of the peace negotiations that accounts for the next myth, that of the attempted betrayal of the United States by France. I cannot enter here in detail into these complicated negotiations, but I would like to explain something of their background.
It is true that Vergennes did not feel France bound by the terms of the American alliance to obtain for the United states either the western territories or the Newfoundland fishing rights they demanded. It is important, however, to understand the French motivation. Neither Issue was itself of particular French interest (provided the Americans fished only off the British part of Newfoundland). France, however, was anxious to avoid any deadlock in the negotiations. She herself sacrificed almost all her claims to gain in India and in the West Indies for the sake of rushing the negotiations to conclusion. If need be she was willing to use the western lands to break the deadlock over Spain's claim to Gibraltar. When they proved of no use for that purpose France lost interest in them apart from her general desire to see nothing impede the negotiations.
France's desperate desire for peace was based on three factors. First was the disintegrating military situation as shown by the French defeat at the battle of the Saintes (off Guadeloupe) in April 1782 and by the subsequent breakdown in strategic planning among the local theater commanders. Second was the worsening financial situation. France and, to an even greater extent, Spain were approaching the end of their ability to raise money to continue the war. Third was a diplomatic crisis in East Europe. There arose the serious possibility that Russia and Austria would use a revolt in the Crimea as an excuse to dismember the Ottoman Empire. Luckily for France the British prime minister after July 1782 Was Lord Shelburne, a visionary statesman who desired. peace as much as did Vergennes. Shelburne's implied promise of co-operation against Russia and Austria was probably the chief factor in establishing French trust in the sincerity of the British desire for peace. In November 1782 Britain agreed to grant extraordinarily generous terms to the United States, conditional upon a subsequent Franco-British agreement. There was, though, a strongly implied threat that unless Spain agreed to reasonable terms the United States would force France to choose between peace and the Spanish alliance. This was highly dangerous; Shelburne had an uncertain parliamentary majority and British public opinion might have forced the abandonment of all the negotiations in the expectation of splitting the Americans from the other belligerents. Luckily, the Spaniards and Dutch finally agreed to terms but American honor was not unblemished. The American agreement with Britain contained a secret clause of greater duplicity than anything done by the French. The American commissioners, led by John Jay, attempted to induce the British to reconquer Florida from Spain, a disgraceful and stupid betrayal of the principles of diplomatic fair play proclaimed by the new nation. Vergennes was not altruistic but he was remarkably fair in trying to balance the interests of the members of the unwieldy coalition headed by France.

VI: The costs of the American War.
The French obtained the peace they, so urgently needed but Shelburne, upon whom such hope had been placed, had been too reasonable for his own political survival. Parliament accepted an armistice based on the preliminary terms of peace but drove Shelburne from office. Vergennes at great effort was subsequently able to prevent the Russians from taking anything but the Crimea. For several years Britain played no diplomatic role on the continent. Vergennes was even able to obtain the commercial agreement he sought, but after his death in February 1787 the French attempts to bring the two countries closer together were soon abandoned.
Within a month of Vergennes' death there opened the Assembly of Notables, the beginning of the events that were to cost the life of Vergennes'.king. I can make only a few suggestions about the connection between the American and French Revolutions. I am not in any Position to comment on the psychologica1 effects on France of the American Revolution, although -I suspect they are easily exaggerated. What I can comment upon are the financial costs of the American war. The usual figure for the cost to France of her participation in the American War is 1,000,000,000 livres. (A livre was about a day's wages for a skilled worker and had a somewhat greater purchasing power than a contemporary dollar). This estimate is probably a bit low. According to my figures France spent at least 1,060,00,000 livres on the navy and colonies from 1776 through 1783. This represents at least 840,000,000 livres in excess of eight years' normal expenses, based on the criteria in use in 1774. I have only fragmentary figures for army appropriations (not expenses) and no firm grounds for computing normal army expenses, but it would appear that army expenses were not nearly so heavy. My guess is that all excess expenses because of the war (exclusive of subsequent debt interest) were between 1,000,000,000 and 1,250,000,000 livres. At least 12% of the naval expenses were unbudgeted and a far larger percentage were paid cram the loans floated by Necker and Joly de Fleury. During the 1780's the French government was overwhelmed by debt maintenance, and it was the American War that was finally responsible.
One final point should be noted. As Boeher and Ehrman have noted Britain had a comparable state debt (equivalent to about 5,000,000,000 livres in total) but she was able to survive it, just as she had absorbed higher expenses than France during the war. Partly this was due to the genius of the younger Pitt but probably of greater importance is the fact that the British debt was funded at half the rate of interest paid by France, this in turn reflects the strength of the British government and the confidence it could inspire. The Britain of George III was infinitely more resilient than the France of Louis XVI and this fact is ultimately related to the structure of its society and political system. Any explanation of the causes of the French Revolution must come from these areas; war and diplomacy only led to the financial crisis which provided the immediate occasion for the release of those forces which chattered the French political and social order.

Detailed references for this article may be found in my yet to be published book The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. British trade statistics are based on Ralph Davis, The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the 17th and 18th Centuries (London, 1962) and B.R. Mitchell, Abstract of British Historical Statistics (Cambridge, 1902), French trade statistics on Ruggiere Romano "Documenti e prime considerazioni interno alla ‘balance du commerce' della Francia dal 1716 al 1780," Studi in Onoro di Armando Sapori (Milan, 1957), II, 1266-1300. Statistics on British and French national debts are those of J.F. Bosher, French Finances, 1770-1795. From Business to Bureaucracy (Cambridge, 1970) and John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt, The Years of Acclaim (London, 1969).

Jonathan R. Dull is a senior associate editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin series and author of:
    The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (Princeton, 1975).
    "France and the American Revolution Seen as Tragedy," in Diplomancy and Revolution, The Franco-American Alliance of 1778 (Charlottsville, 1981), Eds: Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert.
    Franklin the Diplomat: the French Mission (Philadelphia, 1982).
    A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution (New Haven,1985).
    The French Navy and the Seven Years' War (2005). American War for Independence aspects are addressed in Chapter 10 "Epilogue, Toward a New War. 1763 – 1774" (pp.245-254).
    "Lafayette, Franklin, And The Coming of Rochambeau's Army" is a webpage of talk given to the Washington Association of New Jersey, delivered at Morristown in April 1980.

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Page posted 16 April 2008; revised 22 November 2008.