British, French, Quebec City, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Pierre Beaumarchais, Silas Deane, King Louis XVI and Entangling Alliances

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 29th, 2012

 Politics 101

When the American Colonists rebelled against their British Overlords it created a Complex Political Landscape

For about a hundred years the nations of Europe had been at war.  Over religion (Protestantism versus Catholicism).  Oversea colonies to build trade networks.  And the balance of power of the European nations.  Often tilted by the acquisitions of their overseas possessions.  These nations have been at war with each other off and on from the late 17th century to the late 18th century.  Alliances formed and shifted during this century of war.  But one thing was constant.  The Protestant British and the Catholic French were always on opposing sides.

The most recent war that ended in 1763 (the Seven Year’s War) was a particularly bitter pill for the French to swallow.  They lost pretty much all of New France in North America to Great Britain.  Including Quebec City.  Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608.  The British occupation defiled 155 years of French history.  This was the heart and soul of New France.   The French culture was so deep that they still speak French there today, having never accepted their British overlords.  And never have forgotten their French heritage.  For as Quebec’s official motto says today, “Je me souviens.”  Which translates to, “I remember.”  Remember what?  That they were French.  And remain French.

When the American colonists rebelled against their British overlords it created a complex political landscape.  In a drawn out war with Great Britain the Americans would more than likely need foreign assistance.  Meaning an alliance.  However, the reason why they declared their independence from Great Britain had a lot to do with all those European wars that Britain fought.  Which were expensive.  As was the following peace.  For they now had to defend their newly conquered lands.  Exhausted from all these wars the British taxpayers felt taxed out.  So Parliament turned to their British brethren in America.  And taxed them.  Which led, of course, to the Americans’ Declaration of Independence.  So the Americans were very wary of joining into any European alliances.  Fearful that the Europeans would pull them into a future European war.  And bankrupt them.  Before they even had a chance to become a country. 

The European Monarchs weren’t going to help the Americans Rebel against Monarchy out of the Goodness of their Hearts

So the Americans were wary of alliances.  But they were thinking about it.  Especially with the most likely candidate for an alliance.  In September of 1776 John Adams wrote, “our negotiations with France ought, however, to be conducted with great caution, and with all the foresight we could possibly attain; that we ought not to enter into any alliance with her which should entangle us in any future wars in Europe; that we ought to lay it down as a first principle and a maxim never to be forgotten, to maintain an entire neutrality in all future European wars; that it never could be in our interest to unite with France in the destruction of England, or in any measures to break her spirit or reduce her to a situation in which she could not support her independence.”  This from one of the most outspoken Founding Fathers for independence.  One of the few men Britain was not willing to forgive for the things he said and wrote.   A man the British condemned to death even if the Americans reconciled with the British.

At the time of the Revolution The Hague in the Netherlands had diplomats from all the courts of Europe.  One of these diplomats was a friend of Benjamin Franklin.  Charles William Dumas.  Franklin wrote to him to feel out the foreign powers.  In September of 1775 he wrote asking if there was any “state or power in Europe who would be willing to enter into an alliance with us for the benefit of our commerce, which amounted, before the war, to near seven millions sterling per annum…”  Like Adams, he wanted to avoid any alliance that could draw America into a future European war.  Feeling that American commerce would be reason enough to support the Americans.  As at that time all American trade went though Great Britain.  So treating directly with the Americans would cut out the middle man.  Making American goods less costly.  Surely a financial incentive for any nation.

Then again, these European powers they were feeling out were all monarchies.  Would these monarchies support a rebellion against royal authority?  France, their most likely alliance partner due to their history with Great Britain, was an absolute monarchy.  Would they support the Americans in their bid for independence with French taxes?  Would they take a chance that their oppressed masses wouldn’t rise up in defiance of those high taxes and/or royal authority (which they eventually did)?  Then there was a moral element as Robert Morrison noted in a letter to John Jay in September of 1776.  “Can this be morally right?”  Bringing war to the people of Europe in their bid for independence?  Their kings may not care about what they do to the innocents.  But a government of the people would.  Or should.  But if they got any support from these European monarchs the big question would be at what price?  For these monarchs weren’t going to help the Americans in their rebellion against monarchy out of the goodness of their hearts.  For, as monarchs, they kind of liked the institution of monarchy.  So any involvement on their part wasn’t going to be for any moral imperative.  It was for personal gain.  New territory.  Getting back lost territory.  Or changing the balance of power in Europe to their favor.

Despite all of their Misgivings the Americans entered into an Entangling Alliance with the French

Monarchies were getting a little nervous about the impoverished masses around this time.  For there were a lot more poor people than royals and nobles.  Revolution was in the air.  They made fun of the noble classes in some of the leading plays of the day.  In fact, one play was banned in Vienna.  For being less than respectful of the aristocracy.  But that didn’t stop a composer from using it to write a new opera from it.  That play?  The Marriage of Figaro.  The composer was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Who based his new opera on the play written by a Frenchman.  Pierre Beaumarchais.  Who plays a prominent role in America’s Revolutionary War.

Beaumarchais had written a play making fun of the aristocracy.  And the American rebellion against aristocracy piqued his interest.  So he decided to aid the Americans in their cause.  He strongly encouraged Louis XVI to support the Americans in their cause.  For if they did not they would not only lose in the balance power to Great Britain.  But likely the very valuable sugar trade coming from the French West Indies.  He also set up a private company to ship war material to America in exchange for tobacco.  Silas Deane arrived from America in Paris in July 1776.  He, too, worked on obtaining the materials of war as well as skilled officers.  America’s greatest diplomat and propagandist was also in Paris.  Benjamin Franklin.  Who the French adored.  For his scientific experiments.  And his plain American airs.  They really got a kick out of the coonskin hat he wore.  Which he wore only for them.  Never having worn one back in America.

So the Americans were really working their mojo behind the scenes to get French support for the cause.  As well as French money and arms.  Which they were getting.  And after the American win at the Battle of Saratoga, they got a whole lot more.  Formal recognition of the United States.  And despite all of their misgivings, an alliance.  On January 7, 1778 they entered into a treaty of amity and commerce.  Followed by (on February 6) the treaty of alliance.  And these treaties were rather entangling.  But so dictated the necessities of war.  And what did the Americans agree to?  In exchange for French military support against the British in North America the Americans would support the French militarily in the French West Indies.  In any future French war where the Americans were neutral the French and their warships would have access to American ports.  While the French adversary would not.  Also, the French could bring in any captured ships into American ports to refit and re-provision them.  And then leave freely.  Which came back to haunt the Washington administration during the next war between the French and the British.  Following the French Revolution.  A war in which America not only remained neutral.  But her neutrality ‘favored’ the British.  As the vast majority of her trade was with the British.  Causing a lot of animosity in America.  For we had a treaty with the French.  Who helped win them their independence from the nation they were now currently fighting.  Again.  A treaty some of the Americans noted, though, that they made with King Louis XVI.  Who the French recently executed.  Brought about, in part, by the incredible French debt incurred financing the American Revolution.  Providing the tinder for the French Revolution.

A complex political landscape indeed.  Of course the Americans didn’t know what was awaiting them in the future.  All they knew is that when General Washington left winter quarters at Valley Forge they were no longer alone in their struggle.  After their win at Saratoga and their new ally things were looking up.  Little did they know that there would still be 5 more years of war.

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