Causes Of French Participation In The American
Revolutionary War Essay, Research Paper
On May 4, 1778, the Continental Congress of the United States of America ratified the two treaties that formed the Franco-American alliance. Why, one may ask, did France finally decide to offer the “rebel” Americans alliance in 1778? To explore the depth of this question fully, it is necessary to analyze the varying interpretations of historical evidence relating to this momentous time in American history.
The American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1778, many historical critics believe, does not merit the importance it has been assigned. Certainly a minimal American capacity for war was essential to an alliance, since France needed the pressure of the American army on British military reserves to fight Britain on fair terms. Diplomatically Saratoga served not as a cause for France to abandon her neutrality, but as an excuse. An almost uncontrollable growth of tension with Britain made an alliance with America not an “if” but a “when.” In addition, France was still “licking her wounds” from her defeat to Britain in 1763 in the Seven Years War and was looking for revenge. Eager to reassert her superiority over Britain, France saw the American Revolution as a perfect opportunity.
A romantic yet shaky thesis presented by George Bancroft and Bernard Fa holds that “the movement of intellectual freedom” within French society produced the alliance. Bancroft and Fa , however, do concede that French enthusiasm for the alliance probably stemmed much less from any concern for American liberty than from enmity toward Britain.
Other historians maintain that France sought commercial rather than territorial rewards from the alliance. An independent United States would be grateful for help and would reward France by making her its foremost trading partner. Moreover, France would capture the rich North American market that England would lose.
Still other historians suspect that the French decision for open war against Britain was reinforced less by Saratoga than by General Washington’s defeats, which demonstrated that although the Americans could destroy large detachments, they were still incapable of destroying the main British army without direct assistance from the French.
Another point that warrants consideration deals with which side took the initiative in drawing up the alliance. The conventional view insists that Americans, rather than Frenchmen, made the first move, that they declared independence mainly to attract a French alliance. American arms, according to this view, could not cope with the brute military power of the British. Americans needed foreign aid in any form but desired a firm commitment to their cause, as in a treaty of alliance, and that is what their representatives in France sought.
On the other hand, some historians hold the belief that France desired war with England and was seeking an alliance from the beginning of her secret aid to the Americans. From the start of the Revolutionary War, French ministers indicated that if the American colonies declared independence, France would help them maintain it. Supporters of this thesis further assert that Americans really had no desire for a military or political connection, fearing it would make America a client state of France–much like America was during the English colonial period.
This wariness toward France was illustrated in the attitudes of insurgent leaders in Congress who wanted only a commercial connection. They argued that an alliance would tie United States to French policy “like a tail on a kite” and endanger more long-term American goals concerning foreign policy. Americans, however, accepted the entangling connection because France demanded it as the price for increased support. This interpretation also shows that the Americans, in order to survive, had no choice but to accept the alliance.
A far more incorporating view, presented by British historian J. H. Plumb, suggests that England’s general inability to crush the American rebels quickly convinced the French to make an alliance, in addition to the secret aid being supplied. France was forced by the end of 1777 to either accept war with Britain or retreat, again in humiliation, from her program of aid to the Americans. Retreat, considering the past clashes with the British, was looking less and less appealing to the French as a way of solidifying her position. The idea of an American defeat followed by reconciliation with the English was so disgusting to the French that an alliance must be formed.
This collection of views only represents the major theories of why France allied with the American rebels in 1778. Nevertheless, this discussion of interpretations of historical evidence goes far to answer the question initially presented. While no one today may truly know exactly why the Franco-American alliance of 1788 formed, it is reasonable to conclude that many of the ideas put forth, in concert with one another, create a quite realistic scenario of what actually took place.