French Alliance

Soldiers in Uniform by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger, 1781-1784. Courtesy of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library.

In order to understand the story of the Washington-Rochambeau National Historic Trail, it is important to understand the role France played in America’s War of Independence.

The tensions between Great Britain and her American colonies started as early as 1764 and escalated until the first shots of the war were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. The outlook for the American cause was grim: the colonies had no money, no arms, no army, and a population only one-third of Great Britain. Congress realized it needed outside support, and declaring independence was a first yet indispensable step toward acquiring that support – the Americans could only obtain the aid of foreign powers such as France and Spain by declaring themselves an independent nation, by turning their civil war into a war between nations. In January 1776, Thomas Paine had written in Common Sense that “Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.” But “Nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for independence…. [neither] France or Spain will give us any kind of assistance, while we profess ourselves the subjects of Britain. The custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations.”

Jean Baptiste Donatien De Vimeur, Comte De Rochambeau by Charles Willson Peale, from life, c. 1782. Courtesy of Independence National Historical Park.

Paine had analyzed the international situation correctly. In 1776, the government of His Most Christian Majesty, King Louis XVI of France, became the first foreign power to provide aid and support to the United States, and to increase her naval budget as well to enable the navy to counter any military response on the part of Britain to France’s support for the Americans. But France did not join the rebels because the king believed in the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence or out of the goodness of the king’s heart so that the Americans could be free to pursue their happiness. French foreign policy was guided by a set of long-standing principles of international relations. One of them postulated that peace in Europe, and around the world was best preserved by a more or less equitable balance of the great powers. The Peace of Paris in 1763 ending the Seven Years’ War, called the French and Indian War in the New World, had altered that balance of powers in favor of Britain when France lost her colonial empire and Britain had emerged as the world’s sole super power.

France’s chief ministers from César Gabriel de Choiseul-Chevigny, duc de Praslin (Foreign Minister 1761 to 1766) to Charles Gravier comte de Vergennes, who became foreign minister in July 1774, were convinced that the most effective way to restore the equilibrium and to re-focus Britain onto the Continent was to confront Britain in her American colonies. The second guiding principle of French foreign policy concerned Russia. Choiseul as well as Vergennes were members of the secret du roi, the “Secret of the King,” a group of primarily east-ward looking foreign policy advisors which saw an expansive Russia as Europe’s greatest threat. Vergennes argued that once Britain was detached from her colonies she would focus her attention again on Europe and assist France in her policy of containment of Russia through strengthening the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. This would make Britain a “European” power looking “East” rather than “West.” After 1763, France could count on the benevolent neutrality – if not tacit support – of her European neighbors for such a foreign policy. They too wanted to see British preponderance diminished even if they would never consent to the equally undesirable prospect of crippling Britain to a degree where she would no longer be able to play her part in the European-centered concert of states.

“Detaching” Britain from her colonies and making her focus on Europe was obviously also the goal of the thousands of Americans fighting Redcoats in the nascent United States. That was the point where French and American war aims met and coalesced. Britain obviously refused to be “detached” from her colonies, and this is why American and French forces fought Great Britain in the four corners of the universe between 1775 and 1783.

Starting in 1776, France sent the newly formed Continental Army arms, gunpowder, experienced officers and much-needed money. Spain followed suit and contributed money as well. France was impressed with the strength and commitment of the young army. Following the American victory at Saratoga and the stubborn resistance in the defense of Philadelphia, France recognized the United States as an independent nation in February 1778, when France and the United States signed a public “Treaty of Amity and Friendship” and a secret “Treaty of Alliance.”

In March 1780, King Louis XVI approved the “expédition particulière,” which sent troops to the United States. The general put in charge of the mission was Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau; the Navy was commanded by Admiral Charles Henry Louis d’Arsac, chevalier de Ternay.

Next: A Revolutionary Route