France and the American Revolution
In March of 2003, after France opposed a UN invasion of Iraq, two US Republicans
removed all references to French fries from menus affiliated with the US House of
Representatives. In the House cafeteria, potatoes became “freedom fries”. In a time of
such Francophobia, some Americans might be surprised by the history of positive
French-American relations. In fact, it’s likely that the American colonies would not have
defeated the British without French support.
In the 1770s, French enthusiasm for the American Revolution was high. Intellectually,
French Enlightenment intellectuals were agitating against their own feudal land systems
and class privilege. Emotionally, French leaders had been eager to defeat arch-rival
Britain since their Seven Years War. King Louis XVI had been privately supporting the
colonists for some time. But now, formal support appeared more advantageous. France
saw this as a strategic opportunity to secure North American landholdings and officially
befriend a rising power. Ben Franklin also played a significant role in winning tangible
French support; traveling with his wit and charm, Franklin visited Paris in 1776 to rally
support for the colonists’ cause. France first assisted the rogue colonies in May of 1776
by sending 14 ships loaded with gunpowder and other war supplies.
In February of 1778, the colonists and the French signed a Treaty of Amity and
Commerce. This was significant because France not only offered trade concessions, but
also legally recognized the colonies as the United States. Most importantly, Ben Franklin
also secured a Treaty of Alliance with King Louis XVI. This stipulated that if France
entered the war against Britain: 1) neither France nor the US would surrender; 2) neither
would agree to peace with Britain without the other’s consent; and 3) each guaranteed the
other’s landholdings in America. Within a few months, British ships fired upon the
French, and the two countries were at war. France sent about 12,000 soldiers and 30,000
sailors to support the colonists.
Many Frenchmen were truly committed to the cause of liberty. A former French Navy
captain, Marquis de Lafayette, had such zeal that the French suggested he enlist in the US
forces! He volunteered to become a major general for no pay. Lafayette became an
effective military leader and a lifelong friend of General George Washington. He was
eventually given honorary US citizenship.
When France officially entered the war, Spanish interest was piqued. Motivated by the
possibility of a land grab, Spain entered the war as a French ally against Britain. Holland
followed suit. This combination of European powers was a much greater threat to Britain
than the colonies could produce alone, and the crucial 1781 victory at Yorktown could
not have been won without the French alliance.
Unfortunately for France, following the Battle at Yorktown, Ben Franklin engaged in
secret negotiations with Britain. This was particularly insulting considering the French-
American treaties and France’s considerable wartime expenditures. Their hopes of
becoming the main US trade partner were dashed when most American trade was
contracted within the British Empire. Also, expectations of regaining French North
American territories were mostly unmet.
Still, defeating the British brought France a definite taste of revenge. It also restored a
sense of French confidence and esteem alongside other European powers. Furthermore,
in spirit France was now ready for a revolution of its own.