February 6, 1778 - Franco-American Alliance Forged
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
February 6, 1778. Benjamin Franklin, United States commissioner to France, signs a treaty of alliance with the ministers of King Louis XVI. With the stroke of a pen, British defeat in the Revolutionary War is assured.
We Americans are very fixed on the "homefront" of the Revolution, so we tend to forget that starting in 1778 it merged into a wider European-based war. So I'm going to take a different tack on this one and explain how the American Revolution factored into European power politics.
As soon as the Revolution erupted in Massachusetts in 1775, the British government realized that a clock had begun ticking - the time they had before another European power decided to enter the conflict. The UK had not made itself very popular with the other European powers recently, and it was the most powerful country in Europe. Everyone hates a frontrunner. Multiple countries were just waiting for a good opportunity to kick the Brits off their high horse.
France was first in line. The French had kept a close eye on events in America from the get-go. Ever since they had lost the Seven Years' War to England, the French had wanted payback - and to recover their lost prestige.
Ben Franklin had been sent by the Continental Congress, endorsed by John Adams, to seek French help for the Continental cause. Franklin was something of a celebrity in Europe. He had traveled Europe before and made a lot of connections, and was really the only American widely known to Europeans. Franklin was a cultured, intelligent and elegant man, but he was clever enough to grasp that the Europeans didn't want to see an American trying to be European: they wanted an AMERICAN. Franklin dressed in a coonskin cap, exaggerated his accent, and peppered his speech with folksy stories. His undeniable charm and homespun affectations tickled the French and enhanced his appeal.
Franklin had a hard sell. France's finances were in pretty poor shape, and they couldn't gamble on victory - they had to have some assurance that the new American republic had legitimate staying power, otherwise they would sail into war all on their own. The Declaration of Independence and the British withdrawal from Boston held promise, but Washington's 1776 defeats in New York almost caused the French foreign minister the Comte de Vergennes to cancel the whole program. No one was interested in allying with a loser. Only Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton (I mentioned Princeton on January 3) kept Franklin in a negotiating position.
Soon French opinions warmed. The years 1775, 1776 and 1777 had seen Britain hurl troops, ships, and money at the Thirteen Colonies with no end in sight, and France figured that if war with Britain was inevitable, it might as well come when they had their resources committed to the colonies. When the British capture of Philadelphia - technically the American capital - that year didn't end the war, France realized that the rebellion was going to give the British trouble for a long time. When the colonists' victory at Saratoga in 1777 showed that they could fight and win, King Louis saw military value and potential allies.
Four days after Franklin and Vergennes signed the treaty on February 6, 1778, the British declared war on France.
It is hard to overstate the immediate effect this had on the Revolutionary War. The British cabinet made the call: America was now the secondary objective. The colonies were probably lost for good. The new goal of the war was preserving the remaining colonies, including the extremely lucrative British West Indies, from conquest by the French or anyone else who might pop in. Spain was in the war by 1779, the Dutch by 1780, and they had all been sharpening their knives to carve up the British Empire for years.
Britain's military effort from 1779 on was focused first and foremost on defeating France and its European foes. There's a whole wider Revolutionary War outside the United States that gets little publicity: a huge naval war in the West Indies, the Spanish siege of Gibraltar, attempts by France to invade Britain itself, and even battles in India and South America. Far from being the superpower, Britain was now at the mercy of multiple other European nations. It's a miracle in retrospect that Britain didn't lose a lot more from the war than just the Thirteen Colonies. Strategically speaking, they dropped any effort to keep the rebel provinces in a bid to hold on to the rest - and it worked.
Of course, altering the strategic calculus wasn't the only way France helped the Americans. They sent troops, a fleet, arms and experienced officers. Baron von Steuben, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and other European soldiers were forwarded to America by France. The French army and fleet, along with Washington's leadership and strategy, were the decisive factor at the final battle of Yorktown. Finally, the French put their thumb on the scale to help negotiate the Treaty of Paris that ended the war with significant concessions for the new USA.
Moreover, the American alliance with France remains our oldest alliance. In the manner of most old friendships, we haven't always gotten along - some of our fights have been pretty rough, especially when one or the other of us has decided that their old friend was making a dumbass decision. But as much as we joke about each other, France was our first friend when we needed one. Sometimes I think we forget that.
Lots of great books on the Revolution. For a decidedly French perspective, try the forthcoming Hero Of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution by the awesome podcaster Mike Duncan, set to be released in August 2021.