Editor’s Note: As the French tall ship replica L’Hermione makes her way up the East Coast to celebrate the relationship between France and the United States, a series of blogs will discuss four topics: the Marquis de Lafayette; the ship that brought him to America the second time in 1780, L’Hermione; the critical Battle of the Virginia Capes on Sept. 5, 1781, and the Franco-American relationship as it has grown over the past years.
From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Proving that partnerships mattered in our countries infancy, during the American Revolution, the American colonies faced the significant challenge of conducting international diplomacy and seeking the international support it needed to fight against the British.
The single most important diplomatic success of the colonists during the War for Independence was the critical link they forged with France. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on Feb. 6, 1778 and the two countries have shared ongoing relationship since.
The need for developing a relationship with France was not lost upon the newly-formed Continental Congress. Their greatest secret weapon – Ben Franklin – was sent to France as its ambassador from 1776 to 1783. As a member of the Secret Committee of Correspondence, Franklin made sure news of the patriotic revolt was published in Europe. The French loved Franklin, who represented Americans for their simplicity and lack of class structure. French assistance was offered secretly through American trader Silas Deane. One notable contract was signed in December 1775 with the Marquis de Lafayette, an 18-year-old French nobleman and officer who sought to serve as a major general under George Washington.
After the Continental Congress declared its independence in July 1776, Franklin and his commissioners began negotiating for a treaty with France. At first French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes was amenable to a treaty, but when word of colonist losses to British forces began circulating, negotiations ended. The British ambassador was already looking for any excuse to prove France was violating its peace treaties.
Aware of the French support for Franklin and the American fight for freedom, though, Vergennes provided a secret loan to the new United States.
Following the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga in December 1777, Vergennes again moved forward to create an alliance with the United States. According to Volume XI of the “Naval Documents of the American Revolution,” a memo attributed to Vergennes was written in late January 1778 outlying France’s strategic moves with its naval forces to preserve France’s and Spain’s “possessions in America and sufficiently aiding the Americans in breaking free from their dependence on England, such that their civil independence established on a firm foundation will be assured. Seemingly, nothing would lead more directly to this goal than the installation of a French squadron on the coasts of North America.”
Vergennes pointed out protecting the “secrecy of our strategy and in assuring all means of throwing the enemy off the scene that one can hope for success.”
On Feb. 6, 1778, Franklin and two of his commissioners, Arthur Lee and Deane, signed the Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France. France recognized the United States as a new nation, but more importantly, it changed the course of the war from one of rebellion to an international cause. France began providing supplies, arms and ammunition and then troops as well as the above mentioned squadron on the East Coast of North America, of which the French frigate L’Hermione was a member.
Vergennes’ strategy for secrecy worked three years later, when the French West Indies fleet stopped in Haiti in August 1781 to collect 3,300 French troops and additional ships of line before sailing toward the Chesapeake Bay for that that rendezvous with Great Britain off the Virginia Capes. It was a move the British admirals never anticipated.
It was the French fleet that defeated the British during the Battle of the Virginia Capes on Sept. 5, 1781 and their ships that cemented the Chesapeake Bay from supplying the immobilized army led by British Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. After being surrounded by combined French and American forces at Yorktown, the French Navy gave Cornwallis no means of escape. Cornwallis admitted defeat on Oct. 19, 1781and surrendered nearly 8,000 soldiers, a move that would lead to Great Britain agreeing to stop further hostilities against the new nation.
France also took part in the negotiations with Great Britain and the United States, which ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
French support of the American Revolution benefited more than the Americans. There was no love lost between Great Britain and France, which was still smarting over the loss of North American territory following the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War. French government officials believed if Great Britain quelled the colonists’ revolt, it would control American commerce to other countries, namely France. Should Great Britain lose control of her colony, however, it would weaken her power.